ON A FRIDAY MORNING IN MAY, two tour buses pull up next to a Chinatown storefront and disgorge more than 50 Minnesota women into New York City’s bargain-shopping mecca. Two bottle blondes, with coifs floating like bobbers among the dark-haired masses, lead the group past piles of fake Rolexes, DVDs, and pashmina shawls. Aggressive vendors, honking horns, chaos, and litter won’t keep Lori Barghini and Julia Cobbs (and the phalanx of listeners who’ve accompanied the Twin Cities radio personalities here) from getting their hands on some knockoff designer purses. “It’s like we’re at the state fair,” one of the women says of the teeming crowds.
In case you’re not a fan of the “Drivetime Divas”: Lori and Julia host the coveted 3 to 6 p.m. weekday time slot on FM107, the only Twin Cities station devoted to women-centric talk radio, one of the few in the country. The show is a daily dish on beauty, entertainment, sex, and fashion, filtered through a sensibility that’s part Marie Claire, part Prairie Home Companion. With squawky, sometimes rambling deliveries, the duo offers advice on everything from how wearing Spanx undergarments can smooth a “muffin top,” or how to keep your hair extensions looking good during lovemaking: “Lookie, lookie—no touchie,” Lori says she warns her husband.
The trip to Chinatown is part of the show’s “Diva Destination” vacation, a chance for 70-some women to spend four days shopping, eating, and hanging out with the radio personalities. The tour, which coincides with the show’s fifth anniversary, is a way to market Lori and Julia—branded by FM107 as “LoJ”—but it’s also an intensive focus group.
I have been curious about Lori and Julia since they appeared in this magazine’s pages nearly five years ago, dressed in nothing but yellow caution tape. (Our art director loves to tell the story of how Lori, misunderstanding some of his instructions, enthusiastically whipped off her top and flashed the flustered photographer.) I’d listened to the show just once, when the pair interviewed my oft-married former boss and referred to her as a “sexual furnace.”
My interest in tagging along on the trip, however, is less about Lori and Julia and more about their fans. Despite a relatively small audience, their listeners are some of the most devoted in the Twin Cities. The obvious question is why? How is it that these women feel such a close connection to people they barely know? What sort of person would take the Diva trip (at a cost of $1,200 to $2,000 per person) instead of going with another tour, or going on her own? Were they drawn to LoJ because they resembled themselves—or precisely because they were so different?
AT 5:45 A.M. THE PREVIOUS DAY, Lori arrives at the Minneapolis airport dressed like a teenager, in sneakers and skinny jeans. Her hair, a cloud of teased ringlets, looks like it belongs in a shampoo commercial. The other women in the gate area—and there are mostly women in the gate area—have clothing and haircuts designed to blend in rather than stand out, looks that say Midwestern mom more than L.A. casting call.
Then Lori starts doing what she does best: making conversation. And when she opens her mouth, her voice rings with a nasal sing-song that Frances McDormand could have studied for her role in Fargo. Lori treats the room as if it’s a sorority-rush meet-and-greet, making conversation with each group of women about what they’ll do once they hit the city.
Photo Courtesy of Amy Daniels
Lori and Julia are local celebrities of the sort the media seems to breed more and more of these days, products of sheer personality. Their media careers were launched after gaining notoriety with the PG-13 equivalent of a sex tape: They invented a product called Bodyperks, rubber faux-nipples provocative enough to find their way into an episode of Sex and the City. When a friend at Hubbard Broadcasting told them that FM107 planned to switch its format to women’s talk in June 2002—to go after what analysts call “the coveted mommy demographic”—the “perky” pair parlayed their fame into a radio show.
By 7 a.m., the pilot has turned off the seat-belt sign and the divas—mother-daughter pairs, best friends, work friends, friends that play the dice game Bunco—are chatting quite a bit, considering how early it is. The youngest divas are in their thirties. The eldest is a woman in her eighties whose luggage matches her outfit and, her daughter tells me, is a major Sex and the City fan.
Lori and Julia are seated in the back of the plane, but the engines’ roar is no match for their chatter. Like Lori, Julia is a striking blonde, though petite to the point that she seems like a talkative Tinkerbell. In looks and personality, the two seem like they could be sisters, and, in fact, they are sisters-in-law (Lori is married to Julia’s brother). As Lori jots down a long list of all the restaurants, bars, and clubs she’d like to hit this weekend, I can’t help but wonder two things: Will the divas be partying 24/7? And, did anyone pack Bodyperks?
LATER THAT AFTERNOON, the divas gather in a party room at Sardi’s, the storied Times Square theater-district hangout, where Lori and Julia are broadcasting that day’s show. Their first guest is New York Post Page Six gossip columnist Liz Smith and I’m impressed that the “Grand Dame of Dish” would make time for an obscure Minnesota-based radio show. Her willingness may have something to do with the way Julia greets her. In conversation with Smith—or anybody, actually: a diva, a bus driver, a hotel employee—Julia’s eye contact never wavers. She smiles easily, nods intently, and punctuates statements with a gentle pat to the arm. If I were talking to Julia in a nightclub or bar, I might even think she was making a move on me. “We love to flirt,” she acknowledges. “We flirt with both sexes.”
After catching up with Smith on what TomKat and Brangelina are up to, Lori and Julia hand the headphones to Hollywood makeup artist B. J. Gillian. After a discussion of how certain celebrities will fare under the high-resolution lens of HDTV (Halle Berry: good, Cameron Diaz: yikes), Gillian dabs a bit of “revolutionary” eye cream above Julia’s lids and dispenses makeup advice, such nuggets as “glossy is so past tense.” When he recommends a beauty secret involving phenolated calamine lotion, several divas pull scraps of paper from their purses and start printing “p-h-e-n.” Even I, unworried about wrinkles and too cheap to buy the lash-enhancing mascara brush Gillian is raving about, find myself noting the names of the products for future reference.
Between guests, Lori and Julia fill the time with travel tips and jokes. “Is a webpage male or female?” Lori asks. “Female, because it’s always getting hit on.” “How about the subway?” An audience member suggests an answer: “Male, because it always comes too fast.” Even the guys running the soundboard laugh.
A buffet dinner is served during the broadcast and after a few drinks, the room gets louder and louder with the added rattle of plates and side conversations. When hunky CNN entertainment anchor A. J. Hammer takes the stage, the divas cheer wildly. Lori leads off with a few softballs, avoiding the question I imagine is on every diva’s mind—“Are you single?”—and the one I’m wondering—“Do you even date women?”
The divas make plans to see Jersey Boys or The Color Purple and get cocktails at the Rainbow Room. The loose structure of the trip, a mix of free time and group activities, makes the experience more comfortable for those who aren’t familiar with the city. Besides, many divas consider Lori and Julia ideal tour guides. “They’re fun and they know where to go,” says one. “You can just kind of be like sheep,” another jokes.
Lori and Julia’s listeners see them as fashion and lifestyle mavens and trust their recommendations. When I tell one diva, a retired principal from Woodbury, that I like her funky purple spectacles, she tells me she got them at the Minneapolis optical shop In Vision—“where Lori got her glasses.” At first this behavior strikes me as odd, reminding me of when, as a teenager, I begged my mom for Guess jeans, the brand the popular girls were wearing. On the other hand, in an increasingly complicated consumer world, isn’t this what we all do? If somebody you trust has already found the cutest pair of jeans, the best place to eat, or an effective way to handle conflict with your spouse—why not take her advice?
AFTER A BUS TOUR of Manhattan and a stop at Ground Zero (“You can give your thoughts and prayers and then go spend your money,” Lori instructs), Lori and Julia lead the group’s Chinatown shopping spree. Here is where LoJ’s insider information pays dividends: They know the trendiest knockoff purses are typically kept hidden. While others buy bags out of a curtained van on the street and a walk-in cooler in the back of a restaurant, I follow a tiny Asian woman and a few divas through the maze of open-air markets, past the pungent stench of dried herbs and raw fish. We climb a grimy stairwell into an apartment where the shades are drawn and faux Gucci, Prada, and Fendi bags are stacked up in the bathtub. “My husband would just die if he saw me here,” one of the divas says.
LoJ’s adventurous attitude seems to inspire their fans. “They encourage us to do things and try things,” one diva says. It’s worth noting, though, that Bodyperks seem to be where divas draw the line: Only one woman admits to having tried them. (“I’m not trying to attract that kind of attention anymore” was a typical response.)
Unlike those in the national media, who are too famous to get too personal with their fans, Lori and Julia offer listeners the sense—whether real or imagined—that they have a clear window into their lives. “These girls let you in much more than Oprah will,” says one. Lori and Julia’s world is one where it’s okay to make mistakes (on the bus to the hotel, Julia keeps referring to the help-desk workers as the “concier,” no matter how many times her producer, Donny Love, gently corrects her by adding a “ge”), and they aren’t afraid to look stupid or silly: On the patio of a restaurant in Little Italy, Julia unabashedly drapes her napkin over her head to protect herself from the sun.
As Lori and Julia share lunch with a few divas, I’m reminded of something Julia said to me early on: “What a treat that people like you enough to go on a trip with you.” The reverse seems true, as well: Lori and Julia like their fans enough to travel with them. Lori asks one woman about the weight she lost since last year’s trip. Julia remembers things she’s discussed before with another Diva Destination alum, and she asks for updates on the woman’s business, her son, and her battle with cancer. Later, the woman mentions calling Julia on her cell phone when she saw her on TV. It’s hard to imagine Oprah giving her number to a fan.
Offering that sort of accessibility can come with a price, though. During the pair’s first Diva trip, to Las Vegas, a fan opened her cell phone to show Lori a picture of her husband—standing buck naked, his penis erect.
WE’RE SO BUSY these days that we often struggle to maintain relationships with even our closest friends. “I hardly have time to chat with my girlfriends,” admits one diva, a stay-at-home mom. Between working, cooking, shuttling kids, and squeezing in time for your significant other, a girlfriends’ get-together—even a talk on the phone—drops lower on the priority list. Lori and Julia, though, are girlfriends of convenience. You don’t have to make plans in advance, or get in your car, or clean your house. Just turn on the radio to feel like you’re “bonding”—you can listen while you multitask. If you miss a show, Lori and Julia will never know. You never have to worry if they’re mad at you.
It’s Sunday afternoon, and we’re back at JFK airport. Hundreds of purses have been purchased, a handful of celebrities sighted, at least a few snapshots taken with hot firefighters and cops. The trip was fun, but the divas are ready to get back to their jobs and kids and spouses in Forest Lake or Maple Grove. One diva shows me the eye cream B. J. Gillian recommended on Thursday’s show, which she bought at the drugstore around the corner from the hotel. She says the clerk asked her, “What is that stuff? It must be good, because everybody’s been buying it.”
Rachel Hutton is associate editor of Minnesota Monthly.