I won’t soon forget my first sight of Earvin Johnson III, more commonly known as E.J., striding alongside the pool at his family’s Benedict Canyon home. It’s a glorious Saturday afternoon, and Johnson is clad in a diaphanous red caftan over a black shirt and trousers. He’s an unexpectedly majestic figure, and the enameled blue sky provides a glowing backdrop for the transparent waves of fabric undulating behind him, like the cape of an improbable superhero.
Johnson’s father, sports legend, businessman, and philanthropist Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Jr., is one of Los Angeles’s most beloved citizens. Perhaps no other Angeleno inspires such unmixed devotion. (Please note: What I know about basketball could be stuffed in a watch and rattled, and yet even I think of him as just “Magic.”) It comes as no surprise, then, to find that Magic’s son is charismatic, too. He is 22 years old and an
undergraduate at New York University studying event planning and hospitality management. But it’s already quite clear that Johnson is on a stairway to stardom.
In April 2013, TMZ posted a video of Johnson holding hands with Alessandro Monetti. The two are best friends — not boyfriends — but it didn’t take long for the media to catch hold of the story and confirm, sometimes in decidedly ungracious terms, that Johnson is gay and out.
Soon, Johnson’s parents, Magic and his wife, Cookie, were on air talking about their family; they have consistently, respectfully, and lovingly shown unqualified support for their son. Any parent would benefit from their demonstration of exactly how to be there for a child — gay or straight — during the interview they gave Oprah Winfrey last December. Asked how the news had affected his relationship with his son, Magic told TMZ, “I love E.J. so much — that’s my main man. So I told him, I said, ‘Nothing has changed.’”
After the TMZ story broke, Johnson’s career blew up: He has appeared on E! as a fashion correspondent and is arguably the most popular personality on the #RichKids of Beverly Hills, a reality show derived from the online sensation #richkidsofinstagram (Season 2 premieres August 3). On the series, he’s sassy and unapologetic. Case in point: When asked who among the “Rich Kids” is the best dancer, he replied: “There’s really no question about [it], because it’s obviously me. End of story, point blank, period, thank you. It’s a wrap.”
After the poolside photo shoot for this story, Johnson shows me upstairs to the room where he grew up. It’s cozy — not huge, but luxuriously done in earth-toned fabrics. How comfortable is he with his sudden celebrity?
“Obviously, my family’s always been in the spotlight,” he says. “I’ve always loved being in front of people, being on stage and performing. I love the attention. I love everything about it.”
He also loves museumgoing — and opera, as it turns out. “I don’t even have to understand what they’re saying… you just feel it,” he says. “I’m just like, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about but, like, I can feel that somebody hurt you, child. Somebody fucked you over. But I can hear you girl — you sing. Sing, honey! Do it. Sing about it.”
Perhaps less surprisingly, Johnson also loves Beyoncé.
“I am obsessed with Beyoncé,” he says. “If I had a talk show, I’d go take a dance class with Beyoncé, sit on stage with her, learn her process. I met her a couple of times. She’s very composed and calm, sweet and demure as a person. But when she gets on stage she’s sexy and dynamic and on fire!”
I ask Johnson about other media outlets and personalities he’s spoken to, like Wendy Williams, to whom he confided that, as a teenager, before coming out to anyone else, he had to “come out to [himself].”
“I gave myself a lot of time with it before I even thought about telling one other person,” he says. “You should sit with it and let yourself get used to it. Talk to yourself about it, as weird as that sounds, to get comfortable with the idea.”
Johnson grew up in a warm, loving environment — a household of acceptance where he’s free to think for himself and decide who he’s going to be. But what would he say to young people trying to work these things out under different circumstances?
“I think you definitely need a core group,” Johnson says, adding that his “next step” is getting involved with helping gay youth. “Any kid, regardless of their sexual orientation, is going to need that to grow and prosper and to ultimately become successful. A child who’s different and faces a lot of discrimination and hardship is going to need twice that. If you’re not getting that from home, I suggest you surround yourself with a strong support group of friends and older mentors, if they are available to you. Surround yourself with a lot of love, and let that be the funnel for your confidence.”
As accepting as Johnson’s parents are, he came out first to his friends. “I have my two oldest friends, Lyric and Michael, and they have been my best friends since I was about 2. Our parents were friends. And Michael is also gay, and he is just…the three of us are just inseparable, just so close. They are my support system. If anything was wrong, they would be who I’d call.”
A framed photo on a bookshelf shows Johnson and Lyric when they were really young, “maybe about 5 or 6 years old.” Lyric is in a layered ensemble with a knit cardigan, and Johnson is in a tiny suit with a red waistcoat, already sporting his signature horn-rimmed glasses. A second photograph shows them in their later teens, dressed to the nines. “This is our prom picture,” he says. “She was my prom date for both years.”
The affection in Johnson’s voice as he discusses these deeper relationships is a far cry from the typical “confessional” moments of reality TV, and it bears no resemblance to the high-ticket shenanigans of Rich Kids of Beverly Hills. Maybe this is the real secret of E.J.’s appeal: Underneath all that fierce, he really is a nice young man.