Mother Knows Best
Listen Up, Girlfriends! Mother Love Shares Her
She enters the room like a tornado—a combustible melange of passion, charisma, and a full zest for life. Whether you are a friend or foe, before you know it, you are captured in her warm embrace. Her presence radiates energy. Her mantra: "I live like it's my last day on the planet." That's Mother Love.
She recently moved back to Los Angeles from New York after being fired in November from the hit show, Forgive or Forget (Robin Givens replaced her and the show has since been canceled)—where guests either asked forgiveness or demanded an apology from someone with whom they had had a relationship. Mother Love was the firebrand host, guiding and chiding her guests along with a loving maternal voice. It seems that the producers had new development ideas about the show. She absolutely rejected them. "I wasn't willing to sacrifice Mother Love, what I've worked for and what I believe in, especially where people come to me for advice about their lives, their kids, their personal business, and young people come to me about their finances. I felt their ideas were crap. I spoke up. And they were like, 'Ok, well, you speak up, and you're fired. We're canceling your show.'"
This wasn't the first run-in between Mother Love and the television brass. In 1991, the Fox network had given Mother Love her own daytime variety show where she would welcome guests into her 'home." The Mother Love Show was only on five weeks in Los Angeles and one week in New York. What happened? This time she disagreed with the format of the show, and they dismissed her. "I have this problem about speaking up for what I believe. I don't know why people take offense to that," she bellows.
She is currently pounding the pavement for other projects while she pens two more books. Her newest was published last year called Mother Love Forgive or Forget—Never Underestimate the Power of Forgiveness. Kennedy, her husband of fifteen years (although they've been linked for twenty-eight), manages Mother Love's career along with their only child, Jahmal. It's a real family affair. For today's interview, Jahmal, twenty-three, is in tow alongside Mother Love's hair stylist and makeup artist to prep her for A&U's photo shoot.
Sitting on a bar-type stool, Mother Love's feet dangle while her hair and face are being fussed over. As she recalls the early days of the AIDS epidemic, Mother Love is distrubed that people didn't initially pay more attention to it. "As long as it was a gay man's disease, that was okay with them. Well, excuse me! This gay man has a family, he's got a momma and a daddy, he's got people that love him, he's got a bank account, so explain to me why he shouldn't have the same rights as anybody else." She leans back into the chair and folds her arms. "I had a lot of close gay friends—who were instrumental in my life—who were being careless and were dying. They used to say they died of cancer." The anger over their deaths propelled her to actively get involved with health issues and volunteer. "I miss their smiles, their nagging, our debates, and the quiet times. It sounds all so very, very selfish. I look at it from a selfish point of view because if I don't, it's not htat I would be complacent—'Well, it doesn't happen to anybody I know. It's not going to happen to me,'" she miimics as she strikes a pose.
Accepting death as a part of life, she deals with loss through her charitable works: participating in the opening of the AIDS quilt, performing standup for benefits, or staying active in the Regal Empress Showcase and Pageant which promotes the beauty of the plus-sized woman. Some of the proceeds of the event are allocated for the benefit of AIDS charities. Mother Love enjoys being a celeb because AIDS organizations will now contact her to perform. "I'm 'on-call' for all for them," she exclaims, adding that all public figures should give of their time to AIDS causes.
"To me, death is a transition. I'm not afraid of it. My turn is going to come although I want to do as much as I can beforehand. I don't focus on death because I can't change it," she says as she briefly looks up, cracking a smile. "I want to die atop my husband on the down stroke. I want to cum and go. I want to be cumming because I don't want to have that ugly look on my face that they can't get off when they're preparing me to show. I want to be a good-looking corpse," she says sternly. "And I'm going to have the first touring funeral—The Mother Love Death Tour." The makeup artist, who is applying Mother Love's eyelashes, hastily jumps in, rolls her eyes, and says, "I'll die first so I don't have to do the makeup!"
Mother Love seems to have this thing about funerals. In fact, she actually once had her sights set on being a mortician. And at one point in her career she would gussy up in a clown outfit and hire herself out to funerals. "The first three letters in the word are f-u-n," she reminds us.
Born in 1953, Mother Love (she chooses not to reveal her birth name) and her five siblings were raised by a widowed mother in the inner city of Cleveland. Attending Ohio State University she planned a career as a mortician. There she met her future husband, and left OSU when she became pregnant. She was on public assistance until 1979 when she landed a job driving a school bus. She would often cut-up and entertain her fellow employees. On a dare in 1984, she performed standup one night at a local biker bar. She won the cash prize of $25 and future club bookings. With this newfound confidence she quit driving a bus. Her resignation letter simply said, "I'm leaving to become a star."
The following year she hosted a local Cleveland radio show in the morning and at night. As her popularity grew, her brash wit attracted the attention of KFI radio in Los Angeles. In 1989, she began a late-night call-in show. It was an instant success. As her reputation grew, she became a sought-after guest on daytime talk television and an accomplished TV and film actor.
It was during her first book tour in 1995 for the publication of Listen Up, Girlfriends! Lessons on Life from the Queen of Advice that a dear family friend got an AIDS-related opportunistic infection. "This person didn't tell us that he had AIDS until he had a tube in his chest! When we finally saw him, he had lost seventy pounds, his hair was straight, and he had KS on his face. I was angry at him. I felt like he just cheated us. How dare he keep something so serious from us," she says. "I told him, 'You are that selfish? You wouldn't tell us so that we could help? And how dare you make your wife go through this alone. Who do you think you are?' And his reply: 'See, I knew you'd be the one to tell me off!'" Soon after, he died. "The more we keep quiet, the more dangerous [the AIDS epidemic] becomes. The only reason I'm sharing this story is because it has touched me so closely and it's been very difficult." She ponders a moment. "You know, there are more heterosexual women and men who are infected with HIV than I think they want to tell. Blacks are not listening to the call of AIDS prevention. They think it's a drug addict disease. A lot of them are in denial," she states sadly.
Mother Love now has a best girlfriend with AIDS, who is forty-four years old, has two "beautiful" children, and was infected by her husband, who used intravenous drugs. He didn't tell her until he had full-blown AIDS. Mother Love says that her girlfriend knew her husband was using dope and could have worn a condom but it seems she was in denial. Soon after diagnosis, she told Mother Love, "You're one of my only few friends who has not changed toward me. You still call me. You still come over. You will hug and kiss me, still love my kids, and still drink out of my glasses." Mother Love's eyes visibly fill with tears as she barely speaks, "And I never even thought about that." Tears flow down her cheeks. "And she told me, 'Don't cry. Don't cry for me. Take the tears and make them joyful. Let's remember all the fun stuff we did—how drunk we used to get, and all the men we used to pick up.'" She was taking the cocktails but had built up an immunity, so the doctors altered medications and now it's become too expensive. "She has her good days and she has her bad days, but we know she's dying," says Mother Love.
AIDS has been so much a part of Mother Love's life that she most certainly addressed it on the home front. When her son Jahmal was nine, his curiousity was piqued when the subject of sex came up at school, so he probed for more information at home. "His first question was, 'You got AIDS?' I said, 'No, we don't have AIDS, dear.' But he also thought I was born a slave!" She laughs briefly then assumes a Southern slave accent and says something so fast that it's incomprehensible. Jahmal overhears her from where he sits and begins to chuckle. "No, we sat down and talked about AIDS, and how it is contracted. I told him what I knew. At that time, Ryan White had contracted AIDS and that's why they were discussing it in school. So, since Ryan was a kid, it meant something to Jahmal. Ryan was only a few years older than Jahmal." Jahmal is in repose not far away so I turn and ask, "How was the topic of AIDS handled with you?" "Straight to the point. Whatever questions I asked, I got the right answers without any sugar coating," he says in his soft, laid-back demeanor.
Recently, Mother Love heeded the call of the Rancho Cucamonga school board, which was struggling to get someone famous to come and speak openly about HIV/AIDS and STDs to their students. It seems no one was brave enough to do so. Mother Love did. "This is 2000. What is wrong with you all?" She yells like a carnival barker. "How many people gotta die? How many people gott suffer before you wake up? It's just like black people and the environment. 'Ah, I don't have to be environmentally conscious'—I say, what planet are you livin' on? Excuse me, the Exxon Valdez was spilled in the same water that your bone head...." She shakes her head dismissively, not finishing her thought. Mother Love is so excited her brisk speech becomes garbled, as if her mind is working so fast her mouth can't keep up. "They don't listen!"
Mother Love's skill in relating to kids is that she approaches them as a peer, not as someone who is preachy. "I'm wrong if I don't stop and tell them what I know. I can't make them use a condom, but it is my duty to tell them condoms are out there. And I can give them condoms or tell them where to get some," she says, then morphs into a sweet, high-pitched, high school girl: "Fruit flavor or regular? I just like the way they taste." She stops herself to explain the source of these frivolities, saying, "Oh that was my evil twin."
Without warning Mother Love reenacts her talk before a group of students. "'Bangin'! It ain't all it's cracked up to be, now is it? We tried to tell ya to put the jimmy-hat on. Now that you're HIV-positive you want to keep from getting full blown AIDS. Put the jimmy-hat on! Matter of fact, put two. Here I've got a whole string of 'em. You like cherry? Ya like vanilla? You see, Mother Love don't have to have safe sex because I've got a husband. I decided I was goig to do some serious bonin',' and they're kind of like, 'Oh my god, she's talking about sex.'
"'Yea, and I can do it way better than all of ya put together, so don't even try it. I know what I'm talking about. Listen to what I'm telling you. Now, I'm gonna tell you this sutff that your mother wouldn't tell you. I know it feel good. I know why they tell you to stay away from that boy' cause he knows how to put that bang in.' And by this time the teacher is [in shock], but I don't cuss and I don't get graphic."
She continues: "These kids know exactly what I'm talking about. They know that I'm concerned about them. And this is what I tell them: 'Listen, I need you to take care of yourself for a very selfish reason. I plan on living to be nine hundred and twelve and I need you to be livin' to take care of my old cantankerous butt. Don't deprive us of the talent that you have. Don't be selfish with yourself. Come on, now. I know you're probably mad at your daddy because you don't know where he is and your momma's on crack and your sister's probably a ho. But hey, get with the program. Nobody owes you anything. What you owe yourself is a responsible life and to be a viable, productive member of society. And no, they're going to give you all the pooh-pooh, chi-chi version. I'm gonna tell you real. I'm going to tell you raw. I'm gong to tell you straight. Ya might not like it, but it's the truth.'"
She pauses, acts as though she has stepped out and is looking back at herself. "An interviewer once asked me if I overcompensate because I'm so gregarious—I'm always doing something. I told him. I don't believe you can overcompensate for life. There's no such thing as overcompensating when you honestly love what you do. And I love people."
Mother Love's personal commitment, fueled by strongly held beliefs and limitless energy, has made her a unique and powerful communicator. If you don't get her message though, she may have to knock you upside the head—lovingly, of course. She's warm and giving, blunt, crude, and in-your-face. She's your harshest critic and your staunchest defender. That's what a mother's love is all about.