Coincidence had two dissimilar women sentenced to jail time on Wednesday. New York Times reporter Judith Miller was incarcerated for refusing to reveal the name of a source. And rap entertainer Lil' Kim was given one year and a day for the crime of perjury.
Both of them had to walk through a gantlet of media on their way into and out of the courtroom. Miller's media march took place in Washington. The rapper, whose real name is Kimberly Jones, endured hers in Manhattan. There is no way to know what sort of turmoil each may be dealing with in private, but the manner in which they publicly presented themselves, upon hearing the news that they were going to the pokey, was a telling shorthand to their supporters.
For Miller, this was a day of reckoning. It was her final ensemble before heading off to jail, where her clothes will no longer be an expression of individuality but rather the loss of it. For Jones, who will not be imprisoned until September, Wednesday began the slow dismantling of the elaborate image she has constructed. A little less makeup, not so much hairspray, a little less glitz. Get the fans ready.
Jones emerged from Manhattan federal court dressed in a blue-gray blazer and trim trousers with a simple white blouse. A belt with a large decorative buckle hung low around her hips. She was carrying a rather large blue Louis Vuitton handbag -- Le Fabuleux. It is $3,200 worth of goatskin and brass hardware that says "fabulous." One can imagine that a cell phone, a lipstick and a tin of Altoids make up its entire contents.
Jones's hair, which during her trial was often worn in a prim bun or sweet ringlets, hung loose and straight down her back. Her jaw was set. She did not look angry or sad as much as she looked resigned. (Indeed, her face displayed more emotion when she arrived -- and before punishment had been meted out -- and she had to squeeze through the crowd to get into the courthouse.) To use a description often used in the context of hip-hop, Jones looked hard. She released a statement in which she thanked her fans for their support and noted that her prison sentence was just one more hurdle in her short but difficult life. No worries; she would persevere.
In contrast, Miller arrived at U.S. federal district court dressed in black trousers, a quilted black jacket, a yellow shirt and tortoise frame sunglasses. She was clutching a wad of papers and the usual wireless, digital gear. She was also carrying a black shoulder bag whose most distinguishing feature was its ability to keep a multitude of writing tools within easy reach. In essence, it was an elaborate form of pocket protector. Miller was smiling. It was a pleasant smile. And it was still spread across her face as she was driven off to jail.
The women seemed acutely aware that the sentencing walk -- like its predecessor, the perp walk -- defines them in the public's mind. In its execution, it is not enough to stand straight and hold one's head high. This is a powerful visual image capable of conveying subtleties and broad strokes. Both women were playing to their fans.
For Jones, prison time may not be particularly easy, but it will likely have no ill effect on her career. Rap fans typically don't mind a star with a shady past. (See Billboard's "Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles and Tracks" for the name 50 Cent.) For a performer such as Jones who has built her career on the image of gangster girls and sex queens, spending some time in prison will only add to the realism of her story line. The prison term seems less an ordeal than a right of passage.
Jones stepped before the cameras with a perfect blend of flamboyance and toughness, with just a hint of a martyr complex for emotional spice. Her attire was far more subdued than her stage costumes would have suggested possible. But there was still a bit of celebrity ostentation on display with her color-coordinated handbag that announces itself from 50 paces. Jones was appropriately dressed for court, but she was still identifiably Lil' Kim.
Miller looked like she was dashing into the courthouse on her way to an interview. As much as Jones stood out, Miller blended in. The cameras made her the center of attention, but she was dressed to be a fly on the wall. She was wearing the sort of practical, comfortable and just-stylish-enough clothes that can be worn in any situation, never looking quite right but never looking too terribly wrong either. With her sensible pageboy and its trim bangs, she has the look of an English lecturer at Barnard. Her quilted jacket speaks of Barbour and the Upper East Side. And the black reads like a nod to glamour and chic and the thing that proclaims: I'm a New Yorker and not some well-to-do lady from Chicago. Her style shouts smart, organized and efficient. But mostly, it is flexible. She wore reporter clothes -- almost a suit, but not really.
Miller has made it clear that she is going to jail to make a point -- she will protect her sources. And so her style plaintively cries out: The news is not me; it's the principle. But that smile and those sunglasses -- don't celebrities always wear sunglasses when they're pretending to hide? -- suggest an unavoidable truth. It is about her as well. Of course it is. She is the one ducking the cameras. She is the one who will sit in jail. She is the reporter whose stature will be elevated in the eyes of her fans for defending a source's anonymity.
Jones was wrong to lie and Miller may or may not be right to stand her ground. But both of them sent all the right messages to their supporters. And both of them may well be rewarded.