Gwendolyn Quinn knows a little something about Queens. The power publicist counts as clients Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin and Queen of Funk, Chaka Khan; credits Queen of Disco, Gloria Gaynor for her first job in entertainment, and considers hip-hop’s Queen Latifah among her many PR successes. But before the royal fanfare, there was mom, Queen Quinn.
Queen Esther Bradshaw of Abbeville, Georgia took on her gloriously alliterative name when she married a sweet boy from her hometown, Lonnie Edward Quinn. Their three children: Lonnie Jr., Vanessa and baby Gwennie were Augusta-born but the family, like many during the Great Migration headed north in a series of aspirational moves in search of a better life. They lived in Newark, NJ until Gwendolyn completed second grade, then a Southeast Washington, DC apartment and finally Temple Hills, MD with the purchase of a home, just as Gwendolyn began high school.
“I think that it was a good move. I’m glad they came here,” she says. “Potomac was a great school and I met really wonderful people there. I love Prince George’s County, it’s gorgeous,” she says over dinner in the Nation’s Capital during the DC Jazz Festival at The Hamilton, a massive boîte with great food and incredible live music. She’s courteous to the wait staff, all professional polish when she fields a phone call or two then softens to Daddy’s little Southern girl when she rings her father, “Deddy? How are you darlin? I’m just checking in on you, you okaaay?”
In 2001 the devoted daughter purchased a home in the Washington Metropolitan area to share with her parents, now 81, as they navigate health challenges. We discuss the great rewards of caregiving to elder parents, and the challenge of finding life balance while doing so. Her work, of course, requires travel, so when she’s not at the bucolic Clinton, Maryland homestead, sister Vanessa, who lives nearby takes up the slack.
A couple of weeks later, I get a glimpse of her life in suburbia near a quaint old barn–a remnant of its farmland days. After making sure her delightful Mom and Dad were settled, she gave a tour of the house, (the master bath alone is the size of a Manhattan studio) made me a bite to eat and sat down to talk about growing up in the DMV.
“I always hung out in DC, that’s where all the action was. Washington was definitely Chocolate City back then.” We agree that the 70′s were a great time to be a black child growing up in ‘The District.’ “Oh the music! I think that’s one of the reasons why I am in the entertainment business now. We would go to shows at the Carter Barron, the Loew’s Palace, the Warner Theater, the Capital Centre, Constitution Hall, Wolf Trap. I did it all ’cause everybody came through DC. If you were a black artist, you came to Dee Cee, period.”
“I loved the Warner and Loew’s because they had two shows a night.” She’d go to both the 8pm and midnight concerts. While in high school she went backstage to meet the members of New Birth after a late concert “I didn’t get home until the next morning. Ooh child, my father was mad, I was in so much trouble! It was terrible but I couldn’t resist. Anytime there was a concert, I was there. Rock Creek Park, the Monument, lots of outdoor concerts.” And radio in the District? “I grew up on WHUR, Howard University Quiet Storm. I’ve never heard a better station since. It was the best Quiet Storm format in the country.”
Gwendolyn spent the summers of those high school years in New York City and “fell in love with it,” she recalls. “I applied to the University of Maryland and was accepted, but mentally I knew I was outta here. I had started braiding hair in eleventh grade and people would pay from one to five hundred dollars for it so that’s how I supported myself when I left home for New York.” Though hair wasn’t her passion, she enrolled in cosmetology school at Robert Fiance to acquire the license she’d need to continue that revenue stream. Her schooling was stalled, however, when she met Gloria Gaynor and began braiding her hair. “She liked me and asked me to assist her on the road.” She jumped at the chance. “The money was good and we traveled first class.” By the time she finally graduated, she’d seen much of Europe and South America on someone else’s dime and secured an apprenticeship at the top salon in the country at the time, Vidal Sassoon. “I apprenticed in the coloring department, but after nearly two years, I was done, I was over it.” She walked away, nonetheless with a valuable look into the culture of New York’s elite.
Her first music industry job was on the television and radio staff at ASCAP, a true education in the business of music. She soon found herself taking a personal assistant position to another notable black woman, model Beverly Johnson. Working with Beverly provided an early glimpse at the machinations of publicity and an introduction to the eighties art and fashion crowd. “Andy Warhol, Keith Haring — in fact, Beverly gave me a couple of his pieces–photographer Francisco Scavullo and the designers Fernando Sanchez, Halston and Calvin Klein.”
After a few years at ABC/Capital Cities exploring her interest in television development and production, Gwendolyn circled back around to music. Her first position in Public Relations was Publicity Coordinator for Mercury/PolyGram with an eclectic roster of artists including Vanessa Williams, Tony! Toni! Tone!, Jon Lucien and Third World. “Jackie Rhinehart hired me for that job and she had to fire me. Girl, we were roommates at the time!” Feeling untouchable in the embrace of Jackie (National Director of Artist Development) and then-label president Ed Eckstine, (son of Billy) Gwendolyn had gotten a little too big for her britches, in need of the attitude adjustment she got. “I can laugh now but it wasn’t funny at the time,” she says.
She persevered and landed at Queen Latifah’s Flavor Unit Entertainment where she became National Director of Publicity, formulating campaigns for such artists as Naughty by Nature, Zhané and of course, Queen Latifah. She would eventually exclusively handle all publicity for Latifah’s music, television, film and corporate affairs.
In 1995 she became National Director of Publicity and Media Relations at Capitol Records working with some amazing singers: Rachelle Ferrell, The Whispers and BeBe and CeCe Winans. When Capitol Records dismantled their Urban Department (“we called it Black Friday”) leaving Gwendolyn without a job, CeCe was a saving grace. “I was supposed to have gone to the Grammy Awards, because CeCe was up for a big award and she was singing with Whitney and Shirley Caesar. When she won that Grammy, she thanked me onstage, Gwendolyn Quinn, full name. My phone lit up like a switchboard and trust me I didn’t know what I was gonna do, but that was a Wednesday night and I had a job by Friday. Jackie (Rhinehart) called me ‘Girl, I’m in the lobby with Hiriam (Hicks of Chris Blackwell’s Island Records) he wants to hire you.’ She was calling me because that’s how powerful that was. CeCe Winans can get ANYTHING from me. She’s a sweetheart.” Gwendolyn was with Island and the likes of the legendary Isley Brothers for a year before Arista came knocking.
In 1997, she joined the house that Clive Davis built as Senior Director of Publicity working the powerhouse roster including among others Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Monica, Deborah Cox, Prince and Lisa Stansfield. She handled select media and press activities for LA Reid and Babyface Edmonds’ LaFace/Arista imprint and created and launched media campaigns for BadBoy Entertainment/Arista artists Puff Daddy, Notorious B.I.G., Faith Evans and Mase.
“Shortly after Big died, Puffy was very sensitive, still grieving. We got an offer to do a Fox News interview. Mind you this was before we really knew who Bill O’Reilly was, and I said we shouldn’t do it. It was too soon. It’s not ET or Access Hollywood, it’s hard news, if you don’t want to answer any questions, don’t put yourself in the position to be asked.” Benny Medina, his manager at the time, thought differently and approved the interview. “MTV was following Puffy around doing A Day With Puffy Combs. It was going pretty smoothly. End-of-day, we went to Fox. We’d put in writing that talk of Big was off-limits, but Bill brought it up anyway. Puffy got up and left the live interview. Benny wasn’t there for the fallout, I was. I was walking behind Puffy and MTV was walking behind me and he was ranting and raving and carrying on. It was an All in the Family moment. He’s screaming like Archie and I’m trying to calm him down like Puffy, Puffy (in Edith Bunker’s voice.) The cameras were rolling and MTV was loving it. I was mortified, young publicist looking crazy. I called the producer in tears and said ‘you can’t run that.’ But of course they wanted to run it, it was the most eventful part of the day. It was good drama for TV.”
Gwendolyn looked forward to unwinding at the Tenth Street Baths with her dear friend actor Keith David when none other than Sean Combs walks out. ”You alright?” he asked. “NO I’m not alright, you yelled at me in public!” And the shouting began again.
In 2000, Capitol Records lured her back with a Vice President of Publicity post, developing and implementing overall media strategies for the R&B and Pop acts in the Capitol family of labels. She worked once again with CeCe and Rachelle as well as Dave Koz, boxer Oscar De La Hoya and on soundtrack projects including Girlfight and HBO’s Boycott. The events of September 11, 2001 spurred yet another Capitol closing, but this time Gwendolyn was undeterred. “After 9/11, they got rid of the whole New York staff so I started my own company, GQ Media and Public Relations.” Gwendolyn hadn’t worked with Aretha Franklin in a year or so, but when the Queen of Soul heard that she’d hung her own shingle she said ‘I’ll sign with you.’ ”We always had a really great relationship. Clive taught me to always have a marquee client. EMI Gospel (now Motown Gospel) via Shirley Murdock was my first client and the gospel world has been very good to me, but Aretha was my first marquee client. Aretha’s press takes you places. I remember when she had to step in for Pavarotti at the Grammy Awards. I was with her when executive producer Ken Ehrlich came into her dressing room and asked. That was a pretty big moment in Grammy history. Calls you get on Aretha you just don’t get
When asked how she feels about her role in cementing that legacy she responds, “Aretha was Aretha before I came in the picture seventeen years ago. I’ve seen a lot of really amazing moments in her history, but she was definitely Aretha Franklin already. Yes she’s gotten accolades and acclaim after I started but she’s already self-made, I was just the facilitator. She’s her own person and she manages herself.” Gwendolyn laughs as she remembers a VH1 Divas taping: “She had me hire three makeup artists, three! Reggie Wells for the foundation, someone whose name l can’t recall now to do a special technique on the lips and then another makeup artist she brought in from Detroit to do the eyes, it was hilarious!” Ms. Franklin knows just what she wants. “And if she doesn’t want to do something, she won’t. I have said Aretha maybe we should do this…made some really good suggestions,” she says “And to see her turn down major interviews, is just like hunh?”
“This is what I love about Aretha. As big as she is, as many major interviews as she’s declined over the course of her career, she’ll interview with the Black press over anybody.” She recalls the time aerophobic Aretha announced some concert dates in California for the first time in 21 years. ”It was a big deal. The Los Angeles Times requested a face-to-face interview. I asked Aretha and she said ‘I’m not really going to have time for an in-person interview. My schedule is hectic, but make sure he comes to the show and we will take good care of him.’ ” Gwendolyn pressed to accommodate him, after all he’d been very supportive, interviewing Ms. Franklin by phone for years. The “Queen” reiterated she’d talk to him but not in person. “Then in the next breath she said ‘What’s going on with the LA Sentinel? ‘ I said ’This thing with Bob Hillburn at the Times is a quarter million people and I just looked at the audit listing on the Sentinel and I think we should definitely do the interview, but their circulation is like 50,000 people.” Without hesitation she replied “Well that’s 50,000 people who love me and will support my concerts and albums. Schedule the interview.” Gwendolyn laughs, “Here I am trying to give her the numbers but she completely shut me down. In any tour market she’ll say ‘I’ll do this, this and the Soul Paper,’ her name for the Black weeklies.” Long before mainstream media showed Aretha Franklin any love the Black press sung her praises. She has never forgotten their loyalty. “She loves what’s coming in Time and People, but she wants to know when she’s going to be in Jet. She is very serious about that.’Is Jet on the list, is Jet coming?’” Her allegiance is resolute and though it can sometimes create a wrinkle in Gwendolyn’s publicity goals she respects Ms. Franklin mightily for it.
Their working relationship has become humorously on again, off again. “More on than off, ” Gwendolyn says. During an off moment, ”Aretha called and said ‘You wanna go see Motown (The Musical) with me?’ They were in early production on it and I agreed to go. We walked into the party and she was asking people ‘do you know my publicist, Gwendolyn Quinn?’ That’s how I knew I was rehired.” LA Reid said ‘yeah, I know Gwen, y’all back together again?’ LA and I just laughed. Aretha acted astounded ‘Why’d he ask that?’ I said Aretha that’s the running joke now, when people call me they ask ‘are you working with her this week?’”
“Aretha was not only my first big client, but she also gives me major props in very public places. At Radio City Music Hall she had me stand up and put the spotlight on me. She is very generous with acknowledgement and gifts. I love Aretha.”
Gwendolyn has always loved Chaka Khan as an artist and now having her as a client is a joy. After querying Chaka’s sister-manager Tammy McCrary about taking up CK’s publicity mantle, she landed an interview. “I had Andrea (of Fairweather Faces ) beat my face. Child, she beat my face to the ground. I knew Chaka still had to interview a couple of other people, some really dynamic publicists, so I just went for it. I was so excited. I don’t know what clicked for her, but she said ‘you like a challenge’ and hired me right there on the spot. Her spirit told her to do it.”
“Chaka is fresh. She’s 60-years-young and beautiful. She has a good heart. She is so, so sweet. I love her to pieces. She’s accepted me and I just want to do a great job for her.” She wants Chaka to receive credit for the breadth of her gifts from music to visual art to her healing work as an herbalist. “I love all my projects, but I really am exceptionally proud of hers. We’ve got a lot more to do, though. A whole lot more ground to cover. She’s underrated and deserving of more honors and accolades.” Gwendolyn is frequently commended for helping to get Chaka the recognition she deserves.
Who else would she like to work with? “Jordin Sparks. She’s developing so well as a young girl. And I’d love to take on someone like Fantasia. I know the cloth she’s cut from. She’s someone I could connect with and help.” Though she prefers working with women, she speaks highly of former client Mathew Knowles. “I learned a great deal from and enjoyed working with him. He’s a very powerful, knowledgable, charismatic guy–tough, and generous.” Idris Elba is a dream client. “I would be so excited to work his projects. Yes he’s fine and all that, but he’s very interesting and he’s smart.” She’d like to represent Samuel L. Jackson or Denzel Washington, “not because you ‘need’ to do anything with them, they’re gonna do whatever they need to around their movies. They’re kinda private and that’s how they like it –the whole mystique of who they are, but there’s still something to be done with them on the charitable front.”
A missionary trip to South Africa with her church, Emmanuel Baptist got her thinking more about ways to give back. The conditions of shanty life gave her pause. “There’s no foundation, no sheetrock, no dry wall, no ventilation. If it rains, it rains inside.” She’ll never forget a married couple, both living with AIDS in shoeless squalor.
When the church brought a group of South African children to spend summer in the US with congregants, Gwendolyn hosted the young girl, Gopolang. Because school in South Africa is year-round, the kids days were filled with classes and evenings and weekends were for exploration and discovery. “We took them to the beach, to amusement parks, sporting events, movies, skating, Fela! The Musical. Madiba (the South African Restaurant in Brooklyn) pitched in, which the kids loved because it was familiar. Gopolang traveled with me here to meet my family; we went to the Black Wax Museum in Baltimore.” Her publicist hat on, she says “I’d like to get a wax bust of Chaka done.”
Of all the activities planned for the children, Gwendolyn is most proud of the Nelson Mandela Day celebration and benefit concert at Radio City Music Hall. The Mandela Prison Number Foundation hired her to get the word out and gave her a generous block of tickets. “The kids, their chaperones, the deacons, Rev (Pastor Anthony Trufant) and his wife all went to the concert, they loved it! Some of the kids’ favorite South African artists were there as well as members of Mandela’s family.”
When she first started in PR, Gwendolyn dreamed of working with three people: Whitney Houston, Prince and Michael Jackson. She accomplished two. (Read her reflections on Whitney Houston for EURweb.com) I really wish I could have worked with Michael. “They dogged him and it became very difficult to counter.” She speaks of the need for superstars to have strong PR and legal teams. “Aretha taught me that. They don’t mess with her because she has sued and won.”
In addition to her client work, Gwendolyn founded the African-American Public Relations Collective (AAPRC) an impressive consortium of more than 1,000 public relations and communications specialists representing a vast spectrum of fields to provide professional support to their peers in the industry. As an extension of the AAPRC brand, Gwendolyn, in February 2004 launched The AAPRC Monthly, now titled Global Communicator, an e-publication for African-American journalists, PR, marketing and communications professionals.
Reflecting on her storied career she says “it’s taken care of me for plenty of years. I have worked with the top, top talent in the world. I’m extremely grateful.” She had an epiphanic moment at an event, though. “I saw one of my friends–in her fifties–on the red carpet running behind a couple of these artists and I thought that could be me in a few more years. If I still want to do it that’s fine–for one or two big clients. But it got me thinking that what we do as PR people–always making sure everybody else is taken care of–we sometimes don’t take care of our own selves like we should. So I’m trying to change that.” Though she leaves a lasting public relations legacy, there’s so much more she hopes to accomplish that she’s ardently pursuing her other interests.
What many don’t know is that she is a songwriter, a lyricist. For a woman who has struggled to beat back shyness all her life, putting her talent out there is a challenge. “I work around producers all the time. People are like ‘Gwen just send me a song.’ I don’t want them to think that it’s a hobby for me.” She wants to be taken seriously. She’s gotten some feedback and “so far it’s been amazing.”
With her column, Inside Broadway for Electronic Urban Report, Gwendolyn indulges a great passion: Broadway shows. “I do reviews and Q&As with the talent. I really enjoy it.” Back in her globe trotting-with-Gloria days she befriended Willie White, brother of Tony Award-winning actress Lillias White. “Lillias was in many ways my introduction to Broadway. I lived with her at one point. She was doing all these shows. I used to go see her in everything.” She saw the intricacies of New York theater life– the excitement of openings as well as the devastating blows of unplanned show closures. From names in lights to unemployment. She hasn’t let the fickleness of the industry dissuade her from pursuing her goal of becoming a major player on Broadway. She firmly believes the status quo needs revision. A show’s survival “should not hinge on whether or not your play or musical receives a Tony nod. Of course awards bring recognition, but I’ve seen many shows close that shouldn’t have. Something is missing on the marketing side if that happens. With my music and general entertainment background, I can bring a lot to the table.” She plans to spend time in London checking out the West End (the Broadway of Britain.) “There’s a different appreciation there, people who don’t get Tonys can go on to get well-deserved Olivier Awards.”
She is thrilled to share that she is working on the team of Front Row Productions with Stephen C. Byrd and Alia Jones-Harvey, producers on the highly anticipated Romeo & Juliet and lead producers on Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and A Streetcar Named Desire. “They’ve got a lot of exciting things going and I am very, very happy about joining the team. The capacity in which I work with them on productions will change. I am excited about the future and working on Broadway.
It’s no surprise then, what tops her faves list.
1. Broadway Shows. “I’ll never forget Elizabeth Taylor was in The Little Foxes with Maureen Stapleton at the Martin Beck Theater and I lived right across from it on 45th St. I had just gotten to New York. I saw Dreamgirls later that year.” In her position, she can certainly call in tickets, but with her passion for Broadway theater, she supports by purchasing her tickets–and she goes several times a year. “I catch all the shows in April at the beginning of the Tony opening period, in September when more shows open and in December when I catch everything I might have missed and maybe a couple of Christmas shows.” Above, Playbills from a few productions she’s loved.
2. Jewelry. She definitely enjoys a little bling, but some of her favorite pieces are clean, modern and crafted in sterling silver. From the timeless, fluid shapes of Elsa Peretti® for Tiffany (“ooh I love her!” ) to the Nelson Mandela Foundation’s powerful prison number bracelet to Janet Hill Talbert’s inspirational, Christian-themed On This Rock Jewelry, here, the 23rd Psalm cuff. ”Janet’s work is amazing, I have a lot of it, some are custom pieces.”
3. Makeup Artistry. ”As a publicist in this business, I work with a million makeup artists. They always try things out on me.” On the exquisite talent of our late friend Roxanna Floyd, pictured here, she exclaims, “Oh she was the best! Nobody did my makeup better. She was an eyebrow queen.” The two met and bonded when Gwendolyn was Queen Latifah’s publicist. She introduced Flavor Unit’s Queen to the brow Queen, launching a longtime working relationship. Before red carpet events “Roxie would have me to come to her room before she had to go get Whitney, Monica, Latifah, whoever ready and do MY makeup. She wanted me to look good.” These days, she often relies on the skills of Andrea Fairweather Bailey and Daniel Green.
4. Songwriting. Shederick Mitchell (music director for Whitney Houston and Maxwell) put together a medley of seven Gwen-penned tunes and performed them at her birthday party in New York last fall. She was delighted by how beautiful they sounded. “My songs are definitely good enough to be recorded and released some by top artists.” A frequent songwriting partner is Keva Hargrove with whom she wrote the gospel song, “I Thank You Lord” and the R & B ballad (detail of lyrics above.)
5. Collecting Dolls. From beaded Ndebele dolls to classic blinking-eyed dolls from Jamaica, Gwendolyn’s collection is heavy on travel treasures. She also sources artisan creations from festivals and doll shows. There’s always one that speaks to her: “buy me, buy me, take me home.” Between her New York and Maryland bases, she has approximately 300 dolls.
6. Travel. Traveling helps her recalibrate, even if it’s a business trip. “I’m always able to think and refocus.” She enjoys horseback riding in Negril and an Oyster Bay time share in St. Maarten with its crystal waters and easy boat access to Anguilla and St. Barth’s. She speaks in dreamy reverie of South Africa, “it’s such a beautiful place: the land, the people, the wineries, the food.” Oddly enough she had the best pizza she’s ever had in Cape Town.
7. Great Food. When she’s in her kitchen, she whips up a mean rum cake, but “being single and living
8. Boxed CD Sets. She’s got a seemingly endless supply, but the set she most prizes was a gift from Blue Note Records President Bruce Lundvall, The Complete Capitol Recordings of the Nat King Cole Trio. She speaks of the respected industry titan’s generosity. “At the record companies you always got music–CDs, but boxed sets had to be approved and ordered through the company. He gave it to me, it had 18 CDs!” The jazz-heavy collection (Sarah, Miles, Coltrane, Dizzy, Monk, etc.) numbers in the hundreds with everyone from The Beatles to the Bee Gees with Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, James Brown, Donny Hathaway, Ray Charles and of course, Aretha fleshing it all out. “You’d be surprised by how many people you think have a boxed set don’t. Chaka doesn’t have one, but we are working on that,” she says confidently.
9. The Work of Cheryl R. Riley. One of the largest East Coast collectors of the Jersey City-based furniture designer/fine artist, Gwendolyn is enamored of her work. “It is incredible. I want everything she creates. Did you see the furniture she designed for Morgan Freeman and Robin Williams? Just stellar.” The Horizon Mirror, photographed by John Baldridge in detail here, is the pièce
10. Live Music. A love on which she’s built a solid career. Many individual artists populate her list of favorites, but Earth, Wind and Fire
Listening Station: Click the links to listen to some of Gwendolyn’s songs.
Addictive Love (music by Jessica Labus)
I Thank You Lord (written with Keva Hargrove)
Now That I Found You (written with Keva Hargrove)