Karrine Steffans-Short Owns Her Sh*t: A Dialogue

by Kimberly Foster @KimberlyNFoster Karinne Steffans-Short is complicated. She’s a skilled writer ...

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by Kimberly Foster @KimberlyNFoster

Karinne Steffans-Short is complicated. She’s a skilled writer who pioneered her own sub-genre of non-fiction with Confessions of a Video Vixen. Now 10 years after the release of that book, public desire to peek into the exploits of famous and semi-famous personalities has only grown. Black celebrity tell-all happens everyday and fuels new media empires like The Shade Room.

But her work isn’t all exposé. It is careful self-reflection. Steffans-Short, who has thought deeply about her own troubled life and relationships, simply shows her revelations to the world. And that makes viewers uneasy. Because as much as we want to know. It feels, like a violation for anyone, but especially a woman, to sell their trauma neatly packaged.

But she is determined to own her story—to get ahead of the gossip, to learn and evolve.

During our conversation by phone, she was candid, crying at times while articulating her pain and that of other women. After it, I was better able to situate her work. Naming names is neither narcissism or self-indulgence. Through out her time in public life, she has carefully pieced together a roadmap for generations of girls to come. It is a cautionary tale whose conclusion has yet to be written.

Karinne Steffans-Short is more than salacious headlines. She makes no effort to conceal the bad or embarrassing. She is a woman who owns her shit.
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Karrine Steffans-Short and her husband, Columbus - Credit: Instagram

Kimberly Foster: A lot of us are dealing with intergenerational trauma like cycles of abuse and cycles of violence. When I was going through your first book Confessions of a Video Vixen. That was a very prominent theme. How do you work through that trauma in order to discontinue those cycles?

Karinne Steffans-Short: The first thing that I had to do was seek professional help to understand what was happening to me. Sometimes the trauma isn’t named. You don’t know what’s happening. You don’t know why you’re doing the things you’re doing. Why you’re attracting certain things or people to yourself. Why you are in the state you’re in.

So back in 2006, I started therapy. And in 2001, I met my life coach. Seeking professional help is important to me. Over the last 15 years, it’s been a part of my life. In doing so, what I’ve gotten is an understanding of statistics. Statistics are very important to me. What statistics do is they take the blame off of you. A lot of people feel stupid or embarrassed and they’re afraid to talk about it because they’re living on an island. Statistics showed me, for example, why I was a cutter. I didn’t know where that came from. She showed me that young women who have been sexually molested or abused in their early teenage years are more likely to be cutters.

It allowed to me to know that I wasn’t alone. it wasn’t my fault. I’m not the only person doing this. And being given tools by my life coach and my psychologist and one of those tools is recognizing signs and how it plays out in your life.

I’ve had men come into my home, a husband a friend or even a boyfriend, and look at my accomplishments on my wall. Much in the way musicians would put their gold plaques on the wall, I do that for my books. Having men come in and say, “why do you have your book covers on the wall? You need to take that down.” or “why do you have to take pictures of yourself?” I’m realizing that’s abuse and realizing abuse is a language. I’m having to pay attention to what people are saying and doing. A lot of people are abusive in their daily lives and don’t realize it. For me having had all that education and help over the years, I still fall into. It’s my job to call it out. Name it and then get it out of my life as soon as I accept what it is. I have to do that.

KF: You are an accomplished writer. You’re written several books. Men have come into your home and tried to minimize your accomplishments. In one of the lyrics on Beyonce’s new album she says, “I’m just too much for you” and it feels like you might be a woman that men encounter and you’re just too much for them. How do you handle jealousy about the name that you’ve made for yourself and your independence?

KSS: Jealousy has always been so prominent in my relationships especially since the release of my first book Confessions of a Video Vixen. Being able to work, especially because I married men who weren’t working, when my opportunities arise there’s this ever present jealousy because people listen to what I have to say. There’s this jealousy of people listen to you and not to me. When my voice is louder than my husband’s voice, it shrinks them. I’m not being congratulated for my success but demeaned for it. I’ve lived that in every single relationship. I’ve never been with, married, or lived with someone who was supportive of me. I’ve never met one. And it doesn’t matter how rich he is. It doesn’t matter how not rich he is. People always say, “well you need to just get a regular man.” Well if I get a man who works at Home Depot, he’s jealous because i’m getting invited to parties and he can’t come and that’s a problem. And the men who are stars, that doesn’t make them more confident. It makes them more unsure of themselves, and even more afraid of not getting all the attention.

I remember when Bill Maher and I were together. I love Bill. We’re still friends. We just talked yesterday. We were the first couple in New York Times Best Seller history to have books on the Best Seller list at the same time. That had never happened, and it was still competition. Even though he was wealthier than I am and more famous than I am and a bigger polarizing figure than I am. there was still competition with whose book is higher and who peaked this week and who is on the list longer. I don’t want competition. I think that as smart and learned and respected as men are, there’s still a little something that throws him off. Men say that want a woman who is successful. Who makes her own money. Men are attracted to the same things they end up resenting you for. They’re attracted to my life and to my success, and then they’ll get inside my world and they can’t handle any of those things.

It doesn’t matter whether I was doing well or not. I’ve felt this in all of my relationships. I’ve never felt completely supported, completely honored in my relationships especially when it comes my books.

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l to r: Karrine Steffans and Bill Maher at the 57th Emmy Awards - Credit: Jesse Gant/WireImage

KF: You’ve had some very public ups and downs with the men in your life. You’ve been incredibly open. You share a lot and often on social media. There’s no protection for Black women generally. There’s definitely no protection for Black women who own their voices. Have you ever regretted sharing that part of your life?

KSS: I don’t like the word regret. It implies that I don’t trust what God allows. I do. I trust what god allows me to do. There are moments after I post disagreements with Wayne or with my husband after I threw him out of the house I was like “oh my God.” It was embarrassing for everyone. It was a calm rage, but I was very enraged inside. I got in my flight or fight mode. It was time for everything to go the way it went.

Today I don’t regret it because now I understand what happened. I felt a little regretful for some time, like “why’d I do that?” I wasn’t thinking. It was just “get away from me” and wanting to tear down what we had built publicly because publicly it was a lie. I felt like let’s just destroy the lie right now. We’re not everybody’s new favorite couple. This is a mess.

As time goes on and I see why it happened that way and I see the benefit of why it happened that way, I’m grateful for it. I don’t regret it. I see what that plan was. I see why it was allowed. God allows what we’re doing. I had to distance myself in a big way, because He knew what was coming down the trough and I wouldn’t be attached to it. I don’t want anybody else thinking that I was involved in cocaine abuse. I had to distance myself so publicly, so truthfully.

Yes, initially there’s a lot of times when I’m like why? And there are things I would never do again. I would never write Confessions again. But that was a 25-year-old girl, and now that I’m a woman, there are things I would never do again but I can’t regret them

KF: Why wouldn’t you want to write Confessions again?

KSS: Confessions was a powerful manifesto. It is still required reading at universities and still a major part of history, as a black woman at a certain place and time it’s very important, very poignant and I understand that. It’s so personal, so descriptive, I couldn’t do ti again.

Even though it’s so long, I left a lot of things out because we just have to. I kept a lot of things to myself. It was so personal that I can’t even read it now. I can’t open that book. I don’t want to read where I was 12, 13, 14, 15 years ago. It’s too much for me to read it. It’s painful.


KF. As a reader I can say that I wasn’t expecting to be as emotionally affected as I was reading the book. It was really raw. It seems that heterosexual relationships, particularly the relationships Black women have with Black men are very one-sided. One party, Black women, are expected to give a lot more than they get in return. Is it worth it?

KSS: No. No. I’ve always given more than I’ve gotten. And every time it chips at you. Every single time you lose pieces of yourself trying to hold someone else together. Trying to give and give in your life. I’m getting it now for being married to an abusive, alcoholic drug abuser. It’s like “How could you do this to him?” Wait a minute? I’m the one with the police report. I’m the one getting the restraining order. I’m the one trying to save my life here, and it’s like “Yeah. So what? You shouldn’t do this to him. He’s a Black man. You gotta support the Black man.” The Black man doesn’t support the Black woman. This man tore me down every single day in front of my child. and I’m not allowed to defend myself. Even his attorney, another black man, said to me, “Well that’s just what men do.” What? Still in 2016 I’ve been hearing things like “that’s just what men do?” No one thinks to say “poor her” or “she did the right thing” People say “oh you’re shaming him.” I’m not the one that made him fail a drug test. I was supposed to keep it to myself or not say anything.

Right after the book came out, I got a note that said, “A real woman would’ve kept her mouth shut.” That’s all it said. It’s what Black men say to Black women “Real women would keep their mouths shut. Take our shit, and support us in our mess. Hide.” There was a point in there that privacy becomes enabling. There’s a point where secrecy becomes deadly. I’ve been to that point. I’ve been there. More women need to speak up. They say, “How dare you burn the bridge? You should’ve stuck that out and not said anything about it.” I was expected to do that, and I can’t defend my character.

And anybody should know that by now either way. You should know. I have these discussion in all my relationships before hand. If you make me feel like I have no other recourse. I’ll let it out in public. I don’t believe in keeping secrets anymore. Not deadly ones. Not dangerous ones. Not at all. I won’t do it. I was like that before. It almost killed me. I have a big voice and it’s loud, and I encourage other women to do the same thing. I won’t allow anyone to silence me and to take and to take. Not for a Black man no matter what he goes through. Can’t do it. Won’t do it.

KF: The experiences that you’ve had with abuse of partnering men who didn’t treat you right aren’t uncommon. You mentioned there is a real lack of empathy when it comes to you. You’ve been open about the things you’ve been through, open about the trauma you’ve endured, it seems like this is so common that people would be empathetic to you. You don’t get support. Why do you think that is?

KSS: It’s not just me. We see it in a lot of cases when women are abused, someone says “Well what did you say?” Even when a woman is raped, “Well what were you wearing? What time was it?” Women are supposed to take responsibility for the evils of men. It’s not just me who doesn’t get empathy. Millions of women don’t get empathy, and they wind up dead or killing which, is why there’s a show called Snapped because we’re breaking all over the world. Nobody cares. “What did you say?” Everybody looks at the reaction not the cause. What did he do? Nobody wants to think about that.

They’ve never been able to stop me. I wonder if people are tired. They haven’t been able to stop me or silence me yet. You’d have to kill me, and even then I go on because my work is still here. And there’s nothing anyone can say that will stop me from speaking out. All of my life I had no voice. I was raped as a child and didn’t tell anybody. I had no voice. My mother found out, and she brushed it under the rug. My mother was beating me. I went to tell people and she’d lie and tell people I was on crack, that I was a 13 year old crack head. I was born into this, being called a whore before I ever had sex. For years, I had no voice. Confessions was the first time I spoke about any of these things. I continued to talk and seeing people, women especially, being inspired to have their own voice that’s become the crux of everything for me. It’s why I do everything. I’ll never get empathy. Women don’t get empathy anywhere we turn. It’s all over the world. Look at it. Nobody loves us. They hate us because we can change the world. Because we can decide if we want to have their children or not, because we can go to work and make more money and do more. We can be so much more than we even know we can, but there’s no empathy for our pain. They taunt us and wish it on us. I’m unbreakable, and I can’t apologize for that. I’ll go through as much of this shit as I have to go through.

KF: One of the most foundational relationships you had in your life was with your mother. I am somebody who is not close to my mother and there’s a lot of guilt and shame that accompanies that because people expect that to be the center of your life. How does your relationship with your mom affect the way you parent?

KSS: I hug my son everyday. I’m extremely close to him because I didn’t have that with my mom. My mom hugged me one time. I actually know when she hugged me. I remember because it was so weird and someone told her to do it. My mother was leaving for a trip back to St. Thomas and her friend came to the airport. Me and my two sisters were staying home and my mom just walked out the door. Her friend said “Aren’t you going to hug them? Anything could happen. Hug your children.” And my mother robotically turned around and gave us these very strange pats on the back. That was the first time and the only time my mother hugged me.

So I hug my son everyday. He hates it because he’s 18 now so it’s annoying. But I barge into his room everyday and hug him and kiss him. I ask him how he is and all the questions no one ever asked. I asked him how he feels about things that are happening in the world. I ask him about how he feels about things that are happening in his life. He’s teaching himself Japanese. I think that’s amazing. I sit in the room and he tells me about Japanese Kanji, and he’s so brilliant. And he’s such an accomplished musician, so I sit in a room with him and let him play me what he’s written. I show him interest. My mother never showed interest in what I do. I’ve been a writer my whole life. I was writing stage plays and putting them on for my entire school at five and six years old. Only my grandmother would come. My mother was never there. I writing poetry and reciting it and all these things. I talk about it in my book.

My son has shows. he’s playing at the Troubadour and at the Whiskey A Go Go. I’m there. I’m front and center. I’ve got my camera. I’m cheering for him because he’s going to remember this the rest of this life, just like I remember for the rest of my life that my mother never loved me, she never hugged me, and she never came to any of my recitals, any of my plays, nothing. But of course when your daughter becomes a millionaire now she’s your daughter. Now everyone needs money and everyone’s so proud. You see the fakery and you say, “I was a serpentine remember?” I was a whore. I was a bad child. You told everybody that I was on drugs and everything I said was a lie so that they wouldn’t believe me when I told them that you hit me but now I’m the goose that laid the golden egg. “We’re so proud of her.” I made sure that I support my son and love my son now before he’s wealthy and famous and on rock tours because I don’t want him to hate me or resent me. I want him to always be able to say, “My mother always supported me. She paid for my music lessons and everything herself.” I’m with him every single day. He’d rather be with me than go out with his friends. I just want to make sure of that. Because I know that’s a gift that God gave me and he’s the only man that will never leave me. I have to treat him like that. He’s my gift. He’s all I got. If everything else goes away, houses, money, cars, gifts, friends, husbands, if all that shit goes away. my son will never leave me. No matter what I do, he’ll always be my son as long as I treat him well and love him and respect him as the gift he is. That’s what I do.
KF. There is a lot of conversation currently about sex-positive feminism. It’s women embracing their sexuality. It seems like you pioneered being very open and unapologetic about your sexuality for a certain generation of young women. Confessions was a turning point for a lot of people, but I don’t often see your name come up when we’re having conversations about the genesis of this. Do you feel like you are overlooked when the Amber Roses are celebrated. Do you get the credit you deserve?

KSS; I find my credit more scholastically. I find my credit is better served at universities. I love that Confessions is required reading around the world. You have your Amber Roses because they look like the part their playing, But Amber Rose’s How to be a Bad Bitch is not going to be taught at universities. You’ve never seen pictures of me at a club. You’ve never seen pictures of me twerking, even in my younger years. You never saw those things. Everyone had an idea of who they thought Karrine Steffans was based on my experience just because I had the sex I wanted. I’m a young, single girl. I’m having the sex I want with the people I want to have sex with. By 30 I was married. Everybody wants to skip that. I was divorced by 32. Married again by 33. Divorced by 35. Married again at 37. For the last 10 years, I’ve spent more time married than single. there’s nothing salacious and headline-grabbing about that. Not when it comes to this particular genre. Not when it comes to sex positive feminism. I think that some women are cartoon characters. They are caricatures for that movement. Amber Rose is a great caricature, not just physically, but because she uses her body more than she uses her voice. She doesn’t use them equally. Another one is Kim Kardashian. She uses her body more than she uses her voice. I want to hear them speak more. I want to hear more about how they feel. I want to know more about how they feel about things that are happening in the world. I want to know more. I don’t want to see your body more than I see you talking.

KF: This is interesting because this is a major site of contention within feminist discourse. The body being on display is not anything new. There’s not anything particularly transgressive about that.

KSS: Women have to be able to decide what they want for themselves and what their feminism looks like. I’ve been called a radical feminist. I’ve been called a sex positive feminist and I am all those things. I’m also a traditionalist. I believe in marriage. I believe in I do all the cooking. I do all the cleaning. I believe in traditional gender roles in my house. It doesn’t always work out that way. but I believe in that. My husband has never cooked a meal in my house. He’s never done the laundry. I wouldn’t even let him do it, and I don’t pay any bills in the house. He pays all the bills. I’m a very staunch feminist, but as a feminist, I get to choose what role I want to play, when I want to play it and choose again if I change my mind. Feminism is about choice.

So when we start talking about who gets credit for what, I’d rather be the girl who is not working on the videos and making a spectacle. I’d rather be the woman sitting at the podium of an HBCU giving a lecture and teaching students. I’d rather have my books being taught. I’d rather be collegiate. I’d rather get my honorary PhD. I’d rather do that. That’s just me. That’s my decision.

You won’t see me at a strip club like you’ll see Amber Rose do. That’s not my life, but we’re at different ages and different stages. I’m 37 years old. Even at 27 it wasn’t my life. Never saw it. People said it was, but I was never that girl. I had a young son, and I was a single mother and I was working very hard. Writing a book is very difficult, and it takes time. I didn’t have time to party and do all those things.

When women are making choices, they can choose to govern their bodies the way they want. If you want to twerk everyday on Instagram, have at it. But what I would like you to do is tell us what you think everyday of the week. Not just when you’re being shamed and now you want to fight and make your point because you’re being attacked. Make your points when you’re not being attacked at all. I want to hear you speak. I want to know what you think. I know what your body looks like. It’s amazing. Now I want you not to just hold SlutWalks once a year. I want you to, every single day if you can, say at least one thing. When you write a book, I want it to not be called How to be a Bad Bitch or a book of selfies. Kardashian, don’t give me a book of selfies. That’s not what I need from you. If I’m a young woman, I’m looking up to you. Can you not give me a book full of selfies? But if you do give me a book full of selfies, can you also give me a book of what you think about sexism and slut-shaming because you are the poster child for it? Don’t just think about it when you’re being shamed. You’re not at universities speaking. None of them are teaching. I need more. I need everything.

KF: Oh wow. So if we’re always reacting, that lessens our ability to move freely? Interesting point.

When I was a kid, I used to aspire to be in music videos. Being a video girl was aspirational. That does not exist anymore. Now it’s been replaced by Instagram models who live these glamorous lives that we see beautiful women with the shapely surgically altered bodies living on social media. How do you feel about the way the ideal has evolved in the advent of the social media age?

KSS: Everything transitions. When I was a little girl, being on Disney was a big thing. All the cool kids were actors on Disney. When I got older and became a teenager, it was “Oh my god these videos!” But that’s just because back then the videos were million dollar productions. it was like being in a movie, a 3-4 minute movie. and I aspired to that. I remember sitting there thinking that’s what I wanna do. That’s what’s gonna get me to California. That was my thing. That has transitioned. It always transitions through generations and time and now it’s Instagram.

Here is the problem. Instagram is not a place you go. It’s not a point on the map. You go to college. You go into a career. Instagram is not a destination. I worry about women, young women especially, who have been told that they’re only worth their looks or their bodies. If more women with beautiful bodies spoke more, then more women with beautiful bodies would speak more. It’s important for us to be a able to show these things equally. I’m not saying don’t show your body. I’m not saying don’t take a nude photo. Take it. It’s your body. Do what you want. Please do. I love that stuff. I love that social defiance, but we have to also talk. Now we’re teaching girls to take naked selfies, make twerk videos and say nothing and think that’s the destination.

I have a sizable voice. Kim Kardashian has a way bigger voice and Amber Rose has a way bigger voice because those are the caricatures. Those are the enhanced bodies. They wear makeup. I don’t even wear makeup. I don’t wear high heels. I don’t like getting dressed. I’m not that girl. It’s easy for me to get overlooked. I’m not a spectacle. I’m not a caricature of myself. I would like for those women to think about those other women who are coming up and now surgically enhancing their bodies. Now you want a big butt. That’s great. And then what? This is what I asked myself three years. I sat myself down and said “ok let’s ask yourself a question you never asked yourself before.” The question was “and then what?”

Yes you have a freedom of choice, but the consequence to those choices are also ours. I know about consequences very well. All of my choices have consequences. I had to deal with my own karma, my own crap. So as we’re making these choices, and then what? That’s the part that no one thinks about. When we build careers based on our looks and then we’re 30-something year old mothers. Then we’re 40 and 50, and then what. Did you build a foundation build on your intelligence or your intellectual capacity? Is your intellectual property How to be a Bad Bitch? Is your intellectual property telling women how to get money out of men? That’s your intellectual property. It happened to me too. When I was younger, I wouldn’t have been thinking about the day my son turned 18. Luckily I have a smart, intelligent feminist son who gets it. But I’m also having to have those convos with him so that he would get it.

We will fall but we’ll have to get back up. We have to dust ourselves off. We make mistakes. We’re here to do that. But we’re also here to learn from those mistakes, missteps, misjudgments and teach these young girls something. You are not your body. Your body will change as you grow old like you would not believe. What will you have then?

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