Love versus Ambition

Models pose for Caribbean Fashion Week 2008

A woman in love might be her own worst enemy. An ambitious woman in love can waste a perfectly good opportunity to be a role model for girls who need to see how a solid work ethic, brains and beauty operate in reality, away from cameras, mics, tea parties and candlelit baths. Instead of speaking in general terms, let me throw my cousin under the bus. She’s a twenty-something black woman who runs her own high fashion empire. She’s talented, educated, articulate, a wife and mother, a stunning beauty.

My cousin’s company, a fashion brand, has a profile online. My cousin and her husband have their heads Photoshopped on the heads of US President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle Obama. It seems that President Obama’s achievement has provided fuel for a new generation of swashbucklers whose only talents are piracy and barbaric posturing. “I can do it,” without necessarily doing that which one can do, or for that matter nominating what “that” is. That is not to denigrate President Obama’s achievement in any way. A Global Superpower is a behemoth to run. But in all fairness, the personality of a narcissistic male is a behemoth to wrangle.

The only thing more destructive than a narcissist with a vision is one with no singular focus. I endured an unfortunate series of grey-hair inducing conversations with one black male who was, simultaneously, a globetrotter; author-to-be; linguist; law student; the reincarnation of Alexander the Great; standup comic; hedonist; King; and movie director.

A Jamaican model, Jeneil McKenzie, poses on the runway for the 2013 Caribbean Fashion Week

A narcissistic black male is doubly problematic if he has low self-worth, his self-esteem constantly challenged by his employers, colleagues, neighbors or media programming. If he attempts to overcome the onslaught of negative identifiers by aspiring (borrowing actually spoken words) to “be like white people,” then you’re just in time for a colossal Mongolian cluster fuck. Only a woman in love, with her hormonally tweaked ganglions fluttering hither and thither, would be caught off guard.

My cousin’s a fashion designer whose clothes I want to wear and show off to my colleagues and friends. I had been following her work and media presence since her wedding tweets and have read everything written about her over the past three years. How do I buy all of her frocks? That’s how I got to her online profile. I live way across the planet from her, so I was expecting to see a gorgeous storefront with her creations displayed on it.

Instead, I was disappointed to see a disempowering profile with her husband’s name above hers as “head of business operations.” Excuse me? My cousin did all the work of creating her brand. In comes her husband with a massive load of brand-conscious ambition and no shame whatsoever in touting his experience as a “bank teller” and “pastor-in-training-at-college” as qualifications to be the head of a (future) global brand. He makes sure to remind everyone whose name is on the masthead by walking the runway after his wife’s fashion shows.

Based on the glowing reviews I’ve read in the press, my cousin’s frocks simply do not exist without her technical training (cutting, sewing, pattern making) and countless, tiring hours of hands-on, hard work. So, her name definitely goes on top. Not to the side, and certainly not below her husband’s.

I encourage people to go the extra mile to share their aspirations and promote their work. But needlessly self-aggrandizing profiles are a turnoff. This one was particularly exasperating to read. I was mortified that my cousin, a woman in her twenties, who should be the embodiment of this 21st Century, this age of black women “doing it” engaged in such retrogressive behavior. I asked her to please consider an urgent update to her business profile. I did not want to purchase frocks from her if this was not, in fact, a woman-owned business.

Before diagnosing yourself with self esteem, make sure you're not surrounded by assholes, quote by William Gibson

She defended herself thus: “I put [him] at the top not as a sign of inferiority on my part but because he’s a true leader and he has taken what was my passion and made it an empire. We’ve just been slow in updating the info.” I waited a month but now my cousin’s profile has been updated to highlight that she is a “failed pediatrician” who had flunked science and had no choice but to learn dressmaking at a trade school for people who flunked high school. Ouch. According to this version of the profile, her husband’s presence, as the visionary hero trained by top business coaches, is therefore justified. He swings over, rescues idiot damsel of a cousin (who forgets she’s already famous in her own right) lands smoothly, struts, and shakes his tush on her catwalk.

In her reply to me, I could read two distinct voices. Hers, saying that her husband isn’t using her business to thrust himself into the spotlight. His, humming in the background informing me that “[He] has been coached by [a] Top business coach for [the] #1 Business coaching firm in the world. He really has a strong vision for the … brand.” If her husband had his way, my cousin says, “I would be making appearances everywhere, as he believes I embody what our brand is about.” Right, right, right, right, right. So, by that logic he is walking the runway after her shows because he’s a doting husband who lets his wife have her way. There was no point continuing the conversation and I dropped it right then.

The problem is that my cousin says she does not like cameras, public appearances or the attention that comes with it. But her husband clearly does. At the moment, his plan for her business is for them to “present … to the public as Super team, Power couple.”

 

I am afraid that she might at some point in the future be forced out of her company if she doesn’t keep pace with his ambition for global domination or if he finds another ambitious designer-model-wife to take over as sidekick. There, I’ve said it. Have I watched one too many episodes of American Greed or Dateline?

My cousin might be lucky. At least she isn’t lost, scattered, and trying vainly to reach a point of clarity in her relationship with her husband. At least she acknowledges that she is the sidekick, an elegantly rendered footnote to the story she should be writing herself.

One thing is clear about my cousin’s relationship: she has already created the domain and has given her husband power and control.

Let’s hope that my cousin and any woman of color who plans to run her own business will learn before it is too late why the situation I’ve described is disempowering to all women. The Golden Horde invades, overpowers, takes by force and then leaves its targets humiliated and destroyed from within. Given that my cousin’s husband has a super-inflated ego and all the power in their relationship, it is not difficult to imagine a sad conclusion to this saga of love.

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