Don Diva is a magazine that comes with a warning label -- "Parental Advisory: Gangsta Content."
The warning is partly a come-on -- nothing attracts kids like a parental-advisory warning -- but it's also accurate. Don Diva is a magazine about gangsters that is published for gangsters -- and for wannabe gangsters, imprisoned gangsters and folks who just want to experience the excitement of gangster life without getting shot or going to prison, which is, alas, the fate of most of the gangsters Don Diva profiles.
"We're really not an entertainment magazine," says Tiffany Chiles, Don Diva's editor and publisher. "We're really a lifestyle magazine."
Founded in 1999, Don Diva is a slick quarterly that bills itself as "The Original Street Bible." Each issue has two covers, one in front, one in back. The "street cover" features a scene of gangster life: a staged shot of kids cooking up crack cocaine, for example, or an authentic photo of a dead Chicago dope dealer laid out in a coffin built to resemble his Cadillac El Dorado. The "entertainment cover" features a rapper and is used mainly by newsstands too squeamish to display the street cover.
Inside, Don Diva has three main editorial features: stories about gangsters, stories about gangsta rappers and photos of scantily clad women, most of them shot from behind to emphasize their thong-clad posteriors.
That formula -- crime, pop culture and pinups -- is hardly new, dating back at least to the National Police Gazette, which debuted in 1845 and kept going for more than half a century. But Don Diva adds a modern touch: handy advice on where to hide your stash, how to beat money-laundering charges and where to get the latest gangsta accessories, such as diamond-studded gold teeth, portable money-counting machines and automobile tires that keep rolling even after they've been shot.
Don Diva also publishes advice for its female readers, which boils down to: Keep your man happy by giving him lots of hot, steamy sex. It is, of course, the same advice Cosmo gives its readers, although Don Diva's prose tends to be a bit, um, funkier.
In its fifth anniversary issue, published last year, Don Diva bragged that it is "a magazine that got its origin inside a prison by a prisoner." That prisoner was Kevin Chiles, who was serving a 10-year sentence for coke dealing when he suggested to his wife, Tiffany, that she publish a magazine about what she calls "the black underworld."
Tiffany Chiles, who has a marketing degree from Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, says she started the magazine with money earned as a rap music promoter and named it Don Diva to show that it was for both sexes -- dons and divas.
Now, Tiffany, 34, runs the magazine out of offices in Harlem and suburban New Jersey, while her husband, who was released from prison in 2003, occasionally writes for the magazine, generally on an anti-snitching theme.
I first heard of Don Diva about five years ago, from a friend who is doing time at the women's prison in Jessup, where the magazine was eagerly passed from cell to cell.
In those days, nearly 90 percent of subscribers were inmates in prisons across the country, Chiles says, but now only 10 percent of the roughly 150,000 copies are read by the captive audience. Until recently, Don Diva has been sold mainly in inner-city record stores, beauty parlors and bodegas. But with the current issue -- the magazine's 23rd -- Don Diva has a new distributor and therefore should be more widely available.
The main article in the 110-page issue tells the story of the "Supreme Team," a legendary gang of New York crack dealers. The 10-page article, written by Tiffany Chiles and somebody named "Soulman Seth," is based on newspaper stories, court documents and interviews with two imprisoned gang members.
"I went from making 100 dollars a week at the grocery store to a thousand dollars a day," says Ronald "Tuck" Tucker, now serving 14 years for his role in the operation. "As a seventeen-year-old, my thoughts were: Why go to school when I'm making more money than the chairman of the Board of Education?"
According to the magazine, police say the gang was riding high in the '80s, taking in more than $200,000 a day selling crack and killing anyone who threatened its business. But it all came crashing down in the '90s, when more than 110 gang members were arrested, convicted and sent to the slammer.
"Prince was sentenced to 7 life sentences," Tucker says. "C-Just to 3 lifes, Big C got 2 lifes, Pookie got life, Shannon got 30 years, Bing got 19 years, Ace 15 years, Teddy 13 years and I got sentenced to 14 years."
Later, the gang's saga was recounted in a song recorded by rapper 50 Cent, a former crack dealer who grew up in the Queens neighborhood where the gang operated.
The piece is profusely illustrated with photos of various gang members during their heyday and in prison. There are also pictures of the gang's home turf. A picture of a bucolic, tree-lined pond carries the caption: "Baisley Park Pond, where it is rumored that law enforcement once drained the pond and found 10 bodies." Another picture has this caption: "Baisley Park basketball court -- the site of many basketball tournaments. One year a referee was beat to death for allegedly making an unfavorable call."
In addition to the "Supreme Team" piece, this issue also contains interviews with several rappers, as well as a piece on Luis "Money L" Santiago, a former New York rap producer who has gone into the custom-fur business. His first product was fur-lined sneakers. His latest project is customizing his clients' fur coats by adding "diamond encrusted zippers."
Don Diva reviews CDs and DVDs with its own unique rating system: the worst get one gavel, meaning "misdemeanor"; real gems get four gavels, meaning "premeditated murder"; and true masterpieces get five gavels, meaning "kingpin." Each issue has about 30 pages of ads, most for rap albums and diamond-studded gold bling.
The mag is frequently accused of glamorizing the gangsta lifestyle, Chiles says, but she pleads innocent to that charge.
"Most of the criminals we write about end up dead or in prison," she says. "To say that's glorifying is to say my readers are stupid. We have to shed light on things that are happening."
She's right, of course. Only the stupid could read the story of the Supreme Team and decide to pursue a career as a gangster. But she's dealing with the human race, a notorious hotbed of stupidity, so it's quite likely that some readers might conclude that becoming a gangster is their best shot at obtaining a fur coat with a diamond-encrusted zipper.