Sometimes a purse is just an expensive bag. Sometimes it can make your career.
When EJ Johnson, son of Laker great Magic Johnson, walked out of Boa Steakhouse, a posh, A-list restaurant in West Hollywood in April of last year, a TMZ videographer asked him a couple of inane questions about his dad’s former team. It was a rather boring interview that, by all accounts, should have ended up on the cutting room floor…except for one thing: Johnson was holding an orange Birkin bag, while cozying up to a male friend. The story went mega-viral thanks in part to its catchy headline: “Magic Johnson’s Son Goes Public With Boyfriend—Dad Proud.”
Turns out TMZ got it only half right. The man in the video was just a good friend. But by then, all anyone could talk about was Magic Johnson’s purse-clutching boy.
“When they interviewed me, I didn’t really think anyone would care,” says EJ, sitting in his parents’ living room in Beverly Hills. “I thought they were interviewing me because there were no other famous people there that night.”
Within hours, Johnson’s phone was ringing off the hook. “I turned on the TV and it was on CNN, MSNBC, the Today show and Good Morning America. It was crazy!”
That little one-minute video turned out to be his ticket to Hollywood. Even though he was still in his junior year at NYU, Johnson was offered a supporting role on a new reality show called Rich Kids of Beverly Hills on E!, about the spoiled lives of Tinseltown’s most privileged kids. (In one of the first scenes, co-star Dorothy Wang, daughter of Roger Wang, the billionaire CEO of Golden Eagle International Group, leaves a $10,000 tip on a $30,000 bar tab, all while complaining about her life in Santa Monica, one of the most affluent oceanfront neighborhoods in Los Angeles.) He’s already signed on to the show’s second season, this time as the main character. As part of his lucrative deal with the network, Johnson will also appear on Fashion Police and E! News, and next February, he’ll be covering Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week as a special correspondent.
These days, Johnson’s schedule is more frantic than a Jenner girl trying to read a Teleprompter. His days are jam-packed with appointments and photo shoots. On the day of our interview, Johnson’s team is buzzing around him, trying to get everything ready for his shoot for a new fashion blog, launching later this month. A photographer snaps away as Johnson changes from outfit to outfit. A PR rep and an assistant photographer are on hand, making sure everything runs smoothly.
Asked whether he had any trepidation about joining a show about a bunch of Hollywood brats, Johnson said yes. “It was such an obnoxious and unforgiving title. I was new and I didn’t want to be branded as a ‘rich kid.’”
But in the end, Johnson decided to take a chance. And boy, did it pay off. While the show isn’t exactly PBS material, it’s helped establish Johnson as a mini-celebrity among millennials. (Last October, Johnson was spotted drinking with Lindsay Lohan and Miley Cyrus at a Chelsea Club in Manhattan).
At 6 feet 3 inches, Johnson resembles a younger André Leon Talley, the former American editor-at-large for Vogue. He’s confident, funny, and unapologetic about his privileged lifestyle. He says he’s always known he was different, preferring to spend his time with Barbie dolls and his mother’s high heels than basketball—adding that sports has never been his thing. He does, however, live and breathe fashion. Today he’s sporting a Givenchy red-and-black scarf, thick black-rimmed glasses and his mother’s CJ by Cookie Johnson Jeans. “I call it avant-garde classic chic,” he laughs.
He came out to his parents at 17. Both were extremely supportive. His mom says she knew he was gay since he was little boy. Years before he came out, she asked him about it after she noticed him looking at shirtless boys. “I told her I was still figuring it out,” he says. “She said it was OK if I was.”
“My husband and I are very proud of our son for who he has become,” says Cookie Johnson. “We support EJ 100 percent, and we’re excited to see him establish his own brand.”
It’s that unwavering acceptance from both his folks that’s made him so uber-comfortable in his own skin, and in turn, so attractive to casting directors—even if the first the thing they notice about him is his last name.
“You certainly pay attention to him, at first, because of his pedigree,” says Howard Bragman, CEO of Fifteen Minutes, the PR firm representing Johnson. “But eventually we represent him because we believe in him.” Bragman says Johnson has that illusive “it” factor that everyone wants. “People respond to him in a big way. They love him.”
“A lot of people ask me if I only get all this attention because of my dad,” says Johnson. “The answer is no. I know I’m an interesting-ass person. I have a lot of personality and I’m funny. I have a lot of energy.”
Coincidently, it’s his dad who’s been all over the news lately; something EJ has been reluctant to talk about. Until now.
“It really came out of left field,” he says of the whole Donald Sterling fiasco. “I remember I was in bed sleeping and my mom just rushed into my room and was like, ‘Give me your computer, give me your computer!’ And I asked why? And she answered, ‘We have to watch the Donald Sterling thing!’ When they did finally find the now infamous V. Stiviano recording, their jaws dropped. “We were just so astonished at the things he was saying, and not just that he brought my dad into it, but the fact that he was being just blatantly racist. It was kind of like an ‘aha moment,’ the realization that people like that still exist.”
He says he has no ill will toward Sterling or the disparaging things he’s said about his dad. “He didn’t do his homework,” says Johnson. ”You need to look at the facts, honey. My dad’s entire business and enterprises have been about helping the African-American community. Obviously, we all say things that we regret and we can definitely get caught off guard, especially in the privacy of our own home, so there’s a little bit of that. But at the same time, the things you say at home are probably a lot of things that you feel personally, which would really make you a racist in retrospect. He’s a walking joke.”
As for that Birkin bag, it started as a practical thing at first. “I don’t like to carry things in my pockets,” he says. “When I moved to New York, everyone had a bag, whether it was a square gym bag or a man bag, and I was like, that’s so interesting.”
Now he says he has about 25 to 30 different bags in his closet, five of which are Birkins. But other than that, and a lot of fabulous designer clothes, that’s all you’ll ever find there.