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Head Chick in Charge

With her new Lifetime show, ‘Vivica’s Black Magic,’ Vivica A. Fox is bringing much-needed diversity to the world of male stripping — and expanding her empire in the process

(Dean Cechvala)
(Dean Cechvala)

About an hour before showtime in June, a group of men called the “Elite Eight” are assembled on the stage at the Avalon nightclub in Hollywood, awaiting inspection. Half of the group is dressed in an ensemble we’ll call “sexy Mike Tyson” — open gold robes; white, satin knee-length shorts; white sneakers. The other half is sporting a look that can only be described as “postgame sexy Little Giants” — black football pants with sequin trim, shoulder pads (sans shirt), black sneakers. They are all well oiled and shirtless, because despite the name, the Elite Eight is not a group of marines, musicians, or professional athletes (though impressive athleticism is a key part of what they do). No, these are the men whom Vivica A. Fox has selected for her troupe of male exotic dancers, to be known hence as Vivica’s Black Magic Revue.

Tonight is the last Los Angeles show before the crew heads to Las Vegas. A line of women is wrapped around the block. But before the curtain rises and the pants drop, Fox needs to make sure her dancers — Penetration, White Chocolate, Profit the Problem, Charm, Slo-Motion, Bolo, Heat, and, I swear to God, Alvester — live up to the “elite” status she has advertised. Fox emerges from hair and makeup, a robe thrown over a studded, royal-blue bodycon dress, to begin her final examination.

“OK, let’s go through the opening number,” Fox yells for the benefit of the Lifetime cameras filming this event. A generic, bass-heavy R&B song cues up, and the men grapevine and slide their way into a V formation. They rub their abs a little, stroke their D’Angelo Bones, drop their butts some; there’s an in-unison one-armed plank move, in which they go at the floor with gusto. Eventually the eight men find their way into some sort of human centipede line, and they start a vigorous, simultaneous body-roll train that would make Jodeci weep.

Fox counts along and pantomimes some of the dance moves — just the hand gestures, not the thrusts — but not in a “I had three Sex on the Beach shots and I’m ready for anything” way. Vivica A. Fox is not savoring the sight of eight gyrating hot bodies defying the laws of sexual physics. She’s wondering if the sequins on the pants look tacky; she’s eyeing White Chocolate, who is a few beats behind. She’s wondering if Bolo will be able to jump across the stage like a spider monkey and land on a girl without breaking her bones. (Spoiler alert: He will, much to the delight of a young woman from New Jersey.) Do the Elite Eight have the core strength to do a handstand into an audience member’s crotch? Are the guys remembering to make eye contact with the audience? Does it look like they are actually having sex? (They better.) Is Penetration perhaps drilling the air with too much enthusiasm? (Yes.) Are there any body parts that could benefit from more oil? (All of them. Always.)

(Dean Cechvala)

(Dean Cechvala)

Much like the rest of women in America, Fox saw Magic Mike and enjoyed it just fine. But while the rest of us responded to the film by Googling “Male strippers in my town” or by downloading “Pony” and forcing acquaintances to reenact Channing Tatum’s dance sequences, Fox thought, “They’re a little stiff.” She decided the show needed some “brothers who could dance,” and in doing so identified a hole in the market she could help fill.

First she took a role in Chocolate City, the 2015 cinematic answer to the lily-white Magic Mike cast. The positive response from an urban female audience, who just wanted to ogle ripped black men instead of the white dudes ripping off their moves, gave Fox an idea: to turn a horny impulse into a reality TV show and a long-term business plan. Fox held auditions and cast a group of men ranging from “dark chocolate to caramel to white chocolate” in complexion. She got them a choreographer and solicited an audience, and started the revue with the goal of turning it into the next Thunder From Down Under, except blacker. Vivica’s Black Magic, which debuts Wednesday on Lifetime, was born.

But back at the Avalon, we are months away from the premiere, and the Elite Eight needs a good amount of work. I recognize this. If there is a perfect demographic for a black male stripper revue, it would be me. I love male strippers; I am not ashamed to say it. I spent $20 to own both Magic Mike and Magic Mike XXL on iTunes. I once forced a friend to drive from Austin to Dallas and back in a single evening, just to have dinner at Tallywackers, the male Hooters. I have been exposed to the very best and the very best has exposed itself to me.

A quick survey of my fellow male-stripper aficionados — the 100 or so women who have shown up on this Thursday night, crisp singles in one hand, mysteriously blue cocktails in the other — confirms that their standards are just as high as mine. The crowd at the Avalon is best described as gloriously “grown and sexy”: Lycra jumpsuits, minidresses, heels painfully high, blowouts fresh. There are women of all ages, from all places, but we are united in our single, primal wish: to be selected by any of the eight dancers for audience participation.

It turns out that I am not in a “hot seat,” so I am not one of the women who are brought onstage and romanced. Those lucky few are given whipped cream, and get to rub unbelievably pert pec muscles. They get lap dances. There is an entire bedroom scene that could have easily been taken from Red Shoe Diaries, which is a good thing. A great thing. Lord, a wonderful thing.

“Our boys can dance!” Fox tells me after the show. “We really made sure our guys were manly men. They look like they want you.” And if they want you, you are more likely to want them back, and to express that want via financial donations. Judging by the buckets of cash the boys collected, and by the way the woman ran from the balcony to the front of the stage to gush a small fortune onto Slo-Motion’s and Heat’s exposed abs, the Elite Eight were plenty convincing. Vivica A. Fox would not have it any other way.

“I went to see Thunder From Down Under. Those guys were so gracious — they did an episode of our show — and I got a lap dance from Aidan.” Fox is explaining the required market research one must do to assemble a team of male strippers. We’re at her usual lunchtime haunt, a P.F. Chang’s in the Valley, but we have moved from her usual booth to the faux-gilded private room where she likes to host parties for her family. “Baby, Aidan came through the audience with his little underwear on, pulled me onstage, and I got a little intimidated. I was like, ‘Oh shit, oh shit, here he comes, holy cow, holy cow,’ then he did the whole thing. My legs were up in the air.” Fox cocks her head to the side, shimmies her shoulders a little bit, and lets out that musical ha!ha!, that sounds like every laugh from every black sitcom you watched in the ’90s. “So yes, I enjoyed that. But the majority of the time that we were in Vegas, we worked.”

A waiter enters the room with our lunch — ginger chicken and a pinot noir for Fox, honey walnut shrimp for me. “Do you mind if I pray?” Fox asks. I do not. We both need Jesus after Aidan.

The goal of Vivica’s Black Magic is twofold: one, to include black men and black audiences in the mutlimillion-dollar male strip revue business — think: Thunder From Down Under, Chippendales, and Magic Mike — that does not usually cater to them. “I went to Las Vegas to a Chippendales show, and what do you know, there was one little lone black guy over there in the corner,” Fox says. The other goal is for Fox to make a viable business out of women’s communal fantasies, which apparently includes Vegas, dry humping, and dollar bills.

“The pitch we gave to Lifetime was: me, head chick in charge; eight male exotic dancers; the ultimate girls’ night out,” Fox says. “We wanted to do it classy. We wanted women to be OK with getting their girls and saying, ‘I’m having a bachelorette party, I’m having a breakup party, I’m having a just-because-it’s-Wednesday party, I’m having a divorce party,’ and know that we would deliver them quality entertainment. It’s all about girl power now. Women are not afraid to say, ‘Hey, I want to see dancers, I want to see strippers,’” explains Fox.

Fox in ‘Independence Day’ (20th Century Fox)
Fox in ‘Independence Day’ (20th Century Fox)

It is a funny role reversal for Fox, whose breakthrough 1996 film role was that of Jasmine Dubrow, a stripper turned hero, in Independence Day. Since then, Fox has maintained a cultural foothold in a variety of roles: dramas like Set It Off and Soul Food, black rom-coms like Two Can Play That Game. She achieved crossover appeal in Kill Bill. In recent years she’s become known for her time on The Celebrity Apprentice, a cameo on Empire, and a long, ugly feud with her ex, 50 Cent. But what many don’t know is that there’s more off camera. Since the late ’90s, while consistently racking up IMDb credits, Fox has also been building a collection of businesses.

For those who aren’t familiar with Vivica A. Fox, the brand, please go to her website, VivicaFox.com, where the site autoplays “Work” by Rihanna. This isn’t a coded message. Fox wants everyone to know that she’s been hustling since the days she was a “teenager in Indianapolis flipping meat patties at Burger Chef,” and this year, with her acting career, a clothing line, a wig line, a book deal for a motivational memoir, and the new Lifetime show, she’s working harder than ever. The black male stripper revue is the latest piece of a lifestyle empire that Fox has been building for 20 years. If my three hours at the Avalon are any indication, it might just be her most lucrative side hustle yet.

Fox has a lot of meetings to take, which means she doesn’t even have time to wait for air conditioning to cool her down. On the day we meet at P.F. Chang’s, it’s a swamp-ass-inducing 100 degrees in the Valley, and she doesn’t want to sweat off her full face of makeup — she’s just come from a taping, and after this she has a meeting with Hallmark for a made-for-TV movie. So she whips a blue electric mini-fan out of her black Céline bag and lowers her body temperature her damn self.

“Do you ever take a break?” I ask her after she tells a story about turning her 50th birthday trip to Jamaica into a working vacation as well as a celebration.

“I enjoy working. I get that from my mother. She was a hard-working woman, Miss Everlyena,” Fox replies. “Honey, I watched her have two jobs — she was a nurse and she worked at a pharmaceutical company. I’ve always been a worker bee. I’ve always liked to make money.”

‘Set It Off’ (New Line Cinema)
‘Set It Off’ (New Line Cinema)

Fox has continued to get paid as an actress over the age of 50, which was certainly not guaranteed in Hollywood. Fox’s biggest roles coincided with a sort of golden age of black popular films and TV shows — think Living Single, Love & Basketball, and Brown Sugar — when there were just more roles for black women. Contrast it with 2014, when only 17 of the top-100 grossing films featured a nonwhite lead. It seemed easier to be a black actress 15 or 20 years ago — at least to an outsider. Fox says that’s a misinterpretation. “It’s a great time to be a sister in Hollywood. First of all, we’re now in more power positions — we’re writers, directors. Look at Ava DuVernay, the hundred-million-dollar movie she’s about to make. Look at the awesome success of How to Get Away With Murder, Scandal, Empire, Being Mary Jane. We’re seeing women direct now, from Regina King to Ava. … We’re working on it.”

But in the interim, Fox displayed a flexibility, and just a plain hustle, that helped her hang on where others could not. “Most actors feel that certain work is beneath them. Vivica has been the exception,” says her business partner, Chocolate City director Jean-Claude La Marre. “One minute you’ll find her in a blockbuster, next day you’ll see her in Sharknado [2], then you’ll see her on TV.”

“It’s about having different chapters and not letting anyone define who you are and what you can do with your life, especially for women in Hollywood,” explains Fox. “I started out as the hot ingenue, you know, and it used to be once you turn 35, 40, you get put out to pasture, you wouldn’t get work. When I turned 50, people were like, ‘Don’t tell people your age.’ But you know, I am who I am, I’m a grown woman. I knew I had a lot more to offer, so I figured out how to show them another aspect of myself.”

Besides her film and TV projects, it feels like Fox has an infinite number of irons in the fire. The Vivica A. Fox Hair Collection is probably her second-most-fruitful project, though it might be her most popular. The collection sells well — the wigs are carried by 100 stores in New York alone—and keeps Fox engaged with fans; she appears at beauty store events, speaks at hair shows, and teaches seminars, all in the name of good hair and furthering the Fox brand. She started the line in 2008, mostly because the opportunity was there. “A girlfriend of mine used to style Raquel Welch, and I was going to an event and needed clothes,” she recalls. “I went to Petra’s house and she had racks and racks of clothes, and I was like, ‘Petra, I only need one outfit!’” The racks of clothes were not for Fox, but for Welch. “I was like, ‘What is she doing?,’ and she goes, ‘A wig line … she makes a shitload of money doing it too.’”

Fox shows off her wigs on ‘Bethenny’ (Getty Images)
Fox shows off her wigs on ‘Bethenny’ (Getty Images)

Fox jumped at the chance to start her own collection, even though she was criticized at first. “I’ll never forget there was a blog out that was like, ‘When the checks stop rolling in, now she’s selling wigs.’ It really hurt my feelings, of course, and they put up the worst pictures. But I said, I’m gonna go into branding, I’m not going to be afraid to brand myself. That was when I became a businesswoman — that was when I understood the business of being Vivica Fox. People would know when it was something that you saw with Vivica Fox — whether it was hair, clothing, movie, or a television show — that you would get quality.”

(It should be said here that the wigs are good. Fox is wearing one of her own today — a glossy, bouncy, copper-colored lob, and when she pulls out her mini-fan, the wig moves just like Beyoncé’s. That’s quality.)

“But it’s so ironic that now, years later, it’s like I kind of beat ’em to the punch,” Fox says of her lifestyle empire. Such diversification is common for actresses now — think Gwyneth Paltrow and Goop, or Jennifer Lopez and Teeology, or Jessica Alba and Honest, or Reese Witherspoon and Draper James — but Fox was years ahead of her peers in terms of understanding the benefits of a “lifestyle brand.” She got that exposure equals success; that inspiration and motivation sell more than action movies do; and that there is a profit to be made just by being vocally enthusiastic about the things she, Vivica A. Fox, likes: wigs, weaves, real estate, clothes, Jamaica, hot men.

As Fox entered her 40s, she followed the advice Oprah gave her: “Know where the checks are coming from.” She produced plays, like Cheaper to Keep Her, and made Hallmark movies. She kept acting. She grew her wig line and built an even bigger fan base among African American women, who crowd any beauty shop appearance that she makes.

Fox with other contestants on ‘The Celebrity Apprentice’ (NBC)
Fox with other contestants on ‘The Celebrity Apprentice’ (NBC)

Eventually, in 2014, she decided to do The Celebrity Apprentice to highlight her hustle. “People don’t understand that I’m a good businesswoman and that I can put projects together,” she says of that decision. “That I have courage, that I have character, that I get business, and I’m a hard worker, and I’ve never asked for anyone to give me anything.” She was kicked off, but her appearance accomplished two things: It established her business credentials, and it got her more press. As for her relationship with Donald Trump, who was still just a presidential candidate when we met: “I will always admire Trump as a businessman, but as my presidential candidate, no ma’am, Pam.” (Fox spent significant time campaigning for Hillary Clinton.)

Fox as Candace on ‘Empire’ (20th Century Fox Television)
Fox as Candace on ‘Empire’ (20th Century Fox Television)

Now Fox is entering another next phase: She’s got a book deal; she’s extended her role as Cookie Lyon’s sister on Empire; she’ll be the first black woman to play president of the United States, in the indie sci-fi flick Crossbreed. She’s starring in Chocolate City: Vegas, plus a Fifty Shades of Grey–esque film for black women called Kinky. And, of course, there’s Black Magic.

“This next chapter is called ‘Grown Ass Woman, Boss Bitch, Head Chick in Charge,’” Fox tells me, shrugging her shoulders up and down victoriously. “I’m the head chick in charge that’s all about her business and can deliver. I’m not just watching the guys. This is a business, and I’m a woman in charge of eight hot guys. I’m a shero. Let me teach a seminar.”

Until she publishes her memoir, the best motivational text that we have from Vivica A. Fox is Vivica’s Black Magic. The show itself is standard reality-show fare — the men fight, Fox gets emotional. The stakes are very high, the suspense very manufactured. It’s fun; Fox gets to say things like, “Hold onto your panties,” and “Throw her legs in the air!” There are handsome half-naked men running around. You almost forget that she’s managed to put the entrepreneurial efforts of a black woman at the center of a television show. Not only that, but it’s a television project that she conceived of and hustled to sell to a network. The show itself is a good summary for Fox’s career; she took a project others might have looked down on — because of the network, or the reality-television aspect, or the bald displays of male sexuality — and made it something that people want to be a part of.

Le Marre tells me about the only major hiccup in the show’s creation; originally it was just called Black Magic, but another network owned the rights to that title. “Just put my name on it,” Fox said. Le Marre asked her if she was sure — her name would forever be associated with male strippers. “Of course, I want this. It’s the perfect part of my brand.”

It’s too early to tell if Vivica’s Black Magic will be a success, or even land a second season — the show only premieres Wednesday, and the fate of the Elite Eight’s Vegas residency is still unknown. (“The last episode is them doing a Vegas show,” says Tracy Speed, senior director of publicity at Lifetime. “Hopefully [if there’s a second season], they’ll move closer to Vegas!”) But if anybody can turn the show into a lasting proposition, it’s Fox. That night at the Avalon, many women came because they’d seen announcements on Fox’s Twitter and Instagram feeds. Women came from all over — L.A., New York, Utah — many of them in Vivica’s wigs. Yes, they screamed for Bolo, and they screamed for pert butts, and they screamed for pure carnal sexiness. But they screamed loudest for Fox, who was the hardest-working person on the stage that night, and she didn’t even have to booty-pop. (She didn’t have to, but she did — she always goes above and beyond.)

Fox, proud of what the boys have accomplished, is already thinking about expansion. “I’d love to see girls walking around with their Black Magic T-shirts on and their hats. We’ve got to get some merchandising going. Then we’re going to do a domestic tour, and an international tour, then they can just work and I can reap all the benefits,” Fox jokes.

“I’m just kidding, but it would be kind of nice to not have to work so hard, and just go hang out in Europe, meet some hot European man, see me on a big yacht somewhere. You’ll see that picture and be like, ‘She’s good.’”