Star Flack

Publicist extraordinaire Jane Higgins has put St. Louis hip-hop on the map

Jul 21, 2004 at 4:00 am
In June 2000 Nelly placed St. Louis squarely on the hip-hop map with the release of Country Grammar, an album that rocketed to No. 1 on the Billboard chart and went on to sell more than 8 million copies. Following in Nelly's wake, a steady stream of homegrown artists have gone on to establish St. Louis as the hottest breeding ground for hip-hop music in the nation -- and through it all, Jane Higgins has made sure that the beat goes on.

As publicist for Nelly, Murphy Lee, the St. Lunatics and the Trackboyz, Higgins is the most plugged-in maestro of hype in the St. Louis hip-hop community, the spokeswoman for the biggest music story to hit this town since Chuck Berry duck-walked across the stage in the 1950s -- not bad for a 51-year-old white woman who never much cared for rap prior to becoming one of its most ardent promoters.

"I'm more of an Aerosmith and Bruce Springsteen fan," confesses Higgins before making the obligatory pitch for her clients. "Of course I love Nelly, and right now I have Murphy Lee's CD in my car."

So just how does a girl raised in rural Wisconsin come to represent the music of urban black America? The formula includes a bit of serendipity -- and a whole lot of bad luck, including a bitter divorce followed by the brutal murder of her ex-husband.

With her blonde hair, blue eyes, pale Irish skin and diminutive five-foot-two-inch frame, Higgins is the physical opposite of the men she represents -- and that's before she opens her mouth. Where her clients speak in a soft, nonchalant mumble of street-slang, she speaks with all the clarity and poise of a soccer mom who's promised to take the entire team to Dairy Queen after the game. As she fields call after call on her cell phone, Higgins' delightful squeal greets everything and everyone with words like so great, fantastic, cool, the best, wonderful, perfect!

"She's probably the bubbliest person I ever met, but at the same time you don't want to cross her," says Wendy Day, founder of the Nashville-based advocacy group Rap Coalition and a woman who has worked with such artists as Eminem and Master P. "Jane's a power-hitter, and people know that if they write something bad about one of her clients, she's not going to hesitate to pick up the phone and call them on it."

It's her lollipop-sweet veneer and steel resolve that make Higgins a hit with her clients.

"Jane is beautiful. She'll bend over backwards to help you, whether it's getting you tickets to a sold-out concert or handling the media. She's always there," enthuses Corey Edwards, a.k.a. Slo Down, the St. Lunatics member best known for wearing a Phantom of the Opera mask in concert.

Higgins recently helped Edwards spin some potentially negative press when the wedding planner for his April ceremony went to the Post-Dispatch with what she thought would be a humdinger of a story. She claimed Edwards had refused to pay her for throwing a lovely wedding. The story that appeared in Deb Peterson's column, however, told a different story: It slammed the wedding planner for ruining the ceremony. Of course, it didn't hurt that Higgins was one of the first people Peterson contacted for the story.

"I told Deb that I wouldn't have paid either," says Higgins. "The wedding was a total disaster. The planner didn't show up on time. Everyone waited for two hours without food or drink. It was miserable."

But not all of Higgins' spins shows up in the box score. Yomi Martin, president of hip-hop clothing line Vokal, credits Higgins with landing him favorable coverage on BET (Black Entertainment Television), VH1 and MTV. But his most indelible Higgins experience came at the Galleria last year. Martin was trying on shirts at Brooks Brothers when a sales associate accused him of trying to steal a pair of cufflinks.

"Jane happened to be in the mall at the same time and gave me a call," Martin recalls. "When I told her what was happening she showed up and went crazy on the salesman. Now when I go to Brooks Brothers they treat me like a king."

Jane Higgins' clout in the hip-hop industry is a phenomenon, according to Wendy Washington, head of press for Universal Records' Motown division, which holds the rights to the work of Nelly, Murphy Lee and the rest of the St. Lunatics. While artists from second-tier cities such as St. Louis generally move to Los Angeles or New York following commercial success, the Lunatics remained in St. Louis. Without a local publicist working in St. Louis, Universal has relied on Higgins to represent some of the record label's top talent.

"Because [the Lunatics] are so committed to St. Louis, it's important to have someone who can work the local and regional press, and Higgins has been instrumental in doing that," Washington says.

So when Universal held listening parties in New York and Los Angeles for Murphy Lee's 2003 release, Murphy's Law, Lee turned to Higgins to coordinate the party in St. Louis. Hundreds of guests got a sneak listen prior to the album's release, and the listening party generated several positive local articles -- all of which contributed to the album going platinum this year with more than one million sales.

Last month Lee again called on Higgins, this time to help promote a restaurant in Creve Coeur that he recently purchased for his cousin, Sharrod Fischer.

Inside the Good for You Café on a recent weekday, Lee is finishing up a sandwich and fries and discussing his business plans with Higgins. The soft-spoken Lee wants to get the word out that the restaurant is under new management and will soon open a franchise in California. Higgins draws up a few ideas, including a grand re-opening party.

As the meeting concludes, Lee offers up his opinion of Higgins: "Jane doesn't need hip-hop, hip-hop needs Jane. She's the honorary white woman in our group -- a mother and a businesswoman."

The St. Lunatics describe Higgins as a mother, a homegirl, a friend. She describes them as her kids, her boys and, more than anything, her saviors. They peeled her off the mat after life delivered a few sucker punches.

It began the moment Higgins and her family moved from New York to St. Louis in August 1997. The move was supposed to benefit her son, Ian, who had recently been diagnosed with ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder). Higgins and her husband, David Price, thought St. Louis would provide a safer, more secure environment. For David, a graduate of Clayton High School, the move was also a welcome homecoming. It wouldn't last long.

Six weeks after the family arrived in St. Louis, David packed his bags for California. In the Big Apple, he'd written material for "Good Morning America," and he found it difficult to get even remotely similar work in the Lou. Frustrated, he moved by himself to Los Angeles to find work in television.

In hindsight Jane Higgins should have seen the divorce coming. For the previous eighteen months, David had been suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome brought on when a small commuter plane he was aboard crash-landed on a small airstrip in Pennsylvania. Everyone survived, but David could never shake the vision of the plane going down. It wasn't long before Higgins noticed emotional changes in her husband. The man who had once been so jovial and carefree took on a distant, sour air. The only thing they had in common now was Ian.

Higgins doesn't blame David for the end of their marriage, but she was angry they had ever come to St. Louis ("How in the hell did I let him talk me into moving to St. Louis?" she asks). With her husband gone, Higgins didn't know a soul in St. Louis except for David's parents.

Today Higgins' closest friends, outside of her clients, are the middle-aged Jewish mothers she has met through Ian. Although Higgins is Catholic, she is raising Ian according to David's Jewish faith. Higgins credits these friends with much of her success in St. Louis, and over Saturday-morning coffee at Higgins' Clayton apartment, the women return the compliments. To hear them describe Higgins' eight years in St. Louis is not unlike hearing Higgins pitch one of her clients. Multisyllable adjectives are the name of the game: Unbelievable! Incredible! Amazing!

Ava Ehrlich remembers the first time the two were introduced. Higgins had volunteered to coach Ian's first-grade basketball team and left a phone message inviting Ehrlich's son, Max, to join the team.

"She sounded like a cheerleader on speed. I was like, 'Great, I can't wait to meet her.'"

A few weeks later Higgins cast the grim impression of a pallbearer when she confided in Ehrlich that David had moved to California, leaving her unemployed and directionless. She had thought about moving back to New York or even home to her parents in Wisconsin, but she didn't want to uproot Ian from school. The kid had been through enough.

"I told her the best thing would be to stick it out and get a job," says Ehrlich, who put Higgins in touch with a contact she had at the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Within a few weeks Higgins landed a job as community-relations director for the foundation. The job didn't pay much -- $30,000 a year -- but it was a start, and it satisfied her yearning for stability.

Higgins' life has never been simple. The second of eight siblings, she grew up a devout Catholic in the small town of Appleton, Wisconsin. After attending Catholic schools through high school, she moved to Milwaukee where she attended a year of finishing school, an academy dedicated to teaching its pupils how to win husbands. It worked for Higgins: At 22 she married a high school sweetheart from Appleton. After five years together, the couple split up.

Higgins had greater ambitions than could be found in the Midwest. She moved to Los Angeles and landed a job as a production assistant in television. After a few years she moved on to work in international film distribution, a job that would have her shuttling between New York and Los Angeles.

She and David met in "fly-over country" during a holiday party in Little Rock. A friend of a friend invited Higgins to attend the party. She wasn't much interested in the guy, but after he sent her round-trip airline tickets, Higgins thought it rude to decline his offer. The date went as poorly as she had anticipated. When she rebuffed his repeated sexual advances, he left her stranded at the party.

It was then that she met David. A struggling standup comic, David had driven down from St. Louis to perform at the party.

"He had such a warm and beautiful smile," Higgins says. "I just thought he was someone I'd like to get to know."

The two spent the rest of Higgins' stay in Little Rock together. Six months later he moved to Los Angeles to be with her.

David was never much of a comedian, and some say he should have been a straight man -- that Higgins was the true comic. But in her mind David was the cleverest man alive. Within a few months of his move to LA they eloped. Two years later, on February 25, 1991, Ian was born. Higgins calls it the best day of her life.

Higgins has yet to begin dating since her divorce in 1997. David, on the other hand, wasted little time.

Soon after the divorce was finalized, he began seeing a woman in Los Angeles named Annette Metoyer. From the beginning Higgins sensed something was awry in David's relationship with the woman. Those thoughts crystallized when Metoyer began sending Higgins threatening e-mails. Even today Higgins says she doesn't know what sparked the e-mails. She was in no way jealous of Annette. In fact, she was happy David had found someone. Even so, the e-mails continued, with the warning to Higgins to "watch herself." Higgins soon grew frightened of the woman and sent the menacing missives to her mother.

"I said if anything ever happens to me, here's where to begin searching."

Little did Higgins -- or anyone -- know that it was Metoyer who should have feared for her life.

David's parents never suspected their son or his girlfriend were in harm's way. They weren't pleased that their son and Higgins had divorced but were glad he had again found love.

"David was happy in LA," recalls his mother, Madelon. "He mentioned once or twice that [Annette's] mother was difficult, but I didn't think much of it."

Apparently Annette's mother, who lived with the couple, was upset they were trying to move her out of the apartment they all shared, though that's speculation because she never lived to offer up a motive. After shooting her daughter in the chest and lodging seven bullets in David, Annette's mother turned the gun on herself.

Higgins was leaving a Make-A-Wish gala at the Chase Park Plaza when she got a call from the Los Angeles medical examiner.

At first she thought it was a joke. When the grim reality sank in, her first question was about Annette.

"She's been killed, too," came the reply. Amid the trauma Higgins felt a twinge of elation.

"I remember thinking, 'Good! That bitch!'"

In the Los Angeles Times, the story merited a news brief in the metro section, under the headline: "3 DIE IN SAN PEDRO MURDER-SUICIDE."

Authorities on Sunday identified a woman who police said fatally shot her daughter and a man believed to be the younger woman's boyfriend before turning the gun on herself Saturday in San Pedro.

Los Angeles Police Department spokesman Guillermo Campos said Carmen Foy, 70, shot and killed her daughter, Annette Metoyer, 43, and the unidentified 42-year-old man in the 1000 block of West 23rd Street.

Neighbors said they heard two series of shots come from the apartment.

Members of the LAPD special weapons and tactics unit forced open a door at the apartment after reports of gun shots.

Autopsies were to be performed this morning, officials said.

The next day Higgins delivered the news to Ian.

As the nine-year-old jumped up and down on her bed, she told him his father had died.

"Whose daddy died?" Ian asked.

"Your daddy."

It took a moment for the news to register. Then Ian began to scream.

The story of the dramatic rise of Nelly and the St. Lunatics is old news, but in the spring of 2001 it was still generating a good buzz, and Higgins thought maybe, just maybe, she could play off that success.

After David's murder she quit Make-A-Wish to spend more time with Ian. To make ends meet, she began doing freelance public-relations work from home. It was during a stint working for the National Kidney Foundation that Higgins saw an opportunity to break in with the St. Lunatics. Her idea was to get the group to put on a concert, proceeds from which would benefit the foundation.

The first call she made was to her friends Scott and Georgeanne Rosenblum, whose triplets are the same age as Ian. At the time Scott Rosenblum, an ace criminal-defense attorney, was representing St. Lunatic Lavell Webb, a.k.a. City Spud, on an appeal to a 2000 conviction for first-degree assault and armed criminal action. With a few phone calls, Rosenblum set up a meeting in his Clayton office with Higgins and Tony "T-Luv" Davis, manager of the St. Lunatics.

Davis agreed to help the foundation raise money, but instead of a concert he proposed a celebrity basketball game. He also found a few other stars in addition to Nelly and the St. Lunatics, including Rams players Marshall Faulk and London Fletcher as well as NBA stars Larry Hughes and Darius Miles. The event brought in a couple thousand dollars for the National Kidney Foundation and opened an entire world to Higgins. Old school met new school.

The meteoric rise of Nelly, and to a lesser degree the St. Lunatics, made St. Louis rap the new sound of hip-hop, and Universal looked to cash in on the craze nationwide. That meant lots of marketing dollars in big cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Atlanta -- but literally nothing in St. Louis.

"When we first went big, the music industry didn't even recognize St. Louis. People would be like, 'Where's that? Kentucky?'" Tony Davis recalls. "But for us, it was important that St. Louis be taken care of, and we didn't think [Universal] was going to do that to the extent we wanted it done."

In Higgins, Davis found someone he thought could be an effective liaison between St. Louis and the music-industry capitals of New York and LA. After all, Higgins had worked in both cities and knew a little something about the entertainment industry, albeit not in music. There was also an inexplicable quality about Higgins.

"She just had this vibe," Davis says. "You knew you could trust her."

Soon Higgins found herself in charge of planning listening parties and other events in St. Louis, handling media requests and defusing any and all rumors surrounding the St. Lunatics. As their recognition grew, so did Higgins'. Her name frequently found itself in papers and on television and radio alongside her clients'. She appeared regularly in Jerry Berger's dispatch, as the former Post-Dispatch columnist referred to her as "the star flack," and "the indispensable Jane Higgins."

Suddenly Higgins was seen as an important component to anyone trying to assemble the next hip-hop ride out of St. Louis. The hype was dizzying, even for this topnotch spin-meister.

"At the beginning I felt like such a fraud," Higgins admits. "I wasn't nearly as connected as people thought, but then we were all so new to the frenzy. Everyone was learning how to deal with it."

It wouldn't take Higgins long to indoctrinate herself. When Nelly was kicked out of Union Station in 2002 for wearing a 'do-rag (a clothing item the mall considers to be gang-related paraphernalia), Higgins cast herself into the role.

"In our life, it's not about gangs, it's about fashion," Higgins told a reporter for the Post-Dispatch. "My eleven-year-old white son wears 'do-rags."

At the Starbucks at Hanley Road and Wydown Boulevard, Mark Wilder is trying to get Higgins' attention. Wilder, who used to be general manager of the hip-hop station Q 95.5, wants Higgins to represent a local rap act named First Draft that is part of his Innovative Music Network. The group has recently signed a record deal with Def Jam, and Wilder thinks Higgins could get the group press in national publications such as Vibe, Blender, Rolling Out, Rhyme and XXL.

The problem is Higgins has other concerns today, as her cell phone keeps ringing to an annoyingly loud tune called "Jazzology." Each call throws her in a different direction. O.G. (a.k.a. Original Gangsta), a bodyguard to Nelly and the crew, is calling from California to check up on Higgins. She ends the conversation reminding him to call her more often. "Holler at your girl. Okay. Bye!"

Next it's Jim Brown -- yes, the Hall-of-Fame football player -- on the phone. For the past three months, Higgins has been helping Brown establish his Amer-I-Can program for at-risk youth at Vashon High School. Brown will be in town the next day to participate in a celebrity golf tournament, and he's looking to arrange some last-minute details. If that's not enough, someone representing Willie Mays -- yes, the famous baseball player of yesteryear -- has called and wants Higgins to help him get some new publicity.

Higgins' help doesn't come cheap. Her business, FYI Public Relations, charges between $1,500 and $5,000 in retainer fees per month.

When the phone goes silent for a moment, Higgins' two assistants, 22-year-old Arelia Jones and 24-year-old Alaina Gordon, walk into the coffee shop.

Jones, who hopes to find a career in the music business, has worked with Higgins for two years. In many ways she is the calm to the storm that surrounds Higgins. Quiet to the point of reclusive, Jones serves as a mobile secretary for Higgins, reminding her of appointments, returning phone calls and running errands. She is also a huge devotee to the world of hip-hop music and serves as Higgins' tutor, informing her which artist is with which label and teaching her how to pronounce and spell the names of clients such as Damion "Damizza" Young, an LA-based hip-hop producer (for the record, it's pronounced DA-miz-za).

Gordon, a tall buxom blonde from Oklahoma, has recently dropped out of medical school to pursue a career in the entertainment industry. She has worked with Higgins for just a few weeks, but already Higgins thinks she'll go far in the industry based on her looks and smarts.

For the next 30 minutes, Higgins plots out her team's schedule for the next two days. There's the golf tournament, a dinner for Senator Maida Coleman and, oh yes, the Trackboyz need to get tickets to see Dave Chapelle at the Pageant.

When the girls are at last dispatched, Higgins returns to Wilder, who has read the invite to the golf tournament at least a dozen times since losing Higgins' attention.

"Okay, about your group. I just don't know. I've really got my plate full right now."

Wilder thanks her for her time, even though he had just waited some 45 minutes for this simple answer.

"Well, you were the first person we came to. We know you did such a good job with Nelly and the Lunatics," Wilder says.

The truth is, Higgins does have a lot going on right now, but she could probably fit Wilder's group into her schedule. It's just that she's too tired, and what if, on the off-chance, First Draft hits it big? Higgins just doesn't have the energy to go through it all again.

"Nelly and the Lunatics made me who I am, and they came along at such a horrible, horrible time in my life. I owe everything to them," Higgins says. "But now the pendulum is starting to swing back to the center, and I kind of like it. I have the time to pick and choose who I want to work for, and more importantly, I have more time to spend with Ian."