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believing in magic

Interview: Cookie & “Magic” Johnson

By Lori Bitter

Ordinary People Living Extraordinary Lives – An intimate interview with Cookie Johnson, author, Believing in Magic; fashion entrepreneur; wife of Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson

A lesser woman would have thrown in the towel after two broken engagements. As it turns out her stormy courtship with Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson was a prelude for the very public life they have lead since his announcement, two months after their wedding, that he is HIV positive.  Cookie Johnson is a woman of substance. And she’s finally telling her story of their 14-year courtship and 25 years of married life in her new book, Believing in Magic.

“The team was in Denver and I was getting ready to watch the game with another wife, and the phone rang. The team was already on the court doing a shoot around and Earvin was on the phone . . . I was thinking, ‘what is going on’?” says Cookie as she talks about learning of her husband’s HIV status. “He told me was coming home and we needed to talk about something important . . . we’d only been married a couple of months, and we’d had so many breakups, so my first thought was that he’d decided he couldn’t be married.”

Believing in magicIt turns out that a routine insurance test for the team had shown that Earvin had tested positive for the HIV virus, the virus that causes AIDS. It turns out that this early detection likely saved both of them.

“It turns out that a routine insurance test for the team had shown that Earvin had tested positive for the HIV virus.”

untitled2“Earvin told me he’d had a test done and it was positive for HIV. My first thought was, ‘am I in a dream?’ My world crashed to the ground. In 1991 those words were a death sentence! Then he said, ‘the doctors want you to be tested’ and I felt like I’d been hit with a hammer. I immediately thought about my baby – I was newly pregnant. And at that time it took two weeks for the results to come back.”

This would be an exclamation point on a roller coaster relationship that began at Michigan State University. Cookie was a fashion merchandising major and Earvin, who had been recruited by major basketball programs, was a communication major with dreams of a broadcast career. He had earned the nickname “Magic” in high school after leading his team to a state championship.

Believing in maicCookie writes honestly and in detail about the fourteen years that preceded their marriage, which includes two broken engagements and four-year break-ups. The thread of their strong Midwestern work ethic, values and faith in God, is woven throughout their story. Theirs is the story of two ordinary people who have lived an extraordinary life.

After the last four-year break-up, it took four years to create a friendship between the two, before they dated again seriously. It is this strong friendship that Cookie believes got them through the darkest time of their lives together.

“When Earvin told me about the HIV test, he said ‘I understand if you want to leave me.’ I knew I had two choices. I could leave and let him die or I could stay and help live. We decided to educate ourselves. We met Elizabeth Glaser who was doing work for Pediatric AIDS. She gave us great encouragement and urged us to tell the world,” says Cookie. “I have to say I didn’t want him to make the announcement at first. At that time HIV was a ‘gay disease’ and I was worried. People thought you could catch it. Would we be turned away from restaurants or would our kids have playmates?”

“In the end, Earvin said, ‘I have to save as many lives as possible,” she continued. I knew then this was God’s purpose for him.”

“In the end, Earvin said, ‘I have to save as many lives as possible,” she continued. I knew then this was God’s purpose for him. He became the face of the disease. Our faith is a thread in our lives. Earvin is a positive person. This faith gave me the strength to get off of my knees and move forward.”

untitledTogether they have built a strong family that includes Andre (Earvin’s son from a relationship during one of their break-ups); Earvin the III (known as EJ); and Elisa (who was adopted). But like most families, this wasn’t always easy.

“It’s tough to raise kids in Hollywood. We didn’t go out and do flashy things. They had as normal a life as possible with a small group of close friends, Cookie recalls. “It really takes a village. We kept family close. We’re from Michigan and the kids spent two weeks in the summer with our family there. We wanted them to experience a normal way of life. And when Earvin and I had to travel, we had family stay with the kids. We kept them grounded and close to us. We wanted to instill good morals and values, and raise them in church.”

“Of course, they grow up and go out into the world, and that’s a different story! Now they want all of the glitz and glamour,” she laughed.

Cookie speaks poignantly about their openness with Elisa about her adoption, stressing that they worked with a therapist to share the right type of information for the age of their daughter. It started at around age four when friends were having babies and she was curious about her time in mommy’s tummy.

“We told we got to choose her from all of the little babies out there, and that she was beautiful and special,” says Cookie. “At age eight or nine she wanted to know who she looked like and it kind of broke my heart. She was very curious. When she was 13 I gave her a photo of her birth parents and that was pretty traumatic. The reality hit her that she came from someone else. There were lots of tears.”

Believing in MagicMuch more high profile is EJ’s coming out publicly as gay. This was certainly harder as the son of a macho, elite athlete. Cookie also shares this story recounting that Earvin’s initial reaction was tough, but with time and thought, came around.

“Looking back, there were things that EJ did as child that may have been signs. He like to dress up in girl clothes and didn’t grow out of it. He did hide it because I was telling him he needed to stop,” she says. “Then he became a teenager and I noticed him checking out boys instead of girls and it dawned on me. It was time to have a talk.”

“I confronted him and asked if he was gay. He said ‘yes, Mom, I think I am.’ I told him to be who you are. And we’ll talk to daddy. That was hard for EJ. Earvin was truly worried that the world wouldn’t accept him and be friendly.”

 “We need to get rid of the stigma of coming out. We shouldn’t put kids in a box.”

“We need to get rid of the stigma of coming out. We shouldn’t put kids in a box. We hope our journey can help to do that. You just have to nurture your kids and help them be good, secure, confident people. That shouldn’t be any different a child because they are gay. It’s not a choice. They are born that way.”

untitled6It is ironic that it has been 25 years since Earvin “Magic” Johnson revealed his HIV status to the world, becoming the face of the disease, and today his own son, whom Cookie was pregnant with at the time, is out as a gay man. The foundation the couple has founded, The Magic Johnson Foundation, has AIDS education at its core.

When the foundation began, the stigma of HIV/AIDS was high. It supported early detection, responsible behavior, and education to stop the spread of the disease. Johnson, himself, has been an example of how early detection and medication can lead to a long, healthy life.

“The problem now is that people aren’t alarmed anymore,” says Cookie. “Young people are being reckless and the virus is still killing people.”

The Foundation added an education component that began with the historically Black colleges to provide funds for students to attend college. They have put 120 students through college, where they follow them for all four years, providing mentoring and job search support.

logoThey have also created community empowerment centers in urban communities to provide computers and resources to younger children to do homework and have a safe place to learn, and to position them for college. The centers are so popular that older, retired citizens are also accessing the resources.

Believing in MagicCookie used her fashion degree to launch CJ by Cookie Johnson, a premium denim line, in 2009. She recently shut that business down and is thinking about how she might revamp it. She has grave concerns about the fashion business, especially offshoring and child labor. For now, she is content to be “Momager” for EJ and Elisa who are both pursuing careers in fashion and entertainment, with a strong desire to protect them from the issues that come with this line of work.

Right now, the Johnsons are happy being grandparents to granddaughter, Gigi, who just turned eight, and Avery, their grandson, who is five.

Right now, the Johnsons are happy being grandparents to granddaughter, Gigi, who just turned eight, and Avery, their grandson, who is five.

“When you’re a grandparent and still work, it’s tough,” she says. “We go to soccer and all their school events because they are close to us. And we take a Spring Break trip with them and their parents. We were really excited to be grandparents – the house had gotten quiet!”

Cookie, who is called “Nonnie” by her grandchildren, is embracing her role and loves the added dimension grandparenting brings to their lives. “Watching these little people discover the world is wonderful. There is so much innocence in the world again. As grandparents, we get to enjoy the best parts of that!”

Beliving in MagicAbout the Author – Lori Bitter

President, The Business of Aging

 Lori Bitter serves as publisher of GRAND. Her book, “The Grandparent Economy” was 51sos3blil-_sx332_bo1204203200_published in 2015. Her consulting company, The Business of Aging provides strategic consulting, research and product development for companies seeking to engage with mature consumers. Her favorite title is “Gigi” for grandsons Gabriel (on right) and Henry (on left).



Christine Crosby

About the author

Christine is the co-founder and editorial director for GRAND Magazine. She is the grandmother of five and great-grandmom (aka Grandmere) to one. She makes her home in St. Petersburg, Florida.

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