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Androgyny, gender-bending and breaking the binaries of expression are nothing new in the Black community. From Moms Mabley to disco icon Sylvester to supermodel Grace Jones, there have been many to break down the barriers of traditional gender roles. But that was then. Every generation needs its own icon, and for millennials, that would be EJ Johnson.
Though one could draw a direct line from RuPaul to Johnson, the reality star and sports scion is a first of his kind for his generation. The 24-year-old took the hyper-masculine boundaries gently pushed by hip-hop and R&B and shattered them entirely, reimagining the rules of fashion and gender with zero apologies — and became a social media star in the process.
On the rooftop of the Sky Lounge in Manhattan for his first-ever BET.com interview, EJ was poised in black leather pants, a deep-v black blouse and full-blown beat face. He was everything you might imagine in his epic high heels, towering over all of us like a cross between Storm and Catwoman. We sat down for an hour-long interview during a press run for his E! reality show, EJNYC, to discuss things he cares deeply about — racism, homophobia, HIV and liberation. This is EJ beyond the fashion and glamour, a person the media and blogs rarely see.
Q: New York frees so many people. How did New York City liberate you?
I think that New York liberated me in the sense that I moved here when I was 18, so it was a fresh perspective on life. I had been living in LA my whole life and I had never lived anywhere else, so being away from family and really making a name for myself was huge for me. I didn’t have so much of my family’s name or my family’s backing here. I could do what I wanted to do, immerse myself into the culture the way that I saw fit. It really was just so far left from everything I had done before. So I really had my own moment, and that’s what made it amazing.
Q: You attended NYU, what was that experience like?
It was great. I liked walking down the street, not being noticed. People really take that for granted. I miss those days when I could just walk around under the radar and no one really knew who I was until I wanted them to know. So it was really liberating. Now it’s completely different. I get noticed everywhere I go, but I still love it. I still love that about New York because you can’t walk down the street in LA and not get noticed. I can at least walk a few blocks here without being noticed in certain parts of the city.
Q: Your show, EJNYC, is one of the few reality shows that’s not completely ratchet with hair pulling and fighting.
Well, that just isn’t my reality. That was never anything that I grew up with, so I think that would have been just really foreign. It’s not a reality that I’ve ever lived. I mean, it’s entertaining, of course, but it’s just not me and it’s certainly not us. I could never imagine Morgan [Stewart, his #RichKids of Beverly Hills co-star] pulling someone’s hair out but, you know, for whoever’s reality it is, that’s them and our show is completely different. It’s very much us as we grew up and how we relate to each other.
Q: You being who you are, being so open, has inspired a lot of people. Who is someone that inspired you?
Actually, we didn’t have anyone that was really that open about it. Obviously, people had come out, but it didn’t really resonate with me, like it didn’t push me. I think that all of our journeys are different and I certainly had my journey because it happened and I pushed myself for that. In high school, I listened to Lady Gaga and I was really obsessed with just being who you are and owning that experience — she was a really big inspiration in that aspect to me and my friends, who were young and growing up, and making our way through the city and the world. She was very much a huge part of my culture growing up in like 2009 and 2010.
Q: There’s been all this discussion about your gender expression. How would you describe your gender identity?
I don’t really identify any specific way. I know there’s a lot of terms and things like that that are going on but I just do me and that’s all I can really say about myself. I wear what I want to wear and I do what I want to do and I think everyone should do that. I think everyone should just live life the way that you want to live it and if you identify as some certain way or as some certain gender term that makes you comfortable, then by all means use it and own it. For me, I just live fluid. I just do me and there’s really no other way to explain it.
Q: You don’t identify as male or female?
I certainly identify as male but I still wear what I want to wear and do what I want to do, and that may confuse some people but I just, uh, do me.
Q: I’ve heard people say that if you were a regular Black kid living in Los Angeles, you wouldn’t be able to be who you are — that you have freedom because you came from privilege. What’s your reaction to that?
Well, I always say that obviously we never choose who our parents are or how we grew up. I certainly do not have that privilege because no one does, but I grew up the way I grew up and I don’t really defend that. I am really blessed to grow up the way that I did. My story is my story. I can’t say that would be any different if I grew up in a different neighborhood or with different parents or without privilege. I can only attest to the way that things happened for me. I think that it doesn’t really matter how much money you have or what privileges you have, I think as long as you have a good foundation and at least a good background and support from your family and friends you can have just as much freedom as anyone else. Unfortunately, some people aren’t blessed with that and that’s a problem, obviously. I think that’s more of an issue than having money. I think that it’s more difficult when you have a community that doesn’t support you and I think that’s where the problem lies.
Q: Do you experience homophobia?
Oh, certainly. People write terrible things on my social media all the time — every day. You just can’t escape it. It doesn’t bother me because I’m still living my truth and living my life. It’s not going to hinder me from doing me, but it’s just sad that people are so disturbed by something that they feel the need to make ugly comments and think they’re going to break me down. Why is me living my life keeping you up at night? You need to be getting your eight hours because I get mine, regardless of what you’re saying. Like, I’m sleeping and waking up cute! [Laughs] So what’s your problem?
Q: How does racism show itself in your life?
Yeah, racism, not so much. We’ve come across little random tidbits maybe, obviously when I’m in different parts of the world and other countries, things are different because they don’t see Black people, as in African-Americans, doing what we do because in some of those other countries that I’ve visited there are a lot of Africans, or people from different parts of the world, who really don’t have what we have in this country, which is so amazing. Here [U.S.] I do not experience that much racism, I feel like that’s probably more prevalent before I was born.
Q: In the LGBT community, there is a phrase, “no fats, no femmes.” What are your thoughts when you hear that term?
I mean, it’s just concerning, I guess, but it’s weird because I just feel like we’re all still getting ours. Whether you’re feminine or not, I do fine! [Laughs] I know other queens who do great. It’s just weird that we judge each other like that. I feel like we really need to stick together. In a world where you don’t really know what’s going to happen and when there’s so much discrimination to fight, why are we discriminating against ourselves? Everyone has their preference, obviously, but I just feel like we shouldn’t discriminate based on how someone acts or what they look like.
Q: In dating, do you have a type?
No, I don’t have a specific type. For me, it’s like, I know when I meet a guy, it’s instant — I’m like, “this one.” There’s something special, there’s something unique about this man and I feel like it’s something that I should explore and figure out what’s going on. Nine times out of 10, those situations, they work. It’s the ones where I’m like, “Well, I don’t really know,” that don’t work out as well.
Q: You obviously come from an iconic family. Do you have the legacy of your parents always in the back of your mind as you navigate through fame?
Yeah, but I think it just motivates me to create my own legacy. I don’t really think that it’s daunting or scary in the way that I feel like I need to be on that level because my path is completely different than my dad’s. I think that I’m really blessed because I don’t feel the pressure to necessarily meet him on that level because I’m not taking that sports and business path. I’m just doing me.
Q: When I interviewed RuPaul a few years ago, we talked about the intersection of Blackness and being androgynous. He said he felt much more embraced by white people than Black people. Has that been your experience?
I honestly feel like it’s half and half. I feel like because of my dad, and his roots are so implanted in the African-American community, a lot of that love has filtered over. But at the same time, you know, obviously we know Black people have strong ties to religious beliefs — so there’s also that judgment. I went to a predominantly white high school and elementary school, so I grew up with a large concentration of white people. So I’ve always gotten a lot of love and support from white people. I have a lot of amazing white friends, so it’s just half and half. I feel like I’m not completely hated by the Black community but at the same time I feel a lot of love — then the other half, no.
Q: The rumor is that you are transitioning. Is there any truth to that?
I think because of everything going on in the media, everyone is quick to throw around that word. I think that certainly trans people are having a wonderful time, I think this is their revolution and people are learning about their culture and what’s going on and what it means to transition and why. I think that’s really great and really wonderful that they’re having this time in society, but at the same time that doesn’t mean that everyone is transitioning. So, I am not transitioning! If I do decide, I will let everyone know so don’t worry! [Laughs] Just because I play in men and women’s wears does not mean I’m transitioning. I think people are so quick to throw that word around because they think they understand it now because we’re having this revolution for the trans community.
Q: Yes, but you do realize you are one of the first people to do this in your generation? A young Black man in the public eye who plays with gender norms.
Well that’s true, that’s very true. When I think of that, I think if there was ever a time to do it, it’s now. I think we’ve come a long way, and I think about that all the time actually. What if I was born five years before or what if I was born 10 years before? What would I be like? Would I still be doing what I’m doing, would it be harder to get where I am now? I think everything happens for a reason and I think that now is the time to do what I’m doing and I’m fortunate that I’m in a world where I can do what I want to do and walk down the street in whatever I want to wear and break those walls down.
Q: According to the CDC, half of gay and bisexual Black men will be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetimes. As a young black man, when you hear stats like that for your community, how does it make you feel?
Wow, I had no idea that, well, I guess, gotten worse. Yeah, I guess we just really need to educate ourselves. I don’t know why it’s just our community that happens to be so affected. Why isn’t every community having this problem? I don’t really know what to say or why that would be, but I would say that we need to continue that conversation and continue to educate people of the dangers of unprotected sex.
Q: For a young boy reading this on BET.com, living in Mississippi or Georgia…
Get out! No, I’m just kidding. [Laughs]
Q: If there’s an EJ inside of that boy, he knows it might be dangerous to let that out, he can’t wear what he wants to wear, what do you say to that young person?
I say dance around in your closet when no one is looking until the time is right. Try your hardest to work towards getting to a place within yourself or the country where you can go and express yourself and come back and tell your story. I think that if getting out is really the only way to be able to live your life then that’s something to think about. And not like running away without anything, but if you can go to school somewhere else or live with somebody else, maybe think about that, but also just make sure you’re safe. That’s something my dad always told me: Make sure you check your surroundings and be you, do you, but make sure you’re not putting yourself in dangerous situations where you could get hurt.
I always remember that. He told me when I first moved here, “We obviously love you and support you but there are a lot of ignorant and stupid people in the world.” That’s also something that resonated with me, as many as there are great and wonderful supportive people in the world, there are just as many stupid, ignorant and disgusting people in the world. You have to have your own back and know who those people are and where they are and how to act around them or maneuver yourself around them. You shouldn’t stifle yourself in any regard, but just know you might have to deal with something by being around people like that.