On the sets of the hip-hop videos she appeared in, Karrine Steffans was the dancer who never said no. Wear gold star pasties? Sure. Add chaps, and an ostrich-skin, rear-exposing thong? No problem. But that was a few years and a vulgar nickname ago.
Today, to hear her tell it -- and she has in a very public and frank way -- Steffans is not that woman anymore. At 26, she is a best-selling Los Angeles author who has set the hip-hop world talking with her controversial memoir, "Confessions of a Video Vixen." And as she strolls through the lobby of the Omni Berkshire hotel on her way to yet another promotional event, she looks almost conservative. Not Liz Claiborne conservative but conservative for a woman who claims to have spent much of her early twenties hopping from one hip-hop heavy hitter to the next. She's now dating Bill Maher. Yes, that Bill Maher.
Flanked by her book publicist and bodyguard, Steffans is clad in a black button-down, Express jeans and black open-toed high heels. Her mop of blond hair seems to be the only holdover from her video days. This morning she sat down with British Elle. The night before, she signed books for about 250 people. Later, there is an interview with Television New Zealand and a panel discussion with Iman at the Harlem Book Fair.
First-time authors rarely get that kind of love. And they surely don't make it into the popular comic strip, "Boondocks," where one of the characters condemned Steffans for telling tales out of school and then wondered where he could pick up a copy. Readers no doubt buy or browse the book for gossip about Steffans's dalliances with some of hip-hop's most famous artists. Flipping through the pages, it's clear that the gang is all there.
P. Diddy. Ja Rule. DMX.
And from each of them, when asked through a spokesman or manager about the relationships Steffans alleges in her book: No comment, no comment and no comment.
Her book has been out for a month and her interviews in most urban radio markets have pushed people into the stores, and pushed the book up bestseller lists. It's risen to No. 3 on The Washington Post's list of area bestsellers and No. 7 on the New York Times's. Her publisher says 110,000 copies have been shipped, and the book is going into its sixth print run.
Just what Steffans's motives are has been the hot topic in beauty and barber shops all across the country. But what she sounds like, en route to a panel discussion about beauty at the Harlem Book Fair, is a budding social activist. In her view, with her groupie-gone-good tales of hip-hop's seedy underbelly, she is following in the footsteps of rappers like Lauryn Hill, Eve and Queen Latifah.
"We know what happens to little black boys that have no dads, we've heard that, we get it," Steffans said. "But no one is really saying that young women who are born without fathers have real serious issues especially when their mother had no father and the mother has issues. . . . When I talk about it, people are actually listening."
In her memoir, Steffans lays out the story of her difficult childhood and helter-skelter life in hip-hop's inner circle. She grew up in St. Thomas, as she describes in her book, with a mother who was domineering and abusive. Her father, she wrote, was largely absent.
She moved to the United States when she was 10, and with her accent and outdated clothes, she didn't fit in. At 13 she was raped by a guy she met at a house party. By 16 she was a stripper, often dancing for professional athletes, and pulling down a grand a night. At 17, she moved in with Kool G Rap, a fading rapper, who was 10 years her senior. The union produced one child, a son to whom Steffans dedicates her book.
Her relationship with Kool G Rap, which she describes as tumultuous, introduced her to the increasingly commercial world of rap music and gave her ample motivation to seek a different life. It was the beginning of hip-hop's shiny suit era, and as she watched videos on cable television, Steffans wanted in.
"I looked enviously at the women in these videos, their bodies perfectly voluptuous . . . wanted to be there, wherever they were," she writes in her book. Soon enough, with industry friends showing her the ropes in L.A., she would be. Drugs, sex, parties. It was nonstop. What emerges in her memoir is a world inhabited by men and women always looking for the next fix -- the hottest club, the finest car, or the biggest high-roller.
Rubbing elbows with hip-hop royalty helped Steffans land a role in "A Man Apart," starring Vin Diesel. That was a high. But Steffans hit a low after nearly overdosing, losing her apartment and finding that many of her famous friends had abandoned her. She realized she was chasing all the wrong things and all the wrong people. Then she began to write.
"I had to gather all my journals and all the artifacts of my life . . . pictures, plane tickets, everything that I could find on my past," she said. "I made a timeline of everything and just mapped it all out." Steffans turned her manuscript in to HarperCollins/Amistad in March.
What Steffans has done, according to Michaela Angela Davis, an editor at Essence magazine, is reach people who may have dismissed earlier protests against rap's misogyny.
"Karrine's story is really hitting people on the street," Davis said. "Coming from her it's a real turning of the tide on how women have been treated inside hip-hop."
Davis said she hoped Steffans would go into communities and speak about her experiences. According to her publicist, Gilda Squire, that's the plan. In October, Steffans will be at the Howard University bookstore during homecoming. Monique Mozee, the bookstore's marketing manager, also said it put the conversation about misogyny in hip-hop in a different light.
"When you have someone who has hung out with some of these people coming back and saying, 'Yes, it is all bad here,' it takes it to another level," she said. "She has a platform, she says, 'I care about young women and I don't want them to go through what I went through.' "
Tricia Rose, a professor of American studies at the University of California at Santa Cruz who has written books about hip-hop and black women's sexuality, called Steffans's story a "well-rehearsed narrative . . . the black version of the prostitute who makes good or comes to her senses." The newness of this story is that it's from a black woman from the world of music videos, and that she names names. But Rose questions whether newness amounts to progressiveness.
"We need this story less than we need rich, complicated, reflective stories," said Rose. "I'm glad it's out there, and I hope it opens up conversations. The question is, will the book be a catalyst for serious conversations, as opposed to allowing easy answers to prevail, like video-hoing is bad, or video-hoing is a great vehicle as long as you avoid the pitfalls. Those are the simple-minded positions that I think we need to worry about."
People familiar with Steffans's story don't necessarily see her advancing any causes.
"If I was a woman, I'd do the same thing," said Mark Jones, 44, of Northwest Washington. "It's just sad that she put everybody's name out there. A lot of people felt she could have been more discreet."
Later, on a panel with Iman and other black women writers, Steffans tells young women to love themselves, to say "no" to songs that demand they "drop it like it's hot," and to talk to each other. This is Steffans's stump speech, delivered in a kind of forceful but coquettish way. She's like Marilyn Monroe with a feminist message.
After she has signed books, posed for pictures and offered a "Thank you so much," to enthusiasts, she's whisked down a back elevator with a gaggle of fans trailing her. It's like this all the time, she says, behind her black Gucci sunglasses. Her East Coast swing over, she heads back to Los Angeles to begin working on a deal for movie/television rights. And then there's the treatment for her new novel, set in Hollywood. This is the new Steffans, a woman who says she's learned from talk show host Maher, whom she met in April at a Smooth magazine party in L.A., that it's important to read everything and it's important to force people to have discussions they don't want to have.
This book has earned her titles: gold digger, snitch, liar, feminist, survivor. Steffans has heard it all, and even had her life threatened (hence the bodyguard).
But she has claimed a new label for herself.
"I'm an author, that's what I've always been in my head," she said as if she were a new graduate. "I've never been a model, I was an actress for like a minute, but I've always been a writer. That's where I'm going to stay. There will be plenty of books to come."
Above, Karrine Steffans fixes up before a panel and signing at the Harlem Book Fair. She autographed copies of "Confessions" for people eager to read about her life as a hip-hop video star.