Business Gals: But How’s Her Risotto?

Photo by Ted Soqui

“Do you like the bra?” Michelle Darné has fit her tiny frame into a white shirt with a collar and cuffs, an ostensibly plain but subtly elegant piece of cloth that announces its fine Italian heritage to anyone who listens. Underneath, the bra is black.

“I like it — it’s sexy,” says Darné’s publicist, Anthony Turk. Photographer John Russo nods approvingly. Emboldened, the stylist moves in to undo a button.

“Oh, no, not that sexy,” Turk objects. “Come on!”

The button gets done again, then undone. Darné folds the lapels over just a little at the top until everyone’s happy, finally striking the appropriate balance between wholesome and hip, sexy and ultracompetent — just the right tone for the rising doyenne of lesbian motherhood. “You won’t see me a lot in light pink,” she declares. “It’s just not who I am.”

In past issues of And Baby, the magazine she founded and publishes for gay and lesbian parents, Darné has looked determined, chin resting on hand, or legs akimbo in a satiny suit with a peek of cleavage, her long black hair blown back by an artificial wind. “She looked great in those other shots, but the silky thing was just too glamorous,” complains Turk. “We had to get new photos because we want her image to be, you know, different. We want her to be the Martha Stewart of the gay and lesbian parenting world.”

I look at Turk; he isn’t smiling. At least, not ironically.

I find that a little scary. As a woman who’s weighed the significant benefits of a same-sex partnership, I’ve long held to the notion that starting a family with another woman means not having to make sure the doors on your gingerbread house actually swing open. I’m disappointed: Is this what gay parenting’s come to? Later, Christina Sigwart, the magazine’s Portland-based, West Coast sales manager, assures me I misread Turk’s remark: “He was talking about Martha in the business sense,” she explains, as she makes perfect coffee in the sunny Venice apartment Darné rents on her West Coast stays.

Darné, who lives most of the year in New York and New Jersey, seconds that opinion. “He meant it in the way that Martha Stewart has lots of tentacles attached to her,” she says. “She’s a brilliant businesswoman. She’s got the show, she’s got the magazine, she’s got the books.”

“You mean, like a franchise?”

“Well . . .” Darné hesitates, reluctant to take the idea too far.

“You know,” I offer, expecting to be laughed off, “you could have a line of clothing; like, children’s wear with And Baby labels.”

“Oh,” she says. “We’d love to do a merchandising line. That’s definitely an option.”

It’s one of the secrets of Darné’s exuberant success: She’s an unapologetic capitalist, and she tolerates homophobes with practiced compassion — perhaps because she never had to be radicalized by adolescent shame. Darné, the youngest of 11 in a family she describes as “Puerto Rican and French,” was raised 45 minutes from San Francisco in the East Bay and says her parents knew she was out before she hit puberty. (“It was hard to ignore,” Darné recalls. “I mean, the neighborhood girl was my girlfriend.”) She’d planned on kids, but, she says, “didn’t really think of having the white picket fence — I thought instead I’d have a career and an au pair.” Two years ago, she hired And Baby’s creative director, Kathleen Weiss, to work with her designing trade magazines; the next year, they were talking about starting a family. When they went digging for resources to support prospective lesbian parents, however, they came up with a different idea: Collect all the fragmented information they found between two fashion-conscious covers.

When And Baby debuted in August of 2001, both The Wall Street Journal and USA Today ran stories on the upscale and growing gay family market (in California alone, same-sex households jumped from 36,602 to 92,138 in the last decade); both quoted Darné. And when And Baby’s only competitor, the more defiantly political Proud Parenting, closed shop last month, Darné scooped up its 6,000-some subscribers and a few of its advertisers. “So we’re a year and a half ahead of schedule,” she repeats frequently with wide-eyed surprise, meaning that the upcoming fourth issue of the magazine has 11,000 of the 15,000 subscribers she’d planned to attract by the second year. Several talk-radio hosts have had her on as a guest, and one producer has offered her a syndicated show. “We’re in negotiations for a TV show, too,” Darné tells me, “so we’ll soon have a package that will hit our market on all fronts.”

Unlike Proud Parenting, which publisher Kelly Taylor founded in 1997 as Alternative Family, Darné’s project was born into an era that suddenly seems to take gay pride for granted. While an article on George W. Bush in the first issue wonders whether the president will ever support gay families — “I think most children should be raised with heterosexual couples,” he’s quoted as saying — a recent holiday fashion spread seems to answer: Who cares what George thinks? Ford-agency child models romp in their winter wear, dusted in white glitter as if by fairies, sparkling from their eyelashes to their Mary Jane–clad feet. Candy-colored ads for Caribbean cruise lines and high-performance home audio systems are not out of place here. Nothing beats bigotry like a robust block of consumers. “Our magazine isn’t screaming, ‘It’s okay for us to have kids!’” says Darné. “It’s assuming that it’s okay.”

In November, Darné and Weiss exchanged vows in a commitment ceremony held at a small church near the New Jersey–Pennsylvania border. By March, Darné hopes to get Weiss pregnant with her egg. They’ve already chosen the donor, from a Los Angeles bank. “It’s pretty healthy sperm,” says the diminutive publisher, who reports that Weiss is no Amazon, either. “He’s 6-foot-5.”

After the photo shoot, I follow Darné and Sigwart up to the San Vicente Boulevard offices of Growing Generations, a surrogacy agency catering to gay couples that just happens to also be — with 200 clients and 100 births — one of the largest surrogacy agencies in the world. We meet with Stuart Miller, a fair-haired, affable man in his 40s who blushes faintly when something moves him — things often do — and he explains that in the last five years, his world has changed. “It’s possible now to live that little dream of a home and a family and a white picket fence,” he says. “I was at a formal dinner party the other night, and out of 10 couples, half were parents. Five or 10 years ago the conversation would have been, ‘What are we doing politically?’ Now it’s ‘Which school are you trying to get your kids into?’”

Before we leave, Miller and Sigwart briefly confirm Growing Generations’ plans to buy a full-page ad in the next issue, expanding on the quarter-page that ran in the magazine’s holiday issue. “Up until now, we haven’t advertised a whole lot,” says Miller, “because —”

“Because,” Sigwart finishes as if on cue, “there hasn’t been any place for them to advertise.”

—Judith Lewis

Town Hall: And Justice for All

The La Mirada Holiday Inn sits just off the 5 freeway, a mile or so south of the billboard-sized LED display for the Santa Fe Springs Motor Home Center that blinks the command “God Bless Americans!” Saturday afternoon, in one of the hotel’s conference rooms, three representatives of the United States Department of Justice conducted a town-hall-style meeting at the request of several Muslim and Arab-American community organizations, including the Muslim Public Affairs Council and the Arab-American Republican Club of Orange County. Johnny Williams, the western regional director of the INS, introduced himself to the audience of more than 100 people, most of them Middle Eastern, and confessed his eagerness to “listen to you . . . and to relieve some of the uneasiness that I know all of you have been going through these last few months.”

He began with a brief discussion of racial profiling. “The abuse of this term in the news media has been most unsettling,” Williams said. He defined racial profiling as singling out a given ethnic group for reasons “that have no connection to the crime being investigated.” For example, if a crime is committed in an all-white neighborhood and police arbitrarily stop and question all Asians, that’s racial profiling. But if a witness saw an Asian person commit the crime, “Officers may then go through Chinatown looking for people who meet that description.” Because “the heinous crimes of 9/11 were all committed by men from Middle Eastern countries with ties to al Qaeda,” Williams said, it is not racial profiling to concentrate on people from those countries. “It is following practical investigative leads . . . Let me say in closing, I truly care, and the INS cares.”

John Gordon, the sharp-jawed U.S. attorney for the central district of California, briefly introduced himself; the FBI’s Chicago-born Steve Steinhauser boasted that he was so dedicated to assuaging the fears of the community that he was willing to miss the Bears game. Then the three officials began to answer questions submitted by leaders of the community organizations with whom they shared the dais, and from audience members who were asked to write their questions on index cards. Discussing what he called “the 5,000 interview project” — the FBI’s “invitations” to 5,000 Middle Eastern men on temporary visas to come on in and get interrogated — Gordon reassured the crowd that “people are free, under United States law, to decline to be interviewed out in the street if they so choose” and promised that federal agents would behave in a “professional and, where appropriate, courteous way.

“The community also asks, ‘What is secret detention,’” Gordon continued. “There’s no such thing as secret detention.” He cited “confusion in the press” about the use of secret evidence in immigration courts (which he called “using classified evidence that is not disclosed to certain people,” such as, presumably, the defendant and his or her lawyer) and the attorney general’s refusal to release the names of those detained after September 11. Just as he was promising that “under no circumstances is the Department of Justice keeping incommunicado in secret detention facilities any detainees,” a man in the back shouted, “Would Nelson Mandela be a terrorist?”

After some deliberation, Gordon answered, “I’m sure the South African government considered him a terrorist,” to which another audience member exclaimed, “The illegal South African government!” Gordon bowed out, allowing that this “would be a dialogue that would have to be undertaken with the president, the secretary of state, the attorney general. I realize that different groups have different perspectives on who the terrorist is.”

He was soon interrupted again, by a tall gray-haired man who, before he could articulate his point, was told, “We have a set form here for questions.” Gordon quickly returned to that format, addressing a question on another index card asking how many people have been secretly detained. “I’m not sure exactly what the thrust of the question is,” Gordon claimed, and pointed out that all detainees have the right to make phone calls.

On the next card was a question asking whether there is any risk of prosecution for people who have contributed to charities that the government has since linked to terrorists. “If you honestly believe you’re providing charitable contributions” for humanitarian purposes,” Gordon said, “you will not be prosecuted.” This spurred three people to simultaneously shout, “Who would decide?”

“Excuse me, you have to follow the format,” Gordon responded.

But the audience stubbornly persisted. In answer to Steinhauser’s claim that “the Holy Land Foundation was sponsoring Hamas, which is a terrorist organization,” a man in the audience shouted, “It’s made up!” Steinhauser explained patiently, “Ladies and gentlemen, we live in the United States of America, and the government of the United States of America, the president, the attorney general, believe it is a terrorist organization.” To widespread gasps and guffaws he went on, “You must accept certain things from your government.”

After the next audience outburst — following Gordon’s scolding that “you don’t get a free pass to stay in the United States just because you provide information” — the feds got testy. “We’re trying to conduct ourselves in a dignified and courteous manner,” Gordon complained. “We’re here as a service to you.”

Only a handful of the dozens of audience note cards were addressed, and at the end of the day, it was John Gordon’s confident oath that rang in my ears: “I can guarantee you,” he swore, “that the U.S. government is not turning into something that is reminiscent of Nazi Germany.”

—Ben Ehrenreich

Radio Waves: The Fab Fan

The prize is two tickets to see the Beatles tribute band the Fab Four at Anaheim’s Sun Theater. Phone lines light up like heartbeats on an EKG before the host can even ask the contest question: “What two Beatles albums were never mixed in mono?”

Hardcore fans know the answer is “Let It Be” and “Abbey Road,” and there are a lot of those fans out there. For nearly 15 years, Deirdre O’Donoghue hosted Breakfast With the Beatles on KLSX. She played mainly the classic U.S. releases that were in stereo, and she loved Paul McCartney all the way down to his silly love songs. She died last year, and after weeks of alternating guest hosts, her station took a poll on its Web site to decide who O’Donohue’s permanent replacement should be. The campaign was as goofy as the presidential election. Fortunately, the best man won.

Enter Chris Carter.

Aside from being the former bassist for late-’80s alternative band Dramarama, producing a new record for Stew of the Negro Problem, managing Brian Wilson’s band Wondermints, and producing and writing a film with Emmy winner George Hickenlooper, Carter is now hosting BWTB every Sunday on KLSX from 8 a.m. until noon.

Not just a DJ with a laid-back 1970s FM-radio delivery, Carter is also a Beatles expert with a near-freakish knowledge of the original Fab Four and an unbelievable cache of unreleased recordings that helps separate his from other Beatles shows.

“I try to do the show the way the Beatles might do a show,” says Carter. “Remember, when the Beatles were the Beatles, they very rarely talked about their music when they were interviewed — they talked about the guy’s trousers. They were just funny, witty guys.”

Carter’s show starts with a milk crate. Inside the crate are about a hundred CDs — some look like regular Beatles CDs, and some are labeled like laboratory petri dishes. All are Beatles and Beatles solo recordings. Some are the kind anyone can buy in a store; some are so rare that Carter gets real quiet and excited when he talks about them, like a kid who just discovered his dad’s stash of Playboy magazines.

It takes about two hours of pre-production with assistant Mike Walusko and engineer Forrest Nelson to put BWTB together. During the show, the three, with Kris the phone guy, laugh a lot, and 98 percent of the conversation is Beatles. Every Beatle is alive in this room. Nobody eats breakfast.

“There’s something about the Beatles,” says Carter. “More than any other group, they dominated an entire decade. That whole era was taken up with them, and they seem like old friends. I feel like George Harrison was my friend only because I’ve known everything he’s done since the time I was 7.”

During the request hour, the New Jersey–born Carter haggles over the playlist with callers like an East Coast car salesman. “Yeah, I have the Peter Sellers recording,” Carter tells one guy requesting a particular recording of “Everybody‘s Got Something To Hide Except Me and My Monkey.” “But that has a bad beginning — look, I got a really cool acetate, and I think you’re gonna love it.” The song starts, and a satisfied Carter says to himself, “Yeah, he’s diggin’ that.”

—Peter Fletcher


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