By LOLA OGUNNAIKE
LOS ANGELES -- This time six years ago, Flavor Flav, the flamboyant clock-wearing member of the groundbreaking rap group Public Enemy, was living in a low-rent apartment near Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. He was scalping baseball tickets for extra cash, battling a long addiction to drugs and racking up arrests for driving without a license.
These days life is looking a lot brighter.
His reality series, “Flavor of Love,” a ghetto-fabulous spoof of the dating series “The Bachelor,” has been a colossal hit for VH1. The show’s first-season finale in March drew nearly six million viewers, making it the highest-rated show in the cable channel’s history. More than three million people tuned in to watch the second-season premiere early August.
No one seems to be enjoying the success more than Flav, as he is known to one and all.
“I’m the king of VH1,” he crowed over a surf-and-turf dinner at a soul food restaurant in downtown Los Angeles. “Your man Flavor Flav is doing his thiiiiing.”
That thing has made the show as polarizing as it is popular. On blogs and at the office, on message boards and in op-ed columns, viewers are both riveted and repelled by “Flavor of Love.”
Fans of the show call it a harmless guilty pleasure, and its star a lovable and unlikely Romeo. Critics have accused the show of trafficking in racial stereotypes and have called Flav everything from a sellout to a modern-day Stepin Fetchit.
“Anytime we mention ‘Flavor of Love’ on our show, the phone lines start blowing up,” said Donnell Rawlings, a New York morning radio personality on the popular hip-hop radio station Power 105.1. “Good or bad, our listeners love talking about Flav. They can’t get enough of it. You’ve got beauties and you’ve got the beast, and it’s become one of those shows you must watch every week.”
On “Flavor of Love,” 20 contestants vie for the rap star’s affection while living with him in a mansion in Encino. Instead of roses, they are given oversize clocks when they’re invited to stay at the end of each show, and the winner is awarded a personalized gold dental grille, a jeweled ornament for the teeth.
The women, who tend to look like castoffs from a bad rap video, dress provocatively (the shorter the skirt, the lower the neckline, the better their chances), engage in raunchy make-out sessions with Flav and, when given the opportunity, profess their undying devotion.
“You could be across the room and I can feel you,” Krazy, the rare white face on the show, said in a recent episode. (Flav, whose real name is William Drayton, has trouble remembering the contestants’ real names, so he gives them nicknames like Deelishis, Toastee and Bootz.) “My heart is so big and I’m such a compassionate person and I see the same thing in you.” Krazy then broke into song. “I will be with you forever,” she crooned — off key.
Occasionally, the women even trade blows. This season’s premiere began with two women brawling over a bed and ended with one contestant defecating on the floor as she raced to the bathroom after a meal that didn’t agree with her. To Michael Hirschorn, the executive vice president for original programming at VH1, the reasons millions of viewers tune in every Sunday night are clear. “The accidental appeal of the show was the play between ‘Are these women for real or not? Are these women there for him or are they there because any fame is completely intoxicating?’ ” he said. “Instead of covering that part of the show up, we decided to make it integral.”
Asked whether the show was exploiting racial stereotypes, Mr. Hirschorn, who is white, said he didn’t think so. “I would also say I’m not in the position to make that judgment.” But, he pointed out, “the show is disproportionately popular among black viewers, and the comedy is very inclusive.”
Not all are amused, however. Nicole Young, a fashion designer in Manhattan who is black, said the defecation scene in this season’s premiere turned her off the show for good. Late last week, during a heated dinner argument with friends about the series, she pronounced it “absolutely hideous,” and proceeded to denounce Flav and his paramours. “In a day and age when it’s still really hard for people of color to find reasonable representations on television,” she said, “that show is a huge smack in the face and a step backwards.”
In an interview on a sports blog, thebiglead.com, Jason Whitlock, a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star, said, “It’s about time we as black people quit letting Flavor Flav and the rest of these clowns bojangle for dollars.”
In an editorial last month, DeWayne Wickham of USA Today wrote: “On one level, his buffoonery is laughable. But more often than not, it makes my skin crawl to know that as Lincoln Perry (who played Stepin Fetchit) and Johnny Lee (who was TV’s Algonquin J. Calhoun) did, Drayton has to assume such a shallow black role to find stardom in Hollywood.”
Nelson George, the cultural critic and author of “Hip Hop America,” said one reason the show has struck such a nerve has less to do with stereotypes and more to do with the fact that Flavor Flav is not exactly a sex symbol. “If he didn’t have gold fronts and didn’t wear a clock and if looked like Jamie Foxx, there wouldn’t be as much controversy,” he contended. He added that black viewers can be overly sensitive about how blacks are portrayed on television: “Black people tend to think that every image that is projected in the media is somehow a judgment on their reality. And that’s just not the case.”
“It is what it is,” he said. “Just another reality freak show.”
Flav, 47, did not seem ruffled by criticism. “Right now anybody that has negative things to say to Flavor Flav, it’s O.K.,” he said, “because that’s not going to stop me from being Flav. I get power from the negative.”
Although not conventionally attractive (he bears more than a passing resemblance to a California Raisin character), off camera, Flav appears to be a warmhearted man, one who is possessed with a manic energy that makes him mesmerizing to watch. Dressed for dinner in baggy jeans, a red rayon shirt, matching patent leather sneakers and a baseball cap, he was all jittery movements and smiles, doling out hugs, handshakes and autographs to anyone who approached.
“A lot of people favor Flavor because I have good karma,” he said. A giant cream-colored clock hung around his neck (he has close to 100 of his signature accessories), and his nom de rap was engraved on a gold dental grill, which he removed as if it were a retainer when it was time to eat. He also carried an assortment of more than 50 keys. “These are the keys to my future,” he said, cackling loudly.
His over-the-top shtick is not new. As the resident court jester in Public Enemy, Flavor Flav, with his trademark phrase, “Yeeeaahhh Boooooyyy,” provided levity to counterbalance the group’s strident, often political messages. “He was the bit of comic relief in a group that at its best could be inspirational and at its worst be didactic,” said Danyel Smith, the editor in chief of Vibe magazine.
Flavor Flav joined Public Enemy while in college and became its mascot. The group quickly became known for hits like “Fight the Power,” used on the soundtrack of Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing,” and for politically conscious albums like “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” and “Fear of a Black Planet.”
At the group’s height of fame, Flav began using drugs. He spent the 1990’s in and out of rehab, and in 2002 he spent a few months on Rikers Island for failing to pay traffic fines.
Upon release, eager for a new beginning, he moved to Los Angeles. Mark Cronin and Cris Abrego, creators of the VH1 series “The Surreal Life,” which brought together has-beens from various fields, were casting their third season. Flav met with the producers and made an instant impression. “He was ricocheting off the walls, saying his name 700 times,” Mr. Cronin said. “We knew he’d be perfect for television.”
The first day of filming, Flav showed up in Viking horns. His tempestuous relationship with a castmate, Brigitte Nielsen, an ex of Sylvester Stallone, made him and the series stand out.
Their bizarre affair led to a spinoff reality series, “Strange Love.” But alas, it was not meant to be: The couple parted ways, leading to Chapter 3 in Flav’s reality-series career, “Flavor of Love.” Although the star found love again last season with Nicole Alexander, a former basketball player he nicknamed Hoopz, the brief union ended after the cameras stopped recording. “All of a sudden, Hoopz got too busy,” he said, “and I couldn’t get in touch with her.”
Flav now claims there is no need for a third installment of his reality series because he has found love on the show with one of the contestants, but obviously cannot reveal who it is.
Mr. Cronin said he and his partner are working on a spinoff of “Flavor of Love,” which will feature 20 men vying for the affections of one woman. This doesn’t mean VH1 viewers have seen the last of Flav. Ideas for a nighttime talk show, an animated series and another reality show, where he acts as a Cyrano de Bergerac dispensing dating advice, are being batted around. He also plans to release a self-titled independent album on Halloween.
As for those who insist that he has traded a piece of his soul for fame, “Sometimes a lot of people misunderstand me,” Flav said, his wide grin disappearing. “But that’s okay, because I know one day they will understand me. Either they will like me or they will K.I.M., keep it moving.”