21 Feb / 16 Feb 2017 / Elisa Johnson – SSENSE
February 16, 2017
The Young Star, and Daughter of Magic Johnson, Shares Selfies and Behind-the-Scenes Whispers of Reality Television
Interview: Eva Kelley
Photography: Elisa Johnson
Today, almost everyone is involved in some form of (self-)broadcasting. Stardom has become democratic, and in a world of increasing surveillance, providing consent for being watched seems like the most self-sufficient option. Elisa Johnson, daughter of Magic Johnson, threw herself into the fold of television celebrity last summer when she teamed up with her brother EJ Johnson, who previously starred on Rich Kids of Beverly Hills. Their show EJNYC chronicles the rollercoaster of being young in New York City.
Eva Kelley spoke to Elisa Johnson about what the popularity of reality TV says about our culture, her experience meeting Hillary Clinton, and the politics of fashion.
Eva Kelley: What was it like being on a reality television show with your brother?
Elisa Johnson: I actually decided that I don’t really want to get into that anymore, it’s more my brother. It was fun, we enjoyed being on TV together–but I told my brother that I want to go more into fashion.
Why didn’t you want to be on the show anymore?
I felt like I wasn’t cut out for it. I think you have to have a certain type of confidence level. You have to be prepared for people to say certain things about you, and it just wasn’t for me. I’m a real world person at heart, and sometimes you have to act in certain situations on the show. That’s just the reality of it.
I think a lot of people watching reality TV wonder how much of it is real.
It was very organic in terms of our cast, the storyline was organic as well. In certain scenes, they’ll push for a certain topic for you to talk about, whether or not you want to, but that’s really it. For instance, I was adopted, so I had a scene with my birth mom, and they were like, “Can you guys speak about what it was like when you first met?” You know, stuff like that.
I saw that clip–topics like that are so personal. Was it difficult to cross the barrier of sharing those moments with a broad audience?
I was worried about filming because I don’t necessarily have a filter. I talk a lot! I was happy about the scenes with her–I didn’t feel like I needed to hide that. I got a lot of messages afterwards from people who were adopted and parents who had adopted children, which was touching. Especially in situations where you feel like it could save or help someone else, I think it’s always important to share.
What do you think the popularity of reality TV says about our culture?
Honestly? I don’t watch reality TV shows like everyone else. I didn’t really even watch our show. I don’t have an interest really in other people’s lives. I guess if it’s a positive reality TV show, I feel like it can help people. Like on our show for instance—my brother’s gay, and it showed him being gay in our family and how my dad supports him. It was very difficult because we grew up Christian, but you could see how some of our family found out they have a homosexual son–and loving him. I think for that reason you can be a part of reality TV or watch it–to be inspired!
The popularity of reality TV is quite interesting. We enjoy gossip because it gives us a sense of community and it makes us feel like we’re connected when we exchange information about others. The transition from living in small communities to super cities has left a void in that area, which might be why we enjoy watching reality TV so much. We’re not connected to our neighbors, but we can recap a show with a friend. It’s kind of like a fake community exercise.
Yeah, I agree with you. Certain people need others to look up to and if they can relate to whoever is on TV, even better.
How do you feel about social media becoming so important for being successful in the creative industries?
I think Instagram really opened a door for everyone to be on an equal platform. Anybody can be famous now–you can blow up so quickly. So far it’s been positive for me. I want the right audience, and I was able to see who my audience was and what location they were in—how many girls and how many guys were following me. And I found out that I had a lot of female followers. That’s empowering.
But how do you curate so many followers?
It was through a program that an agency did for me. I like the movement coming from Instagram. I just want people to know I think it’s important to be an influencer in a positive way. I want young people to be like, “Oh wow, this girl is doing great things without exposing herself.” People showing off their body, if you’re proud of it, you gotta do what you gotta do and that’s on you. But I want girls to love themselves through their fashion and know that they can express themselves through that.
I worry about this sometimes when I think of younger kids and what kind of images they’re bombarded with while they are still impressionable. It’s really difficult to be shielded from that.
I know. It’s so bad in certain ways because we’re so obsessed with looking a certain way and being a certain way. I do the same thing. It’s always in your face–even when you’re not looking.
It’s interesting that the phrase “it girl” seems so old fashioned all of a sudden. Is there a difference between the it girl and the influencer, or is it the same thing but with a different term?
I consider an influencer someone who young people can look up to. I don’t post certain photos because I don’t want young girls to think that’s what you have to do to be accepted.
So the deciding factor between the two is that an influencer has a cause?
I came across a picture of you and your family in which you welcomed Hillary Clinton into your home before the elections. What’s she like?
My dad throws these fundraiser events at our house a lot. He always supported Hillary. I was eight or so when I first met her. She’s really nice, actually. She has a very quirky personality, very funny. She’s a cool lady.
Do you think fame comes with a certain political responsibility?
My father posts how he feels all the time, what his views are with politics, but at the same time, he knows people are watching. You always have to keep in mind that people are watching. You’re in the light, so whatever you put out there is going to get a response, whether it’s negative or positive. As long as you know that and you’re comfortable with that, I feel like you should be able to post whatever you want to post.
How did you feel when you learned about the election results?
I cried, actually. What’s so scary to me is that we’ve never experienced anything like this before. You never thought in a million years that you’d live in a world where you hated the person who runs your country–because we were so spoiled with Obama, I think.
What do you think of fashion being used to make political statements?
I have a Hillary shirt that I wore when I went to Texas for an event. I love it, but I got some bad comments too, like “Make America Great Again.” I think it’s great how fashion and politics can be combined, I’m not against it at all.
When you think of the future, what are your dreams?
I have a lot of dreams, because I was blessed with a lot of talents. I’ve been in love with singing and performing since I was six years old. When I wanted to pursue that, my mom was like, “I want you to get your degree and then we can figure out the next steps, if you’re still interested in being a performer.” So I went to FIT, because I felt like fashion came easy to me. But designing is something you really have to apply yourself to and you can’t really have a social life–and I kind of want to have a social life. So I thought, “What if I did fashion business?” I want to be a businesswoman. I think long term. The fun stuff can come after.