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18/01/2020

"The Day Aaliyah And I Took a Sticker Photo": By Hyun Kim 김현

Taken at Chelsea Piers Bowling Alley. Photos courtesy of author Hyun Kim.

Here's an interesting article written by writer/editor Hyun Kim for Vibe, MTV and Tidal. He talks about his time interviewing Aaliyah back in 2001, whilst playing bowling and other video/arcade games.
"In 2001, I went bowling with Aaliyah. We weren’t friends; it wasn’t a date. The occasion was a Vibe cover story. We’d originally been scheduled to meet in Melbourne, Australia, while she was filming Queen of the Damned, but things don’t always work out the way they’re supposed to — which left me in Australia for four days, alone, with nothing to do.
I was told to wait in my hotel room as long as I could in case I received a call from Aaliyah’s people about the interview, but the call never came. So I wandered the streets of Melbourne, thought that there were more Asians there than I’d expected, and got so bored that I went across the street from the hotel to watch a cricket match. I got even more bored, so bored that I ended up falling asleep in the sun and getting one of the worst sunburns of my life. I did get to explore the food; I ate ostrich and kangaroo on what turned out to be my last night there. Vibe called eventually and told me the interview wasn’t going to happen, at least in Australia, and that they’d rebooked my return ticket for the next day. I rang the front desk and told them to cancel my safari excursion I had planned, as I tried to get the most of my time on the continent.
Later, Aaliyah’s publicist would schedule our bowling session at New York’s Chelsea Piers; the thought was that something relaxed and informal would put us both at ease for the interview. As I waited for the logistics to get locked down, it eventually began to sink in that I was writing a cover story for Vibe. I was born in Korea and immigrated to upstate New York when I was seven, where I was an ESL student. I fell in love with writing in high school when my 11th grade English teacher asked if he could enter an essay I wrote on The Autobiography of Malcolm X in a local contest. A few months later, I received a letter saying I won first place. The grand prize was $300, which at the time was a lot for a 16-year-old. I told everyone in high school that I would write for the Source one day.
Eight years after that essay, at the age of 24, I had the chance to write a cover story for the biggest urban culture and music magazine, a place where I’d interned just four years before. It wasn’t the Source; it was Vibe. It was bigger. I was excited, of course, and more than a little nervous. We’re talking about my first cover story for Vibe, with a beloved and notoriously private artist. It’s beyond cliché to say that Aaliyah was on the brink of superstardom before her death, but that’s how folks felt about her at the time — throughout most of her career, really. She’d managed to somehow overcome the R. Kelly scandal that clouded her early in her career (a topic that was explicitly deemed off-limits for my interview); her late-’90s chemistry with Timbaland seemed akin to what Janet had with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis a decade earlier. Even her film career was starting to take off after the success of Romeo Must Die. She landed a role in the coveted Matrix trilogy.

Photo Courtesy of Hyun Kin. Enhanced for better quality by yours truly!

Then I got the news. On the night of August 25th, 2001, friends began calling my phone repeatedly. I was at some party in Chelsea and spent most of my time in the basement, where I had no cell reception. When I stepped outside from the party, my phone buzzed incessantly, alerting me that I’d missed numerous calls and had several voicemails waiting — all saying, “Hey man, did you see the news?” It was a strange feeling to be connected to the death of someone you barely knew.
Since Aaliyah died the month the Vibe issue came out, my story became known as Aaliyah’s “last in-depth interview.” Vibe sent me on a mini press run to promote our August issue; I sat in a studio for hours, doing back-to-back interviews with radio stations across the country. (Often I was introduced as one of the last journalists to have talked to her, but I don’t think that was true. Maybe it helped sell issues, and even me as a journalist.) All of them wanted to know one thing: “What was she like?”
The thing is, my interview with Aaliyah wasn’t one of my favorites. She was friendly, but she was guarded. She blurted out, “Private life!” whenever I brushed on topics like her rumored relationship with Damon Dash. When I asked about the Roc-A-Fella Records pendant on her neck, she cooly responded, “It’s just a little symbol for a record.” Emil Wilbekin, Vibe’s editor in chief at that time, told me that Aaliyah had liked my story even though I did receive several hate mails from her fans saying that I painted her in a bad light and that I didn’t respect her privacy. That same month, I would write another “cover” story on Aaliyah; this time, it would be a tribute.
Of course, I understood her need to protect her personal space, especially after the R. Kelly drama. After all, it was Vibe that published their wedding certificate six years earlier. I knew I wouldn’t get to spend much time with her, so I loaded up on secondary interviews. I talked to her high school principal, her best friend Kidada Jones, Andy Hilfiger, Carson Daly, choreographer Fatima Robinson, her mother Diane Haughton, Queen of the Damned director Michael Rymer, and Timbaland. I even spoke with Ed McMahon, who was the host of Star Search, where a young Aaliyah had once lost. It was the most secondaries I’d ever collected for one story.

"We played Time Crisis. She shot the pink gun, me the blue one; I don’t remember how many quarters we dropped. She said she was looking forward to going home to read Harry Potter that night."

Celebrity interviews that take place during an activity like bowling sound good in theory. But often, they don’t allow you to find any rhythm with your interview subject. Especially when you have to compete for attention with their friends and bowling scoreboards. And usually, the idea for this kind of informal interview comes from their publicist or manager, not the artist.
But a fun setting does give the writer some color to play with. So after bowling, Aaliyah and I played the video game Time Crisis. She shot the pink gun, me the blue one; I don’t remember how many quarters we dropped. She said she was looking forward to going home to read Harry Potter that night.
We put our video game guns down and started walking toward the exit. I spotted a sticker booth, which was probably on the downslope of popularity in 2001. I think Aaliyah picked the theme. I have no idea where I may have stuck the missing stickers, but I’m happy I didn’t use all of them. I wish I didn’t have my sunglasses on my head. I wish I had smiled better, but truthfully I was pretty bad at doing that in photos back then. (I have no idea where I’m looking.)
And then there’s Aaliyah. Looking directly at the camera. Looking perfect. As always. Her smile looks genuine. She’s crouching down — maybe to make me look taller? We waited for the stickers to print. We hugged goodbye. I wasn’t sure if I had enough for a cover story. I wasn’t sure if I knew her any better than I did the day before. But the sticker photo would give me enough to tell this story, almost 19 years later."

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