Maggie McCleary, the At-Home Shopping Network host turned ruler of a media empire spearheaded by her popular daytime talk show Going McCleary, stepped out onto the stage to the delight of her studio audience, most of whom were standing and all of whom were applauding. McCleary, known for what was often described as her “fabulous tan,” grinned, her flawless white teeth nearly blinding under the lights and in juxtaposition to her bronzed skin, and also joined her fans in clapping. “Mags” did so with her hands above her head, putting her orange palms—a side-effect of the “Tanwipes” line of self-tanning moist towelette products she formerly hawked for AHSN and in which she now owned considerable stock—together in a largely performative fashion as her big cheesing grin yielded to a thinner smile.
“Wow!” she first mouthed, then said audibly, though largely drowned out by the bombastic music that played over her entrance coupled with the applause and ebullient cheers and vocalizations of the audience. The music faded and the crowd noise along with it. Maggie repeated another, fuller-throated “wow!” before launching into her opening monologue proper.
“Em-Em” was known for, in addition to the aforementioned deep dark tan (“darker than a trillion midnights”), her “folksy charm” and “authenticity” which doubled as the defense offered on her behalf by her “fans and stans” on the not-infrequent occasions when she misspoke—either in the form of botching the reading of the teleprompter during her monologue, or raised some segment of the public’s hackles with an inappropriate remark, as when she’d said she didn’t feel safe letting “her babies” have the measles vaccine because she didn’t “want to be a retard-baby’s mommy.”
McCleary was known, though, as the “Teflon Mom,” in addition to her numerous other appellations, because she’d survived this and a number of other such incidents and come out smelling like roses, both figuratively and literally, as one of her most profitable ventures was her “Maggie’s Little Red Roses” skin-softening moisturizing lotion, a product she slathered all over her body—most of all her golden-brown legs, giving them a sheen worthy of a freshly waxed floor—to the degree that the uninitiated meeting “Mags” for the first time had on more than one occasion been rendered severely light-headed. At least one individual had even passed out as a result of the smothering effect of her fragrance.
Since her fortune had eclipsed the half-billion mark, Maggie had taken great pains to do a bit of a tweaking to her brand; it seemed that the tides were turning somewhat with respect to what the viewing public valued in its media personalities. One’s authenticity was less important and, more, not as desirable, as one’s perceived “empathy.” “Mags’” market research team had shown this time and again. After she’d canned the lot of them in a profanity-laced tirade, the new team had reluctantly reported the same. As a result, “Mags” had contracted the “take artists” at Moustache Publishing to ghost-write a memoir for her, detailing a litany of personal triumphs and tragedies designed to showcase what she’d been assured—guaranteed, in fact; owing to her background in the home-shopping rackets, “Double M” insisted on a “100% Money Back Guarantee” of satisfaction in all her contracts, even and especially when her battery of attorneys told her it was a meaningless addition that served only to put the entire deal at risk. “Suck my ass when it’s bleeding!” she’d hissed before throwing the “Ultimate Pedikit” in which she’d been soaking her feet at the head of a paralegal, missing the mark but blinding the poor woman in one eye when what turned out to be the toxic foot-water splashed in her face—was the absolute ideal mixture of authenticity, determination, sass and empathy.
The “McMistress of Media” was riding high—so high, in fact, that she’d succeeded where so many others had failed, by snagging the first interview with singer/performer Jayla Ba-Bing! (the exclamation point, or “loudy,” as Jayla called it, was a part of her moniker, and was intended to convey “the excitement everyone should feel” when they saw her or heard her sing) since her return from a spiritual retreat and accompanying 72-hour “social media blackout.” The country and world were abuzz and aflame; they wanted... needed to know what new wisdom the visionary performer who had brought them such classics as “I Like Boyz (Luv U Bebe)” and “Dance Dance Dance (Dance!)” would now impart upon them after what was rumored, via strategically timed official press release by Jayla’s stepfather/manager Neville Copenhagen, to have been an “utterly transformative experience on retreat.”
The whole world was watching and waiting with bated breath. After delivering her monologue, which included her own rendition of an “I Like Boyz” send-up called “I Like Dogz (Luv My Doggo),” dedicated to her oft-mentioned and frequently featured Cocker Spaniel, Murphy, Maggie took her seat in the mock-living room set’s lilac armchair and gave Jayla Ba-Bing! an enthusiastic introduction.
Jayla stepped out into the bright lights of the studio to the tune of one of her own hits, “Da Kween,” smiling and waving to the audience members, who were applauding and cheering. She’d been noted, early on, as a “pathbreaker for full-figured pop stars” for weighing a reported 130 pounds at a height of 5’5,” which some women had hastened to point out was merely a normal, healthy weight for a woman of Ba-Bing!’s height, in the interest of shedding light on the industry’s and media’s continued perpetuation of harmful standards for women’s weights, only to be shouted down on social media and the like for “disrespecting Da Kween” and “dismissing her lived experience with abliest [sic] and misogynist [sic] hate” and so forth. One such woman who’d urged those in the media to promote more realistic, healthier standards for female bodies was former “it girl” Boogie Crackerjack, who found herself on the receiving end of a targeted social media assault for her troubles, bombarded with messages ranging from short exhortations of “bitch KYS” and “u mad dusty old ass ho” to multi-part “takedown threads” from “Jayladies” demonstrating the downward trajectory of Ms. Crackerjack’s career and life, as well as detailing her rumored numerous elective surgeries (presented as fact).
Jayla, dressed in a manner that might be described as affectedly casual, in an oversized “The Clash” t-shirt and very short pre-fab jean cut-offs with a number of safety pins and chain accoutrements, as well as a pair of what looked like cheap flip-flops one might purchase for a few dollars at a beachfront store but were in fact custom-made by the designer and influencer MARGET for more than $700,000, walked over to Maggie. The two women hugged with their bodies as far apart as possible under the conditions and then each pantomimed kissing both cheeks of the other before sitting down as the music and, somewhat after, the cheers and applause, faded. Jayla sat on the loveseat opposite “Double M’s” armchair, her legs tucked up under her bottom, while Maggie sat cross-legged, moving her dangling left foot in a series of circular and semi-circular motions.
“Great to see you, Jayla! You look great! Really great.”
Jayla smiled and brushed a strand of hair back, only to let it fall back to where it had been before, having been styled for the purpose of appearing unconsciously out of place. “Thanks.”
Maggie’s own smile thinned at the pleasantry not being reciprocated. “I like your nails,” she remarked. Her smile grew as Jayla looked at the nails in question, which were only partly covered by a metallic blue polish. Maggie then cannily scratched her chin with the immaculately groomed, red-polished nail of her own forefinger.
Jayla’s smile remained. “Oh, yeah, I haven’t felt like going to get them done since, you know, like, I went on retreat and got, like, a new perspective on some stuff. Acrylic nails just don’t feel important with all that’s going on in the world, you know? People dying arr-enn and all.”
Maggie’s smile again tightened. “Yes, that’s,” she sort of flicked the sharp red nail against the tip of her thumb, “That’s true—it’s important to have perspective.” Despite the concession, though, “Mags” added: “But self-care is important, too.”
“Totally,” Jayla agreed, sounding both bored and in total agreement at once.
Sensing that this was shaping up to be a dud in the vein of her infamous and infamously boring interview with former Cubs and Astros catcher (with 10-home run pop) Scott Servais, “Mags” decided to take a new tack rather than pursuing needless nail-based vengeance. “Everyone has really been curious about your retreat and especially your ‘going ghost’ on your social media accounts. Isn’t that right, y’all?” Maggie solicited the help of her stans, signalling for their enthusiastic assent via the use of the folksy “y’all.” Nine out of 10 industry pundits agreed “Em-Em” was the best at saying “y’all,” which some attributed to her having lived in Chattanooga for seven months some years earlier.
“Oh. Well, like,” Jayla began, perking up a bit. “It started off that I just wanted to get some rest after how hard I’d worked on the album and stuff, but then I felt like, you know, I wanted to get back in touch with, you know, my roots and my heritage and, like, a more normal life but also spiritual?”
Maggie nodded, employing a more earnest expression now. “Yeah, girl, my spirituality is something very near and dear to my heart,” she said, beginning to finger the very large 18-karat gold, diamond-accented crucifix pendant that dangled from the rope chain around her neck. “If we don’t make time for God, we can’t expect Him to make time for us,” she added, looking to the crowd to signal it was time for them to clap and cheer, which they did.
Jayla sipped water from the coffee mug she now held and “mm-hmmed.” Swallowing and then patting the sides of the mug idly with her palms she responded, “Yeah, like, I’m not Christian but I love all religions.”
Maggie briefly looked as though she’d caught wind of an offending odor but, ostensibly channeling strength and professionalism from the now more vigorous digital manipulation of her cross, inquired, “How would you describe your beliefs, hon’?” “Hon’” was another term “Mags” was considered to be an expert at deploying, much the way she was heralded for “giving good y’all,” and the same way Scott Servais had been known for “calling a good game.”
“Oh. Hmm, well, it’s super personal and complicated. I don’t know if, like, y’all would understand,” Jayla said after some thought. “I guess I would say I’m spiritual but not, you know, religious.”
Maggie stopped playing with her crucifix, and took a sip from a coffee mug, filled with Irish coffee. “I think something—well, I know—people are gonna bite my darn head off about if I don’t ask is why, considering how important to your rise to success it’s been, you took such a long break from social media?” Maggie put her chin on her fist and leaned forward a bit, only to add quickly, gesturing wildly with her hands: “72 hours! Millions of your fans were going... going nuts!” she laughed loudly.
Jayla laughed a bit and smiled thinly. “Mags” re-set to her chin-on-fist, forward-leaning posture, an intense, hyper-focused quality to her green-eyed (colored contacts) gaze.
“Oh, yeah,” Jayla giggled softly. “Sorry, y’all, I know some of y’all folks were worried and wondering what was up and stuff,” she said in a total non-answer.
Maggie seemed reluctant to speak, expecting something further, but when it became clear that nothing was forthcoming, she shifted her posture and said, “Well, I think I speak for all the folks in our audience here and at home that we’re glad you’re back and have gotten some good perspective.”
“Mm-hmm, yeah, I totally have, and I’m just, like, not into fakeness anymore. Hashtag can’t fake it,” Jayla said with a bit of vitality.
Encouraged and intrigued by this uptick in her otherwise disinterested guess, Maggie decided to put to use the conversation-steering skills she’d often employed when some sauced-up jewelry addict had called AHSN and started rambling about something nonsensical. “I hear you there, girl!” she exclaimed, leaning forward to clasp Jayla’s considerably lighter hand in her own bronze one, laughing a bit in so doing. Withdrawing, she followed up: “That’s one of the reasons it’s so important to stay connected to family and friends in this business.”
“Yeah, like, I know people think it’s all glitz and glamour for me but, you know, I’m just a regular girl at heart, you know? Like, if I was super image focused I wouldn’t be dressed like this, you know?” she offered, standing suddenly to gesture at her aforementioned affectedly casual attire, parts of which were, as also aforementioned, custom made.
“Mags” reached over to fix Jayla’s oversized Clash shirt, which had gotten bunched up somehow. Specifically, she had discreetly bunched it up at some earlier point to better accentuate how thoroughly unconcerned she was with such things, image and all that.
The interview persisted in this agonizing, unsubstantial manner, with Jayla answering one of the questions her stepfather/manager had negotiated for her to be asked, “What type of guys do you usually date? Can a regular guy just ask you out?” in the rehearsed, casually authentic fashion by saying, “Totally, yeah, as long as he’s a nice guy, you know? Hashtag being mean is bad,” which led to “#beingmeanisbad” joining “#can’tfakeit” and “#regularkween” among the day’s top trends on Twitter, not to mention a cab driver who’d been watching the show on his break being beaten into a coma by Jayla’s battalion of bodyguards when he’d foolishly attempted to approach and ask her out from what seemed a safe distance of a couple of dozen feet. When Pulitzer-winning journalist Oscar Berkman had asked whether the cabbie could simply have been pepper-sprayed or subdued with a chokehold rather than beaten to a pulp with a number of blackjacks and billyclubs, he was pilloried by the “Jayladies,” who urged his paper to fire him due to his being a “misogynist” who “advocated literal sex slavery for Jayla.”
There was widespread agreement that both Berkman and the cabbie, by then read his Last Rites, needed education on proper manners. Berkman’s Pulitzer was shortly afterward rescinded and given to Jayla, whose bravery was said to exemplify the purpose of good journalism far better than what was described by the Pulitzer organization as Berkman’s “boilerplate reporting on some boring ‘lead in the Schenectady water supply’ story or something.”
For her part, Maggie McCleary saw her already huge media profile, not to mention her bankroll, grow further in the aftermath of the Ba-Bing! interview. In spite of this, she was said to be furious at what she saw as Jayla’s using her “authenticity gimmick” to increase her profile, after McCleary had been assured—100% guaranteed, you’ll recall—that authenticity essentialism was on the outs and empathy reductionism was in. The lawsuit she threatened Moustache Publishing with for violating their deal was going to be too expensive for the publishing house to even attempt to fight, so they settled out of court for the value of the contract, $475,000 for Maggie’s “emotional distress,” and took the step Maggie had demanded of having the man responsible for ghost-writing the memoir championing her supposedly ideal blend of authenticity and empathy, J. Brian Powell, work for Papa John’s Pizza as a pizza boy. He was ordered to deliver his tip earnings and a dozen boxes of the pizza chain’s signature garlic butter sauce cups every week.
Well, that’s what happened on my trip up the Coast! Hope all is well with you, Lanton and the twins! Give them a squeeze and a kiss for me. Love and miss you all very much.