It happened in the wee hours of the morning while curled into a lobby bathroom stall of a Loews Vanderbilt Hotel. Ke’Andrea “Kiki” Ayers, a young and accomplished entertainment reporter in the red-hot hills of Hollywood, found herself alone – feeling her cold tears run down her face before hitting the marbled floor. From the outside looking in, she lived an enviable life donned in body-hugging and designer dresses, her lips glossed and hair styled to perfection – whisking across red carpets while bumping elbows and exchanging jokes with some of the most idolized celebrities in the world. There was Ben Affleck, Queen Latifah, Jamie Foxx, Nas and Will Ferrell – just to name a few.
But, from the inside looking out, there was no bed of her own to crawl into at the end of those glamorous occasions. There was no home for which to hang her stilettos after the sun dipped below the skyline. She wasn’t even sure where her next meal would come from. Her resume was impressive, but the paychecks were scarce. Like an old, estranged friend showing up without invitation, homelessness had found her once again.
For years she had worked tenaciously to climb her way to heights others only fantasized about and coveted, but her reality was beginning to unfold like a cruel illusion. There was no more time to nurture that illusion, waiting for a lucrative opportunity to ride in like a Hollywood ending and save her. There, in the loneliness of that moment, she posed a question to the night air: “What am I going to do now?”
An answer raced to the fore, slicing through the silence and amplifying in a way none had before: The right opportunity was never going to come. She was going to have to create her own.
Ayers’ life had not always told such an unfortunate story. Born from two loving parents who were enlisted in the navy, she was no stranger to the virtues of discipline and excellence. Until the age of 8, her life had been the epitome of normal. Both parents were stable financial providers, owned cars and were present each time hot meals were being served on the dinner table, which was every night. But when her parents divorced and her father left her, her older sister and 1-year-old brother behind in Washington state, life drew back its curtain and exposed its cruel actualities.
Her Trinidadian mother scrambled to balance living with a crippling autoimmune disease and being a single parent, all the while securing multiple jobs in order to feed her three children. “My childhood wasn’t a play time. I had to step in as a small child and raise my little brother,” says Ayers. “This was the first motivation for me to always rely on myself to make my own money and never depend on anyone else.”
This meant a 10-year-old Ayers spent her mornings guiding her 3-year-old brother onto the public bus and frantically ushering him to daycare before starting her day as a fifth grader – trying to make it to class before the bell rang.
In retrospect, she realizes these struggles only worked in favor of the woman she would become. By the time she was mature enough to form her own goals, she was undaunted by the brutalities of hardship and sacrifice. They didn’t scare her. She knew every shadowed inch of those parks.
The years that followed her father’s sudden abandonment brought with it a string of apartment evictions. Her mother would fall behind on bills and rent, then forced to pack up Ayers, her older sister and her younger brother to find another rental to make their home. Until, eventually, she was greeted with only slamming doors.
Ayers found herself a 16-year-old high school student without an address for her school registry. Her mother had accumulated too many evictions and, thus, no place would accept them as residents. She watched her mother and 9-year-old brother sob as he parted ways with his only possession: his bicycle.
When night fell, the family of four parked their run-down Ford Taurus – one her mother had purchased from a co-worker for $300 – in the parking lot of a 24-hour Walmart. This is where they would eat and sleep for months. Their whole entire lives – from toiletries to keepsakes – were crammed into the trunk. “Everything was centered around not being separated – making sure the cops would not find us sleeping in the car and then take my brother away. This was the biggest fear because all we ever had was each other,” says Ayers.
Even then, Ayers stresses that her mother instilled in her the importance of reaching for excellence no matter how deep, low and menacing the struggle. She always found a way to wash herself, brush her teeth and forge her best presentation before walking to the bus stop for school. “I always told myself that it was not a permanent situation. I never let myself dwell on how bad things were – not for one minute,” she says.
After a few months of surviving homelessness, her mother found an apartment for her and her children. Ayers fondly recalls moving into it and feeling luxurious spending her evenings stretched out across the bare carpet – watching “American Idol” through an old, donated television set, fidgeting with the antennas until the picture came in clear. During this time, Ayers learned of a program which would grant her the ability to take high school and college classes simultaneously – all held at a local community college. This brought with it the opportunity to hone her writing skills for the college paper. In this season of her life, she realized her innate talent as a wordsmith.
She graduated from the program with honors and garnered enough college credits to embark on a real college experience as a sophomore. Upon being accepted to Howard University in Washington D.C., Ayers traveled by train all the way across the country from Washington state. It was the first time she had ever ventured outside of her home state.
She recalls her paradigm shattering as she realized the contrast between her own life and that of her fellow co-eds. “I was moving into my dorm room and saw people moving all of their stuff in – from big TVs to speakers to posters – from their bedrooms at home. I had never even had my own bedroom my whole life, so all I had was a small suitcase full of clothes. I was so confused by it,” she says.
Ayers recalls witnessing students arrive at Howard University as though shuffling through a revolving door. Many decided they didn’t like the school within the first week and either withdrew from classes or transferred elsewhere. But it didn’t matter whether she loved it or loathed it; it was all she had. “My hustle came from not having a choice to do or go anywhere else. I’ve learned it is amazing what you can do when you don’t have any other choice,” says Ayers.
Not long after settling into her first year of college life, Ayers secured an internship with CBS Radio, working with Big Tigger at the local station WPGS. Her second gig was a summer internship for MTV, which came about solely because of her unflagging tenacity
Upon learning that the VP of Business Development for MTV was scheduled as a guest speaker at the university, Ayers cemented a goal to connect with her. When one of the male students in the congregation insulted the guest, she cut her visit short. She was so irate, she jerked her papers from the podium and stomped out of the class prematurely. Ayers ran out along with her – trailing behind her heels, frantically introducing herself and announcing her desire for an internship with the network. Still in a fog of annoyance, she brushed Ayers away, telling her she had to leave. “That’s okay, we can walk and talk,” Ayers told her, persisting.
“Here’s my email,” the lady barked in response, smacking her card in Ayer’s hand before racing off in the opposite direction. But before she had even arrived at the airport, Ayers was in the computer lab emailing her resume and unloading her whole life story. “I wasn’t letting this get away from me,” says Ayers. “And, it worked because MTV emailed me the next day and offered me a summer internship.”
At 19 years old, Ayers found herself traipsing through Times Square with wide eyes, proudly sliding on her badge, entering those glass doors and logging onto her MTV email address each morning – living out what had once been an elusive dream. During her time there, she learned about marketing and television development, and was involved with the SpongeBob 10th Anniversary.
When the summer ended and she returned to Howard University for classes, she received a callback about an internship at BET – an opportunity she had failed to secure through her first attempt. “When I didn’t get it the first time I applied, I just tried again and was successful,” says Ayers.
Soon after, she was working behind-the-scenes of the 2010 BET awards as a production assistant, as well as being flown to the Hip Hop Awards in Atlanta. “I didn’t have the typical college experience at all,” says Ayers. “I got to do some cool stuff, but at the same time I was always working when I wasn’t in class. I had no parents sending me money. If I wanted to eat, I had to work.”
Ayers’ work ethic became a testament to the reality that too many options can sometimes be lethal for one’s endeavors; yet having few options can be a godsend for the cultivation of one’s success. Oftentimes when one is blessed with an abundance of options, they grow entitled, lackadaisical and unappreciative within the broad scope of those options. When there is no sense of urgency, there is no urgency to reach for the things one most desires. Ayers knew she had so few options, she squeezed every drop of juice from the ones she had. Every drop fed her. They each fueled her. Ultimately, they launched her.
After graduating from college, she moved to New York City and landed a job with “The Jerry Springer Show,” choking down a bitter taste of what she did not want to do within her professional life. Soon after, she utilized her previous connection and experience with MTV to land a gig as one of their newest production coordinators. She reported to the sets of “Guy Code,” “Girl Code” and “Wild ‘N Out,” working closely with Charlemagne the God. “I did everything from getting lunches to recreating VMA red-carpet historic moments. This was the first year the VMAs were in Brooklyn so it was great to be a part of that moment. I also worked closely with Sway Calloway which was amazing,” says Ayers.
After learning all she could from behind the camera at MTV, she completed her time at the network. Soon after, the ambitious 24-year-old landed a position as the Music Programming Coordinator for Revolt TV in Los Angeles. She was not well-acquainted with the city, had never learned to drive and, therefore, had no license or means of transportation. So the network secured for her a luxurious room in the Loews Vanderbilt Hotel on the corner of Hollywood and Highland, which was convenient to the bus system, until she was able to gain a license and find an apartment. And, that she did. In less than a year, she was promoted to Content Producer for Revolt TV, which afforded her a rooftop loft towering way above the palm trees and overlooking the city. “It was surreal to call it mine, considering what I had come from,” says Ayers.
During this time, she began dipping her toes into entertainment reporting. She volunteered her free hours working on red carpets for smaller outlets, such as the Nickelodeon Kids Choice Sports Awards, in order to refine her resume and lean comfortably into her skills. She watched video footage and critiqued herself, slowly mastering the art of conversing with the famous. Before long, she was being paid to navigate the most sought-after red carpets. The Soul Train Awards. The BET Awards. The Billboard Music Awards. Major movie premiers. She fell fast in love with it, and believed she was finally in a place where she could surrender herself fully to what she wanted to do: illuminating the entertainment industry. She would leave Revolt TV to pursue journalism full time. The work proved to be the most creatively fulfilling she had ever known. Sadly, she would also learn that it wasn’t steady.
Before long, she found herself parting ways with her beloved rooftop loft and sleeping on friends’ couches, moving in and out of hostels. Meanwhile, she was working with Rob Riley, interviewing Samuel L. Jackson and attending Oprah’s private luncheon. Accomplished, yes; but also young, female and grossly underpaid. Also homeless – again.
One evening, following an event with a well-known actor, she was unable to reach the friend who had promised her a bed in her new home for the night. Ayers wandered over to Starbucks, passing the time by blasting out text messages to all of the other friends in her phone contact list. But, over and over, she was met with glaring silence. When it was time for Starbucks to turn out their lights and lock their doors, she was forced to leave. With nowhere to go, she wandered down Hollywood Boulevard, desperately checking her phone every few steps. She then remembered that the Loews Vanderbilt Hotel – where Revolt TV had put her up less than two years prior – had long bathroom stall doors where she could easily remain unnoticed. She entered the doors of that hotel, found the lobby bathroom and crawled into one of its stalls. Leaning into the corner wall, she shivered against the cold floor, jolting anxiously each time she heard a guest come inside to use the restroom.
“I kept replaying my life over and over in my head, wondering how I went from living in a nice loft apartment to sitting on a bathroom floor of a hotel lobby,” says Ayers. “I asked myself, ‘What are you going to do now, Kiki? How can you turn what you love into making money?’ Because this is not it,” she says.
Right there on the bathroom floor, she was struck with an epiphany: Her email inbox was flooded – daily – with editors, journalists, publicists, press releases and buzzing news stories. She had worked with some of the most idolized celebrities on the planet, and she had access to them. She was skilled at writing, editing, video editing and hosting. She was comfortable with a-listers and power players – on camera as well as on the page. She had scrolled through and dissected hundreds upon hundreds of media kits, and she knew how to build them herself. She felt confident in her ability to single-handedly create a full publicity package for less money than it would take someone to hire three different people to build the same.
Around 4 a.m., huddled in that stall with her belongings, she declared out loud – straight into that space, “You have all of the contacts. Start your own PR company.”
That was it – her golden answer. She would utilize her skill set and plethora of connections in television and journalism to build a career as a publicist. Something within her released and surrendered in that moment. No longer able to prevent her eyes from falling heavy, she allowed her body to dip in and out of sleep’s realm for the two hours that followed. Just before 6 a.m., she was rattled awake by the sound of a mop bucket, so she swiftly grabbed her belongings, rushed out of the hotel and stepped back into the world.
As the hotel doors closed behind her, Ayers Publicity opened its mouth wide and took its first breath.
Never looking back, but taking it one step at a time, she turned her eyes only in the direction of that decision. She secured her LLC and created her website. She began to carefully comb through talent in search of clients to represent. “I knew I didn’t want to work with just anybody. I set out to work with the next LeBron James or Drake,” says Ayers. “My motto became: If you’re dope, we’ll find you,” says Ayers.
Her strategy became, unlike most PR companies, one that would not force those she represented to lock themselves into a lengthy contract. Instead, she would offer them the liberty of going month-to-month. This was because she would only represent those she was certain were capable of making monumental strides if pitched the correct way and, thus, would give each of them maximum effort within short bursts of time. “I decided I wanted to be known as the publicist getting black people into places they are not usually seen, like Forbes. And I have already done just that.”
Her first client was Russell Simmons. “I led P.R. for the first movie to ever be released under his company All Def Digital. I set up a press screening and press junket,” she says.
She impressed him, and Ayers Publicity quickly began taking on a life of its own. A little more than a year after its birth, she now represents platinum recording artist Sy Ari Da Kid, comedic actor Haha Davis (who has 2.3 million Instagram followers), film director Dontell Antonio, fashion designer Maxie J and YouTube star Megz.
Her advice to those who believe they have tried everything, yet their ‘everything’ is failing them? “Create your own opportunity,” she says. “When you feel like giving up, you can either dwell on what isn’t working and be in the same situation a month or two from now, or you can ask yourself: ‘What can I try that I haven’t tried before?’”
Ayers believes there is always something else to be considered and that, oftentimes, the best idea doesn’t become clear or even show its face until one is forced to navigate the most bitter hollows of failure. “If you’re in a situation you don’t like, don’t cry about it,” she says. “See it as an opportunity and focus on getting out of it. If you keep your attention on getting out of it, there is no question that you will.”
But soar with caution: If you’re dope, she may find you.
This exclusive feature was The Connect magazine’s Holiday 2017/2018 cover story. To read it in its original print format, along with others including legendary branding guru Louis Upkins, NY Times Best-Selling Author Danielle Walker, expert tips for becoming your healthiest version in the New Year, as well as a peek at the 6,000-year-old goldmines resting inside of the Asian Art Museum, download the digital version of the Holiday 2017/2018 issue here.
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