The Power—and Piousness—and Frustration—and Sorrow—of One

How Cheryl Johnson became C.J., the most infamous journalist in Minnesota

Updated September 8, 2016

When you’re the only gossip columnist in town, even in a town without much gossip, there isn’t a lot of down time. So on this Saturday night in late April, Cheryl Johnson—better known as C.J. to Star Tribune readers, FOX-9 viewers, and FM-107 listeners—is working. She’s at Trocaderos Nightclub & Restaurant in the Minneapolis Warehouse District to attend a concert by Bobby Brown. The singer, recently divorced from pop star Whitney Houston, is in the Twin Cities trying to revive his career after years of little work and a lot of bad publicity. C.J. is here because she needs material for her next column.

Upon arriving, the 53-year-old writer is whisked into a roped-off VIP section to wait for the show. There she encounters a strange mix of Twin Cities high rollers: a self-styled “celebrity dentist,” a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves, and a host of scantily clad young women. She chats with Trocaderos’s CEO, Shane Segal, who offers her a drink, which she refuses. Eventually, when the show is delayed, Segal takes her backstage so she can interview Brown. As soon as she begins asking the singer questions, however, members of Brown’s ridiculously large security detail start yelling, “No interviews before the show!” When Brown steps outside to smoke, C.J. tries to follow, but a diminutive woman blocks the door.

“Are you his girlfriend?” C.J. asks.

“No, his personal manager,” the woman replies.

C.J. lets out a chortle.

In her column, C.J. tends to cast herself as an outsider, an impolitic truth-teller in a land of superficial civility, and tonight, as usual, she makes little attempt to fit in among the trendy crowd. She’s wearing black jeans, a purple shirt, and sunglasses. As she walks back through the club’s main floor, murmurs of “That’s C.J.” follow in her wake. Many seem to consider a C.J. sighting as proof that they’re at the hottest event in town, though as many people run from her as approach. When a man calls out, “Hey C.J., you know me!” she replies, “Unnnnn-FOR-tun-ate-lyyyyyy.” Then she asks whether the woman he’s with is his wife.

When her column about the concert appears two days later, C.J. will write that the show had the feel of a “rather nasty state fair,” and compares Brown to a dog, albeit a famous one (Lassie). She will also note that Brown’s skinny “manager” looks a lot like the woman some celebrity magazines have pegged as his new love, an ex-friend of his ex-wife.

But now, as the concert finally begins, C.J. stands off to the side, water bottle in hand, arms crossed. “I say Bobby, you say Brown,” chants the singer. “Bobby…, Bobby…” C.J. does not chant, but when Brown pulls a woman he charmingly describes as a “fat girl” from the audience and encourages her to undress him, she does note, “I’ve never been to a live sex show before.”


Photos by John Abernathy

 

THIS SPRING, WHEN the Star Tribune announced another round of staff reductions, each of the paper’s four metro columnists—Nick Coleman, Katherine Kersten, Doug Grow, and C.J.—were summoned to meet with editor Nancy Barnes. At the time, it was widely speculated that one of the four would be asked to give up their slot. It didn’t come to that, however; Grow decided to leave the paper, a departure that was nearly overshadowed by the dramatic reshuffling of personnel in other parts of the newsroom. Beats covering the outdoors, architecture, classical music, and even television were deemed expendable.

The paper’s gossip column was not. “Every paper has to make a lot of choices these days,” says Anders Gyllenhaal, who served as the Star Tribune’s editor from 2002 until February of this year.  “C.J. brings a slice of life that has a lot of news in it and a sense of place. People love to read what she writes.”

Indeed, few doubt that her column is among the Star Tribune’s most avidly read features both in print and online. (It regularly makes the online version’s list of “most read” and “most e-mailed” stories.) “Unlike other columnists, she crosses all demographics and is read by everyone,” says Katherine Roepke of Roepke Public Relations. With that reach also comes power. Says Roepke: “If she writes about a restaurant, there’s a great impact.” Trocaderos’s Segal considers a mention the ultimate PR coup.  “It’s better than any ad you can buy,” he says. “People say they don’t read her column, but when I’m in it everyone mentions it. They love it but don’t want to admit it.”

Of course, being widely read is not the same as being liked, and there is a long list of prominent people—from pop stars to politicians—who consider C.J. the enemy. “Those who are in the column are often unhappy about it,” says Gyllenhaal, now executive editor of the Miami Herald. “That’s the nature of the work.”

It may be the nature of the work, but C.J. is also unique among her colleagues. Other big-city gossip columnists may be tolerated, mocked, or feared, but they seldom attract the level of loathing and fascination that C.J. invites. She may, in fact, be the most notorious journalist in Minnesota today, a position she has achieved by being tenacious, invasive, acerbic, and self-righteous—the antithesis of everything that’s supposedly Minnesotan. And today, after almost two decades in the public eye, she finds herself living a singularly strange existence: She’s a gossip columnist who’s more famous than almost everyone she writes about.

 

C.J. OCCUPIES a remote corner office at the Star Tribune cluttered with water bottles, dead flowers, paintings, a cutout cowboy, photos of family and celebrities (Mary Tyler Moore, Donny Osmond, Barack Obama), a dress pattern, three giant rolodexes, and several stacks of books (The Kennedy Tapes, Diana in Search of Herself, Your Guide to Total Health Care). She writes her column while perched on an ergonomic standing chair, and today she’s wearing what passes for her work uniform: black jeans, running shoes, a pedometer, and a green T-shirt on which she had printed “Evidence suggests that Strom Thurmond found black women irresistible.” A large ring of keys, anchored by a tyrannosaurus rex fob, hangs from her belt loop.

With three columns to fill each week, C.J. spends most of her waking hours trying to gather material—on the phone, in her car, or attending local events. Because the Twin Cities lacks the stable of A-list actors, rock stars, and heiresses that populate gossip columns in larger cities (even our professional athletes often live elsewhere), there are days when she has to, as she puts it, “make somebody who’s not so famous famous,” people like boxer/grillmaster George Foreman’s former wife, Adrienne Foreman-Jones, or Minneapolis salon owner Jon Richards.

Often, she corners these not-so-famous people in not-so-glamorous places. One morning this past June, while traveling from Costco to her office, she stopped at a red light and noticed Rhea Isaacs, widow of American Iron and Steel Company founder Fred Isaacs, sitting in a black Range Rover one lane over. Rather than simply wave, C.J. honked her horn and motioned for Isaacs to lower her window. As the two cars idled on Hennepin Avenue, C.J. shouted: “Are you selling your house?”

Still, the primary focus of the column remains local broadcast-media personalities, and C.J. has made it her business to be in their business. Like many of his peers, Frank Vascellaro, of WCCO, considers such scrutiny “part of the job,” but that doesn’t mean he enjoys reading headlines like, Is Vascellaro’s hair real?

“It gets tiring after a while,” he says. “There have been a number of things in her column that I wish were not there. It goes with the job. Minnesota is the 14th-largest media market in the country, but we don’t have a lot of real celebrities.” (His hair, by the way, is real.)

Not everyone in the media is so accepting of C.J.’s interest in their lives, but most know that to ignore C.J. is to invite more attention, as any effort to avoid comment invariably becomes part of the story. “People call me in a panic when C.J. calls them,” says Vascellaro. “I advise them to simply call her back. I appreciate that she’s always given me the opportunity to tell my side of the story.”

“Scaredy-cat media people are endlessly entertaining,” C.J. says. “I get a kick out of those who don’t want to return calls—but themselves count on people to return calls. I like honesty. If you call me back and say, ‘I’m not going to tell you,’ that’s honest and I respect that—and you—in a small way.”

Yet picking up the phone doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll escape C.J.’s wrath, either. In one recent column, for example, she noted that KSTP-TV’s Anne Hutchinson was getting married. Hutchinson took C.J.’s call, but declined to talk about the nuptials. C.J. may have respected this display of candor, but she also devoted four paragraphs to retelling Hutchinson’s long history of previously avoiding comment.

Photo by John Abernathy

 

WHEN PEOPLE WHO KNOW C.J. are asked about her, they invariably remark on her toughness, a quality that C.J. sometimes has to employ even while reading her mail. It seems that some Minnesotans aren’t all that nice when taken to account by a high-profile black woman, and C.J. tends to receive a steady stream of malicious phone and e-mail messages at the Star Tribune. (One particularly persistent guy called more than 600 times.) “We deny we’re racist here, but you can’t get as many ‘fucking nigger bitch’ e-mails and phone calls as I have without thinking that people here can be racist,” she says.

“The mail she gets is virulent, rabid garbage,” says FOX-TV evening news anchor Robyne Robinson, who is also black. “I don’t get the volume or the deep hatred she is victim to. It’s her cross to bear, and I admire how she handles it.”

Her ability to handle it, C.J. says, comes from growing up in the South during the early days of integration. “There were a lot of racist jerks who tortured us, but I didn’t have it as hard as a lot of people,” she says of her childhood in Montgomery, Alabama. “My mother is responsible for me not hating people who don’t look like me.”

The Johnson family valued achievement. Her mother had a career in public relations, and her father, one of the first blacks to earn a PhD (in entomology) at the University of Oklahoma, was a college professor. When C.J. was a teenager, he joined the faculty at Tuskegee University’s School of Veterinary Medicine. The children were expected to work hard at school and at home. “I didn’t grow up with a sense of entitlement,” C.J. says. “I credit my healthy detachment around celebrities to my upbringing and my mother not encouraging and indulging childhood whims.”

As an “innately curious” teenager, C.J. worked on what was then the nation’s only weekly public high-school newspaper, where she became the first black student to hold a management position. Even then she exhibited the traits for which she would later become infamous. “She liked to be in charge of whatever was going on,” says her mother, Barbara Harris. “She’s always been kind of bossy.”

When C.J. graduated from high school, her father insisted she attend a historically black college. But at Bennett College, a women’s school in Greensboro, North Carolina, she quickly alienated classmates by refusing to join a sorority—a staple of campus life—and writing about it in the student newspaper. “I said, ‘Bennett is a sorority, why specialize?’” she recalls. “As a result, I was ostracized. But I’ve always been a loner, happy by myself.”

“She was already a good journalist then,” says Virginia Tucker, the English and journalism professor who served as C.J.’s advisor on the Bennett Banner. “I got calls from the president’s office about things she wrote. It was her typical attack-dog mode. Right there in your face. It’s disconcerting when you’re with her and she’s telling somebody what she thinks.”

C.J. won several college journalism awards and, ultimately, a fellowship to pursue a master’s in journalism at the University of Michigan. The move north proved difficult at first. She was uncomfortable in her new surroundings and found her classmates—like the weather—cold. She wanted to quit, but her mother encouraged her to stick it out. At the time, detailing the lives of socialites and second-tier celebrities was not at the top of her wish list. “You don’t go to the University of Michigan thinking you’re going to wind up the gossip columnist,” she says. Rather, her idol was Mike Royko, the legendary—and legendarily gruff—Chicago columnist.

She came to the Star Tribune in the early 1980s, recruited by the company after working for several mid-sized newspapers in Michigan. “I don’t like snow or water, but I wanted to be in the big city,” she says. Early on, there was little indication that she would become one of the Strib’s best-known bylines. Joining the staff as a court reporter (to this day, she will spend a slow day at the courthouse sifting through documents), she was relegated to Anoka County, where she churned out copy about everything from Blaine City Council meetings to the now-defunct Santa Claus Town.

But in 1989, when Barbara Flanagan stopped writing full-time, the paper’s editors saw a chance to add a new voice to its mix of columnists. C.J. fit the bill. “We were facing a chorus from a lot of different sources that we were being too serious, too stiff, too boring,” says Tim McGuire, the Star Tribune editor who hired C.J. “The column was meant to be edgy, which has always been a point of contention with readers, editors, and staff.” Recalls C.J.’s long-time editor, Maureen McCarthy: “The idea was to bring more fun into the paper, and C.J. was the perfect person for that.”

The contrast to Flanagan’s column, with its breathless and boosterish prose, was marked. Flanagan, who still writes a monthly column for the Star Tribune, considered herself an advocate. C.J. wrote the column from the perspective of an outsider—which is what she was—detailing the lives of the rich and fabulous while passing judgment on those she believed behaved badly. “I cover the city, the state, and the interesting people who help make it so,” says Flanagan. “C.J. serves a purpose. But she’s not friendly.”

One of those who was uncomfortable with C.J.’s style was political reporter Eric Eskola, who was initially paired with her to produce the column. Eskola reportedly balked when C.J. wrote in “Johnson & Eskola” about some “parasitic stowaways” that news anchor Colleen Needles had acquired in Brazil. “Eric understood very quickly that you can’t write only the stuff that people want to have in the column, and he didn’t want to make people unhappy,” McGuire says. C.J.—with her taste for irreverence and little to lose—was willing to be brutally honest. When Eskola left after four months, she emerged as the state’s first (and, to date, only) full-time gossip columnist.

Over the years, the column has evolved. A typical piece now features fewer, if longer, items than it once did, but its animating philosophy—a kind of C.J. code—has remained consistent. “I don’t like people being mistreated,” she says. “I don’t like hypocritical behavior. I don’t like cowardly behavior. I don’t mind speaking up for people who are not in a position to do so. I am fascinated by motive. I am also constantly frustrated by this curiosity I have about why people do what they do, because lots of people can’t explain themselves.”

She will not write about illness unless she’s asked to do so, and she doesn’t write about “affairs of the heart or other body parts unless I’ve been in the room.” In service of the column, she never accepts free meals. When Roepke, who considers C.J. a personal friend, sent a wedding gift, it was returned “with a nice note saying she couldn’t accept it.” Says McGuire: “To her credit, C.J. is not easily manipulated.”

She also does not go out of her way, she says, to nail people. Not because she’s above such petty desires, she says, but because it isn’t necessary. “I’m very patient,” she says. “If there’s somebody that I don’t like, I don’t waste any energy trying to get them in trouble. I know they’ll get themselves in trouble.” The list of people who won’t talk to C.J., however, currently includes Prince, the Mondales, Josh Harnett, and, depending on the subject, the Norm Colemans. “A column like this will invariably make people mad,” says McGuire. “People won’t be portrayed the way they want to be portrayed.”

Of course, it’s not only subjects who sometime react negatively to C.J.’s column. Plenty of readers and fellow journalists do, too. “There has been a lot of internal disapproval from people who felt gossip had no place in a serious newspaper,” says McCarthy. But while C.J.’s peers lament the space devoted to a Lindsay Lohan sighting, the columnist remains unapologetic about her place in the media landscape. “The paper shouldn’t be filled only with things that are of interest to my colleagues who are humorless fuddy-duddy eggheads,” she says. “My column is more than a gossip column. To call it that marginalizes my work.”

Part of the reason C.J. tends to  drive some people nuts has more to do with style than substance. In person, she can be wildly funny and charmingly self-deprecating, but those traits are seldom on display in her writing. The column is often light without being light-hearted, frivolous without being funny. As a result, C.J.’s attitude—the code—can comes across in print as arrogance and self-righteousness, a sure-fire recipe for being disdained, if also widely read.

Still, to truly understand C.J., it  helps to know that the column is a wholly authentic embodiment of its creator: Save for her humor, C.J. in person is nearly indistinguishable from C.J. in print. If you happen to be in her orbit and you misuse your cell phone, for example, or bring your preschooler to an R-rated movie, or follow her on the highway too closely—she carries a homemade sign in her car that reads, “Back off, ASSHOLE!”—you’ll likely experience the kind of intemperate tongue-lashing that Eleanor Mondale once said caused her to leave the state.

In fact, no one is safe from the C.J. treatment, not even kids. In early May, I attended the PACER Center’s annual benefit at the Minneapolis Convention Center with C.J. Following a concert by Dreamgirls star Jennifer Hudson and a live auction in which Genmar Holdings CEO Irwin Jacobs (who, according to C.J., “used to be a fucking dreamboat”) paid $14,000 to attend a Notre Dame football game, a hundred or so local luminaries assembled for an exclusive after-party. After conducting a brief interview with Hudson, C.J. joined the crowd, which included some of Minnesota’s most prominent faces. She pointed out several possible cosmetic surgeries and marveled at the way Vikings player Cullen Loeffler seemed to actually “like his wife.” Then, toward the end of the evening, her focus turned away from the rich and reconstructed and toward a friend’s teenage daughter, whom she advised—not for the first time—“you can’t get pregnant if you keep your legs crossed.”

Then it was my turn. The next morning, after I had ignored C.J.’s directive to call her upon arriving home safely, I found a note on the windshield of my car. It contained her cell-phone number on it. C.J. later admitted to having placed it there at 2:30 a.m.

That sense of irascibility enlivens C.J.’s column, but it also tends to complicate her life. In 1999, she was attending a University of Minnesota fundraiser when Eric Miller, a freelance photographer, took a picture of C.J. throwing water at him that later appeared in the Pioneer Press. “I don’t like having my picture taken and had asked him not to take my photo,” C.J. says. “I was being mischievous, as can be seen by the smile on my face in the photo…[but] I should not have behaved so impulsively.”

C.J. was briefly suspended by the Star Tribune after the incident, but the experience does not seem to have made her particularly empathetic toward others who would prefer not to be photographed or written about. It’s a position she admits is “wildly inconsistent.”

 

C.J. HAS FEW CLOSE FRIENDS, and probably fully trusts only her mother (whom she calls an “angel on this planet”). Those who do make the cut generally enjoy being in the presence of a certain type of celebrity. Carroll Britton and her husband, Harold Kail, of Edina have socialized with C.J. for years. “It’s fun being her friend; there are definite perks,” says Britton, owner of her own cosmetic studio. Adds Kail: “It’s like being with Elvis Presley; she’s an icon. You get the best service in town.”

Those friends also get a devoted, if sometimes overzealous, ally. One woman reports that C.J. was the first to visit her in a psychiatric hospital (“She assured me I wasn’t the first to end up there”). Others recount multiple acts of quiet kindness, from lawn-mowing to curtain-sewing to pizza-baking. C.J. even altered the bras of a friend who had a mastectomy. “When you achieve her love—and I use the word achieve very deliberately—and get into her inner sanctum, you better well know that you’ve earned that,” Britton says. “She’s very guarded.”

While some are afraid to anger the columnist, others are afraid to befriend her publicly. One confidante, a St. Paul philanthropist married to a media executive, asked to remain anonymous for fear of “jeopardizing” her husband’s position. “C.J. and I have to compartmentalize our friendship,” she says. “C.J. doesn’t give free rides. But she’s totally honest and fair and, in private, caring and compassionate. She is a marshmallow wrapped in barbed wire.”

Still, those close to C.J. understand the peculiar, if unspoken, contract they enter into by being her friend, the knowledge that, on some level, she can never completely trust anyone, that she will always be C.J. You are always a potential source—or a potential subject.

The consequences of that understanding can sometimes affect C.J. in odd and uncomfortable ways. In June, for example, she visited the home of a prominent friend whose toddler had recently died. There, she was greeted with disapproval by other mourners. “People were looking at me askance because they didn’t know if I was there as a friend” or as a gossip columnist, she says. FOX-9 anchor Robinson, who has been friends with C.J. since arriving in town in 1990, says she once had a dust-up with the columnist over an item she felt was unfair. “It let me see how her job keeps her from developing personal relationships with people. That’s got to be such a lonely thing.”

That loneliness has no doubt grown in recent years. In 2005, C.J. and her husband of five years, Anthony Pinn, separated, news that C.J. dutifully broke in her own column. “I didn’t want anyone to scoop me,” she says. “I wasn’t happy about it. But I couldn’t pretend it wasn’t happening. Some reveled in the news, but overwhelmingly the response was, ‘Keep your chin up.’” Friends of C.J. speculate that Pinn, then a professor of religious studies at Macalester College, grew tired of living in his wife’s shadow. Now teaching at Rice University, Pinn says he is “not interested in discussing the situation.”

The divorce, which became final late last year, remains a source of great sadness for C.J., and in casual conversation, she sometimes still mentions “my husband.” “I did my best to save my marriage,” she says. “When we were married, we were called the professor and the gossip columnist; it’s been one of the great disappointments of my life that the professor flunked commitment. I’m never dating again and never getting married again…. Not having sex never killed anybody. I may have had my last sex partner.”

 

IN RECENT YEARS, C.J. has raised her profile by appearing every Thursday on the FOX-9 morning program for “Morning Dish with C.J.” When she walks through the station’s Eden Prairie newsroom one spring morning, there’s a genuine sense of excitement. A security guard calls out to her, “It’s going to be a great day!” When Rodrigo Vega, the floor director, clips on C.J.’s microphone, she quips, “You’re too young for me. You know that, don’t you?” She then questions weatherman Keith Marler about his wife’s pregnancy before declaring, “I’m in everyone’s business.”

One might think that, given the precarious state of the newspaper industry, C.J. might try to make nice with prospective employers and colleagues. But it seems that she just can’t help herself—ever. Before sitting down with co-anchor Tom Halden, she calls him a “segment hog,” and warns him: “If you misbehave, I’m going to embarrass you on camera.” Halden is nonplussed. “Every week she tells me she pities my wife,” he says. “Half the time, on the show, our mouths are agape, especially in the realm of sex. C.J. can get away with saying things that people are thinking.”

That, if anything, may be the C.J. brand, and in the wake of the Star Tribune shake-up, she is even more determined to expand her reach. She is working on a book of celebrity photographs. She is in talks to narrate a movie about a skyway romance. She sells her paintings through the website Artworkbycj.com. Barring a call from The View, however, she plans to remain in Minnesota. “When Geraldo Rivera was last in town, he asked me, ‘Why are you still in Minnesota?’” she says. “I told him I like Minnesota. With a name like Johnson, obviously I was born to live here.” 

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