EXCLUSIVE: Patrick Riley on his book ‘That’s What Friends Are For: On The Women Who Inspired Me’

The book hits shelves May 25.

Patrick Riley

Patrick Riley has been a celebrated entertainment journalist for more than 25 years and his new book, That’s What Friends Are For: On The Women Who Inspired Me, highlights some of the women who helped shape his career.

What made you want to write this tribute to women?

From as early as when I was a little boy on my knees in front of the TV before there were remote controls, I was moved by women performers. Whether it was Diana Ross on a special or Diahann Carroll on a show or in a movie or Ruby Dee in a play, I just found myself always moved by black women primarily but women in general. The mood, the performance, the energy. When I hit my teenage years and got to think about what my career would look like, I knew I wanted to work around these women. I wanted to interview them, produce them, promote them and now I’m looking at a 25-year career and I wanted to catalog that and honor that and celebrate that.

I’m looking back and wanting to catch the vibe and show that you can actually realize your dreams. These are the women I celebrate because I did end up working with them and ended up having a chance to be a part of their journey.

How did you select the stories you included in the book?

I have been keeping an entertainment diary since the beginning of my career. From the beginning of my career in Atlanta, Georgia where TLC and Kris Kross and Xscape were just starting out to when I came to New York when it was all about what was going on in Brooklyn with Biggie and Puffy and Harlem and continued to have 13 years as a producer for Oprah during some pretty high-profile years including her Oprah Legends Ball so I have seen my career in milestones from where I started to where I went to now and I have records of that.

I have also been blogging for 15 years so when Dorpie Books came to me with he idea that I could do this book, as readers and followers of my blog, A Day In The Life of Riley, they knew that the stories were there because they had been reading them for 15 years and so I challenged myself to go back into my old e-mails and diaries and blog entries and pluck the stories that are inspirational about women.

Talk about the shift in representations of black women we have been seeing lately? It’s an interesting time as far as roles in front and behind the camera. We’re seeing more dynamic black women characters than we have in recent years. Would you agree with that?

I would definitely agree with that. One of the reasons that I wanted to write this book was not just pay homage to all of the legends and icons that we know many things about, but I wanted to talk about what is going on now in the industry. We are seeing more diversity. We are seeing what Shonda Rhimes and Issa Rae and Mara Brock Akil are doing in Hollywood. Not just what they’re doing for images in front of the camera but who they are as show runners of their own creatives behind the cameras.

I’m able to tell a story of Hollywood publicist, Ava DuVernay who made an interview happen for me with Jennifer Hudson four months before Dreamgirls came out and fast-forward to being at the premiere for Selma many years later as she transitioned from being a high-powered publicist to now being in the director’s chair and having just successfully released a $100 million film for Disney, A Wrinkle In Time.

I wrote this book in that spirit of diversity and the shift and change we are seeing for the positive as well as society in general where we are being challenged in the #MeToo movement. One might look at the current administration as dismissive of minorities, any minorities; women, people of color, and LGBTQ, I want to make sure that I’m on the record as having said we were here and women were here and they were always strong and they’re still here and they’re gonna continue to be strong. And they’re going to continue to not just be inspiring for other women or little girls, they’re inspiring for me; a little black boy from Georgia. They’re inspiring to the world. I’m a conduit to make sure that message doesn’t get lost with my little book that could.

The camaraderie between these women content creators is palpable. There seems to be less competition and more support among them all. Is that something you have recognized as well?

I absolutely feel a camaraderie in the industry as far as people of color go. I have felt it. Think we felt it over the last decade or so. One of the reasons I wanted to write the book was inside that frequency that we can look at each other in the context of a survey and it not be about a competition. It’s a full narrative, diverse and full of a range of stories and we’re all kind of celebrating it together. It’s a new thing because we come from an industry where the concept of “the only” and “the first” and we are still dealing with the concept of “firsts.”

Beyonce just became the first black woman to headline Coachella to great effect with reverence and reference to black culture in a way that creatively, I wish my book wasn’t already done because I would have had to add that in to one of the chapters. I think there is a camaraderie and a reverence that is showing up and I think its a bit of a resistance as well to some of the dismissiveness we are seeing in society at the expense of minorities. I think we want o make sure that our voices are heard so I’m a part of that choir that wants to make sure that these women and that camaraderie are immortalized. These are the touchstones that are happening in our industry that I don’t want to get lost in the sauce, so I wrote a book about it.

Tarana Burke started the #MeToo movement years ago and it didn’t catch the nation’s attention until white women started speaking up. Does that say anything to you about the difference in how black women’s concerns are received by the masses as compared to their white counterparts in Hollywood?

I think there continues to be a cross to bare for black women to get their just due and to get heard the first time. I don’t think this is a foreign issue for women at large but I think its a very pointed issue for black women. To look at something like the #MeToo movement that started under Tarana’s vision and lens over a decade ago and to see it now having crossed over if you will or mainstreamed, these are not new terms, they go as far back as rock n roll. At the same time, because we know this trend, we do have to seize the moment and I do think that she and other women of color in that movement are seizing the moment, though a day late and a dollar short. I had a chance to celebrate with her and Susan Taylor at a gala and it was a room full of people who were always in the know but were celebrating the fact that the world has caught up.

The book sounds like a fantastic ode to black women. 

I came from one so this is a love from the womb. I lost my mom when I was 23 years old so this project has also become a bit therapeutic for me. It has given me a chance to relive those years before she passed away that I may have suppressed and there were so many joyful, inspiring years there that really started with my mom and then led to the divas of the world.

The book will be available via the Dorpie Books website.