Magazines Tackle Sexual Abuse, Black Infidelity

In the latest installment of Magazine Mavens, Editors from two of the nation's leading cultural publications discuss subjects found in the pages of their recent editions. Dawn Baskerville, of Essence Magazine, and Angie Romero, of Latina Magazine, take on sexual abuse and an alarming study on infidelity.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. It's time for our monthly visit with the Magazine Mavens. Here with us, Dawn Baskerville, executive editor of Essence Magazine, and Angie Romero, entertainment editor for Latina Magazine. Welcome ladies, my divas.

Ms. ANGIE ROMERO (Entertainment Editor, Latina Magazine): Hello.

Ms. DAWN BASKERVILLE (Executive Editor, Essence Magazine): Hello.

MARTIN: We have so much to talk about. Dawn, I'll start with you. Mo'Nique, comedian, actress, mother, radio host, now Essence guest editor. How did that come about?

Ms. BASKERVILLE: That's right.

MARTIN: How did you talk her into this, given how much she's already got going on?

Ms. BASKERVILLE: It didn't take much prodding. We - Mo'Nique has been on our cover, as many of our readers would remind us, five times. She's beloved by our readers, and we've just developed a really great relationship with her. So, we thought it might be fun and insightful to just have her - give her unique perspective on different things that we've been doing in the magazine as well as have a hand in actually shaping the covers that we have. And when we went to her, she'd just readily accepted.

MARTIN: And I've interviewed her a couple of times myself. So, imagine my surprise when I read the piece about her and realized that she has been living for quite some time with a very disturbing story. She shared the story with Essence readers that she was a victim of sexual abuse by a close family member when she was a child. She's very upfront about this. And when you tapped her as guest editor, did you know that she would want to talk about this?

Ms. BASKERVILLE: We actually didn't. She had alluded to some things, you know, different things. You obviously want to talk about different things when you talk to a cover subject who's been on multiple times. And I think it just is a time in her life where she's putting certain things into perspective. And when she sat down with Audrey Edwards, who is an editor with Essence for many years, I think it just was something that was on her heart to talk about. And I think Audrey gave her a safe haven to do it in. So, no, we really didn't know the extent to which she would be so forthright with her story.

MARTIN: And why did she want to talk about it at this stage of her life?

Ms. BASKERVILLE: I think, you know, she's just had twin boys. They're toddlers now, and I think sometimes life can just alter your perspective. She's also has a part in an upcoming film, "Push." And in the movie, it deals with molestation, and I think it just brought up a lot of things that she had pushed down and buried for many, many years and just wanted to stop the cycle of abuse. Because by not talking about it, she makes the point that the person actually had the opportunity to go on and molest someone else, and I think that was something that really just didn't sit well with her.

And she just was very adamant and outspoken about speaking about it. And as you can imagine, as we talked to her about it, she had some pushback from people around her to maybe pull it back a little bit. And she was absolutely adamant that, no, she wanted to tell her story and get it out there to try to help other victims, male and female, she's finding, who have gone through the same trauma that she went through.

MARTIN: And I must tell you, one of the things I appreciated about the piece is that she did talk about the reactions of family members, because I think this is the kind of thing that many people are concerned about in trying to decide whether to disclose.

Ms. BASKERVILLE: Absolutely.

MARTIN: And for her to be able to say, this is the way members of my family reacted and not shy away from the difficulties, but also the people who did support. I think it's - I found it very moving in a way that I was surprised, because I think, in recent years, we've talked a lot about this issue, perhaps more than we ever thought we would. And so, you wonder, well, what is to be gained by yet another person coming forward? And what's fascinating to me is that she does not come off, like, you know, the Hollywood diva, attention-seeking. She seems very much like a neighbor...

Ms. BASKERVILLE: Oh, not at all.

MARTIN: Who was letting you know something that she would like you to know.

Ms. BASKERVILLE: Absolutely, and the response has been overwhelming. She has a radio show that's syndicated around the country, and people have just been calling in, writing to us, and just thanking her for being brave enough to broach the subject. And it's given them the courage to actually deal with it in their own lives, and Mo'Nique is that sister-friend that you feel like you can talk to and who understands. She doesn't come off as, you know, a person that's above any of this. And at the same time, she has compassion for the members in her family. She can understand why certain things were not done, and even wants her - you know, it was her brother that did the molestation to get help, rather than condemn the person for what they've done.

MARTIN: Angie, I want to talk to you about your cover model, Rosario Dawson. She is talking about another kind of courage, not as, I think, sort of dramatic as what we've been talking about with Mo'Nique, but another kind of courage, nonetheless, and that you talked about on this - in your cover article about her is her level of political activism. And I'm not sure a lot of people know just how involved she has been in get-out-the-vote efforts and voter-education efforts aimed at Latinos. Did you all know about this when you chose her for your cover person?

Ms. ROMERO: We did. We actually chose her for several reasons, and it's one of those situations where everything is aligned. She has a movie coming out this week, actually, called "Eagle Eye," Shia LaBeouf and Billy Bob Thornton, which deals with, you know, terrorism and governmental responsibility and fear and a number of things that are happening right now.

But at the same time, we have this historic election coming up. And since 2004, Rosario has been very involved with Voto Latino, which is the organization that she co-founded with Maria Teresa Petersen. And her priority these days as she, you know, gets older and gets settled into her career, you know, she realizes that she, too, has this responsibility to make Latino youth aware of all the issues that are affecting us today. You know, she's such a role model for everybody. She's just a wonderful person.

MARTIN: How did she get involved in this? I mean, for some people, it does seem very trendy. But when say as she's getting older, she's 29. Give us a break...

Ms. ROMERO: Yeah. Well, you know what...

MARTIN: I mean, excuse us, but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ROMERO: She seems so much older than she is.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: But she's been involved with this since she was almost a teenager. Any idea how she got so interested?

Ms. ROMERO: Yes. She actually grew up in a very unconventional household. Rosario talks about her mother not caring about what other people thought, and they would sit down and have these family meetings where they would pass the conk and everyone would have a chance to speak. And...

MARTIN: No, literally pass a conk shell?

Ms. ROMERO: Literally.

MARTIN: Yeah.

Ms. ROMERO: Like in "Lord of the Flies."

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ROMERO: That was the inspiration. And you know, so, democratic principles were always upheld in her household. Everyone always learned that their voice was important, like, what they had to say was important. And I think it's a wonderful story. You really get her, you know, when she was a 12 year old, and you know, running a Save the Trees campaign and campaigning, supporting her gay uncle, and you know, organizations. She's a person that has always cared about these issues. It's not just for show.

MARTIN: And it's not - it's not always an easy thing to talk about, because as an actor, you know, one doesn't want to be biting the hand that feeds one, but does she express any frustration about the kinds of roles that Latina actresses - Latino men, too - are offered these days? Does she feel that she gets to express the full range of her intelligence, of her passion for ideas?

Ms. ROMERO: I think Rosario was very open with us about certain insecurities that she has. She didn't really talk about what you just asked, but she does get into her own insecurities as an actress because she didn't go to Juilliard, you know? She didn't have an acting coach early on. She was discovered on the footsteps of her Lower East Side apartment when she was 15, then goes on to make this movie, "Kids." So, she sort of struggled with that early on, but she's come to accept who she is and get over those insecurities and become the best person that she can be. And that was something that was very cool to hear from somebody because you don't - we really don't hear that all the time.

MARTIN: Let me just pause right here to say, if you're just joining us, this is Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking with Angie Romero of Latina Magazine and Dawn Baskerville of Essence Magazine. It's our monthly visit with the Magazine Mavens. Angie, that's not the only - your piece on Rosario doesn't - it's not the only kind of election-related coverage. You've got the 2000...

Ms. ROMERO: Election Extravaganza.

MARTIN: Election Extravaganza.

Ms. ROMERO: Yes.

MARTIN: Tell me about that.

Ms. ROMERO: Well, you know, we hear so many times that this election is historic and that, you know, we had the first ever Spanish debate with all the candidates. So, we really felt that we owed to our readers to talk directly to both presidential candidates and ask the hard questions. You know, talk - ask Barack Obama, ask John McCain. You guys both are for the fence and expound on that. Ask John McCain, you were a supporter of the Dream Act, but then you missed your chance to vote for it in the Senate. Can you explain that? And so, we ask the tough questions, questions that, you know, our readers are very interested in before they head out to the polls confidently on November 4th to make their decision.

MARTIN: Did you find them responsive? Did you find both campaigns equally responsive?

Ms. ROMERO: I think they did. They did do a great job of addressing the questions we had and our concerns.

MARTIN: Dawn, Essence also had a story that I think - I'm guessing probably got a lot of attention. It's a survey on black men and fidelity, and I found it very provocative. What reaction are you getting? First of all, what are some of the findings? And what reaction are you getting?

Ms. BASKERVILLE: Oh, well, Essence polled 25,000 black men and women and assembled a panel of relationship experts to find out, in essence, why do men cheat and why do they stay. And the results were alarming. We found that, of the 3,000 men polled, 70 percent think it's possible for men to be monogamous, but only 35 percent of them said that they'd never cheated. The results also showed that an overwhelming 87 percent of men had actually stepped out on their significant other. And we, kind of, looked at the reasons why, you know, from a male perspective or female perspective and just kind of had a dialogue about it.

When you look at the state of the black family, the nucleus of it is something that is very disheartening. And then, when you add onto that that African-American women make up 66 percent of all new AIDS cases among women, that's, like - that's just astounding. So, when you're looking at, you know, people in relationships, some don't even know that their spouse or their significant other is cheating. That person can be infecting them. The women cheat also, but not, you know, in the proportion that men do, and just really trying to get to the root of why they do it.

MARTIN: You report that research by some distinguished contributors and distinguished researchers that indicate that black and Latino men in the United States were, in fact, more than twice as likely as white men to be non-monogamous. That must have been painful to confront.

Ms. BASKERVILLE: Very.

MARTIN: And I wonder if anybody is suggesting, gee, you know, we rather - we would rather not have known this, or we...

Ms. BASKERVILLE: No.

MARTIN: Airing dirty laundry, that kind of thing?

Ms. BASKERVILLE: The goal of Essence Magazine is to inform and clarity. Although we don't mean that we like what it brings, it helps you put into perspective what you're dealing with. No, it's not something that we're proud of, but it's something that brings awareness to a situation and then gives the opportunity for dialogue and outlets where we can actually address the underlying problem.

MARTIN: And I want to point out a couple things that Latina also reported on this whole question of fidelity in the Latino community a couple of months back. And Essence, this month, also has a voter guide. So, you are, sort of, tracking kind of similar subjects. Now, we do have to talk about some fun stuff. We must discuss fashion, do we not, ladies?

Ms. BASKERVILLE: Of course.

MARTIN: We must, we must. Essence this month has a big spread on plus-size fashion. Where did you get the idea for this and fabulousness?

Ms. BASKERVILLE: At the office.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BASKERVILLE: Well, if you, you know, believe the statistic that the average woman in America is a size 12, we just look at who we are and what we are. We obviously put beautiful, svelte women on our covers and the pages of the book. But we also want to have everyone feel included. And really, we looked at it as an opportunity to celebrate our curves, and at whatever stage you might be in, being able to be, you know, flying fabulous at that stage, but also just trying to be healthy.

So, if your goal is to lose weight or become more toned or whatever, then there are strategies and tips for that. And if you feel like you're fine where you are, then actually showing you ways that you can accentuate those curves and dips and blips that we have rather than cover it up and feel ashamed of them. It's just telling women, you can look beautiful and fabulous in the skin that you're in. Here is clothing that accentuates what you have, and this is how - where you can get it.

MARTIN: Are you getting a good response?

Ms. BASKERVILLE: Excellent response and very emotional responses from people, too, you know, where they are made to sometimes feel like they should cover up or be less thin, but just being able to say, well, yes, I'm a size 12. I might be a size 24, but I still am a beautiful woman, and I feel sexy, and I want to be confident as I walk around, and don't shove me in a closet because I don't necessarily look like the images that are in magazines, traditionally, and on television and in film.

And also, maybe, having the incentive to say well, you know what? Because if you look at Mo'Nique, Mo'Nique is getting very toned and very trim, not because she is going back on feeling. She always feels she's going to be a thick and fabulous woman, but just wanting to be healthy. And so, it's encouraging women that, you know, maybe I'm never going to look like, you know, Halle Berry, but I can look really fabulous and great, and feel good at the same time that I'm doing it.

MARTIN: And Latina also has a - Latina has a number of fashion spreads this month, but you've got one feature, Well-Suited, where you talked about great suit options for different body types, Angie.

MS. ROMERO: Exactly. Essence and Latina actually have very similar missions in that we want to show the diversity within our community. So, we have the light-skinned Latina, the dark-skinned Latina, the big girl Latina, the, you know, thin girl. So, we're always about showing that diversity.

MARTIN: And also a range of ages, too. That's the other thing I've noticed about both magazines that you feature women of different of ages, which I think is appreciated by those of us who are not 22.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: So, I do this every month, and I know it's mean, but I have to ask you, do you have a favorite article this month, and which one is it? Angie, I'm going to put you on the spot.

Ms. ROMERO: Definitely the election package. I have to confess that I learned a lot of things. I'd like to think that I'm very well-informed, but I definitely learned a lot myself and I really, really enjoyed reading the interviews with both candidates, because even though I've made up my mind, I really did want to hear both sides. I think it's important.

MARTIN: OK. Dawn Baskerville, what about you?

Ms. BASKERVILLE: I'd have to say, hands down, it would be the cover story with Mo'Nique. We've seen Mo'Nique in so many different facets of her life, and there's always an undercurrent of her being funny and witty. And here we just found her to be very vulnerable, and very straightforward, and very true and honest. She actually cried, kind of reverted almost into childhood as she's telling the story.

So you didn't see the big, bad mama that we often see on television and in film. You saw someone who's just like us, who could bring such a poignant issue to the forefront with grace, and with strength, and with confidence and dignity that I don't know anybody that couldn't relate to that story, maybe molestation isn't your issue, but just being able to come out from under something, and the stigma of something, and be able to come out on other side clean, and renewed, and refreshed, and dedicated to moving forward. And I just think that that story resonates in the lives of anyone that reads it.

MARTIN: Well, thank you both. Dawn Baskerville is the executive editor of Essence Magazine. Angie Romero is the entertainment editor for Latina Magazine. They were both kind enough to join us from our New York bureau. Ladies, thank you both so much.

Ms. ROMERO: Thank you.

Mr. BASKERVILLE: A pleasure, Michel. Thank you.

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