Brandi Victoria is Cooking Intimacy
by Terry Ludlow
Brandi Victoria is holed up somewhere in New York City, though you’d be hard pressed to locate the hideout. The usual suspects, your five star hotels, or the conspicuous Tribeca apartments would all lead to dead ends. Instead as she records her fourth album, a still untitled project, she takes up residence in the particularly unglamourous Flatiron district. A nondescript door next to steel shuttered fabric wholesalers, leads to an elevator, that sends me to the fifth floor loft. The star greets me with a hello and a hug, wearing a t-shirt and cutoff sweatpants, looking very much “Just Like Us.” But her startling ordinary appearance can only hold my attention for a second, as the thick aroma of the dinner she has prepared overtakes my senses. This shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Her Instagram followers will tell you how passionate the 22-year-old is about cooking, and it seems as if she is already hedging her bets against the long odds of sustained success as a pop star, with a potential career on the Food Network waiting in reserve.
“Mamma always said the trick was to make cooking a performance, and not just something to get done.”
Yes, she still calls her ‘mamma.’
It’s a Jambalaya. I could smell the Andouille sausage from the elevator, but the fragrance makes the loft feel lived in, as if this has secretly been her sanctuary for years. It’s nothing like the image of a distracted pop star, wasting their fortunes on opulent trappings. The loft, while quite expensive, feels like home. A comforting retreat for somebody who has lived a double life as both a developing woman, and a developing brand, for the past eight years. I half expect generations of family to come rushing out of the other rooms, which brings a warm laugh to the singer.
“Oh my God, now I want that to happen so badly.”
She mentions the pact she’s made with her record label that they will be flown up when she has finished half of the tracks, and tells me how she dreads her month’s long worldwide tours, because she knows it means going to bed when they’re working, or waking up in a strange town and forgetting how far away she is for just a moment. I don’t have to ask how close she is with her Mamma and Poppy. “They’re my everything. I swear the only thing that keeps me hitched to the ground is knowing that the people who changed my diapers are listening to what I’m recording.” What was it about being away from her loved ones that made her so uncomfortable? “I guess it’s me being naïve, but when I got into the business, I trusted the wrong people. I didn’t know what love was, and I rushed to different people, thinking somebody was going to be my rock, and help me. People took advantage of me.”
I ask her what her parents thought about Hurtbeat, her sexually charged album from two years earlier, which drew the ire of the National Decency Council for the titular single and R-rated video that has been banned in Utah. She laughs as I open the bottle of wine.
“That’s just acting.” She says with a quick brush of her hair. “All this stuff is, when you really think about it.” The star corrects herself when I suggest that it might be fake. “Well, no. It’s hard to explain. Like, my sexuality is a very real thing, which was a taboo when I was younger. I didn’t even get to wear a bikini until my Family Channel contract was up. And people are so perverted, you know. Like, somebody tells me to eat a banana and I do it, thinking it’s no big deal. But then, ya’ll are telling me that it’s sexually provocative. God. Calm down everybody; it’s a banana. But I’m a real person, and I have sexual feelings. Just like my fans. I want the same things that everybody else wants. And I think that’s what art is, you know? It’s taking the things that fill you up and finding a way to deliver that emotion to other people.”
I can’t tell if she’s putting me on. While she is quick to point out her southern roots, for years every boundary pushing video of hers seemed to contradict her wholesome image. Every lyric packed with a breathy voice, the implied promise of freshly deflowered pleasures. Is she being manipulated, or is she manipulating everybody? Was it possible that she was really in love with Adam Teletovic, or was that the PR produced mirage that most people believe?
I sit at table while she holds out a plate, and shakes her hips, aping the repressed hostesses of the fifties and sixties that could have been her grandmother. I wonder if this what her version of intimacy feels like. Is it possible for somebody like her to have a mature relationship, completely separate from her white hot burn of stardom? “I think so. I’m not that weird.” She snorts when she laughs, and playfully holds a fork up to her mouth as if posing for a housekeeping journal. I’m left feeling a surge of emotions. Warmth. Lust. Fear that the wrong kind of people could weaponize her tragic need for approval. In that moment at her table, however, I can see that Brandi really did love Adam, or the others in a growing list of former flames. And that she really does love her fans. And the sensation of pouring her heart out before packed arenas. And me, a reporter who will undoubtedly give her the positive coverage she desperately craves.
Her Jambalaya explodes with flavor. Shrimp dancing with sausage in a thick layer coating of salty rice. A simple pleasure that feels like a celebration. As if there really should be more people around, including an overly protective mother who would eye me suspiciously, even at the expense of her daughter’s embarrassment. Brandi catches me in a moment where I’m not looking directly at her or anything in the room; lost among one bite and the next, and when I catch her watching eyes, I get the slightest sensation of celebrity. The feeling that people are watching me, as I behave oblivious to their stares and suddenly realize that I should be more careful with how I present myself.
“It’s good, isn’t it?”
I tell her that it is, and her face instantly registers relief. “My mamma would call it cat food, but I’m getting better. I can’t say I’ll ever be what she is in the kitchen.” How can somebody with such a traditional upbringing reconcile a demanding career with the matriarchal role of Kitchen Queen. Would she have been happier in the kitchen? The question brings another fit of laughter.
“I don’t know. I love my life. But my mom loves hers. She cooks to live and sings for fun. I sing to live and cook for fun. I guess we’re both doing what God put us on earth to do.”
Her normalcy is truly extraordinary. As we finish our meal, Brandi walks over to her laptop and puts on some music. Interview enough pop stars and you’ll quickly discover that only the most insecure will play their own or another pop song from their own era. What music they select says something about who they are. Brandi chooses Tina Turner, a voice that erupts while Brandi’s signature sound has always been an Auto-Tuned assisted whimper; radically different paths taken to convey the same pain. It is here where I see the roles of interview subject and hostess give way to entertainer. Brandi struts around the living room, jumping on the leather couch, dancing her heart out for anybody who might look up from the abandoned streets. She snaps her silken hair in the air and dares me to get off the couch and join in.
This is real. Brandi’s gravity that pulls me off the couch as I observer her for what she is. A master at her craft. Not the greatest singer in the world, as she still has an army of producers tweaking her sound in to a homogenized form. But as a performer, as somebody who can connect to the stranger in the back of an arena, and can take a jaded interviewer and for a moment turn him into a longing fan.
As the song winds down, the star nods and tells me that I’m next. I’m reminded of the leaked clips from her tour where hundreds of her staff turn after show wraps into karaoke parties. Never thinking that this could have turned into that, I look for reasons to stay at the table, admitting that I’m a terrible singer. Brandi walks over and gently grabs me by my wrists. “Do you want to know a secret? I love terrible singing.”
Before I know it I’m struggling through a Kenny Roger’s song, which leads to Islands in the Stream. The song is traditionally a duet, but Brandi cannot help but over stage me in her living room. She even helps me out, by singing Dolly Pardon’s twang and ruining her own performance until both of our voices are drowned out in the laughter from our audience of two.
I kiss her. The act that feels completely natural, as if she has shed her celebrity status and I have surrendered the duties of my profession. She gently pulls back and laughs. “This is quite the interview.” I feel like a fool, but the self consciousness dissolves when she moves in and kisses me again. I remind myself that this person is not her Grammy awards or VMA’s, or the kid on her Family Network television show, but a 22-year-old woman who has seen her body scrutinized. Somebody who has been sexualized before she obtained her drivers license. A woman who at 17, had to deal with nude pictures being leaked to the internet, and spent her 18th birthday locked in hiding as yet another stalker was identified and apprehended by the authorities. And while she shocked her fan base with Hurtbeat, her latest album, Asylum Open House, represents something even more revealing. Tracks loaded with emotion, voice cracking, lyrics about being hurt and exploited, embarrassed and confused. Suicide was brought up. Drugs were mentioned. These were songs less likely to earn her a spot on the Summer Jam US Tour, than they were to help anonymous high school girls cope with budding pressures. She is the essence of vulnerability, and I had to tread lightly.
But how does one publically express her own eroticism without becoming objectified? She comes up for air and gasps “Well, I don’t know if being comfortable with your own sexuality necessarily makes you a victim. Like, maybe, even though I’m being used to sell music, it’s still my voice that is getting heard. People can buy tickets to my show expecting one thing, but so long as I own my image I’m not the one who is lower status. It’s the people who paid to see me as I am.” But is she like this with everybody. “Well, no, goofball,” she says with a quick giggle before slipping her hand down my pants.
Again the delicate playfulness creates the illusion that what I am experiencing is real. And for a millionaire pop star or a top tier professional athlete, this is most likely a perfect simulation. While hormonally charged teenage boys would imagine her splayed on top of a sports car, or being felt up in the back of a night club, true intimacy is in t-shirts and cut off sweatpants. A smiling girl, who giggles and makes jokes instead of a woman wearing copious amounts of eye shadow and a live boa constrictor. The moment where the gravity leaves the room isn’t in getting the fantasy, but when you realize that these girls are out there, and their romantic gestures are so normal. One look sends me back twenty years earlier when I was a horny college student fumbling around with a cute girl in my dormitory suite. Two fresh bodies exploring themselves and learning as much about their own desires as they do about what the other person likes. But still, she is the 22-year-old, and I am the middle aged man, with an understanding wife and a precocious pair of twin boys. I cannot let my passions for her perfectly carved body cloud my judgment. This is a woman who has been rumored to have had a severe emotional breakdown at 18 years old, while the rash of stalkers was still a new phenomenon. She is delicate, and I must remain protective of her emotional needs, no matter how great my own are at this moment.
I’m inside Brandi. It’s been said that Hollywood might not always recognize talent, but it perfectly identifies star power. The way certain actors can effortlessly summon the thing that makes them unique. A sneer or a look. As I look down on the young singer, naked and biting onto her bottom lip, I’m awash in the millions of suggestive images. Even the down to earth wholesomeness that juxtaposes against her identity as a sex symbol, the Clark Kent to her Superman. The way her singing made you feel as though she’s performing for you. If anything, the perfect chocolate nipples make her appear more natural.
I realize that I’m staring at her. She catches me, while I focus on holding off to prevent an early climax, and I ask if I look like a tourist. “You’re cute,” she says, softly caressing my cheek with the same reassuring way she’d comforted millions of girls, telling them that they’re all beautiful in their own way. And when I think that she’s just trying to spare my feelings she announces, “Yes, right there,” and I am relieved, knowing that I’m not preying on the innocent. She is getting pleasure out of this as well. I can barely hold on. Her flawless skin against my greying chest hairs. Limber joints that bend and envelope my stiff aching body. Her breath quickens. I’m watching Brandi Victoria approach an orgasm. This is the most pure sensation I have felt in my life.
With the blood almost completely drained from my brain, I struggle to remind myself of this woman’s humanity and the disgusting ways people would try to fail to see her for what she represents. A strong supporter of women’s rights. Somebody who has done charitable work for causes to promote literacy among women in developing nations, and to promote awareness of the risks associated with HPV. A woman who truly loves her fans, even as she has lost so much of her sanity to the pursuit of stardom. It sounds terrible, and I admit that I must be coming off like a giddy fan, but I open my mouth and tell her, “I respect your mind.”
She opens her eyes, and briefly delays her impending crescendo to tell me, “Thank you so much. You know there’s a lot of pressure to be all things to everybody, because people in this industry want to place you in one basket, and certain people behind the scenes get really mad when you try to grow into different directions, but I find that I just have to do what feels right for me as a person, you know? Oh, right there, daddy.” She closes her eyes and moans up to the ceiling. I am right there with her for what felt like an eternity frozen in one moment. And then it is over. As I slide back to reality in my refractory phase, I see the way her perfect hair has fallen over her face. How the people behind her Pantene endorsements might drop her, should the public ever catch a glimpse of such a lewd scene with me, an old man defiling the latest face of their product. And through her strands of hair, I can make out tears streaking from the corners of her eyes. She is openly weeping, and not in a controlled, look at the camera cry for attention, but one of a deep existential dilemma. They are the tears of an artist who knows who has received nothing but complimentary reviews and has legions of adoring fans, but has to be aware of the fleeting nature of her stardom. It angers me to think about the snide reviews people will dish out when her work inevitably hits a lull, or when a younger generation moves on to the next voice. But there is nothing that I can do to alleviate any of that, and realize that it is time to go. As I ride the elevator down to the street, I’m left with her final thoughts from moments before.
“There are just a few moments where I lose control of my emotions. I don’t try to hide them. The old celebrity mindset was to never let them see you cry in public, but people need to know that I’m a real person. That my pain isn’t something that somebody has written for me to perform. And sometimes I wonder if I might have afforded different choices. Whether I only get to live this life because of what I’ve done. I just hope I fall into the arms of somebody who I can trust.”