Simone Reyes, featured in Running Russell Simmons and Executive Assistant to Russell Simmons, talks to us about fear, animal rights, her “death theory” and how she’s living life and loving it. Read on for a candid and personal interview with Simone.
Ishita: Simone, you’re a television personality, work with Russell Simmons, and have personal values like animal rights that keep you in the limelight. There’s also a lot more to you than the public persona. Tell us a bit about yourself.
Simone: I’ve been the Executive Secretary to Russell Simmons for several years now. It’s funny because people often ask him how we met and he jokingly replies, “She’s a part of Beastie Boys.” But we were all part of the same group, which was the “Danceteria” crowd, a club in the 70′s and 80′s in New York; I used to call it my high school because I would go there after school and do my homework and practically lived at Dancerteria. It was the place to be, with people like Madonna performing and MTV videos being shot. The energy was great, and you literally had people from all over the world coming there. Going there and seeing Madonna perform for the first time when nobody knew who she was and witnessing that was so amazing for us because they hadn’t hit stardom yet. I remember, Billy Idol would just come and hang out there.
I met Russell there at a time when he was looking for a receptionist for his company, Def Jam. I had my first interview on a cardboard box, because the office at the time was on a run down street, and literally crack addicts would randomly come in and go off the street. It wasn’t a good neighborhood but I didn’t seem to mind – Russell needed someone to work there and at the time it seemed like a good fit for me – I was taking classes at night, so I was hired to work at Def Jam during the day and was still living at home so I didn’t have to pay rent.
Ishita: So it was Def Jam, i.e. work, school, and Danceteria for you! On the show you have a great relationship with many of Russell’s staff, and even him. That built up over years of trust with a long history?
Simone: It’s true; People like to say I’m a Russell’s “longest female relationship.” I think it comes from the fact that I really respect him. I really respect what he’s doing and the person he’s turned into. When I first started working for him, Russell partied a lot. He was working a great deal, but also sleeping late and working all through the night promoting the different groups he was with and making sure he spoke to all the DJ’s. Working for somebody like him and watching him evolve — not only becoming the mogul that he is, becoming such a success, but watching him evolve in other ways means the most to me.
At one point, he became so successful he immediately saw the need to start giving back. Due to his yoga practice, which I credit to changing his life — and I think he would too — he became someone who wasn’t just doing great on a business level, but on a spiritual level too. If you saw him in the 80′s and compared it to how he looks now, he looks 25 years younger! He has this amazing life inside him which wasn’t fully apparent back then.
Ishita: Do you also practice Yoga?
Simone: I’m not very big on Yoga, although Russell invites me every day to go with him. I’m much more into dancing. I love to dance, so I get my exercise through it. But most of the things Russell learns from yoga are a part of my daily life as well: Doing no harm; being able to center yourself and to ground yourself.
Somebody asked me not too long ago, “Do you meditate?” And I said I’m doing more of it, but that I don’t meditate the same way Russell does. Then she said, “Oh that’s right, you meditate through your animals.” I’d personally never made that connection before but it’s true. Ask any animal lover and they’ll tell you that when you’re stroking or communicating with an animal without a vocabulary, it really does feel like meditation; it grounds us in a way that a lot of people get from transcendental meditation or any other form of meditatation.
Ishita: You feel joy when you do it.
Let’s go back to when you first started. I operate in the publishing, marketing, and online business world and when you first start something, to me it can feel overwhelming, scary. Did you ever feel that way? And what did you do about it if you did?
Simone: Yes, I did feel overwhelmed, especially in the beginning. I was highly stressed. We had one phone console and the first six lines were for Def Jam and then we had lines for Rush Management. We were all in the same room together so I would say, “Def Jam, please hold” and take the message. It was ridiculous because I was trying to yell out to those people and take their message, and trying to remember which button was for which company. It was just me by myself. Then we had artists coming in without an appointment. But they were artists, so you couldn’t turn them away. On top of it we also had crack addicts coming off the street! I remember we had to put up a sign that said “Go Away Unless You Have a Meeting!” The manager said the sign was bullet-proof, which I don’t know whether or not was true. The thing, I wasn’t afraid of people yelling at me because we were all in it together. What I was afraid of was missing an important call or leaving Russell on hold.
Today, we have better tools and we work so well together in the group. But still, I have to remind myself to de-stress, let it go and breathe for a moment. So I jokingly ask someone to follow me around and remind me to relax my shoulders — because in stress, your shoulders tend to move up and higher, so by physically putting your hand on it you can remember to lower them. If it helps you de-stress, get a personal shoulder assistant, I say!
The good thing, is Russell has always been someone you could walk up to and ask something when you didn’t understand it. He prefers people ask rather than assume and then do it the wrong way. That’s a problem we encounter with our interns: We really want them to come up to us and ask us to explain it not once but twice if they need it. But if they come to us a third time, then they haven’t been paying attention and that’s not fair. So don’t be ashamed to ask the first or even the second time — but be ashamed to ask the third time.
Ishita: How was the show’s experience for you? It was real life, so although there was editing, it showed what you guys were up to daily.
Simone: For me, it was ultimately a good experience because obviously when Russell agreed to do the show, we wanted to show everything that was important to him. And I’m lucky in that what’s important to him is important to me and vice versa. We’re simply people who have the same agenda, which is to get the word out about issues we believe in, like animal rights, the environment, and gay rights. We feel pretty much every group having problems right now because of inequality. It always made me so happy and proud that Russell includes animal rights on most interviews he does nowadays, because animal rights has always been my intense focus, I’m always pushing for it.
Yes, we’ve always been active, even politically. We were such big Occupiers when the movement began. Russell would go down to Liberty Square pretty much every morning and every night, walking through it, supporting, and speaking to anyone if they wanted to speak to him about his viewpoint. Sometimes he would bring his old coats down, old speakers, all kinds of supplies. He came to show solidarity with the movement.
Ishita: That’s awesome. I didn’t know you guys were involved.
Yeah the timing didn’t work out for the filming to happen at that time, but we’ve always been incredibly active. The thing I had to question for tv, was whether I wanted to put my health issue at the time out there, because it’s very personal. If you watch the show, you can tell I’m squirming having to tell Russell on screen about it. It was funny because those scenes I’m talking about were much harder for me to shoot than even me getting naked on Times Square for the PETA campaign. I’ve been a PETA activist for so long and they always do controversial things in the media, so it didn’t phase me much. But shooting personal health issues was difficult for me. But I did it, and I think ultimately it shows that we’re all a family at work and we care about each other. That was the most uncomfortable part of the whole thing; other than that it was a fun experience.
Another thing which was fun but a bit exhausting was to wake up at 6 AM and wear make-up before the shoot began. The entertainment industry has a lot of superficial things to it and you simply have to look good. It’s in the last few years that I sometimes forget I’m working at a company which is still in fashion. It’s not that I don’t care how I look; it’s just that getting make-up on your face first thing in the morning is pretty exhausting.
Ishita: You seem so secure and confident with who you are. As women, I think that comes with experience and time, but was there ever a time where you felt more fearful or unsure of how things were fitting together in your life? Life things weren’t panning out as you’d hoped they would?
Simone: 2006 was a really hard year for me because I went through some personal issues, a breakup that I was upset about. It’s so important to remind young girls that yes, it’s exciting to have a romantic relationship. But it’s also very important to not view yourself the way someone else views you; Nobody can take away from who you really you are. Still, I think for women, there are ways in which we are raised to think that if you don’t have the marriage and the 1.5 children, you’re suddenly not living the ‘American Dream.’ And that’s just not true.
I’ve always said that the most important relationship that I have is with myself. So I have to be able to look in the mirror, no matter what, whether I’m in a relationship or not, whether I’m rich, whether I’m poor, whether I’m happy or sad. I have to be able to say, “I’m okay with the reflection of that person.” It’s the most important thing. If you don’t feel okay with yourself when you go to bed every night, then it doesn’t matter who’s with you. Nothing matters. All that matters is you feel good about yourself. And that doesn’t always come easy. That’s a struggle. Personally, I have always found that the ways that I feel best about myself are by giving.
I think it was Mother Theresa who said, “Give until it hurts.” So it’s not just enough to give fifty cents to the guy who’s got a cup on the subway. But you really have to do things that are uncomfortable and inconvenient because the gift of that for your own self worth is invaluable.
I’ll give you an example. Right now, I’m looking at two pigeons that are in cages in my living room. A few weeks ago, I was having a really busy day at work when I got a phone call from a friend who said, “There’s a pigeon outside of Stereo Exchange on Houston and Broadway.” I asked him, “Can you pick it up?” And he said, “I can’t.” I had to leave work and go downtown and try to catch a pigeon that couldn’t really fly because it had broken wings. Believe me, a pigeon who is being chased in a New York City street is in a fight for his life. He was going from street to street and I was chasing him around in heels because I was dressed for work and had meetings that day day. I tried to catch him and throw my handbag over his head, now that was uncomfortable.
Then I had to go and make a vet appointment, get him seen and get his limb taped and take care of him. I have another one I’m doing the same thing with. This is not something that I would necessarily say, “Oh I can’t wait until I find a street pigeon and a broken leg and then spend the next six weeks dealing with it in my apartment.” However, I know that when I am able to take him and return him back to his flock able to fly, I will take that and bank it into the part of me that when I feel sad I can say, “You know what? You did that. And you didn’t get anything from that on any level other than a spiritual one, which is the best level to take that gift from.” I will use this experience like many others.
So, for me, that’s typically how it comes out – ways of dealing with animals that, let’s face it, a lot of people don’t do. You just don’t pick up pigeons in New York City. I’ve picked up rats too; no animal to me is more entitled to life than another – in suffering we are all equal. So that rat that just got poisoned or a pigeon that gets hit by a car or the cat that just had kittens behind the dumpster, they’re all equal to me because they suffer.
Ishita: I like that way of thinking about it and banking it for later too. I’ve been thinking about getting a dog because one of my friends recently did and I see the total joy it has brought her.
Simone: It is. Imagine walking into the animal care in Manhattan. You can go on the website and get the euthanasia list, so you know that kitten or puppy is going to be dead in twelve hours. For you to show up in the morning and say, “This dog on the list is coming home with me” I mean is there anything better? Every day you look at the little guy you know you were the one who saved his life. Ultimately, the more you get involved with an animal, you see it comes right back to you because you realize it ended up saving your life. When you were all alone and sad, or even angry or grieving, they are there for you. Really there.
Ishita: How do you balance the work and personal elements of your life?
Simone: I try to always make time for dance because dance is very important. It’s awesome to be able to stay in shape and get your heart rate up, and that’s the icing on the cake, but in dance, I’m completely out of my head; I’m in my body. During that hour, you’re remembering different steps, trying to follow the instructor, and you can’t afford to have one other thought. So, for me, that’s how I clear my head and afterwards I’m fuzzy, tired, and pumped up! If I can get that hour a couple times a week, I’m good. I also have a special-needs dog, so coming home to him and making sure he has my time and my complete attention is great too.
Ishita: During the show you did a burlesque appearance, which was a challenge you were trying to overcome. How was that?
Simone: That was definitely scary because it was something I had never done before. It wasn’t a protest or campaign, stuff I’m used to. I had to learn a dance and then do it in front of everyone, all by myself. And I have to say that was probably the most scared I had been in a long time because I was completely out of my comfort zone. In the end, I just bit the bullet and told myself that it didn’t have to be the best dance anyone had ever seen, but just that I had to get out there and do it and have fun. I did the whole “Flashdance” routine and it was a personal goal that I wanted to achieve for whatever reason. And so I did it and felt so so good for doing it because I knew that doing it again would be that much easier now.
I love the whole idea of doing something every day that scares you. Nothing makes you feel more alive than being able to walk through your fear to say, “I did it!” Moreover, “I survived it!” You can make it fun. You have to challenge yourself, scare yourself a little. If you don’t, you’re like a walking dead.
Ishita: Many people say that scaring yourself is the right thing to do; that fear is a signal you should listen to. But how do you get into that mindset where you’re ready to meet that challenge?
Simone: To be completely honest, I don’t sit with fear that long. I’ve done a few things that have really scared me in my life, whether a protest naked for the first time, speaking in front of a group of people or large groups about animal rights, being on TV — all of it. I don’t think sitting and thinking about the fear is helpful at all. At that point, I think you should just go on autopilot and try to deal with the details of it and not think in the big picture.
If I sat there and thought about the big picture and said, “Oh my god. I’m going to be dancing and stripping in front of this group of people and it’s going be on TV and it’s the first time I’ve done anything like this before in my life,” I would be frozen. I wouldn’t have been able to remember the steps. Instead, I pretty much just thought about the details of it and didn’t think about the big picture at all. The whole thing was like a blur; I hardly remember it because I was just thinking about the details.
And all it took was three minutes! So you grin; you bear it; you get through it and then you have fun once it’s over. Most of the things we fear once we try to do them are really not that bad at all. It’s the anticipation that scares us! That should be the way people walk through their fears- not thinking about the actual thing – but about how great they’ll feel once they accomplish it. That’s what they should keep their eye on and not think about how scary it’s going to be. Then again, that said, there are things I’ll never do, like bungee jump, because I have this theory on death.
Ishita: Which is…
Simone: Well, for starters, I have scoliosis, so my back would be seriously injured. But the theory is this:
I believe in heaven very strongly. I was raised Catholic, although I’m not a practicing now, but I believe in heaven. I believe there’s a higher power. I believe we’re all going to be reunited again. So if I were to bungee jump and God forbid the chord breaks, and now I’m in heaven looking at my little, orphaned dog, I’d be angry at myself. “Did you really have to bungee jump? Was that so important to you?” And if I could honestly say that it was going to be life-affirming or life-changing for me and I had to do it, then okay, I would reconcile the chord breaking as an accident and now I’m dead.” Personally, I think bungee jumping might be fun, but it’s not a life-defining moment for me – I could do without it.
On the other hand, if I were to die in a car accident and look down at my dog, I would say, “I had to get from A to B. It was a risk that I had to take for my life.” I don’t feel like I was being reckless with my life for no reason like perhaps I would feel if I bungee jumped. I don’t need to do it. I respect people who say, “You really need to do this!” That’s their personal, life-affirming thing. More power to them. We all have our thing. I’m sure a lot of people wouldn’t say, “It’s really important to me to strip to the “Flashdance” song on television, that sounds like not too much fun” which is perfectly okay.”
Simone Reyes is Executive Assistant to Russell Simmons, and an avid animal rights activist and rescuer, and vegan. She boldly shed her clothes for PETA’s “Rather Go Naked” demonstrations, and has authored two books on astrology: Astrology for Cats and Astrology for Dogs.
Bio Source: Oxygen.
Featured image by Pink Sherbet Photography.