Sarah Palin's former future son-in-law, Levi Johnston, takes The Daily Beast's Renata Espinosa on a spending spree in L.A. and talks about David Letterman's intent ("I don't think he was trying to be malicious"); caring about how Bristol and Willow reacted ("I don't like to see anybody hurt, especially if it got to the girls and their feelings were hurt"); a possible reality show about hunting; style tips he's picked up from Tank—his mammoth bodyguard/manager/Tim Gunn—and his out-of-Alaska alter-ego named "Hollywood Ricky."
Anytime I witness Andy Warhol’s most famous statement in the flesh, “In the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes,” my interest is piqued. Problem is these days, you witness people and their 15 minutes of fame so often, it’s hard to keep up or even care after a while. That’s why Levi Johnston (of Bristol Palin-pregnancy fame) and his bodyguard/manager Tank Jones are so refreshing—as far as I’m concerned, the duo are welcome to a full-length feature film of fame. Forget The Hangover. Levi and Tank are the buddy flick of the summer.
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I know, I know. Who? That’s what everyone asked me when I told them Levi Johnston was going to a party in L.A. that I was attending. “Bristol Palin’s baby daddy,” I clarified. “You know, Sarah Palin’s daughter?” Oh, right. We’d all almost forgotten about her as well, except that she happened to be in the news last week as well chewing out David Letterman for making a joke about A-Rod knocking up her daughter during the seventh inning of a game Palin had attended. A point of contention was whether he was referring to her 14-year-old daughter Willow, who had been at the game with her, or to Bristol, the daughter who was already a teen mother, thanks to Levi.
Levi, for the record, thought the joke was in poor taste, but he gets that Letterman is just a comedian. “I don’t think he was trying to be malicious,” he told The Daily Beast. “I just think the joke maybe went too far. I don’t think that David was trying to advocate any sexual misconduct of any nature.”
Whether or not the joke was funny or ill-conceived, though, Levi was mostly concerned about how it affected Bristol and Willow. “I don’t like to see anybody hurt, especially if it got to the girls and their feelings were hurt,” he said. “[The media] has said a million things about me and my family, and sometimes you have to take things with a grain of salt. But in this instance, things went a little too far.”
“I don’t like to see anybody hurt, especially if it got to the girls. [The media] has said a million things about me and my family, and sometimes you have to take things with a grain of salt. But in this instance with Letterman, things went a little too far.”
These days, 19-year-old Levi is a free agent, no longer engaged to Bristol and thus, no longer under the jurisdiction of the Palin clan’s image police. He’s still, nonetheless, crafting an image for himself, with the help of Tank Jones, his manager from Anchorage who has been coaching him on media appearances and schooling him in entertainment-industry etiquette for the past five months. Though Levi mostly spends his days living in Wasilla, Alaska, going on frequent hunting trips—if it were up to him, that’s what he would spend the rest of his days doing, except that now he’s got a baby to support—the idea is to pursue some type of career in Hollywood, whether it be acting or appearing on a reality show. Tank has been fielding pitches, including one for a reality show about hunting.
Tank and Levi seem to be an unlikely duo—why would a self-proclaimed “redneck” like Levi Johnston be taking style cues from Tank Jones, a size-58 suit-wearing black man who works in the law offices of Rex Butler in Anchorage? I invited them to go shopping with me in downtown L.A.’s wholesale fashion district to find out, and to see Tank work his magic on Levi for myself.
Besides acting as Levi’s handler, Tank is his personal Tim Gunn and Henry Higgins all in one, instructing him on the subtleties of wearing a fedora and reminding him to be open-minded about the different types of people he might encounter. Tank is the ultimate 21st-century version of an American father: multicultural and media-savvy.
Like the time Levi appeared on The Tyra Banks Show, with his mother and sister, and had to get his hair and makeup done, Tank had to remind Levi to relax.
“That was the worst,” Levi tells me. “I had some dude singing to me, the whole time. He was real happy. Calling me ‘baby’ and all that. I kept my mouth shut.”
“I told him, you’re going to meet all different types of people,” interjects Tank. “Don’t overreact. Nobody’s going to hurt you. You gotta be accepting of all different types of people. You’re talking about dealing with Hollywood? You’re going to really meet some strange people.”
Yet, the concept of Levi and Tank working together is just as odd for Hollywood.
“Like we went to Extra today, and [to Levi] they were like, ‘Where did you find him? Where do you live?’ and I was like, ‘I live in Alaska,’” says Tank. “You know, they don’t believe I live in Alaska. And we told Mario Lopez, ‘Hey, look, we have a Latino community up there!’ And he’s like, ‘What? Get out!’ I said, ‘We have a salsa club up there! This is a very diverse community here!” Plus, Tank revealed, Levi’s father is Mexican. (His mother is Canadian).
Tell that to Diddy. Last August, in reference to Sen. John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate, Sean “Diddy” Combs videoblogged, “What is the reality in Alaska? There aren’t even any crackheads in Alaska. There aren’t no black people in Alaska.”
“Diddy don’t have a clue!” Tank says with exasperation. He was born in St. Louis, but has lived in Alaska for 29 years, and now has family in both places. “He’s talking about my town, and he has no idea about it. Most of the people that he knows in the music business have been there, and I’m quite sure they could tell him. But you hear stuff like that, you pretty much ignore it.”
For instance, due to his large size, people often mistake Tank for a bouncer. “I’ve been called ‘security’ for years,” he says. “It don’t bother me. So I just ask people, ‘Why would you assume that I’m security? Because I’m big?’ So I can’t be your manager, or I can’t be your publicist?”
“So I should tell everyone you’re my manager?” asks Levi.
“Yes, of course! But I don’t care what people think about me. I really don’t.”
One of Tank’s style tenets is that everything should match. “When I see somebody who doesn’t match, that irks me,” he says. “When I go to court, you might see a guy with a gray coat on and some brown pants. That doesn’t match! I’m like, ‘Why? Why do you think that goes together?’”
Tank’s huge array of wardrobe options—his suits are custom-made for him by a tailor in Hong Kong and he estimates that he owns around 100 pairs of shoes—baffles Levi, who says he has 10 pairs of shoes and wears “like, two of them.”
“I have different watches and rings that go with the outfits, too,” says Tank. “Like when I have a blue suit on, I have a blue ring and a blue watch.”
“I must really piss you off, don’t I,” says Levi, whose name, by the way, has nothing to do with the brand. “You make me look underdressed all the time. We go places and people think you look like the celebrity.”
Levi’s uniform back in Wasilla consists of Carhartt work pants, flannel shirts, and cowboy boots. Or, when he’s hunting, boots that correspond to the type of animal he’s hunting. With sheep, for example, one of the toughest animals to hunt, according to Levi, because of the steep terrain they inhabit, you need boots with more grip.
Has he ever made any clothing out of something he’s hunted? “I made a blanket once,” he says.
“Levi has his own style, and it works for him,” says Tank. “But, if he’s going to go into the entertainment field, he has to be versatile. That’s one of the things I want him to start seeing—feeling those colors, and feeling those textures. That’s a lot for him, especially when you’re used to doing something a certain way.”
Just so you’re clear, when Levi Johnston is in L.A. with Tank and running around shopping with a reporter, trying on sequined jackets and pink fedoras and wearing bedazzled T-shirts that say “Go Girl” on them, that’s not Levi you’re seeing.
“What we did was, we came up with an alter ego, Ricky Hollywood,” explains Tank. “Ricky Hollywood would iron his shirt.” Levi looks at Tank and raises his eyebrows. “Yeah, right!” he says. “OK, well, I’d iron it. He doesn’t know how to iron.”
“We’re not going to find my style out here,” says Levi rather contentiously.
“Oh, yes, we will,” says Tank. “We’re going to find Ricky’s style!”
“Levi is not lettin’ the cat out of the bag,” teases Tank. “He is fightin’ the stuff that he really loves, because he wants to stay cool for Wasilla.”
“My boys are gonna be so mad at me when they see me in this stuff,” says Levi. “My dad is going to make fun of me, he’s going to shake his head.”
Tank isn’t buying his protests. “Well, let him shake his head!”
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Renata Espinosa is the New York editor of Fashion Wire Daily. She is also the co-founder of impressionistic fashion and art blog TheNuNu and a sometimes backup dancer for "The Anna Copa Cabanna Show."