By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 10, 2009; C01
Helena Andrews is 29, single, living in D.C., and might be the star of a black "Sex and the City" -- stylish, beautiful and a writer desperately in search of love in the city.
Andrews's life appears charmed: The film rights for her memoir, "Bitch Is the New Black," a satirical look at successful young black women living in Washington, were purchased before the book was finished. Shonda Rhimes, the executive producer of "Grey's Anatomy," is set to produce the film and Andrews will write the screenplay.
When Andrews pitched the book, she described it as part "Bridget Jones's Diary," part "Sex and the City." The book is to be published in June by Harper Collins.
"What I am trying to say about single black women in any urban environment is, you don't know them as well as you think you do. They may not know themselves as well as they think they do," Andrews says, seated at a table with a white tablecloth in a restaurant on U Street. Her appearance is flawless: She is wearing an ivory blazer and skinny jeans, her movie-star eyes glisten with shadow and her hair is cut in a fresh bob. Perfect. Image is everything. And it means nothing.
"The book was a time for me to step back and reflect," to capture the internal dialogue and the dialogue with girlfriends who are "caught in a quarter-life crisis." She is not talking about all young black women, but some. Revealing a story not oft told.
A lot of black women put up an exterior that says: "Everything is together. 'I'm fine. Perfect. Don't worry about me. Keep it moving.' That is the trend," Andrews says. "Put on new stilettos. Put on a mask of bitchiness." But that image -- prevalent in both the media and the workplace, Andrews believes -- is one-dimensional.
"When people think about black women, they have only one adjective for us, which is 'strong,' " Andrews says. "The girl you see walking down the street looks like she has it all together," but she may not.
A journalist who has written for Politico and The Root, Andrews says her book attempts to reveal what's behind the veneer. In a series of essays, Andrews documents the lives of so many young black women who appear to have everything: looks, charm, Ivy League degrees, great jobs. Closets packed full of fabulous clothes; fabulous condos in fabulous gentrified neighborhoods; fabulous vacations, fabulous friends. And yet they are lonely: Their lives are repetitive, desperate and empty. They are post-racial feminists who have come of age reaping the benefits of both the civil rights movement and the women's movement, then asking quietly: What next?
"Gone are the [college] days when friends are an elevator ride away, dinner plans are made on the way to somebody's hall, and Thursday is Friday or Friday is Thursday (who cares, you'll figure it out in Philosophy C203)," Andrews writes. "Soon enough, the little old lady living in a shoe is you -- and the rent is effin' unbelievable, and nobody comes to visit because you're too far from the Metro. Adulthood comes in little jigsaw pieces. Once the painstaking work of fitting them all together is done, the picture doesn't look nearly as cool as it did on the box."
Andrews writes about what it is like for a young, black woman dating in D.C., trying to find a mate who seems ever elusive. The futile rituals are familiar: the dressing up, the eager cab ride over to the party, the hold-your-breath as you walk in, scanning the room quickly for any looks returned. The mantra sounding in the back of your head: "So-and-so found a man last year at a party like this. Maybe tonight is my night." Then one by one, the men prove to be disappointments and disappointing: married, uninteresting or uninterested.
The disappointment as you end up at the bar once again, committing straw violence in your drink (stirring the drink frantically and unconsciously).
Andrews writes the truth of those nights. The truth is for too many, they never work out. Not for Andrews and not for her friend, Gina, who is a prominent character in her life and in the book.
"For a lot of black women, especially young successful black women, we have a lot of boxes on our master plan list checked off," Andrews says. "We think happiness should come immediately after that. But that is not always the case."
Love is much too hard to find and when these women do, it may go all wrong because of issues that are too complicated for statistics, Andrews says. She is quick to say, "There are tons of black families who are healthy and good." Even so, black women are more likely than white women to grow up poor or otherwise struggling financially; to be fatherless and to experience a myriad of other societal and/or familial dysfunctions. Ironically, the "issues" can also include being a "strong" woman: the can-do, opinionated type many black women become after growing up in a matriarchal household, the type with whom some men still just can't deal.
"I have tons of friends who are extremely successful lawyers and lobbyists, staffers on the Hill. They are great at what they do. They are in their late 20s and early 30s," Andrews says, sipping Ethiopian coffee. Her dog, Miles, is sitting beneath the restaurant table, whining softly.
"But there is loneliness at their jobs, because most likely they are the only black person there and people treat them like they are the only black person there. They dress a certain way. They go out on the weekend. . . . And still they end up going home, and it's you and your damned dog."Talking about a suitor
Andrews is presiding over a table at a chic restaurant, this one in downtown D.C., on a Saturday night. It is the kind of restaurant that is crowded not for the food but for the chance to see and be seen. Crowds are spilling out the door into the darkness of 14th Street. The once-desolate street is filled with beautiful people. Who knew this about Saturday night on 14th Street?
Andrews is speaking with two polished girlfriends, a lawyer and a political staffer, who didn't want to be named because of their jobs.
"I went on a date last night with Cornrows," Andrews says, using the nickname that her friends have given the man. "I got in his car and there was this strawberry smell fragrance. I had to roll the window down by hand. I assume it's paid for."
Cornrows, she says, seems nice, but that is the problem. "He can put together coherent sentences, but they are not in any way related to my life," she says. She laughs, but catches herself. She knows the man is trying hard. She also knows Cornrows doesn't stand a chance.
"I'm a mean woman. I don't date nice people. That's why I'll be alone for the rest of my life. I will always have to settle."
Staffer: "You need a man in your life. They come in handy for labor."
Andrews: "He offered to help me move. That was nice."
Lawyer: "He wasn't nice to offer. He just wants to get with you."
Andrews: "I don't find him attractive. If he was funny, that would go a long way. He could be my winter boo. I need a boo. My life sucks. When your life sucks, a winter boo with his own apartment would be awesome to have."
What is a winter boo? you ask.
And they explain a winter boo is someone you hook up with when it's cold outside, someone good enough to take to office holiday parties, someone who has a car and who can drive when the wind is whipping down the sidewalk.
"It's like a booty call, but it's not," Andrews says.
"It's like you like him enough to bring him out to public settings. They, like, serve a seasonal purpose."
But what happens in the summer, you ask.
"There is no such thing as a summer boo. You are supposed to be out. Be free."
"A winter boo doesn't know he's a winter boo," until summer comes and he has been set free.'Why is she single?'
The genesis of Andrews's book came from a conversation a few years ago between Andrews and Gina, a social scientist who lives in Los Angeles. They wanted to start a blog to explore "why black women can't find a man." The day she talked to an agent about this idea and pitched it as a book, one of her sorority sisters committed suicide.
It jarred Andrews. "We stopped. Discussed what happened. We think each other's lives are fine. You got a good job. A good place to live. You will handle it." But some people can't handle it. "She looked like any other successful black woman," Andrews says of her friend. , "Good clothes, stylish. Ivy League degree, master's." Nobody saw it coming. She won't discuss the details, but you can see it in her face, the mind racing over the why.
"People keep talking about the black single woman in D.C. But do you know who she is? Does she know what she wants? They should stop saying we have it all together. . . . I am that single black woman in Washington, D.C. Why is she single? This is who I am. Tell me."
Andrews' résumé is a snapshot of upward mobility. She graduated from Columbia University, majoring in English literature and creative writing, worked at O Magazine, then went to graduate school for journalism at Northwestern, and in 2005 landed as a news assistant in the New York Times Washington bureau. At the moment, she is not working, but waiting for all the deals to be sealed with the movie.
But there is more. Born in California, grew up on Catalina Island and in Los Angeles. Her mother is a lesbian. She has seen her father once, when she was 6 months old. When Helena was 7, her mother decided to move to Spain, but the girl's grandmother kidnapped her.
Is this a true story, you ask.
"Yes, it's my life story."
Helena's mother, Frances Vernell Andrews, 57, who lives in Stone Mountain, Ga., says in an interview that it is indeed a true story. When she read the book, "initially it was like walking down memory lane from my child's perspective. Initially she kept saying, 'Mommy, you can't read it. I am not showing it to anyone.' I had come up to Washington for Thanksgiving two years ago. I went on her laptop and e-mailed some of the chapters and read them when I got home. She didn't know initially. But I said I needed to know a little bit about what you are putting out there. But I was delighted. She is a terrific writer."
In the book, Andrews recalls the abduction. And her mother recalls the story, too. "We were on our way to Spain and my mother didn't feel I should go," Frances Andrews says. "She wanted me to stay and marry this man. She drove us to the airport and said, 'Go in and check your bags. The baby can wait.'
"I go in and get my boarding pass. I come out and my mom is gone. I thought she must be circling the block. I waited two hours. Then I gave up and went back to my mom's home and sat and waited. She came back without my daughter. She said, 'You need to settle down and stop chasing the world,' " says Frances Andrews. "I am a lesbian. My family thought I should not have had a child."
She promised her mother she would settle down. "Just bring me my child."
Her mother brought Helena back and Frances left town with her daughter for an island.All about attitude
Helena Andrews says she is a mean girl. That is where the title of the book comes from.
"It's much easier if you have a mask, 'Don't [expletive] with me.' Then you don't have to worry about office politics." She once asked a colleague, "Why does no one say hi to me in the morning?"
"Because you are a bitch," the colleague replied.
Andrews wasn't offended. That is her way of moving through the world. That way you don't get hurt, you mask any softness or weakness inside.
She doesn't look like one of those mean girls. Perhaps that is the point. Andrews has that innocent cheerleader, preppy look, even as she strolls her neighborhood of Northeast Washington, with her cute little black pug dog in her arms.
The homeboys on the sidewalk part like a sea to make room for her. A man rolls down the window and asks her to buy him a car. And she smiles. She turns around and smiles again. He has no idea who she is.