When future President Barack Obama said, “It’s never hard for me to extol the wonders and beauty of black women,” veteran TV producer Patrick L. Riley was right there.
Of course, Barack was looking at wife Michelle, the woman he loves. Meanwhile, Riley was gazing out at a room full of women he loves, including longtime former boss Oprah Winfrey. The year was 2005, and Riley was producing the Legends Ball at Oprah’s custom-built private Santa Barbara, Calif., estate, appropriately named “the Promised Land.”
This, and many equally fabulous and intimate moments like it, reflect the impact of women—especially black women—on Riley’s life. After 30 years in television, as a producer for both Oprah’s and Wendy Williams’ talk shows, he is now the author of the new book That’s What Friends Are For: On the Women Who Inspire Me. Riley says that our former president’s words echo the feeling he has held for black women since he was “in the womb.”
Riley’s book is a tale of growing up different. His father was in the Air Force, moving his family to far-flung locales like Tokyo before eventually settling in Valdosta, Ga., in the 1970s. Growing up an oft-uprooted military brat and trying to fit in was not easy, especially as a gay child in a place and time that was not so accepting.
Thankfully, Riley had a mother who understood how to nourish her son’s soul with outings to the opera and symphony. But while mother and son shared many conversations about culture, “Don’t ask, don’t tell” was still the unspoken word at home. Instead, Riley found companionship and validation in the songs and stage talents of women he admired. Listening to divas uplifted him and led him to find a path to both himself and the #BlackGirlMagic heaven he dreamed of finding. He would be their angel.
Women in the arts and entertainment were the muses from my childhood who made me feel better when I was an unsure little boy who didn’t quite know how to live in his truth. These women could tear my heart out with a melody or a soliloquy in a movie, appealing to the outcast I sometimes felt like in my search for acceptance.
The black gay man’s search for acceptance is a timely conversation, as evidenced by last week’s controversy after Patti LaBelle revealed to Bravo TV’s Andy Cohen that Luther Vandross’ decision to remain closeted all of his life was so as not to disappoint his mother. It’s a subject that touches Riley deeply. Although his own mother understood that her son might be gay, there was a deafening silence on the matter between the two of them. To spare her feelings, Riley chose not to come out until after his mother’s death.
“What’s happening now in this current political climate is a reversal of empathy,” Riley says. It’s the reason that he feels the timing is right for this memoir, despite print being on a sharp decline, with even celebrity-centric books struggling to make it into the hands of readers hungry for content about black life.
Dorpie Books, the publisher of That’s What Friends Are For, is a black-owned and -operated imprint and a new model of publishing that puts the power in the hands of the audience, allowing them to crowdfund the projects they want to read. It addresses a dire need for publishers to print and promote books by authors of color—one recently expressed by celebrity and new author Gabrielle Union.
This coming-of-age story features both jewels of personal wisdom and gems from the entertainment world. Riley’s memories illuminate the kindness and humanity of stars from Lena Horne to Beyoncé, while bringing to light the questions and struggles of many in the LGBTQ community with tenderness and humor. In this excerpt, Riley recounts:
By high school, I had the jaded notion that there was a hard road ahead that maybe I couldn’t handle, reconciling my insides to what was going on outside. I wondered if I would ever come out as a gay man. Would I continue to go the course that society wanted me to? Could I marry a woman? These were big questions I had to start asking myself while peers were taking next steps into their intimate relationships.
Eventually Riley did fall in love—with the friendship he perceived between Patti Labelle and Dionne Warwick while watching Sisters in the Name of Love, the 1986 AIDS fundraising concert they hosted on HBO with fellow diva Gladys Knight. What he saw between them on-screen became his real-life standard for what friends should be to one another and the good that friendship can bring into the world.
It was a crush that would become a career. “Before I knew it, there I was in the TV business, either interviewing my favorite celebrity women or producing their projects,” he says.
The pages of That’s What Friends Are For read like a producer’s personal diary of Hollywood glitterati, filled with behind-the-scenes photos and very personal anecdotes about the strong women, from activists to athletes, who helped light his journey to both personal and professional success.
Riley’s prose sparkles when he describes the “energy that comes off of Beyoncé or Janet Jackson when I touch their hand to greet them,” and he recounts so many priceless moments, like Queen Bey singing him “Happy Birthday” on a trip to Manila, Philippines; or the interview he landed with the Boss Miss Ross and Motown founder Berry Gordy at the opening night of Broadway’s Motown the Musical. And then there are the poignant ones, like when he shared tears with Warwick over the tragic loss of her little cousin, singer Whitney Houston.
At the core of That’s What Friends Are For: On the Women Who Inspire Me lies a highly personal mission: “If just one gay kid can find a spot of inspiration in this text, along with others who can give support to the LGBTQ community, my efforts will have been worth it.” Because after all, that’s what friends are for.
The Glow Up gift tip: Preorders of That’s What Friends Are For: On the Women Who Inspire Me are available now through Dec. 22 at Dorpie Books ($35):