Rutgers Graduate Pens Her Way to Success

Rutgers Graduate Pens Her Way to Success

Celebrity author Aliya King named entertainment editor at Ebony magazine in October

Aliya King
Aliya King has written cover stories about celebrities for national magazines, including Vibe, Ms, Us Weekly, Teen People, Seventeen, Latina and Essence. Her story “Love and Unhappiness,” about the mysterious 1974 death of a woman in soul singer Al Green’s home (published in Vibe) won the ASCAP’s Deems Taylor Award for magazine writing in 2005.

'Ebony feels like the right place to be. The subject matter – sections about wealth, improving your credit score and being a better parent – appeals to me. I’m bookmarking the magazine I work for because I really want to read it.'
 
– Aliya King

Among entertainment writers, Aliya S. King is a rock star.

Her pieces on high-profile performers, including Mariah Carey, Sean “Diddy” Combs and Christina Aguilera, have appeared on the pages of national magazines.

Legendary drug lord, Frank Lucas, handpicked King to write his memoir, Original Gangster. Her first book, Keep the Faith, which she co-authored with platinum-recording artist Faith Evans, made the New York Times’ bestseller’s list in 2008.

And in October, Ebony magazine selected the accomplished 41-year-old Rutgers alumna as its new entertainment editor.

But growing up in East Orange, the idea of making a living as a writer seemed lofty to King.

“I remember my mom sending things in to Essence and Reader’s Digest and getting rejection letters, being bummed and not knowing how to go about it,” she said.  Her mother, an aspiring writer, worked as a secretary. “I saw how difficult it was for her. That’s why I was hesitant.”

King credits a Rutgers professor with giving her the confidence to eventually chase down her dream. The late Gerald Davis made a huge impression on the then 16-year-old freshman with a note he scrawled on one of her first college papers.

“I wrote something like ‘Imagine if something I wrote could end up being taught in this class.’ And in the margins of the paper, he wrote ‘When that happens, I will leap at the chance,’ ” said King of the paper she was asked to read in front of her fellow African-American literature classmates. “I was a ball of tears when I read that. Dr. Davis planted the seed that maybe I do have something.”

A year later, the Africana studies major was writing for the student-run publication Black Voice (now Black Voice/Carta Latina).

“Seeing my name in print was just an amazing thing,” King said.

Despite those experiences, King still didn’t see a future in writing. After graduating from Rutgers with a B.A. in 1994, she returned to Rutgers’ Graduate School of Education to earn her certification in secondary education. King taught social studies at her alma mater Clifford Scott High School in East Orange for two years before she realized writing wasn’t a hobby, it was her calling.

“I loved teaching, but I always knew I wasn’t following what I really wanted to do,” she said. ”I decided to quit my job and give it a shot.”

That meant trading a $35,000 salary and security for an $18,000-a-year go-fer gig at Billboard Magazine.

“I manned the fax machine. I answered my boss’s phone. Actually, I answered the entire switchboard,” she said. “I wrote the table of contents each week, which for me was, ‘Oh my God, I’m writing for a magazine!’ ”

Once her passion was ignited, King said she worked like “an animal” to ascend the publishing ladder.

“I practically lived in my cubicle at Billboard,” she said. “I remember feeling really insecure. I was a 25-year-old editorial assistant. There were 25-year-olds that were senior editors at some magazines. That made me really hungry.”

King progressed from writing blurbs to trend pieces and cover stories about celebrities for national magazines, including Vibe, Ms, Us Weekly, Teen People, Seventeen, Latina and Essence. Her story “Love and Unhappiness,” about the mysterious 1974 death of a woman in soul singer Al Green’s home (published in Vibe) won the ASCAP’s Deems Taylor Award for magazine writing in 2005.

What’s the seasoned journalist’s secret for prying open press-wary celebrities and getting them to stray from their publicist’s script? Good, old-fashioned prep work.

“I would spend an ungodly amount of time researching them,” said King.

Before interviewing Mariah Carey, she took a train to Greenlawn on Long Island, wandering around the R&B star’s old neighborhood, visiting her high school and spending two hours at the local library searching for newspaper stories about her early career on microfiche.

“When I went to her house for the interview, and I said, ‘I went to Greenlawn to see what your life was like in the late ’80s,’ the whole conversation shifted,” said King. “She wasn’t guarded anymore.”

After Billboard, King bounced between working as a freelance writer and holding down full-time editorial positions at The Source, Vibe and now Ebony, a magazine with 1.2 million readers.

“Ebony feels like the right place to be,” she said. “The subject matter – sections about wealth, improving your credit score and being a better parent – appeals to me. I’m bookmarking the magazine I work for because I really want to read it.”

King lives in Bloomfield with husband, Erik Parker, and their daughters, ages 17 and 7. She starts her days at 5:30 a.m., working on her third novel – the first two, Platinum and Diamond Life, inspired by her high-rolling interview subjects, were published in 2010 and 2012, respectively – before reporting in remotely for the Chicago-based Ebony from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.

“I really don’t think it’s about talent,” she said of her remarkable resume.  “I know a lot of writers more talented than I am. I think it’s about work ethic – and serious networking,” which is why she is thankful to be a Scarlet Knight.

“The beauty of Rutgers is that it’s huge. There are a gazillion students and most likely, there’s someone who just graduated or is about to graduate in your field,” said King, who hailed Rutgers alumni for opening doors for her at Billboard and The Source. “Networking opportunities [for Rutgers graduates] are insanely plentiful, and you really need to take advantage of them.”