Flo Jenkins is an accomplished award-winning writer, published playwright, poet, historian and editorial consultant with an over 40-year career spanning various industries including entertainment, advertising, promotions, education, health and non-profit. She is well known as the former editor for Right On! magazine and during her six years as editor was responsible for the publication’s entertaining and enlightening stories and interviews with new and established celebrities. She is also responsible for giving the Soul Train Gang its first major magazine coverage. In this interview, she discusses her illustrious career as well as the importance of being all that you can be.
SoulTrain.com: What inspired you to want to be a writer and journalist?
Flo Jenkins: I’m not sure; other than the fact that from the time I was very little, I wrote things, scribbled notes, etc. on pieces of paper. I’ve always loved words, whether I was reading them on the cereal box as a kid, or things like that. My dad had been a teacher, and he was always writing. When my siblings and I wanted to make sure we were understood by anyone—especially adults and business people—he would tell us, “Don’t just say it! Write it!” So, writing has been a “friend;” it’s been my best way of expressing feelings and explaining things. But basically, it’s just my gift from God. We all have one, and writing is mine.
SoulTrain.com: What was your first big break as a writer?
Flo Jenkins: I could say it came in my English class in junior high, when my teacher was always so encouraging whenever I wrote things. She would have me stand and read my essays that she loved. She would say, “Expand, Flora, Expand! You’re a great writer…now expand!” She wanted to hear more and for me to write more. And to me, that was my biggest so-called “break” as an encouraged writer. She helped me know what I already instinctively knew, but didn’t necessarily have a name for as an eighth grader. Professionally, of course, my “big break” writing career became known when I became a young editor for Right On! Magazine.
SoulTrain.com: How did you become executive editor of Right On! Magazine?
Flo Jenkins: You could call it “destiny,” I suppose. Someone who knew someone who knew someone who knew me, mentioned that this white-owned publishing company was looking for an assistant editor/writer. So, I contacted them. They sent me some materials and info…I had to write a story on The Jackson 5, based solely on what I knew about them, yet make it seem like I had personally interviewed them. So, I wrote it and I sent it to them. They loved it! I was asked to come in and interview and they hired me, first as an Assistant Editor and within 6 months I took on the position as Editor and eventually Executive Editor.
SoulTrain.com: What was the most challenging aspect of being editor for Right On? Was there a lot of competition?
Flo Jenkins: Probably the most challenging thing, especially in the beginning, was gaining trust of the owners of the company. You have to remember that I was young—at the time, the youngest African American editor of a national publication. I had never thought about this kind of work. I had never heard of a young Black editor, and I guess, neither had the owners. They had to learn to trust me and give me the autonomy I needed to do my job. I was always confident and never afraid of failing. For me, this job fit like a glove. I was meant for it and it was meant for me at that time. I knew my audience, and gained a genuine connection immediately. When I brought in new ideas that connected with the readers, readership and sales doubled immediately. So, as the incoming revenue grew and attested to my skills, the owners/publisher became more confident that maybe I knew what I was doing. Consequently, they basically allowed me to do my thing. Later, however, I did run into some challenges. But that’s a long story.
SoulTrain.com: What do you remember about the thousands of letters from readers of the magazine?
Flo Jenkins: Fan letters were always encouraging. They let me know I was meeting a need. I was encouraging them with the stories that they had long been so hungry for. They could finally have something that was “theirs,” with people on the cover and between the pages they could relate to; people who looked like them. I would correspond with many nice young people. I would also correspond with men and women who were incarcerated, who loved the magazine. Oftentimes I sent some of them free issues.
SoulTrain.com: The popularity of the Jackson 5 was what really helped Right On! come into existence, right?
Flo Jenkins: Of course! Before my arrival, it was pretty much Jackson 5, cover to cover! Stories had been done on them without any actual personal interviews—just re-written, hyped material. It was mainly a J-5 fan magazine, based, I later discovered, on another magazine. Keep in mind, I had never heard of Right On! Magazine, nor this type of magazine. I only knew of one black-focused magazine at the time, and that was Ebony, and then, of course, Essence Magazine was around, too.
SoulTrain.com: What were your initial plans and ideas for Right On!?
Flo Jenkins: My initial idea was to expand Right On! Magazine to include other celebrities and various events and stories. The magazine’s owners/executives challenged me at first. But I was convinced of a needed change, so I put a survey in the magazine, which, based upon overwhelming response, verified that I was right. Thousands of readers voiced their preferences. The readers wanted more, not just one celebrity from cover to cover each month. What those publishers did not know is that there is a difference between young black readers and young white readers–who basically enjoy fan type magazines, such as was back in the day like Tiger Beat, etc. The young black readers all across the country—not just in Hollywood and Los Angeles—had a host of folks and things they wanted to read about, in addition to the Jackson 5. My readers quickly began letting me know who they wanted to read about. And I began obliging their requests. Sales soared!
SoulTrain.com: I know there were numerous highlights being editor of Right On! What were among them?
Flo Jenkins: Wow! Yes, there were many highlights, including meeting and interviewing Michael Jackson. However, I loved Al Green as an artist. My friends and I would always be singing and dancing to his songs, but I had no idea I would ever meet him. Al was just kind of getting popular not too long before I started at Right On! So, meeting him, becoming friends, having front row seats at his concerts, and doing so many exclusive interviews with him was a highlight back then.
SoulTrain.com: You were responsible for giving the Soul Train Gang their first major magazine coverage. Before you and Right On!, no magazine gave them any coverage. How did this come about?
Flo Jenkins: Putting the Soul Train dancers in Right On! was really a “no-brainer.” The show was hot! Those dancers were stars! They were awesome and people were watching that show, in my opinion, more for those dancers than they were for some of the singing artists. I would have been remiss in my duties as a good editor if I had not spotlighted those dancers. It wasn’t as if I had to travel to another state to interview them, because they lived in Los Angeles, and the show was taped just down the street from my office at Right On! Even though the publisher and upper execs at Right On! were not convinced of my decision to put them on the cover—nor the viability and popularity when I began the stories, I persisted. I knew our readers were anxious to know who those dancers were! The dancers were faces without a voice until I gave them one through the magazine and made sure the readers got their story and got an up-close look at who those young people were.
SoulTrain.com: What do you remember about the day of that first photo shoot with the Soul Train Gang at Griffith Park. It seems like over 1,000 photos of them were taken.
Flo Jenkins: I only remember there was lots of energy, lots of laughter and lots of fun!! They were so excited that I was doing a story on them, because no other publication had done so—despite the popularity of the show. We shot so many photos that it was difficult to choose which ones to use.
SoulTrain.com: There were complaints and jealousy from some readers and even celebrities of too much coverage of the Soul Train Gang in Right On!. How did you deal with that as an editor?
Flo Jenkins: Well, I heard of some complaints, but that happens and it was okay. But the proof was in the pudding. I had made the right choice by highlighting those dancers. I never regretted it and the sales proved I was correct. The impact of those dancers can now be acknowledged all over the media all over the world! TV commercials, TV dance competition shows, dance troupes locking and popping, concert shows, movies, cartoons. You see the reflection of that talented group of Soul Train dancers worldwide. People have continued to make multi-millions from the creative styles of those Soul Train dancers, although the dancers have yet to fully share in the money for their contribution to the art of dance and the hip-hop culture. And now, there are books everywhere about Soul Train dancers—yet, those dancers haven’t collected. I don’t like that. But this is what you call capitalism. And others have definitely fully capitalized on some great talent, like Don Campbell, Damita Jo Freeman, Pat Davis, Tyrone Proctor, Sharon Hill, Scoobie Doo, and so, so many more.
SoulTrain.com: You also nabbed a major exclusive interview with Don Cornelius for Right On! Tell me about that experience.
Flo Jenkins: I was doing interviews with the dancers long before I interviewed Don. The dancers were getting such good response from the coverage, so much mail and attention, so I suppose Don decided it wasn’t a bad idea to be included. He let it be known he was now interested in doing an interview. So, I called him and set up the interview. It was interesting. He was a serious guy and wasn’t a big talker, but I was able to get some very important and exclusive comments from him.
SoulTrain.com: What would you like to say in Don’s memory?
Flo Jenkins: Don was a visionary, a guy who had a dream and, thankfully, was able to see it come to pass. His impact was strong and important; but I don’t think enough mainstream media have given him the honor that is due. Because he was so private, perhaps, is a reason not nearly enough has been rightly done to show his impact on the entertainment world. Like the unknown and unheralded dancers who actually created a real movement and changed the culture of creative dance forever, Don’s name and particular contribution could conceivably be continually overlooked…and lost, among the imitators or the storytellers who just don’t know or can’t get it accurate.
SoulTrain.com: Do you feel Right On! paved the way for future black teen magazines? It was groundbreaking. There wasn’t a magazine geared specifically for black teens or young adults before Right On!
Flo Jenkins: Indeed, Right On! was a forerunner in so many ways. It was a first. It laid the foundation for all the current magazines geared to young/young adult African American reading audiences. I’m proud to have been a part of that, of being a forerunner. I think we did an awesome job of building a strong bridge to cross over.
SoulTrain.com: What did you do after leaving Right On?
Flo Jenkins: I did so many things in the years following my tenure at Right On! Although I had my own plans for my own venture, I also had a number of job offers. Immediately after leaving Right On! I was asked to become executive editor of a magazine called The Soul & Jazz Record, which a record executive friend of mine had started. He wanted me to help it grow, like I did Right On! And like Right On!, his magazine was a trendsetter. It was a music trade publication rivaling Billboard Magazine, but it was black-owned and done from a black perspective. If sufficient money had been behind it, it could have done what my publisher friend had hoped. Unfortunately, the funds weren’t as long and strong as Right On! magazine’s.
After leaving The Soul & Jazz Record Magazine, I was asked to come to Arista Records as their West Coast Publicist. I worked with artists like Phyllis Hyman, Gil Scott-Heron, Eddie Kendricks (of the Temptations), Angela Bofill, and so many more. From there, I went into television for a local station, KTLA, where I remained for five years as their Publicity Manager/Spokesperson. Then I went on to head the Editorial Department and work as Executive Editor/Spokesperson for Crenshaw Christian Center, Fred Price III’s non-profit organization. Thereafter, I started my own writing/editorial consultancy service, and raised my three kids. Currently, as an editorial consultant, I work with individuals and varied companies and organizations. I edit and help structure book projects, video scripts, ad campaigns, and do lots of things that involve ghostwriting, writing of all kinds. One of my author/clients appeared on Oprah, The View, Dr. Phil, and other shows.
SoulTrain.com: Tell me about your experience as a playwright and poet.
Flo Jenkins: I’ve written a number of plays. One I wrote for a women’s integrated theatre group in Los Angeles, which was produced and staged initially in 1978. It was a three-act production called First Piece/Peace and received good reviews locally. A friend who lives in New York wants to revive it, but we’ll see. I love writing short plays and have always written poetry. When I have time, I do spoken word when invited to do so. My daughter and I recently performed spoken-word at several events. My daughter, however, and my oldest son, are the real consistent spoken word artists in the family. She’s a motivational speaker and has a book coming out this year. My oldest son is a clinical social worker and writes and sings. Also he’s a songwriter, with a tune (“Spotlight”) on Noel Gourdin’s new album, City Heart, Southern Soul, released Feb 18, 2014. My youngest son is in first year law school. Sorry, but a mom’s got to promote, brag, and all that stuff, right?
SoulTrain.com: You are also an author. You had your first published book in the fall of 2012, Telling Our Stories Ourselves. Tell us about the book.
Flo Jenkins: Well, Telling Our Stories Ourselves was first written for my students; however, it’s written mainly to inspire all people, but especially African Americans, to give voice to their own lives, rather than die and have someone else tell stories about them. I’ve seen so many people, celebrities and just ordinary people who should have told their stories about their lives, yet they never did. They just died with all those wonderful, inspirational stories inside them. That gives other people free reign to make money selling books and telling stories about folks who they probably never truly knew. So, the essence of my work as a writer and teacher and editorial consultant has been about helping people tell their own stories—whether I’m helping with their memoir, autobiography, letter, novel, or whatever. And now, actually, for the past year, I’ve been working on a documentary regarding this subject.
SoulTrain.com: What goals do you still want to accomplish?
Flo Jenkins: I’ve started putting the final touches on some long-overdue books. One is about parenting. I’ve been helping other people with their projects for so long that, now, I’m being “forced” in a sense, to write my own books. In addition, I love documentaries, and that’s a direction I’m looking forward to continuing to work in. After all, there are so many great stories to tell.
SoulTrain.com: What word of wisdom do you want to share with the readers of SoulTrain.com?
Flo Jenkins: Simply this: Treat others as you, in your highest most enlightened mind and heart, would like to be treated. And that, but for the intervening grace of God, we will reap what we sow. So make sure you’re sowing the best seeds you know how. Just do the spiritual math of life, which is pretty much using common sense to walk your best journey in this life with love, compassion, forgiveness, and God as your Guide.
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Stephen McMillian is a journalist, writer, actor, filmmaker, dancer/performer, Soul Train historian and soul music and movie historian. He is also a former Soul Train dancer. He is featured in the Soul Train documentary Show Me Your Soul and is also featured in the new book Love, Peace and Soul: Behind the Scenes of America’s Favorite Dance Show Soul Train by Ericka Blount Danois which is available on Amazon and in bookstores.