I went straight to the event from work on a Tuesday. Can’t lie, I was a bit excited when I got the memo that I needed to cover Hip Hop Weekly’s magazine (launch?) celebration. Thoughts of breathing the same air as hip hop heavy hitters got me through the workday. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I’d later be disappointed by the lack of “hip-hop” at the (launch?) celebration – but that’s not what you’re here for…
What exceeded my expectations, however, were all of the really cool people I rubbed elbows with on the carpet – that one chick from Friday After Next, you know… Cube’s love interest; Steven Larkin from the National Newspapers Association; and Shane Sparks, choreographer extraordinaire and a staple in my very own professional dancing fantasies as a young girl.
Bright smiled and dressed in all black, Papa Joe Aviance, standing modestly at a smooth 6’2, was the first to light up the carpet. While Papa Joe, or PJ, posed for the cameras, his PR agent, Rick Krusky, read me off everything I needed to know about his client so that I could do a proper write up. “He’s a house artist… Blah, blah, blah… He lost 250 lbs on a 99 Cent Only Store diet… Blah, blah, blah.”
“Wait. What?!” I blurted out.
“Yeah, he’s an interesting guy.”
I knew right then and there that PJ wasn’t just another tall dude on the carpet, but rather, a misfit – Hollywood Misfit.
We met up on Wednesday in December. Traffic getting to Burbank from Westwood was disrespectful, to say the least. I showed up 30 minutes late, and was told by Rick over email that PJ had another event to attend and only had 30 minutes to chat. PJ, dressed in all black again, very gentlemanly offered to buy me coffee. I declined a few times, but finally gave in and shouted my coffee order to him as I ran to restroom.
The coffee shop was starting to fill up, so we decided to sit outside to cancel out the background noise. I tested my voice memo app a few times before we dove in.
PJ: “How are you doing?”
Me: “I’m great! How are you?
House music. The 90’s were all about it, and PJ and his clique, Aviance, would sweat the night away to the house and dance vibes, and Papa Joe Aviance was born.
A friend coined the 19-year-old 90’s kid with the tag because he was “like a provider – taking good care of the people” at the parties during the house days.
“It was like a family connection, you know? For me, clubs have always been kind of an outlet and, because I love to dance. It was just freeing to go there just to listen to music. I didn’t care about all the drama and other stuff. That’s why I was kind of like a fatherly figure. I just came there to dance. Everyone else came there to party and get drunk and that stuff.”
“I came there for the music. I mean, I come – and even to this day, I’ll come with a towel hanging on my back pocket.”
“So you can wipe the sweat off?” I asked, reminiscing.
“Wipe the sweat off, yes.” He responded, with a smile.
I knew exactly what he was talking about – all too well. I, a prepubescent teen in the early 2000’s would attend house parties with an outfit-coordinating bandana around my neck to catch sweat. Not caring about sneaking a sip of alcohol or a hit of anything other than the dance floor. But unlike PJ, I was getting down to the latest hip-hop, and not house music.
I had a burning desire to ask about how he got into house, especially after researching where he grew up.
“I also looked-up and saw that you grew up in Saginaw. How was that?” I asked, hoping that he would catch my drift.
“Yes. Saginaw, Michigan. Yes,” he answered, waiting for me to stop beating around the bush.
So I just went for it.
“I guess – let me phrase the question like this. It’s just that… when you think of a black man coming from Saginaw, you automatically think, like, rap… You don’t necessarily think house music. That’s what’s so intriguing about you.”
PJ’s grandfather worked for a GM factory before starting his own business in Saginaw. His entire family was into music and introduced him to the art at a very young age.
“I was a black guy playing the violin, and I really felt isolated because I didn’t have anybody that inspired me musically. Nobody was doing what I was doing at that time.”
Is it just me, or does it seem as though all small town misfits end up journeying off to New York for a portion of their lives? It’s as if New York has a secret (or not so secret) tagline of “Land of the Freaks.”
Papa Joe, like many freaks, wound up in New York immediately following high school and got into the club scene. That’s where he was introduced to house.
“The music is just kind of like – I felt it was entirely me. You know?”
And I did. I knew exactly what he meant. I too a freak, ventured off to LA from Michigan immediately after college to pursue my passion. LA is where freaks on the New York waitlist reside until space opens up on the east coast. A lot of us end up staying because we gripe about NY’s cost of living and the weather here is always perfect.
PJ enrolled in Iona College and studied radio, TV and film for three and a half years before making the transition to corporate America – working for AOL.
“I started in their billing department and wound up working to the account exec of their computing department... To be honest with you, I’ve always lived a double life. I was working in the daytime in the financial district and at night I was [like] ‘Woo! Woo!’”
I’d like to think that most creatives end up living a double life at one point in their lives. Wanting to pursue their passions, but being responsible enough to realize that said passions aren’t cheap and sleeping on a park bench isn’t comfortable – especially for someone with PJ’s stature at the time.
“I’ve always been heavy. Always. They used to call me ‘Grimace’. That was my nickname. I mean, in a negative way. I lived with that for many years. Then it was always ‘Big Papa’. The ‘Big’ always coming before ‘Papa.'”
Papa Joe was obese while pursing his house music career. He decided to take charge of his health after seeing himself on screen in his first music video, Last Night a DJ Saved My Life.
“That’s when I finally knew that enough is enough. I had an opportunity to do something that I loved to do and always wanted to do. I have always wanted to do things because again it stemmed all back to my childhood of music. I had the opportunity to be in a music video and to do something. It was dance music, and to be in a music video? Ta dah!” He expressed with jazz hands as he laughed.
“So I had this huge opportunity, but yet, when I saw myself, I was like – I already hated myself enough. I was already depressed. I was already down on myself. I didn’t like myself. There were days when I would look in the mirror just to make sure that I didn’t have food on it and walked out. That is how bad it got.”
He recalled an incident before this to where his weight hindered him from living in the moment.
“I went to an amusement park, and I love roller coasters. I went to go on the front car because it was my turn to get in, get strapped in, and they told me, ‘You are too fat. You can’t ride the ride. Sorry, you are too fat.’ In front of everybody. This was [at] 33.”
Even after all of that he didn’t feel self-conscious – or so he thought. He left the ride and headed straight to the concessions stand to get a hamburger and fries. Just as so many other Americans, PJ was an emotional eater.
“I think what’s super crazy is that we don’t really understand what an eating disorder could be. We automatically think bulimia or anorexia, or like me, I struggle with binge eating. Like still to this day, I still have triggers that like will make me…”
“Want to go binge. Yes.” He finished for me. He completely understood.
My mom always told me not to place labels on myself, but I think it’s smart to be mindful of habits and triggers – PJ agrees. We can all give excuses to why we eat what we eat, but taking ownership of what we choose to ingest is the only way to save us from the fastfood killers.
Papa Joe tried every diet under the sun to lose the weight – NutriSystems, Weight Watchers, Master Cleanse, popcorn diet, soup diet – but none seemed to stick until he began to dig a little deeper, assessing what, when and why he chose to eat what he did in 2009.
“There are three things that I ask myself when I go to the grocery store when I reach for junk food. I call it the three W’s. What are you eating, when are you eating it, and why?”
And when it came to exercising, he didn’t join the nearest gym or spend hundreds of dollars on a personal trainer. He walked.
“I said, ‘what’s the easiest exercise that you can do?’ But the first time I couldn’t even go around the block. I [tried to] run around the block one time, [and I was] just drenched in sweat. I wasn’t going to give up, because, you know what, I’ve given up too many times.”
Instead of another fad diet, PJ was in search of something that would sustain him; something that he could use in his everyday life that would be easy to maintain – something that he was capable of doing. He couldn’t afford anything other than really cheap food, and he didn’t want junk.
“So I said, ‘Let me figure this out. You got to survive.' And I walked into the 99 Cent Only Store, and saw that they had fruits and vegetables. I went to the fridge threw everything out that would get in my way of losing the weight. Getting rid of all the cookies, cakes, chips, and everything – I really had a nervous breakdown. I was crying and everything. It [healthy eating] was overwhelming, so I just stuck to the basics. I like apples. I like oranges. I like watermelon. I like grapes. I like fruits – I like strawberries. I like blueberries. I stuck to that. No recipes, just simple cooking.”
Walking up to five miles a day and shopping for healthy options at his local 99 Cent Only Store resulted in the loss of close to 250 lbs. Papa Joe’s lack of gimmicks and weight loss tricks attracted the attention of Yahoo, MSNBC, CNN, Rachael Ray and The Doctors – all wanting to know more about his easily accessible weight loss plan. Shortly after, the 99 Cent Only Stores reached out to Papa Joe, making him their brand ambassador.
“The 99 Cent Only Stores called when they caught wind of the story and said ‘We’d like to bring you on as our brand ambassador’ and I’ve worked with them for about a year and a half, and now I’m working with the American Heart Association and the Tournament of Roses.”
Just as PJ’s story began to gain the traction it needed to inspire millions, he was involved in a bike riding accident that put a halt to his fitness journey. Papa Joe had to undergo leg surgery and was given nine months before he’d be able to walk again.
“I felt defeated but I was not going to let it defeat me. I refused.”
PJ’s tenacity to recover quickly and pick up where he left off in his fitness journey has inspired others to do the same. He’s developing a documentary that will share his journey to recovery, along with other’s weight loss struggles.
“What I want to do is inspire, - the tag line is ‘Motivation is a Two-way Street.’ Do you know what I’m saying? I need you just as much as you need me.”
‘Inspiring’ is the perfect term to describe Papa Joe and his journey. When asked what makes him a Hollywood Misfit, he said:
“What makes me a Hollywood misfit is that – you know what, there are a lot of people that come out here to make their dreams come true, and they give up. I refuse to give up. I don’t want to sound like a hoe, but I’ll do whatever I need to do. Within reason.” He ended with a chuckle.