The night I met Prince, or, the coolest moment of my life

betty ming liu Art, Inspiration, Relationships 23 Comments

Dear Prince,

I am writing my first-ever fan letter, to say “thank you.” Three decades ago, we met in a fleeting New York moment that gave me faith in my nerd self. With your death, I see the memory through fresh eyes. By staying fabulously purple your entire life, you’ve shown me that cool is possible at any age.

The only other time I’ve told the story of our meeting is in one of my NYU journalism classes. We were reading a student’s homework, which mentioned a “cool” place to visit. My reaction? Okay, class. We need to review a basic writing principle: Show, don’t tell.

I explained why it’s meaningless to tell an audience that a place is cool. After all, we each have different ideas and standards for what’s cool. Instead, writers need to show “cool.” This is when I brought up the story of meeting you. When I finished, one student said, “That’s pretty cool.”

Then we went around the room, sharing coolest memories. One student attended a Manhattan press event where he had a chance to drive a fancy yellow car around the block — I think it was a Porsche. An Asian foreign student fondly recalled her semester abroad and the fun of joining her gal pals in dining out with some cute European boys.

We agreed that feeling cool builds confidence. Believing in ourselves makes us brave enough to try new adventures. And meeting you reinforced that message for me.

How we met

Our paths crossed three decades ago, on a cold, wintry Manhattan night. We were in the gritty East Village. This was the late ’80s, when cheap rents and run-down properties made the area popular with working-class families and artists. The realness is gone now, replaced by luxury condos, hipsters and craft beer bars.

But back then, the East Village had a remarkable night club called The World.

We met in the relatively quiet V.I.P. room, which had the look of a seedy, forgotten boudoir. Dirty walls, worn upholstered furniture, tattered velvet. The wreckage was real, not the fake-distressed decor we see everywhere today. It was midnight, which was past my bedtime.

I sat in a lumpy chair, sipping a drink and chatting with a few strangers. When you slipped in, we pretended not to notice. We wanted you to relax, have your privacy and enjoy the scene.

Of course, I also really wanted to talk to you! So I eventually made my way to the bar, walking right past you. Our eyes met. And yes, you really looked at me, offering a shy smile! We said hello. Then I kept moving. I hung out for a while longer then took a cab home.

I probably spent an hour in the V.I.P. room, with our actual encounter barely lasting a New York minute. Then again, since I was in my early 30s, it might be more accurate to say the encounter took 30 years. Meeting you capped an evening that took me way beyond my comfort zone. The memory is a Note to Self. Own my nerdiness, or whatever my personal reality. This is the secret to authenticity and creativity.

prince

Transformation: revenge of the nerd

At the time, I was a newly-minted gossip columnist for The New York Daily News, a Top 10 newspaper in an era when print mattered. I knew nothing about covering trendsetters or partying. But I found my way to the club after cold-calling World owner Frank Roccio. Over dinner, we talked about growing up in NYC. He was Bronx Italian and wanted to hear about Chinatown, where strict Chinese parents and thick glasses made me despair of ever being normal (whatever that meant), let alone cool.

Afterwards, we took a short walk to his club. The bouncers pulled open World’s battered door, blasting us in house music from inside the former catering hall and theater.

A booming electronic beat shook the huge, crumbling room, packed solid with sweaty dancers. Frank and I stood at the top landing, surveying the pulsating scene. It was a mixed, young crowd, dominated by handsome, dark-complexioned, gay couples in T-shirts, jeans and sneakers. What a sight for me, the sheltered homebody.

Mind you, this was at least a decade before the release of “The Matrix” hit movies. But we already had the look. Frank: flowing blond hair, dressed head-to-toe black, with a long, black coat. Me: long, black hair, and a puffy, black calf-length Norma Kamali sleeping bag coat. A gray-green Morgane Le Fay blouse was my only shot of color, with everything else black — the mini-skirt, matte pantyhose, suede Maud Frizon heels.

Frank took my hand. He inched forward. I braced myself for elbowing our way to the V.I.P. room.

But then, without a word, more than a dozen lads began peeling off the dance floor. They sidled over to us from every direction. You know how geese fly in V-formation? Well, they formed a V-shaped wedge around us. Like a human vector, they smoothly steered us through the parting mass of gyrating bodies. It was the coolest thing that ever happened to me — until I met you.

What you gave me

  • You, and me, eyeball-to-eyeball, both of us around 5’2″. (I seem to recall you wearing something dotted, maybe a scarf. Since then, I’ve collected polka-dotted scarves, tops and dresses.)
  • You, the artist who I’d only seen before at a Madison Square Garden concert.
  • You, the sexy, androgynous fashion statement and lover of beautiful women.
  • You, an American who of biracial heritage at a time when multiracialism was barely discussed.
  • You, the writer of early hits that shaped my identity. (“Little Red Corvette” preceded me and the husband leasing a Corvette. “I Feel For You,” the song you wrote for Chaka Khan, set my standard for happy romance. “1999” turned into the actual year my marriage fell apart.)
  • You, who made Sheila E. your drummer, when female percussionists were rare. (Seeing her perform later inspired me to barter home-cooked meals with a neighbor in exchange for drum lessons.)

With the ongoing tributes to your too-brief life, I am getting to know you better. It hurts to read that you suffered terrible chronic hip pain. I keep wanting to understand more. You were certainly out there, eccentric but always interesting. I especially like what you said about inspiration in a TV interview: “As you grow older, you learn and you start to — you get smarter.”

So I’m realizing that the spirit of adventure can live on, even as I approach my 60s. I might even dig out the Norma Kamali coat and Morgane Le Fay blouse from the attic. At the very least, I’ll make more of an effort to change my clothes from the usual hoodie and leggings.

Thank you for influencing me in so many ways.

With love,

~Betty.

Comments 23

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  1. What a delightful story! I wish I could respond in kind but I can’t decide what cool means at any given moment in my life. Does it mean when I was happiest, or thought best of myself or perhaps was thought well of by others, or said just the right thing at the right moment (for once!) or fitted in perfectly, or jumped “out of the box” most dramatically or did something that made real change for the better? I don’t know. It could be any of those things or more.Maybe it doesn’t matter as long as we each have some of those moments to treasure, whatever cool means to us.

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      Toby, I guess “cool” means anything you want. I think it would be whatever first comes to mind! I will always remember the thrill of moving through that dance floor with Frank. Frank is gone now. So is Prince. But their inspiration lives on!

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      We had a good run, Barb — miss you! You know what’s funny about that coat? I few years back, I felt it was too long and cut it to knee length. Then, I felt it probably looked weird and never wore it again. But in googling around for my blog post, I saw a knee-length version of the coat on the Norma Kamali site — and the freakin’ thing now costs more than $900!!!

  3. Very cool story. Hanging out in that neighborhood at that moment in time was a pinnacle of coolness I could only dream of at that point in my life.

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      Suzanne, I could hardly believe it was me in that fabulous moment. It helped to remember my basic reporter training — to reach out to people like Frank for information. The alternative was to get caught up in my lack of connections and lack of media clout with trendsetters. But calling him for the basic informational interview led to a special memory.

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  4. Hi, Betty! This letter is so touching and deeply emotional. What a loss of a talent, I’ve been his avid fan since my childhood…

    Anyways, I love you and your interesting blog <3

    Cheers and hugs from Tbilisi, Georgia :)

    Mari, just an average girl who loves Chinese culture :)))))

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      Hi Mari, nice to hear from you! I sort of lost touch with Prince after the ’80s. Now I want to listen to his more current stuff. Thanks for the support. And remember, there’s NO SUCH THING as an average girl. If you love me and my blog and even Chinese culture, you’re definitely special, haha!

  5. Hi Betty,
    Thank you for sharing your experience you had with Prince! Reading your article, I miss how things were back in the day but it is nice to reminisce how times were once was. Prince definitely touched our hearts and had some kind of influence on all of us whether we knew him or not. He will be well missed and so glad he influenced you to stay true to who you are!!

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      Natasha, are you also an oldie-but-goodie? :)

      In writing this blog post, I watched YouTubes of Prince, Sheila E., Vanity, etc. and got very nostalgic. We were all so young and strong. I want to hang onto that. Thank you for sending a moment of togetherness!

      1. Hi Betty,
        Lets just say I was born in the 80s and grew the 90s but my family love all kinds of music so I came to appreciate so many genres of music. Unfortunately as time went on music started to change and not for the better but we make sure we hold on to what we love and not let the changing times change us. I’m sorry for responding so late. I’m glad you enjoyed my comments! I appreciate it! Keep up the great work you are doing! I’m enjoying your blog post and learning a lot! Thank you!

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          Natasha, thanks for adding a comment. No need to apologize — my goodness, we’re all so busy! I’m glad you even bothered to stop by at all. And as you say, we need to hold on to what we love. That’s true now more than ever. Have a great holiday season and thanks for staying in touch. :)

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