The Magic of EJ
When it comes to NBA legacies, Steph & Klay may be the prototype — but EJ Johnson is changing the game
EJ Johnson is never going to walk into a room and go unnoticed.
His presence is striking. His face is always beat to the gawds. And whatever he’s draped in is going to make a statement. Best believe: Heads will be turned.
On this day in May, a few minutes past noon, Johnson sweeps into a lush penthouse suite atop the tony Hudson Hotel in Manhattan’s midtown. A five-star oasis in a city known for its grit, it’s a place where millionaires congregate and host private, superexclusive events. It’s a location that magazine and video crews use to frame the remarkable ones — like Johnson.
Johnson is in all black everything, and all 6 feet 3-and-a-half inches of him towers over everyone else in the penthouse — you can thank his dad, legendary NBA superstar Earvin “Magic” Johnson for that. He’s one of the basketball star’s three children, and Johnson’s growing fame might soon rival that of his father’s. “I love to go to sporting events,” he said. “I love a basketball game. I love a baseball game. Just not to play.”
His path has nothing to do with sports anything.
“It’s always important to break out of the shadow of your parents,” said Johnson. “especially when my dad has built such an amazing legacy, doing what he’s doing in business and in sports.” Johnson looks every bit the style star. He’s in a perforated black top with skinny black pants intentionally ripped at the knees. His choices are impeccable, and you can thank his mom, legendary red carpet slayer Cookie Johnson, for a lot of his taste. “My mom has always been a fashionista. I remember being little and playing in her closet and running around in her Manolos and … having her explain to me, ‘This is Versace, and this is Chanel’ … teaching me about things,” he said. “It’s not really just the clothes that I’m wearing. It’s definitely a part of how I express myself.”
On that note, he dismisses a compliment about his jewelry with a smile and a quick wave of his hand. “These things? They’re the use,” he said in dramatic fashion, shortening the word “usual” while touching the two ornate gold bracelets that always adorn his left wrist. In a world where famous NBA sons look like Stephen Curry and Luke Walton and Klay Thompson, Johnson is flipping that narrative by boldly striking out on a different lane.
“[My dad’s legacy] is incredible and it’s intimidating, to be honest. It’s just so much,” he said. “But I’m really happy that my path is completely different. That’s not where I want to be.” Johnson is an aspiring style icon, and actor. And by living his life out loud, flexing on social media, and starring in a reality show on the network that made the Kardashians a globally recognized brand, he’s pushing families — brown families, in particular — toward a much-needed conversation: It’s. OK. To. Be. Your. Authentic. Self.
Johnson is righteous in his own skin, his head is almost always held high — or, it’s cocked slightly to the side if he’s stunting on Instagram to his more than half-million followers in a mock-high fashion pose — most often showing off a face that is in full, fabulous makeup. And when there are haters — you know, those social media trolls who hurl anti-gay slurs in his direction? “I’m not going to go in a corner and cry,” he said with snark and serious intention. “I’m going to clap back.”
He’s serious about his future business plans — a cosmetic line is his dream — but he’s going to have a little fun while he’s doing it. And while her brother found inspiration in his mom’s closet, Johnson’s sister Elisa Johnson said dad isn’t too shabby in the fashion department either. “Our dad, he’s very particular in his suits and what socks and what ties … He has to be the one who picks it out. I just remember seeing that as a little girl. We’re just one big fashion family.”
Earvin Johnson III was born in 1992, the same year his dad was part of the gold medal-winning Olympic basketball team, commonly referred to as The Dream Team. The year before, his father made his announcement about being HIV-positive and retired from the game in 1991 before coming back to the Los Angeles Lakers for a brief stint in the 1995-96 season.
Magic Johnson’s diagnosis changed the conversation — and helped dispel the long-held belief that the virus was something only gay men contracted. In a 2013 interview with Anderson Cooper on CNN, Magic Johnson said, “I’ve been working side by side with gays for a long time. I think what I wanted the gay community to do for me is to help my son, all right? Give him the right information. Help him to grow and be a good young man, things that I can’t talk about that I don’t know about, they can help him.”
The NBA legend referenced the dynamics of being black and gay, and the challenges of coming out to your family. In that same interview, Magic Johnson added: “In our community we have to start accepting those who are gay in our family. It’s like my son, EJ, came out. It’s important that Cookie and I support our son. We’re going to support him 150 percent. But we’re in the minorities in this. In the black community, young gay men or young ladies who are lesbian, they’re afraid to tell their parents.”
Johnson was never afraid to tell his family. “My parents have always been supersupportive. My sister and I have always been really close and she’s been supportive, as is my brother,” he said in a 2013 interview with Howard Bragman’s digital show, Gwissues. “When it was time to come out, I was, obviously, scared, as most people are. After I got all the love and support from my family, then I knew I could go out and conquer the world.”
His playground is reality TV, and he’s conquering, OK? Taking it to the rack.
Johnson’s first segue into reality television was in 2014 as a guest star on then-new E! series, #RichKids of Beverly Hills. The stars of the show all had one very important thing in common: They all were the children of 1 percenters and all lived a life of private jets and extreme affluence. Johnson was invited on the show because E! executives discovered that he was a part of this rare social circle and found his story unique.
“People have a weird … wrong perception about celebrity children,” said Elisa Johnson. “People just say, ‘Oh, they’re spoiled and they get whatever they want and they don’t have any issues, they don’t have any problems.’ There are scenes where we’re seen with our pastor [on the new spinoff show]. Our mom’s on the show, our dad’s on the show. It’s just a good show for people to relate to, because you can just see that we’re like everyone else.”
Maybe not everyone else. Getting a solo show was an obvious move, said Jeff Olde, the executive vice president of programming and development at E! On #RichKids, Johnson stood out almost immediately — he was the lone black castmember and his arc worked well — an adult child of privilege with an extremely famous parent. And of course Johnson is unreservedly comfortable being himself.
“A true original,” Olde said. “I thought, here’s someone who’s grown up with this most famous name in the world of athletes and sports. I was fascinated by him.” So are the interwebs: Johnson was “caught” on a 2013 TMZ.com videotape holding hands with a male friend on Sunset Boulevard. #RichKids was the first time that the world really got to meet Johnson, beyond that TMZ moment.
And now, on Sunday — Father’s Day — EJNYC debuts, and the entire Johnson family is featured. Elisa Johnson, 21, will be interacting with her birth family. Cookie Johnson and Magic Johnson have taped some scenes for the show as well. The weekly reality show will follow Johnson, Elisa Johnson, and friends Samaria Smith (daughter of legendary rapper LL Cool J), and real estate development heir Sanaz Panahi as they gallivant around New York.
The family is very close, but this show is all about Johnson and his journey. “I was privileged,” he said of his Beverly Hills, California, upbringing. “And that was wonderful. But I still had struggles.” He said high school was challenging, but fun. “Before [I] actually came out. It was the topic of everyone’s conversation … I wasn’t bullied at all, but everyone was wanting to know. And then when I finally said it, then it was like, ‘Well, moving on to the next thing’ … I was blessed to go to a high school that was progressive … It was a great community. When I went away to [New York University] and I moved to New York,” he said, “I was ready.”
EJ reminds me so much of my dad. Especially our father being … this legendary basketball player … who also inspires so many people with his story of overcoming HIV. And here’s EJ — coming out. People look up to my father. They also look up to EJ. In the beginning, I don’t know that [EJ] knew how big of an impact he would have on … black gay men. He’s had a huge impact on everybody, but I don’t think he knew how big it was going to be until he got all the feedback. Now he’s realizing that he can use it positively, and it can change a lot of people’s lives. In the beginning, he was just having fun … then he realized, Oh, there are people coming out for this reason. It’s obviously an honor to be a part of our father’s legacy, but … we wanted to do our own thing. We want to have our own legacies. It’s great what our father did, but we want to be able to touch others, too.” — Elisa Johnson
In July 2014, cameras followed Johnson as he performed his duties as celebrity grand marshal in that year’s San Francisco Gay Pride Parade. He gets to be the role model he likely always needed to see. “I’m … living my life as an example,” he said. “People get to look at me live, and do me, and live with confidence and be as fearless as I can be, and let that inspire them.”
By doing that, he’s helping to pave the way for others who don’t generate headlines. Perhaps the next time another authentic live-out-loud personality comes along, paparazzi cameras won’t be rolling in a “gotcha!” sort of way, and the headlines written about that person will simply be for the empire they’re building. Maybe the headline will trumpet a superfun reality show that takes viewers on a weekly hilarious, emotional and personal journey as a 20-something adult figures out how to live his or her best lives. Being oneself can be dangerous, as last weekend’s tragic mass shooting in Orlando, Florida, has again illustrated. So it’s even more important that Johnson walks with pride, and is unafraid to back down in the face of a hateful atmosphere.
“I’m about building self-confidence and self-expression,” said Johnson. “I always preach that, and live my life like it. The world is changing so much and it’s moving in the right direction — for the most part. I want to be a part of that. I’m trying to live my life in a way that pushes us towards a more progressive future. I think that’s what I’m here to do,” Johnson said. “I don’t think [reality TV] should just be purely entertainment and crazy and drama and pulling weaves and throwing glasses at people. It should also be a way to teach people about what’s unique and special about your life.”
Exactly. And, of course, it should be magical.