To be young, bling and black "Gotham Diaries" and "Bling," hot novels by well-connected authors about new-monied African American circles, set the board for a gossipy guessing game.

Posted: August 08, 2004

Tucked away amid the art galleries in SoHo, the restaurant Erica Kennedy suggests for lunch features glass rest-room doors that film over like lava lamps when you close them. Just the kind of place Vanessa de la Cruz, the cocaine-snorting villainess in Bling, would go to powder her nose.

Back in Center City at the Four Seasons, you could imagine Lauren and Ed Thomas, the well-heeled moguls at the heart of Gotham Diaries, munching finger sandwiches and canapes at afternoon tea, just as Tonya Lewis Lee and Crystal McCrary Anthony did the other day.

Kennedy, first-time author of the hot novel Bling, and Lee and Anthony, writers of the best-selling Gotham Diaries, hang out in the same kinds of places their characters do.

It's no secret that art imitates life. But for a long time, when it came to "chick lit" about African Americans, the wealth-o-meter stopped at six figures.

These days, however, when hip-hop nouveaux riches rub elbows with established CEOs, a black glitterati has emerged. It's a world of Chanel, Etro, and 10-carat pink diamonds - worn by men. A world of multimillion-dollar Upper East Side apartments and American Express black Centurion cards. A world where Prada and Nike carry equal weight.

It's a world readers crave.

Bling drew a $500,000 advance for Kennedy and is being made into a movie by Miramax. Gotham Diaries, which fetched a hefty six-figure advance for Lee and Anthony, hit No. 35 on the New York Times best-seller list and is climbing. All three writers appeared on Good Morning America last week.

The authors credit hard work for their success, but acknowledge that their status as insiders allowed them to write with authority - and also gave them the credibility to land book deals.

Lee, 38, was a corporate lawyer before meeting filmmaker Spike Lee, her husband of 11 years, at a Congressional Black Caucus dinner in Washington. Spike was there to promote Malcolm X, Tonya to cheer on her father, George Lewis, an executive at Philip Morris Capital Corp. who was being honored.

Tonya Lewis Lee is an accomplished documentarian who produced and cowrote I Sit Where I Want: The Legacy of Brown v. Board of Education for Nickelodeon. She also wrote a children's book, Please, Baby, Please, with her husband.

So her emerald eyes flash at the suggestion that marrying Spike boosted her social status. Their Upper East Side home (a 9,800-square-foot apartment that was built for the Vanderbilt family), the place in Martha's Vineyard, and the yearly trips to Cannes notwithstanding - Lee's entree into rarefied African American circles was a birthright.

"Spike didn't bring me here. My whole life I've seen this kind of world," says Lee, whose parents own homes in Connecticut and Florida.

Likewise with Anthony, 34, an entertainment lawyer by training. The native Detroiter was brought up by her grandparents, an educator and an engineer, surrounded by a family of lawyers and doctors. She found her writing niche in 1998 when she teamed with Rita Ewing, wife of former New York Knicks star Patrick Ewing, to write Homecourt Advantage, a novel about NBA wives.

Anthony, who is estranged from Greg Anthony, ESPN commentator and former NBA point guard, lives down the street from the Lees in an elaborate Madison Avenue spread. One day recently, Anthony went to Central Park and watched her children play with Madonna's kids. A photo of Anthony's daughter Ella and Madonna's son Rocco appeared in the New York Post.

"That was a totally random New York City moment," Anthony said with a laugh. "New York is a living, breathing thing. In some ways it's an addiction."

The Big Apple can be rotten, though, and that's the message of Gotham's cautionary tale. The characters claw their way to the top tax brackets and social registers and will sell their souls to stay there. Better their souls than their $1,000-per-square-foot apartments.

The book has tongues wagging in New York's black society. Just who are the characters, really?

Is billionaire businessman Ed Thomas modeled after Robert Johnson, billionaire founder of Black Entertainment Television? Or is he Kenneth Chenault, American Express chief executive officer?

Is Tandy Brooks, the aging, money-strapped socialite, modeled after Loida Nicolas Lewis, widow of TLC Beatrice tycoon Reginald Lewis?

How about Dime Dog, the closeted gay rapper? Is he really Snoop Dogg? Or is he 50 Cent?

Is Lauren, the beautiful, smart, morally centered protagonist, inspired by Lee? Anthony? Or both?

The authors admit nothing, other than to say that the character Manny Marks, the 36-year-old gay black real estate agent from Alabama who sells Lauren down the river, was created from the life of their friend Spencer Means, a 36-year-old gay black broker from Alabama who sold both women their apartments.

For his part, Means is thrilled to be a muse.

"I felt glad that I ws amusing enough to write about," says Means, a vice president at the Corcoran Group. "I'm a good guy, but [Lee and Anthony] had to embellish my character. Bad guys make better books."

Despite being inspired by Means, Lee insists that Gotham Diaries (Hyperion) is not a roman a clef.

"I think we write from what we know and create a story within that," Lee said. "That's what writers do."

She paused, then conceded that she might have included some parts of her life in the novel. "Is my subconscious working? Perhaps."

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Kennedy, 34, willingly admits that being in Russell Simmons' inner circle has advantages.

"I'm not going to say it didn't help me," says Kennedy, who met the impresario through a hip-hop producer she dated in high school. "When I went to the publisher, I said, 'Yeah, I have inside information because I'm writing from an insider's perspective.' "

As a bridesmaid in Simmons' wedding to model Kimora Lee in 1998, Kennedy jetted off to St. Bart's on a private plane. She hangs out with the first couple of hip-hop at their compound in the Hamptons, and Kimora helped host a book party in Kennedy's honor at Locus nightclub in Manhattan, a bash attended by Vogue editor Andre Leon Talley, veteran socialite Denise Rich and - no surprise here - Tonya Lewis Lee and Crystal McCrary Anthony.

Bling (Miramax Books), her irreverent 506-page novel, is Pygmalion with a backbeat, the story of Mimi Jean Castiglione, a half-Haitian, half-Italian beauty who is plucked from the Midwest by Lamont Jackson, chief executive officer of Triple Large records.

Lamont makes Mimi over into a hip-hop princess, with blond hair extensions, a bikini wax, and brand-new C-cup breasts. (Mariah Carey and Tommy Mottola? Ashanti and Irv Gotti?) Mimi wants to write her own songs and wear her hair naturally, a la Lauryn Hill. But at what price?

In true Jackie Collins fashion, the narrative pops with unsavory characters: Vanessa de la Cruz, a supermodel who some suggest was inspired by haughty supermodel Naomi Campbell (Kennedy says she has never met the woman); the rappers Radickulys and Flo$$ - a sex symbol despite having a prosthetic leg, "giving a whole new meaning to the term hip-hop."

Kennedy says the pop references are just for fun.

"You're watching MTV or you're watching Behind the Music and you wind up putting it in the book," she said. "The part in the book when Mimi gets too thin and the tabloids have her on the cover with the headline 'Mimi, Eat Or Die!' - I saw the same headline in the Star about Lara Flynn Boyle and put it in the book."

For her part, Kennedy, who dresses more like an Ivy League coed than a ghetto-fabulous club chick, says she's not worried about burning bridges with the celebrities who may think Bling is about them.

"People say, 'Weren't you afraid to write this book?' Afraid of what? That I won't be invited to a [P. Diddy] party? It's just a lot of celebrities who talk to each other. They never talk to you. And the regular people who finagle an invitation just stare at the celebrities.

"My hope is that the next black author gets six figures for this kind of book. I just want to be home in sweats and glasses, writing."

Contact staff writer Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986 or ajohnhall@phillynews.com.

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