As our conversation was winding down, the elephant in the room was looming large. I gathered my courage and asked the obvious: How did two priests reconcile being fans of a musician known for his explicit lyrics and provocative stage persona?
The answer, I realized, had everything to do with opening my own mind, because I was operating under the weight of pre-conceived notions of the pristine and unsullied life of a man of the cloth.
Far from living in an ivory tower, being a man of the cloth entails navigating the most challenging aspects of being human, the priests said. Helping parishioners cope with the heart-wrenching loss of a child, or the transgression of an extramarital affair, or even the crabbiness and negativity that can creep up on the best-intentioned person, is all part of a priest’s job description. You could say that a day’s work for a priest is as much helping people cope with “you have accessed the hate experience” as “welcome to the dawn.”
There’s no line of demarcation between the sacred and the profane, and the artist that embodied that dichotomy best is the one they hold close to their hearts.
“What drew me to like Prince’s music as a teenager is that you’re dealing with sexuality, and on the other hand, I was drawn to the church and wanted to be a priest,” Father Tom acknowledges. “People would say to me, `Oh, you listen to Prince and all those dirty songs, all those bad songs.’ And I would tell them that there’s a message behind that too. The message was part of what drew me to him, and to see him mature was vindication.”
Father Fred remembers feeling conflicted. “As a young person, I’d think, `Should I pick up this album? Should I throw it down and run the other way?’” he says. Father Fred tends to agree with author Toure, who wrote that Prince was a preacher of the gospel and used sex to lure listeners. “Once he got them, he gave them the gospel,” he says. “His music is message-oriented. He was conscious about portraying himself. He wanted to teach, he wanted to enlighten. I tolerated his whole sexual persona and hypersexual lyrics, as if, `Okay, this is done and now we can get to some music.’”
Father Fred at First Avenue in 2016
Father Thomas adds that Prince’s music put a lot of feelings you have growing up into some perspective. “You can love God and still be able to deal with the feelings of growing up as a teenager and then as you mature you can control those things,” he says. “As people grow closer to God they realize being in communion with him is more important than a lot of the relationships we have or the material things we seek. Prince proved that by giving to charity and doing it quietly, even in his suffering. He had a lot of lavish things but they were more for the persona than his personal use. In the end, if you look at the investigation photos, he had a bedroom and a bathroom and he had shed a lot of the materialistic stuff. The cars were in the garage but he didn’t drive them. In the end, he lived in a one-bed, one-bath section of a building where he created music.”
“The interesting thing about his career was he matured as I matured, and it was great to be able to bring my kids to a Prince concert without worrying about what might happen on stage,” says Father Tom. And in fact, in 2004, Father Tom brought his then seven-year-old daughter to the Musicology tour at Madison Square Garden. He was stunned when Prince lifted her out of his arms and danced with her for a couple of minutes before lowering her back down.
Prince dances with Father Tom’s daughter during the Musicology tour in 2004
Prince interacts with Father Tom’s daughter in 2004
Father Fred notes, “Listening to him and going beyond the surface has taught me that everybody has a value and a voice and to appreciate differences and to go beyond prejudging.”
“I saw a Welcome2Chicago show, and there were 22,000 people there,” says Father Fred. “Going into that concert, I felt out of my element. I’m not 20, I’m not with a girlfriend, I haven’t been out drinking. I felt disconnected. But when the songs were playing, I was jumping up and down and screaming totally in harmony and in sync. He brought us together and I felt, I’m just the same as everyone else.”
Father Tom agrees. “At his concerts, the whole spectrum of people were there. His most amazing feat was to bring together people from all backgrounds, races, creeds. For those couple of hours, it didn’t matter who you were or where you came from. I don’t know that any other artist did that.”
Father Fred says, “You felt like he knew he was doing it too.”
The Ladder of Divine Ascent, a late 12th-century icon at Saint Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai, Egypt. The icon depicts the steps for monks in the spiritual life as they ascend the ladder of salvation. Demons try to pull the monks off as they ascend.
The church introduced them, but a shared love of Prince’s music cemented a 30-year friendship between Eastern Orthodox priests Father Thomas Zain and Father Fred Shaheen.
“We knew each other through church, but our friendship developed over Prince,” says Father Fred, a priest at St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “It’s hard to tell where one aspect of the friendship starts and the other begins.”
Present-day priests and friends. From left: Father Thomas Zain; well-known jazz trumpet player Atlanta Bliss, who worked with Prince from 1985-1991; Father Fred Shaheen; and a third priest friend, Father Joseph Bittle.
Father Tom, for his part, is the Vicar General of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America and Dean at St. Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral of Brooklyn, New York. All you need to know about Father Tom is this: While a teenager attending a church youth conference in Ohio in the early 1980s, Father Tom discovered that Prince was in town on the 1999 tour. He did the only logical thing and bought tickets with a few church friends.
“It was one of the last shows on the tour,” Father Tom says as if by way of explanation, adding that back then, as a kid growing up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, he was as much a fan of The Time as of the headliner. And, he recalls, The Time put on a great show. Then, Prince came on stage, and a surge of electricity shot through the crowd. The show was heady stuff, and Father Tom became a believer.
“It was like getting on a train and never looking back,” Father Tom says.
As a young teenager in Worcester, Massachusetts, Father Fred says Prince first caught his attention during the Controversy era.
Father Fred at age 17, representing as a Prince fan (note the button).
“The album cover, the magazine ad in Billboard and what critics were saying about him all made me take notice,” Father Fred recalls, adding that 1999 was the album that blew his teenage mind. “I think for a year and a half it was all I listened to, and it challenged me,” he says of his 16-year-old self. “I’d never heard music like that before. It created an `I want more’ feeling.”
By 1984, Father Fred and Father Tom considered themselves super fans. The statistics bear out this claim: To date, collectively, they have seen 55 Prince shows (official tally: 40 for Tom; 15 for Fred).
“He’s not a bigger Prince fan, he just lives in a bigger city,” Father Fred asserts.
“Living in New York for the past 21 years was the next best thing to living in Minneapolis,” Father Tom concedes.
The friendship took off in 1988 when Fred and Tom ran into each other at a regional church youth meeting in Toledo, Ohio. Fred was sporting a custom Purple Rain jean jacket. The jacket was like a secret handshake: Tom spotted it and knew they had to be friends.
Father Fred, during Spring Break 1987, at the Hard Rock Cafe in New York
Later that year, the teens attended the Chicago Lovesexy show together.
“And I saw it again another time,” Father Tom adds, displaying a healthy sense of fan one-ups-manship that marks Prince fan friendships.
After Lovesexy, the two fell out of touch for 11 years. Tom went on to seminary, got married and became a priest while Fred moved to Montreal to teach English as a Second Language. And that might have been the end of the story if it wasn’t for a major life decision on Fred’s part.
Father Fred looking forward to the Rave tour in 1999, the year he decided to become a priest.
In 1999, Father Fred decided to become a priest, a decision that brought him back to another church conference, this one in Chicago.
“I hadn’t seen Father Tom in so many years and wondered if he was still as big a fan,” Father Fred recalls. “His wife Claudia told me about him taking her to Prince concerts while pregnant. So I knew: Yeah, he’s still a fan!” Father Fred says, adding, “By the way, I took my wife Michelle to see Prince two days after my ordination in 2004 and she was four months pregnant. Is it any wonder he and I are friends?”
Over the years, there have been spontaneous road trips (Father Fred, who drove through the night from Toledo to Minneapolis in 1995, when concert tickets were announced for the low, low price of $19.99) and intimate, once-in-a-lifetime shows (Father Tom, who in 2006 raced home from Prince’s Good Morning America outdoor summer performance to buy one of only 100 tickets offered through the NPG Music Club for a show at Butter, a Manhattan restaurant. This show, which took place in the early morning hours, was the lifetime Prince highlight for Father Tom. He was only a couple of feet from Prince, who performed with no stage or elevated platform. In fact, Father Tom had to kneel the whole time to ensure that others could see, since Father Tom is 6’2” and, well, Prince wasn’t quite that tall!). There were times when being a Prince fan paid off handsomely (Father Fred, who was able to sell his Purple Rain jean jacket to help pay for his 2003 wedding), and times when it was expensive (also Father Fred, who spent major money on the Purple Wear line designed for Merry Go Round, the trendy mall retailer of the 1980s).
Through marriage, fatherhood, and growing careers, the men remained friends and fans. In October 2015, Father Fred was in St. Paul for a deanery meeting.
“I’m such a superfan that if I’m in the Twin Cities I’m not going to NOT drive by Paisley Park,” he says. “Whether it was by divine providence or dumb luck, there was a show that night.” Despite the fact that he was suffering from the double indignity of a sinus infection and laryngitis, Father Fred scored a ticket and went.
“I couldn’t believe I was in Paisley,” he says. “I think I was three feet away from Prince. Everyone was right in the front – there were only 30 people in the Love4OneAnother room. That was a dream come true.” Madonna provided the icing on the cake when she and her entourage showed up. Father Fred recalls that Madonna’s crew left in the middle of a song, and
Prince gestured to the crowd, saying, “All you singers up front, come up on stage.”
Father Fred hesitated since he had no voice.
“The next thing I realize, I’m on stage,” Father Fred says. “And I’m shaking my booty and if I kicked my foot out I would have hit Prince,” he marvels. The next morning, Father Fred was able to tell incredulous colleagues that he’d spent the previous evening at a club with Prince and Madonna.
For his part, Father Tom decided to make the pilgrimage to Minneapolis for the Piano & Microphone shows on January 21, 2016.
“I had never been to Paisley Park,” Father Tom explains, “because most of his shows were last minute, so I didn’t kill myself to go out there. But this was planned.” He remembers leaving with a bad feeling. “He looked very thin and drawn. It left a weird feeling inside me. I thought a lot about something not being right.”
In the aftermath of Prince’s death, the men received a flood of texts and calls. It was then that they realized how much parishioners, friends and church colleagues connected them with Prince.
“I had parishioners calling me and saying, `What happened?’” Father Fred says. “People I hadn’t spoken to in 30 years reached out and said, `You’re the first person I thought of.’”
“All those years you thought people forgot about him,” Father Tom adds. “His live shows sold out but his albums didn’t sell as in the past. There were a lot of people who didn’t get it. For us, his death was like `aha.’ I was justified all these years when people thought I was crazy for listening to Prince.”
A framed picture of Father Tom’s concert tickets, gifted to him by his wife
Father Fred received a call from a colleague who said, “In case you were wondering, you were always right to listen to him.”
Reflecting back on their favorite musician’s life, Fathers Fred and Thomas believe Prince had a plan from day one.
Father Tom says, “He had a dream to do certain things and make music and not let anything interfere with that and stay focused most of the time. What 17-year-old insists on certain things in his contract when he’s never sold a record?”
Father Tom and his family in 2016
Father Fred agrees. “Prince wasn’t driven by things people are in that business – money, fame, success. He made what we’d say aren’t good business decisions. Why not tour? Why not put out a single? He lived to create. His whole life was about constantly moving and leaving behind the past. This last tour, he was in a place where he had to reflect. After the death of Vanity and following the deaths of his mother and father – there was no way to escape. Where is he going to go from here? When there was nowhere to go, I think it killed him.”
Father Thomas adds, “With the Piano & Microphone tour, I think he couldn’t do a live show with a band at that point. He was so frail. I think it was the only way he could continue and probably he needed to deal with the pain problem but if he did that he couldn’t make music for a while, and that was the only thing he knew and desired to do. He got stuck in a box.”
Tomorrow: Prince, Sex and God: Father Tom and Father Fred Speak
The early 90s saw Paisley Park running at full speed. Wardrobe design, hair and makeup, studio engineers — all were available at a moment’s notice to bring Prince’s creative visions to life. At night, Prince might play a set for an exclusive guest list who learned about the parties by word of mouth. Or, Prince might visit his nightclub, Glam Slam, which opened in Minneapolis in 1990.
As part of Prince’s circle of friends, Leisl AuVante was a regular fixture on the guest list and although she never had a membership at Glam Slam, when she arrived, she would be waved past the velvet ropes and into the VIP area.
“Sometimes Prince would play a set in a private room at Glam Slam. Or, he would sit and play guitar in the [Paisley Park] soundstage,” she says. “There were small groups of people hanging out, drinks were flowing, and it was all free.”
She was occasionally called upon by Prince to play a role in his professional life as well. In addition to her lead role in “Gangster Glam,” AuVante acted in “Gett Off (Houstyle)” and “Gett Off (Main Video)” as a featured extra.
“It was all such a crazy whirlwind, with a lot of late-night shoots,” recalls AuVante of the “Gett Off” videos. She recalls shooting for the “Gett Off (Houstyle)” video for ten straight hours on the soundstage at Paisley Park, and at 2:30 a.m., being told to stop and stay in place. Prince had ripped a hole in the seat of his pants and everyone had to stay on set and wait while the wardrobe department repaired it — no matter that it was the middle of the night.
“That was classic Prince,” AuVante says.
Leisl (far right) and Ingrid Chavez (center) shown at a nightclub in Mpls-St. Paul Magazine.
AuVante’s profile in Prince’s inner circle rose when she was given a role in an all-female band produced by Mark Brown. Thanks to her childhood piano lessons, AuVante became the keyboardist for a fledgling band called the Mercedes Girls, and she found herself spending hours rehearsing in the same warehouse space as Mazarati, the R&B band formed by Mark Brown and Prince. According to AuVante, the Mercedes Girls had promise but never managed to get off the ground, partly due to the emergence of a rival Minneapolis all-girl band also called — you guessed it — the Mercedes Girls.
Socially, these were happy years for AuVante. She became close friends with Ingrid Chavez, and the two have remained lifelong friends. She also got to know Carmen Electra.
AuVante (right) with a friend, in the early 90s
“Carmen was a sweet, talented girl and she was a real person – she wasn’t contrived or thought she was `all that’,” AuVante recalls. Carmen was an exception to some of the other women in Prince’s circle, AuVante says.
“Physically, I fit the profile of the type of woman that Prince liked to date,” she says. “A lot of his potential or current girlfriends back then saw me as possible competition for his attention.”
AuVante also developed friendships with Tommy Barbarella, Morris Hayes, Tony Moseley, Damon Dickson, Hucky Austin and others. These were purely friendships and not dating relationships, she says, and years later, AuVante found out why.
“Someone told me that Prince had put the word out, saying: `I’m not dating Leisl, but I don’t want anyone in our circle dating her, either,'” she says.
Over the years, Prince and AuVante fell into a friendship characterized by witty banter and a very occasional spat that was quickly mended. Once, at the nightclub “Pacific Club” for a wrap party for Graffiti Bridge (AuVante had played a server in Morris Day’s club), Prince sought out AuVante and asked her to dance. Prince and Ingrid Chavez were dating at the time, but AuVante, who’d been busily flitting around the club and socializing with the cast and crew, readily agreed to dance with her friend.
Later that night, she was confronted outside the club by Chavez. Unbeknownst to AuVante, Prince had dismissed his own co-star from the wrap party after the two got into a dispute. (“He could be that way,” AuVante acknowledges. “If he got mad at you, security would remove you.”) This was Prince, the instigator, using AuVante to make Chavez jealous. Fortunately, Chavez and AuVante’s friendship was strong enough to withstand the affront, but the incident left AuVante fuming at Prince.
“He knew that if I would have known what was going on, I would not have been on the dance floor,” she says.
A recent photo of Leisl (top right) and Ingrid Chavez (bottom right)
But one summer day, the winds of their relationship shifted. AuVante had been boating on Lake Minnetonka when her phone rang with news that Prince was going to play a set at Paisley Park. She dashed over, still windblown from her day on the water. A DJ was playing and a small group of friends was socializing and waiting for Prince’s set, when Prince approached AuVante.
“Let’s go downstairs,” Prince said. He took her hand and together, they rode the elevator down to the parking garage. AuVante started to feel nervous.
“It was that unspoken innuendo that you could feel, of `Is this relationship going to turn another direction?'” AuVante says. “It caught me so off guard because we had never interacted in an intimate way, ever.”
Prince came up behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist, placing his face next to hers, close enough to whisper in her ear.
“`So, how are you?’” he murmured.
AuVante says she felt “freaked out” by the sudden shift in their relationship.
She remembers thinking, `Is he coming on to me? What’s going on here?’
“That’s my naivete back in that time,” she recalls. “On camera, it was one thing to look like a couple, because we were acting. But now there was no one around. It was me and him, and I was caught so off guard that I said the stupidest thing.”
“So, what’s your middle name?” AuVante asked Prince.
Prince started to laugh and told her his middle name. Then he asked AuVante what her middle name was.
She replied, “I don’t like my middle name and I don’t tell anybody.”
“That was the comic relief that broke apart that moment,” she says. “We chatted some more and we went upstairs, and that was it.”
Does she feel any regrets about the way that moment played out?
“I think everybody had a crush on Prince at one point, but I feel like our relationship wasn’t of that nature,” she reflects. “Was he a sexy man? Absolutely. But the dynamic of our interactions was not that of two people walking down the road of chemistry to intimacy.”
Instead, she says, they were usually engaged in a battle of wits. Prince would frequently challenge her to do something outrageous and would qualify it by adding, “if you were my friend, you would do it,” to which AuVante would reply, “if you were my friend, you wouldn’t ask me to do it.” She chalks up those interactions partly as Prince’s way of testing the water to gauge how much control he could have over her.
“There was a sort of healthy competition. Not a lot of people talked back to him. I would,” she says. “And I think he saw pieces of himself in me. He knew that you can tell me something but it doesn’t mean I’ll do it. So he tried to push the envelope and I’d be like, `No, you know better than that.'”
While she wouldn’t characterize herself as a quest to be conquered, AuVante acknowledged that Prince had a history of moving on after he’d conquered something. The fact that AuVante showed him, however jokingly, that she wouldn’t follow his whims, gave their relationship longevity, she says.
“I gave him some intelligent conversation without the pretense of `I’m trying to date you,'” she says. “I think that’s why we worked together for so long because we had a nice friendship and we didn’t complicate it with all the things that can happen with an intimate relationship. That provided longevity to our relationship.”
AuVante in the early 90s
As the early 90s became the mid-90s, parties at Paisley Park began to change.
“Everyone wanted to be a part of it,” AuVante says, noting that the parties were no longer free, and there were long lines to get in the door. “I think they (Prince and those running Paisley Park) saw the commercial value as well as the potential liabilities they were creating by serving alcohol after hours.”
But before the good times for Prince’s close circle came to an end, the phone rang again. It was January 1994.
“I’m doing a video for a song called `The Most Beautiful Girl in the World,'” the baritone voice said. “I want you to be in it. You’re going to have to play a pregnant lady giving birth.”
AuVante hesitated, unsure whether she wanted to play that role.
“I want your son to be in it,” Prince added.
That sealed the deal. AuVante knew the video would be a lifelong memento for her five-year-old son. On the day of the shoot, her then-boyfriend came along to watch her son when AuVante was on set. Because the shoot was impromptu, she recalls that there was no food on set. But that kind of oversight was typical of the way things operated.
“One of the things I think that Prince probably struggled with was letting go of things enough to properly delegate so things weren’t falling through the cracks or happening at the last minute,” she says. “He liked being in control and he needed to be in control when it came to his creative genius. Creatives see the big picture but they don’t see the inner workings that need to take place to make the big picture happen.”
When they arrived at Paisley Park, AuVante and her son encountered Prince. AuVante was mortified when the first thing her son asked upon meeting Prince was, “How come you wear high heels?”
A big grin spread across Prince’s face, and he replied, “Because I can!”
Once on set, everyone realized that Prince hadn’t cast someone to be AuVante’s significant other for this scene with the family remembering back to the birth of their child.
“You can’t have a family scene without a family,” AuVante laughs. Her boyfriend wound up taking the role and appeared in the scene with her and her son.
AuVante decided to go to college, and as years passed, no longer had a lot of contact with Prince. Her Paisley Park friends also moved on with their lives. When there would be an event at Paisley Park, AuVante no longer had any contacts there, so she stopped going. In 2001, she met the man who would become her second husband. They got married in 2003 and had three more children.
In 2010, AuVante felt compelled to reach out to Prince. Her youthful, party-oriented years behind her, she felt that there were things that had been left unsaid and situations that she wanted to apologize for, in case she had caused Prince pain. She wrote a letter, sealed it in an envelope and, as she had so many times, drove to Paisley Park. She handed the envelope to a person at the desk, saying, “Tell him it’s from Leisl.”
Three hours later, the phone rang. There was a baritone voice on the line.
Here is the story of their final conversation, in AuVante’s own words.
In our last conversation, we spent a lot of time talking about God. We had some unfinished business and it took me growing as a person for 20 years before I realized we needed to have a conversation. We were on the phone for 40 minutes. We would’ve been on the phone longer but I was cooking dinner and the kids were circling around me … We didn’t always talk that often, but he knew if I called there was something to talk about.
We both had changed as people and he was very grounded in his faith, as I was in mine. Both of us had two marriages, and both of us had experienced divorce, and both of us had found God. Spiritually, he was always fundamentally connected in a higher way, but it took him some time to find his true path of who he was. He had that aura. The forces of good and evil pulled and tugged at him. The forces of the record industry can be very dirty. He had to navigate through the egos of musicians, and the drawbacks and benefits of fame.
We had a very honest and genuine discussion about where we were and who we were as people and how we’d grown in the time we hadn’t spoken. I had married again and he had come into his own. He seemed like a different person. He had a firm grasp of what he believed in and he stood by it. It was a really refreshing thing. Through it all, he had a very strong air of humility. Surprising! And he was very honest and genuine and very humble about where he was at that point in his life. That was a cool thing to see.
We were doing a lot of catching up, like two old friends reintroducing the people they had become. We’re talking on the phone and I was in the middle of cooking dinner and I heard a timer go off in the kitchen. I said, “Oh my gosh, I have dinner cooking! Here, talk to Ava (AuVante’s then three-year-old daughter).” Prince took it in stride. When I got back on the phone, he said something like, “She sounds very sweet and cute.” He loved kids and had a special place in his heart for them. The fact that he just talked with Ava while I cooked speaks to the nature of our relationship. He laughed about it when I got back on the phone. It was a sweet gesture on his part.
I feel blessed that I had my time together with him. Some of it is immortalized on screen and some of it is immortalized in my heart.
Editor’s Note: In part one, Leisl AuVante shared how she met Prince in 1984 at age 16. She went on to graduate from high school in 1986. True to her rebellious spirit, she decided to marry at age 19. She gave birth to a son and eventually divorced. AuVante had spent a few years outside of Prince’s circle by the time 1991 rolled around — but apparently, she was never far from Prince’s mind.
On a picture-perfect summer day in 1991, Leisl AuVante’s phone rang.
“We’re goofing around with a video camera at Paisley Park,” an enticing baritone voice said. “Hurry up and get over here and bring all of your best outfits.”
For a moment, AuVante considered the proposition. “Goofing around with a video camera – that sounds a little dangerous,” she thought.
But Prince had called AuVante for good reason. What he already knew about her was this: She was spontaneous and was ready for fun. She could act, she could match Prince’s energy, and she could roll with the unexpected.
“He knew if the camera turned on, and we had no script, I could just go and improvise,” she says.
True to form, AuVante decided to give Prince’s proposition a chance. She grabbed her best dresses and headed to Paisley Park. There, she was greeted not simply by Prince goofing around with a video camera, but by a full complement of hair stylists, makeup artists and a camera crew.
“We’re filming something?” AuVante asked in surprise. It was the first in a series of surreal moments that occurred during the two-day video shoot for “Gangster Glam,” a non-album track released on the “Gett Off” maxi single. (“Gett Off” was the first single released from Prince’s thirteenth studio album, “Diamonds and Pearls.”) The video shoot would take AuVante from Prince’s inner sanctum at his private office and inside his Galpin Road home to Minneapolis’ hottest nightclubs.
AuVante’s initial surprise at discovering that she’d be performing in a music video with one of the biggest pop stars in the world was nothing compared with the next moment, when Prince emerged in an ensemble that might mildly be described as unconventional, even by Prince’s standards.
“When saw him in Speedos and suspenders and rollerskates, I was like, `What the heck?’” she says. Still, there was no time to ponder the situation, she says. “Prince said, `The music’s going to come on and we’re going to go.’”
The spontaneous video shoot is all the more striking when viewed in the context of the times. The early 90s were far from a “throw-on-your-suspenders-and-Speedos and make a video” kind of era. Pop culture was dominated by the image of the perfectly coiffed, designer-clad, vogue-ing runway supermodel. Prince’s musical rivals George Michael and Michael Jackson were sinking huge dollars into mega-budget videos. In 1992, George Michael came out with “Too Funky,” a video directed by French fashion designer Thierry Mugler and starring supermodels Linda Evangelista, Nadja Auermann and Tyra Banks. Not to be outdone, Michael Jackson created “In the Closet,” a short film directed by fashion photographer Herb Ritts and featuring supermodel Naomi Campbell.
Prince, however, intended to go his own way. His plan, unbeknownst to AuVante, was to create a video EP, essentially a visual album, to accompany the “Gett Off” maxi single. (The resulting EP runs about 30 minutes and includes videos for “Gett Off,” “Gett Off (Houstyle),” “Violet the Organ Grinder,” “Gangster Glam” and “Clockin’ The Jizz.”)
According to AuVante, they were standing in the parking lot in front of Paisley Park, with Prince’s best cars lined up and members of the NPG wearing crazy loud 90s outfits, when a boombox appeared, and someone hit “play.”
What resulted was some of the most joyous footage of Prince ever captured on camera.
Prince climbed on top of his yellow BMW and screamed his lungs out. He jumped onto the car’s hood and slid down, wrapping his legs around AuVante. He did push-ups, poolside, in a mankini (“It was weird to see him in his bare feet,” AuVante says. “I always saw him in high heels.”) He toyed with his sunglasses, placing them on AuVante’s face and admiring the result. In his office, AuVante sat in his lap and later, Prince waves her arms in the air like she’s a marionette. Then, Prince bursts into a dance with AuVante looking on from his desk chair.
Prince tried to get AuVante to lip sync for part of the song where he samples Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son. (Aunt Esther was the staunch Baptist sister-in-law of Fred Sanford who was constantly critical of him).
“When that part came on, he tried to get me to say, `Hold it, Fred!’” she laughs. “I tried over and over but I couldn’t catch the rhythm. He knew I was always a beat behind.”
As darkness fell, Prince put AuVante in his limo and sent her downtown.
“I had no idea where I was going or what we were doing,” she says. They wound up at The Perimeter, the hottest nightclub in town.
During one sequence outside of the club, Prince moved in close and grabbed her breast. Acting on instinct, AuVante spun Prince around and pinned him against the wall.
“`Wow, what are you doing, we don’t have this kind of relationship!” she recalls thinking. “And then I realized, `Oh wait, we’re on camera.”’
In the editing process, Prince reversed those two shots. Rather than the actual sequence in which Prince gets fresh with AuVante and then gets his comeuppance, the final version makes it appear that AuVante is cozying up to him against the wall to whisper an intimate secret, and then he grabs her breast. “It comes off as me whispering sweet nothings,” AuVante says, shaking her head at Prince’s clever editing.
At night’s end, AuVante jumped into Prince’s yellow BMW with Prince and Tony Mosley in the front seat. Driving home to Paisley Park on Minnesota’s open roads, they were trailed by two cars, with cameramen filming out of the sunroofs.
“It is one of my best memories,” AuVante says of those two glorious summer days with Prince. “To me, the video screamed, `the Minneapolis Sound having fun in our brief but beautiful summertime,’ and that’s exactly what we were doing.”
Next: Circle of Friends during Paisley Park’s Heyday
Leisl AuVante played a server in Morris Day’s club in Graffiti Bridge, Prince’s love interest in “Gangster Glam,” and a woman reliving the birth of her baby with her family in “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World.”
While those roles provided glimpses of AuVante and her relationship with Prince, off camera, her role in the pop superstar’s life was more enduring.
“I sing off-key, make up my own words, and don’t care who hears,” laughs AuVante, in an apt summary of her outlook on life. It’s an outlook that Prince found appealing, she says.
“I had an adventurous, rebellious spirit in me. I think Prince and I had a lot of that in common,” she remembers. “If we wanted to do something, we were going to figure out how to get it done.”
AuVante, now 50, lives in the Chanhassen area. She is still “most beautiful girl” material, with long dark hair, sparkling eyes, and a picture-perfect smile. But growing up in her hometown of Apple Valley, Minnesota, AuVante says she wasn’t considered beautiful. Her mother was of German heritage; her father, a neurologist who worked at the Minneapolis Veterans Administration Hospital, came to the U.S. from India in his mid-20s.
A self-described “book nerd,” the teenaged AuVante was on the cheerleading and dance squads. Those activities helped her to be accepted by some groups — but not by all. Boys, in particular, harassed her, she says, recalling one boy who called her “Zambian,” in a misguided attempt at racism. Despite the fact that AuVante had been modeling since age 14, when an agent discovered her walking out of the elevator with her mother in Dayton’s department store, no one wanted to date her, she says. Even in her career as a model, the color of her skin prevented her from getting jobs in 1980s Minneapolis.
“I can look Black or Puerto Rican or Indian,” she says. But what was in demand during that era was the “All-American girl,” an unspoken code for blonde hair and blue eyes. AuVante was told again and again, “You’re too exotic for this market.”
Leisl in high school, around the age when Prince met her.
When AuVante was 16 years old, she attended a Purple Rain concert at the St. Paul Civic Center (a series of five shows took place on Dec. 23, 24, 26, 27 and 28, 1984). During the show, a man wearing a laminate approached her, saying “someone wants to meet you.” AuVante says she was “naive and unfamiliar with the dating world.” Being unsure of strangers, she refused. The man persisted in inviting her backstage until she agreed on the condition that she could bring a friend. As it turned out, one of Prince’s associates had spotted her in the crowd and wanted to meet her. AuVante was invited to join a private Christmas party following the show, which Prince hosted at the Shady Oak warehouse in Eden Prairie.
At the party, the associate was quickly edged out of the picture when “Prince saw me and swooped in,” she says. The 26-year-old Prince asked her to dance. As she accepted, a phalanx of bodyguards formed a circle around them and stood, arms crossed, facing Prince and Leisl. Apparently, Prince didn’t like anyone to hone in on his dance partners. Awkwardness ensued.
“Number one, I’m not the best dancer,” Leisl laughs. “Number two, I’m dancing with a really great dancer. And number three, there’s all these people watching me, and I’m 16.”
Despite the awkwardness, being at a party with the Prince crowd was a watershed moment for reasons that went far beyond the fact that she had been asked to dance by the world’s biggest pop star. AuVante had glimpsed what might be considered Prince’s “Uptown” come to life, a place where all races were mixing and enjoying life to the fullest.
“I felt like I had come home,” she recalls. “I was where I was supposed to be, around people who were like me, who appreciated my presence, who wanted to date me,” she says. “I went from being a very ostracized person to finding this group of people that was very open-minded and ethnically well rounded and didn’t put a lot of emphasis on what your color your skin is.”
As it turned out, Prince’s crowd would embrace Leisl for nearly a decade from the mid-80s to mid-90s, including a period when Prince was hosting regular private parties at Paisley Park and frequenting Minneapolis nightclubs. The experience of being in Prince’s circle of friends sent Leisl on the adventure of a lifetime.
Next: “The Minneapolis Sound enjoying our brief but beautiful summertime”: The Real Story Behind the Making of “Gangster Glam”
From outward appearances, you might assume that these photos are simply grainy nightclub photos like a million others. And you would be correct, in one way. These photos were taken Saturday night at the Chase and Ovation show at Bunker’s Music Bar and Grill in Minneapolis. But dig deeper, and there is much more to the photo than meets the eye. Each of these women is connected in an unexpected way.
Karen Turman is the selfie taker in the bottom left wearing purple lipstick. I elect her “Best Dancer.” Karen is the one who can get the whole dance floor doing the electric slide. She’s such an expressive dancer that I’ve learned more about her by watching her dance than I could ever learn in hours of conversation. Karen is an academic who was teaching French at Winona State University in Winona, Minnesota, until this spring, when she packed up her apartment and prepared to move to Cambridge, Massachusetts, because she will be teaching at (drumroll, please) Harvard University. But I didn’t meet her through the Prince fan community. Karen came to me through a friend of her mother’s who met me at an Open Art Studio class at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.
Kristen Zschomler is next. If Prince’s homes and workplaces get recognized as historic properties by the City of Minneapolis, the state or even the federal government, we will have Kristen to thank. Kristen is a Historian and RPA-Registered Archaeologist with the Office of Environmental Stewardship at the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MNDot). Until I met Kristen, I would never have imagined that MNDot would employ a historian, and fortunately, Kristen did not hold that against me. I met Kristen at the Prince in Minneapolis Symposium and then realized she was at every event I attended. Do you remember the David Byrne song with the lyrics about mistakenly getting someone else’s groceries and then discovering that by eating the groceries, you begin bumping into that person everywhere you go, at the park or the movie theater or a baseball game? That’s what it feels like with Kristen. If I hadn’t met her one way, I would most certainly have met her in another way.
Stacy Semler is next, and then Stacy Morgan. One of their best collective qualities is that they are incredibly good-natured and don’t mind being called “The Stacies.” It’s hard to even recall meeting Stacy and Stacy, because I feel like I’ve known them forever, even though it’s likely been no more than a year. Stacy Semler is a Chanhassen resident like me, and Stacy Morgan is our cosmopolitan New York City friend. We bonded instantly and see each other all the time. Stacy Morgan, who works as a Workforce Planning & Analysis Senior Manager at a Fortune 500 company, pops into Minnesota so regularly that I see her as much as my friends who actually live here. Stacy Semler and I hang out at exciting Chanhassen venues like City Hall, where we listen in on Planning Commission meetings (if they’re talking about Prince’s property, well then, someone from the Purple Fam has to be there). For nearly eight years, Stacy Semler worked at recording schools in the Minneapolis area. As a result, she got to know many local musicians and engineers in a town where most roads led to Prince. At Saturday night’s Bunker’s show, Stacy Morgan knew the lead singer of Chase and Ovation (of course she did), and Stacy Semler knew the saxophone player. (By the way, Chase and Ovation put on a great show. They manage to channel Prince without imitating him. It’s a fine line and they walk it gracefully).
Then there’s Michelle Streitz. We happened upon each other at Steve Parke’s book signing at the Edina Barnes & Noble last fall. She sat in the row in front of me and as we chatted I immediately knew: This is a friend. I think a lot of people feel that way because everyone wants to be her friend. As it turns out, Michelle is an artist who made Prince’s mirror jewelry for the Lovesexy tour and the world-famous glitter canes. She is as sparkly in person as you’d expect. Next time you’re in Minneapolis, message Michelle to set up a tour of her exhibit, “Prince Love: Minneapolis Collections,” in her studio in the Solar Arts Building. You’ll come away with a new understanding of how local artists contributed to Prince’s aesthetic.
Last is me. I changed my hair color and am no longer blonde because I like to keep people on their toes. They ask me what my real hair color is, and I answer that I no longer know. But if I had to venture a guess, I’d guess that my natural color must be purple.
Holographic fabness on Prince’s “Planet Earth” CD cover.
Planet Earth was released this week in 2007. The album is notable for containing the greatest expression of digital-age yearning ever set to music.
Prince strikes me as unusually open and vulnerable on “Somewhere Here on Earth.” The song feels retro and jazzy and crackles with desire. It’s Prince’s antidote to the digital age. In 2007, Prince was 49 years old, and you can feel a confident maturity as he grapples with the fact that despite every type of modern technology available to him, what he truly longs for is real, human, face-to-face, skin-to-skin interaction.
And then there is the visually stunning video.
Prince is depicted as living in an ivory tower — or perhaps, behind the snow-white walls of Paisley Park. He’s all alone. I imagine him on the computer, as many of us are right now. He’s addressing a woman who materializes from the ether of the Internet, but who remains, tantalizing, at a distance.
The woman’s dress is made from the same fabric as Prince’s suit. She and Prince are cut from the same cloth.
Now I imagine Prince on a fan website, reading the woman’s declarations of love as she chats with other fans. He can see her photo. He knows she is beautiful. As she types, he can feel her hands on him, “and I like it,” he says, in coy Prince fashion. He longs for her touch. But, too shy to speak, Prince remains a silent watcher behind the veil of the Internet.
She knows he’s not involved with anyone romantically, so why doesn’t she reach out, he wonders? You can feel the devastating separation that fame creates for those we idolize. He has been placed in an ivory tower, up high, on a pedestal. Still, he sees her. He feels a kinship with her. He wants to touch her, too. He wants to love and be loved.
His divorce is behind him and he hasn’t been with anyone in forever. What is she waiting for?
And then Prince hits her with the devastating line, “Do you want to do this at yours, or my place?”
Lord have mercy.
The meeting never materializes. Where is the Prince of old, who would have had the woman in his bed by the end of the video? Instead, we see him accepting the reality that he has to be satisfied with the knowledge that she is out there, somewhere on Earth.
Prince shifts the tone in the final verse, in a way that gently suggests that he knows the hurt and bullying that the woman has suffered during her life. He witnessed it online. He read her words as she confessed about her life and received nothing but harsh words in return. “That’s okay. That’s okay,” he says.
You get the sense that he’s been there, too. He declares that there will be no more hurt. Now is the time for healing. It feels as if he could be speaking to himself, as the male reflection of her.
In the final, brilliant lyrical turn, Prince offers her the same comfort she has brought him. There will be no more hurt, he declares — at least, not as long as he resides on Planet Earth.
Over to you. How do you feel about “Somewhere Here on Earth”?
As a writer, I love quotes and keep a running list of them. Prince, of course, was a font of wise sayings. The Purple Yoda not only spouted wisdom himself but also inspired quotes that range from wise to hilarious to quirky. Sometimes, in my research on anything from Prince’s whereabouts in fall of 1990, to what color he favored at that time (yellow), I stumble across a quote that I can’t use in my work but seems too good to slip by unnoted. In the interest of leaving no good quote unused, I’ll feature one here each Wednesday under the heading, “A Little Wiser.”
In the first week of November 1990, the Baltimore Sun saw fit to publish two pieces on Grafitti Bridge. First up was film critic Stephen Hunter, on Nov. 5, 1990. To his enormous credit, Hunter latched on to Prince’s foray into spirituality, while expressing doubts about the execution of that concept.
Hunter leads off his review with, “As Olivia Newton-John didn’t use to say, let’s get metaphysical.” This line not only evoked recent discussions of our President’s use of negatives (ahem) but also caused me:
To Google “Let’s Get Physical,” only to discover that distressingly, it was one of the top songs of 1982, with a 10-week run at the top of the Billboard charts. I hope this puts “1999” into context for us all.
To remember compassionately the good people of the year 1990, who were questioning why Prince, as “one of the sexiest, hard-driving sex objects” was suddenly wearing oversized clothes that fell off his shoulders, in an apparent desire to turn himself into a version “either Michael or LaToya Jackson.”
As salient as Hunter’s points were, my favorite quote came from the second Baltimore Sun review, published on Nov. 7, 1990. Reporter Lou Cedrone, noting that the film seemed to be written in a secret language, summed up his verdict on the movie in two brief lines.
“`’Graffiti Bridge” is showing at local theaters,” he stated flatly. “Only Prince fans are advised to attend.”
Krystal, on her wedding day in 2012. “My wedding was a major turning point in my life and felt like a major transition. I finally got on the road to healing and leaving my painful past behind me. I thank Prince and his life story and music in helping me grow,” she says.
Editor’s note: This is the first in an ongoing series of profiles of Prince fans. If you’d like to tell your story, please contact me at email@example.com.
At first, Krystal would get on stage at Rick’s Cabaret in downtown Minneapolis and dance while stone cold sober, she says, smiling at the sheer naivete of it all. But she quickly learned that she could stomach the act more easily after some drinks.
“I would drink with the clients first, and then get up on stage,” she says. “I rationalized it by telling myself that socializing with clients was part of the job.”
The years rolled by in a blur of cocktails and clients. Krystal was a quick study. She watched the top girls and realized that the way they made money was not simply by dancing. The way to make serious money was by providing the experience of having a girlfriend.
“You know the way Prince would have sex with your mind?” she muses. “That’s what I did.”
Krystal, walking into work at Rick’ s Cabaret in the mid 2000’s. “I was always in an anxious state of mind before my shift started,” she says.
Through it all, Krystal kept track of Prince. As we speak, she litters her story with interjections such as, “I remember wearing headphones and listening to Come on the bus on the way to school, and it disturbed me. I thought he might die, or go crazy.” And, “When he married Mayte, I was happy because I thought it might help stabilize him, but when the baby died, I was scared he was going to lose it.”
By the early 2000s, she was a top girl at the club. One day, browsing in a bookstore, she stumbled upon Alex Hahn’s book, Possessed: The Rise and Fall of Prince. Reading it “revived my crush on Prince,” she remembers. She became active on Prince.org, posted regularly and became a highly visible member. Although she knew, intellectually, that Prince had a history as a womanizer, she felt that “he was the template of the guy I wanted to know. He was the ideal man.” And she wasn’t afraid to talk about it on the Org.
Krystal sometimes wondered if Prince knew of her from the Org. She mentions receiving a cryptic Org note in 2005, asking “So you dig my music?” She dismissed it as someone mimicking Prince, but later questioned herself when the same person sent an Mp3 of a song she had never heard before, to which she replied, “Thank you. Whoever you are.”
By 2007, Krystal was at the height of her dancing success. At the same time, she had erected an impenetrable façade to protect her heart.
“I just couldn’t show any vulnerability back then,” she says. “It wasn’t safe to show it.”
Then one day, Prince released “Somewhere Here On Earth.” Krystal’s stomach flip-flopped when she first read the lyrics, which were posted on Housequake and Prince.org, even before the release of the song. The lyrics about somebody putting you down, the need to heal whatever you feel, and that there would be no more hurt, “as long as I’m here on Earth” cracked something open inside her.
Still, she continued to dance for a living. At a Paisley Park concert in 2009, as she danced with her sister near the stage, Prince pointed his guitar at her and called out, “I see you, baby.” It was the closest she came to speaking with him.
As she became more successful at Rick’s, “I became a brand,” she acknowledges, “And I had started drinking more to handle my anxiety.” At the same time, she’d come to the realization that her boyfriend, who she had supported for years, wasn’t strong enough for her.
“It sounds sexist, but my biological clock was ticking and I wanted to blow up everything in my life,” she says. She broke her own rule and started dating a client who was a wealthy businessman. She continued to be active on Prince.org, where she could often be found gushing over Prince (“I’m embarrassed now by some of the stuff I used to post there,” she laughs). After getting her heart broken by the businessman client and breaking up with her boyfriend, she made one final change. She left Rick’s, and dancing, forever.
“I couldn’t be a person in that environment,” she says, “and I had to heal my soul.”
Krystal moved in with her sister and her brother-in-law and went on to marry a man she met at her gym. She stopped posting on the Org. On April 21, 2016, her husband had the day off. She was cuddled in bed with her baby son and husband when the news of Prince’s death arrived via text from her sister. She knew that a part of her heart had died that day.
It’s clear to her now that there are distinct parallels between the experience Prince provided and “The Girlfriend Experience ” as she calls it — the strategy that garnered her success in that industry.
“I was providing an emotional experience to the men, as Prince provided an emotional experience to the fans. I definitely felt like I could relate to him that way,” she says. “Also, I really hated the vulnerable feeling of my livelihood being based on the whim/moods of others … the hustle wore me out, having to depend on others’ perceptions of me or what they wanted. I felt so much pressure trying to meet everyone’s needs and mold myself to what everyone wanted. I kinda wonder if Prince felt that pressure with his fans.”
“Dancing shows you the worst in men. It was disillusioning. How can you love a man when you see what they’re capable of?” she says. It was in those dark days when she needed to look to Prince and his music as the ideal of what could be. “When I was in that world, I needed that,” she says. “I needed hope to survive, and he was hope.”
Editor’s note: This is the first in an ongoing series of profiles of Prince fans. If you’d like to tell your story, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Krystal was 29 years old and had been dancing professionally for a decade when she realized she was lost.
“As I got in deeper, I felt like a product,” she says, flipping back her long, dark hair as she gazes at me from across the cafe table. “I lost who I was.”
It wasn’t the first time she’d found herself in a dark place.
Krystal has a sweet demeanor and an open face, with beautiful dark round eyes. It’s equal parts easy to imagine her as an exotic dancer and impossible to imagine because there is no hint of the world-weariness that such a job would create in a kind-hearted soul.
The sensitive, artistic and introverted daughter of a Brazilian father and a German mother, Krystal was raised in St. Paul. Her father worked for the Minneapolis post office in the 1980s and sometimes sorted fan mail addressed to Prince Rogers Nelson. At home, there was always trouble between Krystal’s parents, who struggled with alcoholism and mental illness. As she lay in bed at night, she’d turn on the radio to drown out the arguing voices of her drunken mother and father.
The year was 1991, Krystal was nine years old, and Prince was always playing on the radio.
“I didn’t know who Prince was, but I quickly learned to recognize his sound,” she said. She knew that he was from Minneapolis, and had a similar skin color to hers. Most importantly, she sensed from his music that he “got it.”
“There was a dark undercurrent to his music that I recognized,” she confesses. “I knew from an early age that there was pain in the world.”
Krystal, back in the day when hearing Prince’s music on the radio took her to a happier place.
Krystal attended a school whose student population was 80% African American, an intentional move by her mother, who wanted to make sure that Krystal would “know that part of myself and not reject it,” she says, explaining that part of her father’s Brazilian heritage includes West African ancestry. But compared with most of the girls at school, Krystal had lighter skin and straighter hair, which made her stand out. To make matters worse, she hit puberty early and developed quickly. One day, she was sitting alone in the cafeteria writing a story in a notebook, when a girl grabbed it and proceeded to read it aloud to a group of girls who roared with laughter and mocked Krystal.
At night, alone in her room, Prince’s music was a beacon in the storm. “I felt that he was like me, and I knew he was successful, and he did it with his art,” she explains.
Eight years later, at age 17, Krystal was desperate to get out of her parents’ home. Still in high school, she moved in with a boyfriend, following the same path her younger sister had taken two years earlier. She supported herself and her boyfriend by waitressing, until one day, spurred by her interest in music and dance and the desire to make more money, she decided to try exotic dancing at a local club.
She was hooked instantly.
“I thrived off the attention,” she says. “I felt powerful, sexy and glamorous. And I was making real money.” A bad night meant $300; a good night was $1,500 to $2,000.