Cover Story: We Aren't the World

Media diva Regina Carswell in black, white and color

May 4, 2005 at 2:06 pm
Una-Kariim Cross

Divas start right now.

Regina Carswell starts ... right now. I first thought Carswell was ghetto. She is from Detroit, after all. She told me she was from Detroit the first time I met her in April 2002 during fallout from "Get Back," the column I'd published calling into question the integrity hall of Vice Mayor Alicia Reece.

After Reece stormed CityBeat's offices to put my boss on notice that she intended to control me by siccing black firefighters on my ass, suddenly I was a news story where once I was incogNegro. The Enquirer and at least one TV news station took my name in vain in speculative and patriarchal tones. They, too, barnstormed my boss, querying Da Man about these battling black bitches.

Carswell called me directly and asked for my side of the niggerbitchfit. After the interview, we walked into the sun on Race Street.

"If it was me and you had written some shit about me," she said, pausing to let out a low, throaty disapproving "huh" the way black women do, "I woulda taken it to the street."

I laughed, sensing the figurative "street" to mean TV news or the literal street to mean "meet me outside and hold my earrings."

"I'm from Detroit," she said, walking toward the news van. "We don't play." See, ghetto.

Respect is due.

The woman once hailed by the black middle-class Bible Ebony as one of America's "Super Single Sisters" answered the door of her bungalow on a late April Saturday afternoon in a fitted black velour FUBU sweat suit (she later changed tops; she changes clothes a lot) sans makeup with a wet towel twisted into a turban.

As Fox 19's weekend anchor, part-time reporter and host of Cincinnati Matters, Carswell constantly tends to her appearance and is just this side of possessing too much self-awareness. Yet she tempers it with authentic earthiness so comfortable it feels nearly disingenuous.

It is not.

She laughs at herself easily. She tells stealth truths about race, class, power and people's perceptions of her but doesn't dawdle on them. She's pretty in a friend-at-the-family-cookout way. She talks casually about wanting to lose weight but carries her compact, voluptuous frame with power, authority and confidence.

On an early April Saturday night an hour before the 10 p.m. newscast, Carswell multi-tasks. She's going over tape with Carey Charles, a dreadlocked Fox 19 intern.

Although she says she hates to be shadowed at work, she clearly enjoys it.

"It's important for young people to see someone's process," she says, stopping to face Charles, "and, I think, Carey, wouldn't you say I am the one?"

He answers by laughing.

Otherwise, the newsroom is silent except for police ban chatter, every newsroom's white noise soundtrack. Staffers who don't directly work together don't speak to one another — sports doesn't talk to news and production doesn't talk to anyone — yet somehow the news is reported.

Before the broadcast, Regina writes her own on-air copy and reads news stories aloud. "In our videotape," mumble, mumble, mumble. "Charges are pending," mumble, mumble, mumble.

At 9:53 p.m. Carswell nails a flawless live voice-over to clips of the night's top news stories: the one-year anniversary of Matt Maupin's disappearance in Iraq; Jessica Lunsford's killer confesses to suffocating her; Prince Charles marries his longtime mistress; we're having weather.

To land the correct inflection and to emphasize the right words, Carswell moves her body almost involuntarily, like an actress.

"I'm Regina Carswell. The 10 o'clock news starts rrright now," she says, biting at the words, growling hard on "right."

Monitors in the control room display sextuplet Reginas patting down their sideburns, sliding their baby fingertips across their lips and baring their teeth checking for errant lipstick.

"You know when you say you don't really work because you're so used to it?" she asks before going live. "When I do actually sit down and do the business of my craft, I do concentrate."

Afterward Matt Russo, her white fiancé, picks her up. He's more ruggedly handsome than Judd Nelson but with similar features.

Russo is smart, hard-working, affable and easy. He dotes on her because he clearly loves her. They're having a fall destination wedding. Beyond that, Carswell isn't interested in making news of their interracial love affair.

"Why even bring it up?" she says. She hates "explaining," but she does anyway.

"I don't feel the need to talk about my relationship, about my future husband because I wouldn't talk in public about any of my relationships because they're private and special," she says. "Because by our physical appearance, we're so different, it's provocative. And it's tiring. It's tired."

Case closed.

At her home over Indian food Carswell talks non-stop, but sometimes guardedly. She almost undermines the point of a quick round of word association by overthinking her responses.

Matt: "Unconditional love."

Biracial children: "Special."

Racism: "Enduring."

Color blind: "Hmmm. Doesn't exist."

Classism: "Huh." (She pauses.) "More damaging sometimes than racism."

Jungle fever: "Cliché."

I try riling her about something, anything. How about working for Fox, Rupert Murdoch's personal right-wing bully pulpit? Did she see OutFoxed, the documentary on how Murdoch orchestrates the reporting of the news?

"Obviously, the network is extremely conservative," she says, over strains of Van Hunt and then Floetry. "It prides itself on that. The affiliates have a lot more freedom. We came out of the gate geared to brown and black young people. We got the audience, we got the rating, we changed the programming."

Carswell, 37, waited tables, tended bar and worked as a telemarketer before she found her audience and calling. She went 12 years to Catholic school, which she credits with expanding her worldview.

"I grew up identifying people as Mexican, Filipino, Dutch, German, Irish and African," she says. "We didn't identify people in black and white."

Her father, Harry Sr., a military man, and mother, Ramona, a paraprofessional who taught children with disabilities, divorced when Regina was 18 after 36 years of marriage. Regina and Reginald, her twin, are the youngest of six living children — Armethyst, 55; Hildreth, 53; Johnnetta, 47; and Lorenzo, 43. Harry Jr. recently died at 49 of kidney failure brought on by a heart condition.

At Purdue University studying communications, Carswell learned that blackness doesn't guarantee familiarity.

"I learned where I had to be to kind of survive," she says, "so I gravitated toward the back folks on campus, but then even some of the black folks I couldn't relate to."

Back in Detroit in 1990 after graduation, she worked on a city commissioner's campaign. She then worked at a black AM radio station she describes as "like WCIN."

It was there she met Martha Jean "The Queen" Steinberg, a Detroit radio legend, Carswell's mentor and perhaps the black woman whose forward personality and interracial marriage gave Regina permission to become whom she wanted.

"She was married to a white man but make no bones about it," she says. "She was a sho' 'nuff a black woman. She introduced me to (the music of) B.B. King, Bobby Womack, Etta James and just what it meant to be black and of that time. And she taught me about excellence, that this business is a white man's business and how do you survive?"

Steinberg's version of Survivor was to challenge Carswell to keep ascending.

"She was preparing to fire me when I got so good," she says. "She was hazing me. She was pushing me out of the nest. I got another job."

Carswell worked in radio in Grand Rapids, Mich., for two years and worked simultaneously as an associate television producer. She used the equipment and crew to put together a tape to shop around.

She gave herself six months to land a TV news job. In 1994, that tape landed at a station in Lansing, where she worked for two years.

"My first live shot was interviewing Dan Quayle when he got off the plane," she says.

Carswell came to Fox 19 in 1996.

Since, she's noted differences in the ways blacks in her twin cities — Detroit and Cincinnati — handle themselves on the subject of social justice. Some sections of Detroit never fully recovered from the tumultuous 1960s, an era when rioting was de rigueur in most of America's landlocked urban cities.

"It would be hard to even imagine a neighborhood in Detroit where the National Guard would have to come in to shut down the city," she says. "People rip on Detroit. When you grow up in a city where the mayor is black, the superintendent is black, the council is black, there's a real pride 'cause you see it.

"There are two types of black people in Cincinnati. There's a third segment, but I haven't been able to find them en masse. The first is very connected, almost the social elite, thriving, resourceful, connected. Then you have your working class — not as connected, or disconnected. The middle set are the people more like you and I. What do they call them?"

"Creative class," I say.

"The creative class, ones who touch hands with different genders, races," she says. "They're not as apparent, but they're there."

Soon Carswell leaves for the station. Russo comes in and they kiss hello. She has to unwrap her hair, pick variations on outfits and generally set her mood to present the news.

Before we part, I ask her to define "diva," a tired truism.

"A woman in most cases," she says, "who is unapologetic for having a strong, clear sense of herself and who lives life by her own rules.

"Define 'drama queen,' " I say.

"A fake diva," she says and cackles hard.

"Are you either or both?"

"I'm a diva," she says without hesitation. "I run my own race. People try to put their own expectations on where I should be working, who I should be dating, if I should be married. Thank God that I look to Him to keep me focused on what is authentically Regina and live by that." ©