The reputation of the Long Island Press precedes me.
Due to the contributions of countless fore-writers before me, its name has paved the way for sources such as Sen. Phil Boyle to send me an after-midnight text message for a quote, for a phone call from Congressman Peter King to interrupt a father picking up his daughter from a play date at my house, for perks like tickets to Jim Breuer at the Paramount and backstage passes to Foreigner at Jones Beach.
But so far the biggest effect its notoriety has had in my short tenure here was that its mere association so terrified women’s shoe mogul Steve Madden that he was forced to hide out in an executive office on the third floor of Macy’s in Roosevelt Field shopping mall pretending to be stuck in traffic.
Because besides being known the world over as a peddler of high-end knockoffs, Madden’s name is inextricably linked to one of the most notorious Wall Street scams in recent memory, stock fraud of monstrous proportions that defrauded scores of investors and families, Lake Success-based brokerage firm Stratton Oakmont’s “pump and dump” scheme—which netted the firm more than $200 million, was masterminded by Jordan Belfort and glamorized by Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio in last year’s The Wolf of Wall Street.
Madden, a key participant in the scheme, according to federal authorities, pleaded guilty to stock fraud and money laundering, was convicted, and served 30 months of a 41-month prison sentence for his role. Besides jail time, Madden had to fork over several million dollars in restitution.
Yet I wasn’t looking to corner the guy into some huge Come-To-Jesus tell-all (everybody deserves a second chance, right?) to open the eyes of the hordes of screaming teens and pre-teens who, along with their parents, were flooding the ground floor of the mall as if Justin Bieber were performing; I was simply coming to ask him flowery questions about his shoes for a glowing feature spread in the Press’ sister publication, Milieu Magazine.
My ill-fated interview with the shoe titan ex-con began as traditionally as possible. An email from a publicist. Some juggling of schedules. Sure, I knew of his past misdeeds. When the Milieu writer who was originally assigned the interview left for vacation and the responsibility fell upon me, I voiced his name aloud in the newsroom, catching the attention of several Press staffers, who reminded me—hell, we’d just published a scathing feature story about the unseen victims who had gotten no screen time in the Oscar-nominated Scorsese film called “Skinning The Wolf of Wall Street” (which I can only assume at least influenced Madden’s handlers’ blatant unprofessionalism). Madden was played by Dustin Hoffman’s son Jake. (Madden’s complaint, I read, was that he was played “too nerdy.”)
During my research, I also discovered that Madden, who grew up in LI’s Five Towns, found a new lease on life upon his release from prison, that he had a renewed commitment to the public and the community, that he’d even gotten married (to a former employee, when he realized he looked forward to her visits in greater capacity than he’d anticipated).
I thought maybe I should wear a pair of Steve Madden shoes to the interview, which was confirmed through multiple emails with his public relations liaison Casey Bakker at PMK*BNC. Maybe an in-person interview with the designer warranted a shopping trip!
The time spent hemming and hawing and justifying more shoes to my husband ran way over the time I’d allotted it—now I was running late. By the time I hit the road, there was just enough time to make it there for my 1:30 meet-up. I wore my motorcycle boot UGGs and hoped he wouldn’t notice.
Lucky for me, the Southern State-to-the-Meadowbrook route I drove to work during the week was fairly empty on this Saturday afternoon.
My phone rang. En route, I took the call. It was from Gabriella Weiser, Madden’s marketing director. She wanted to “go over some of the questions” I was planning to ask Madden. See “what tack” we were taking for the piece. I told her I wanted to know what types of shoes were on trend for spring. And about his new lease on life. His renewed commitment toward his public. And about his new marriage.
“Yeah,” Gabriella said. “No.”
“Um. What?” I asked.
“Steve won’t be taking any questions about his life,” she told me. “I just want to be clear so that I won’t have to interrupt you during the interview.”
“So I can only ask him about shoes?”
“What about his new wife? His sense of community?”
“No,” she said, firmly. (The “absofuckinglutelynot” was implied.)
I agreed, of course, and continued to the mall—wracking my brain for 30 minutes worth of questions about shoes. I’d only come up with “Why can’t I just wear my motorcycle boot UGGs all the time?” when my phone rang again just as I was pulling into the mall parking lot. (A full 20 minutes earlier than anticipated, since traffic patterns are so different on weekends.)
It was Gabriella again.
“I’m so sorry, Jaime,” she said. “Steve has gotten held up in traffic. He’s not going to be able to get here until about 2 o’clock and the Macy’s event starts right at 2.”
The same traffic that I was just not in?
“Can you email me your questions and I’ll have Steve answer them over the weekend?” she asked.
I agreed. Terrific.
Since I was already there, I walked into the mall and headed toward Macy’s—as my cell phone rang yet again.
It was Gabriella. Again.
“Hi!!!” her voice wafted from my phone. There was an excitement there, like we were old friends. I was touched by her display of friendliness. And I thought briefly that maybe Steve had made it there after all, and she was calling me with the thrilling news.
“Hi!” I enthused, right back.
“Hello?” I said.
That’s weird, I thought. And then her voice came through again, in a strikingly different, sobering tone. “Hi Jaime,” the new voice said. “I called the wrong number.”
“Yeah, again, I’m so sorry that Steve couldn’t make it. I hate to be so unprofessional and cancel the interview so close, but.”
“Mmm-hmm,” I said, careful not to say, “It’s okay.” Because it wasn’t. It was unprofessional, at the very least.
“He’s still in traffic,” she said again.
The other reason it wasn’t okay was because there was no traffic. It was an awkward phone call that we were both relieved to end.
I headed toward the Macy’s shoe department where there were lines of women behind red velvet ropes awaiting the spectacle of the shoe mogul. A DJ was spinning loud tunes while a perfectly coiffed emcee in a black miniskirt and towering gladiator (no doubt Steve Madden) shoes kept the party going. We all “put our hands together” at the prospect of winning a pair of shoes! The anticipation was palpable.
Four security guards blocked the front of the line where a roped-off table where Madden was to appear held center stage. I approached them and asked where they wanted press people to stand, so as not to be in the way. He pointed out a tall man who looked to be in his mid-30s.
“He’s the Macy’s manager,” he said. “He’ll know where to go.”
Indeed he did.
“Oh, you’re here for Steve Madden?” he asked. “Right this way.”
“He’s here?” I asked, feeling my cell phone, still warm from my last call from Gabriella just moments before.
“Oh yeah,” he told me. “He’s here.”
The manager led me up the escalator to the third floor where a beige door was placed discreetly behind the children’s department. Inside the executive office was a receptionist’s desk and some folding chairs. I was instructed to wait on one of those chairs while the manager alerted Steve Madden, who was behind yet another beige door.
“I’ll tell him you’re here,” he said, just as a sophisticated woman in a black suit with (undoubtedly) Steve Madden heels walked in, balancing a tray of Starbucks coffee in her manicured hands.
She looked from him to me and back again, prompting the manager to make our introduction.
“This is Jaime from the Long Island Press!” he said.
I’ve never seen anyone stop more dead in his or her tracks or turn as white as a ghost before. But in that moment, those very clichés came to life before me. She looked, quite simply, like someone who’d just been caught in a lie. Because she had.
The Starbucks shook, but did not spill.
Gabriella tried to regain her composure. She stomped toward me in 2014 spring gladiator heels. The sweetness of her wrong number-dialing voice was gone.
“I cancelled this interview,” she said, accusingly.
“You must be Gabriella,” I replied, overcompensating for her lack of sweetness with my own. “We spoke on the phone.”
She looked at me, but did not speak. Or offer her hand (she was still holding the tray of coffee, so that was moderately understandable).
“I turns out Steve is here,” I informed her. “So…” I meant so, unless you’re going to tell me that the security guard is wrong and that the person in the other room doing interviews is actually a Steve Madden doppelganger filling in for him since he really is stuck in really, really terrible, though invisible, traffic, which must be snarling hundreds of other imaginary commuters frantically scrambling to get to the mall to try some of his so-not-in-style, so-yesterday, so…’90s (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but in this case I’m using it as if it is), we have some unfinished business to take care of here. Or at the very least, I Am Owed The Professional Courtesy Of An Explanation!
“You need to go back downstairs right now,” she said.
“There is still no interview? Even though Steve made it through the traffic?”
It was 1:30 exactly—a good half-hour before show time and our scheduled interview.
Back downstairs I went, to where approximately 300 rabid Madden fans were lined up behind velvet ropes while a DJ blasted Ke$ha’s “Timber!” Security personnel, maybe eight of them, dressed in dark suits with earpieces and scrutinizing eyes, surveyed the crowd. They parked me next to where the red velvet rope marked the boundary of where Steve Madden would sit to meet with his fans and to sign T-shirts. Together we waited, while his national sales manager, in a flowered blue shirt raffled off strappy sandals to all who participated and three lanky models pranced and danced to the pounding rhythm set forth by the DJ. I took this time to chat up the security guys and to question why a shoe designer would need such a tremendous security detail for a mall appearance.
Might he have been concerned that the people of Long Island would see in him not the figurehead of fancy footwear, but a swindler, a crook, and an ex-convict? Was the plentiful security there to protect him against an unforgiving Long Island, with their long-term memory intact?
From the looks of the excited crowd, he had nothing to worry about.
But his handlers’ lies about traffic, their attempt to control our interview by forbidding questions about his life that might have served to humanize him or at least have given him a platform to apologize and explain how far he’s come since his arrest and his staff’s vast unprofessionalism solidified the fact that there was one in the crowd who was decidedly now very much not a fan.
At about 2:20 p.m., Madden arrived in his trademark baseball cap, button-down shirt, jeans and what I can only assume were Steve Madden shoes accompanied by more security and some staffers, including Gabriella. The whoops and cheers created a cacophony of excitement as he waved to the crowd and took his seat at the table.
It was then that Gabriella spied me taking pictures. After all, it was a public event. She leaned into a security guard and whispered something to him. He then blocked my view and began to move me away from my assigned place.
“You can’t be here,” he said. “Step 20 feet back.”
“I’m with the press,” I told him.
“Oh I know exactly who you are,” he said. “Get back!”
And so I did. Back from Gabriella and Steve Madden, back from Macy’s and the Roosevelt Field mall. I’d gotten everything I needed. As Julia Roberts said to the store clerk in Pretty Woman: “Big mistake, Steve Madden.”
And to think: All I was ever going to ask him about—and all I was ever going to write about—were exactly that, his shoes! His handlers’ attempts at damage control were nothing but damaging.
PS- The next day, I was alerted to a new Twitter follower—Wendy Madden, who identifies herself as Steve Madden’s wife on her bio, and is obviously very much interested in what I have to say.
Wonder if she’ll be re-Tweeting this. Wonder if she wears UGGs. I’m guessing, probably not.