The Anti-Hollywood Stars
Fatimah Asghar & Sam Bailey
Creators of Brown Girls and producers of Damaged Goods
When Fatimah Asghar and Sam Bailey’s web series Brown Girls premiered on a cold day in February 2017, the line for the release party extended around the corner three hours before showtime. “It was this bananas thing because we were like, ‘Wait, but you can watch this at home, for free,’ ” Asghar says.
The response to the collaboration between first-time screenwriter Asghar, 29, and self-taught filmmaker Bailey, 30, was overwhelming. But the two never had any doubt there would be interest in an honest portrayal of a friendship between two creative women of color by two creative women of color. “This industry talks about audience theoretically,” says Asghar, “but for me and Sam, we know these people.”
Their story falls just short enough of a fairy tale to feel real: Produced on a budget that was one-third crowdsourced, Brown Girls was nominated for an Emmy and picked up by HBO. That the series didn’t make it into development doesn’t seem to have slowed the pair’s momentum. Both women are working on their own projects: Bailey is developing her first feature film, with Bron Studios, the Vancouver-based outfit behind Tully and The Mule, and Asghar recently published a book of poetry, If They Come for Us, and coedited Halal If You Hear Me, an anthology of work by Muslim female, trans, queer, and nonbinary poets, out in April.
Their yardstick for success, they say, is the financial stability to make their next projects — and to bring some much-needed development money back to the Chicago community that supported them.
“I feel like my life is in Chicago, and L.A. is my —” Asghar begins.
“Office,” Bailey cuts in, laughing.
Both are executive producers for the new web series Damaged Goods, which follows four Chicago millennials of color and was created by Vincent Martell, founder of local production company VAM Studio.
Bailey is quick to call out Hollywood for paying lip service to diversity instead of actually incorporating it with more roles and more kinds of roles. “I think they really have to figure out if they want us to be part of this or if they don’t,” she says. “And if they don’t, then we’ll figure out our own avenue.” The rest of us will be standing in line to get a first look. — Phoebe Mogharei
The Culinary Darlings
Dave Park & Jennifer Tran
Owners of Jeong
Ask Dave Park and Jen Tran about Hanbun — the now-shuttered Korean lunch stall in a Westmont food court that they transformed at night into an exquisite tasting menu destination — and a look of past trauma creeps across their faces. It’s the expression you’d expect from Sisyphus if you inquired about the rock. Their pitch rises as they clamor to finish each other’s sentences in describing the two-year run of the area’s most unlikely and perpetually in-demand Korean restaurant.
“It was like having two restaurants, because lunch was so busy,” says Park.
“I had to quit my job to help Dave,” says Tran.
“We set up a table in the kitchen, but the air conditioning wasn’t working at night and it would be like 90 degrees in there.”
“People were just sweating, but they were so nice to us.”
Remarkable food will bring out folks’ best side. And now the many who tried and failed to secure a reservation at the six- to nine-seat single-table suburban spot have a chance to experience what they missed. The couple, both 29, have launched Jeong (pronounced chung) in Noble Square. Even before it opened March 1, it had garnered much anticipatory national press coverage, climbing onto more than one food publication’s watch list.
Park and Tran are proffering a prix fixe menu — gently set at $87 — that is no retread of Hanbun. Jeong features all new items, such as schmaltz-fried rice cakes with charred cabbage. The restaurant is named for Park’s grandmother, but the kitchen won’t be shackled by nostalgia. “The food doesn’t have to be 100 percent traditional,” says Park, who is the chef. “I can create memories for people who aren’t ingrained in Korean culture.”
When asked whether they’ll be doing quick-service lunch again, the two chefs look at each other, laugh, and in unison say, “No!” — John Kessler
U.S. representative from the 14th District
Say what you will about being seen as a single-issue candidate, but it sure worked for Lauren Underwood. Running on a platform centered obsessively on health care reform, she pulled off one of the most stunning upsets of the 2018 midterms, beating longtime Republican incumbent Randy Hultgren in a largely white suburban district that had voted for Trump and had never in its history elected a female or a minority. In the process, Underwood, at 32, became the youngest black woman ever to serve in Congress.
It didn’t hurt that when it came to her No. 1 issue, she had a dog in the fight — two, rather. For one thing, Underwood is a registered nurse. For another, she has supraventricular tachycardia, a heart condition that would have made insurance difficult to obtain without the protections of the Affordable Care Act. The preservation of that law — signed by Barack Obama, for whom Underwood served as an intern during his Senate days and again as a senior adviser in the White House — was the driving force in her decision to run for Congress. The tipping point came when Hultgren voted to repeal and replace Obamacare.
On a recent Saturday, Underwood stopped off at a Grayslake coffee shop en route to Marengo, where she was holding office hours for the day. Over an omelet, she declared that her first priority is advancing a bill that would cancel a Trump administration rule allowing individuals to purchase so-called junk insurance plans for up to a year. “The Trump administration has been pursuing every avenue to destroy the Affordable Care Act by executive action,” she said.
As she spoke, her congressional medallion hung from a chain around her neck. The glow of her victory had clearly not yet worn off. “Never did I imagine that I would be a congresswoman,” she says. “During my inauguration, I cried.” — Edward McClelland
The Principled Publicist
Crisis management strategist
As corruption charges exploded around Alderman Ed Burke this winter, Joanna Klonsky moved swiftly to get her client, mayoral candidate Lori Lightfoot, out in front of the scandal. She helped create a TV ad that addressed the matter head-on — among the first of the race to do so — and highlighted rivals’ ties to Burke.
Klonsky, 34, has performed similar feats for other local political figures, including Jesús “Chuy” Garcia, Fritz Kaegi, and Kim Foxx. But what sets Klonsky apart from typical dark-arts PR gurus is the fact that she’s as willing to take down political operatives as build them up, a trait that’s propelled her into a leading role in the #MeToo movement. When harassment allegations rocked Illinois House speaker Mike Madigan’s team, Klonsky jumped in to represent the accuser. “She was always one step ahead of everything,” says Alaina Hampton, the young political consultant who filed a complaint against a Madigan aide. Klonsky called reporters to give Hampton’s side of the story before Madigan’s own spin machine could seize the narrative. Three months later, when Representative Kelly Cassidy decided to lodge a claim of workplace retaliation against Madigan’s office, she called Klonsky. So did Katie Brennan, the New Jersey state official who leveled rape accusations against a former aide for that state’s governor. In short order, Klonsky persuaded the Wall Street Journal to do an in-depth story on Brennan’s charges, resulting in statehouse hearings. “She lifted my voice,” says Brennan.
A quote from civil rights activist Ella Baker hangs on the wall of Klonsky’s Loop office: “We who believe in freedom cannot rest.” Rest is not something that Klonsky is likely to get much of in the near future. “I used to get a call once a month from a woman with a harassment story,” she says. “Now it’s once a day.” — Marcia Froelke Coburn
On a winter morning at Four Letter Word Coffee in Logan Square, Bing Liu looked like just another java-sipping loiterer, tapping away at his laptop in a plaid collared shirt. But no one else there was discussing what they were going to wear to the Oscars. “A few designers have reached out with super-funky outfits,” he says, “and I just want to do Midwestern humble.”
The 30-year-old former Rockford resident is an unlikely nominee for an Academy Award, and not just because of his age. He didn’t go to film school, instead learning his craft by shooting skateboarding videos with a mini DV (in his words, a “soccer mom camera”) he bought on eBay when he was 14. Some of that early footage is stitched into his indelible debut, Minding the Gap, for which he was up for best documentary feature. It follows two Rockford skaters, Keire and Zack, and Liu himself as they navigate the adult world, having endured abusive childhoods. Liu deftly moves between the narratives of the three protagonists, which he’s strung together with hypnotic sequences of them gliding around the moribund streets of their hometown.
The movie got made with considerable assistance from local filmmaker Steve James, who hired Liu as a segment director on his docuseries America to Me after watching an early cut of Minding the Gap. Being attached to two acclaimed documentaries in a single year owes less to serendipity than to Liu’s work ethic. Even in the teeth of Oscar madness, he’s wrapping up a feature about gun violence in Chicago while simultaneously embarking on a new project that addresses “millennial love and intimacy.”
When a 20-something woman at the coffee shop recognized Liu and said she was also from Rockford, the two struck up a conversation. In typical self-effacing fashion, Liu was the one asking most of the questions. — Tal Rosenberg
The Hoops Phenom
Guard for Rolling Meadows High School
For someone who’s just 16, Max Christie has a lot of mantras. “Pressure is a privilege” is one of his favorites. Another: “The game is mastered through the mind; think before you act.” But if bits of pseudo-Zen wisdom are what it takes to help the 6-foot-6 sophomore guard for the Rolling Meadows Mustangs manage expectations of being one of the most promising young basketball players in the nation, then so be it.
With his rangy frame, silky-smooth floor movement, and perimeter-oriented attack, he invites easy comparisons to his NBA hero, Kevin Durant. Scouts have taken notice. ESPN ranks Christie ninth in the country in the class of 2021. At 14, he received his first Division I scholarship offer, from DePaul. He’s had subsequent offers from such prestigious programs as Wisconsin, Iowa, and Ohio State — and there will be more. He’s met with Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and been schmoozed by Magic Johnson on behalf of Michigan State.
Prior to a February game at Deerfield — only his second after a quad contusion sidelined him for a month — he sat alone in the top corner of the bleachers, listening to hip-hop. In his return debut, he had notched 40 points. Just before tip-off, Northwestern coach Chris Collins bounded up the bleachers to say hello to Christie’s parents — both former college players — asking, “How’s the leg?” Christie’s mother, Katrina, a behavioral therapist, says she does her best to take it all in stride but that the level of sacrifice can make her son’s life hard: “His friends will be out, and he’ll be in the gym.”
It’s even harder when Rolling Meadows loses, as the team did that night. Slouching through the postgame handshake line, Christie looked deflated. But he has a saying for these moments, too: “Embrace every struggle, learn from every mistake.” — Jake Malooley
The Cocktail Artist
Co-owner and creative director at Kumiko
Julia Momose’s gap year was better than most. As she tells the story, she was living in Kyoto, teaching English and working in a bagel shop, when an older gentleman — “most likely yakuza” — hired her to provide company to the young Russian he was dating. One night he took both women to a speakeasy-style jazz club. She remembers a velvet curtain swooping open to reveal a beautiful singer in a red dress onstage and, near the entrance, a bartender stirring a cocktail. The chanteuse was fine, but Momose couldn’t take her eyes off the barkeep. “It was his sophistication and elegance,” she recalls. “When I went back to America, I wanted to be that bartender.”
Momose started out as a barback in the college town of Ithaca, New York, measuring out peach Schnapps for Sex on the Beach cocktails. Suffice it to say, she’s come a long way since then. After making her mark at GreenRiver, the much-missed 18th-floor cocktail aerie in Streeterville, she teamed up with Noah and Cara Sandoval of the two-Michelin-starred Oriole to open Kumiko, which served its first round this New Year’s Eve, in time for Momose to realize her dream of owning her own place by the time she turned 30 — with 14 days to spare.
Momose, who spent much of her childhood in Japan, where her parents still live, infuses Kumiko with a cool, soulful Japanese vibe. “The best bars there don’t have menus,” she says. “The bartender may ask if you want a highball, a martini, or a beer. The drink he suggests may simply be about a beautiful strawberry.” She brings this approach to her nightly omakase, which pairs a set five-course meal (prepared by chef de cuisine Mariya Russell) with a progression of improvised drinks based on premium spirits, fresh ingredients, and her reading of you. — John Kessler
The Activist Architect
Cofounder of Future Firm
Chicago’s skyline soars with grand architectural gestures, but Ann Lui understands that real city life hums in the small spaces. Consider Rebel Garages: An Open Letter to Chicago, the urban design manifesto that the 30-year-old architect and her partner (in life and business), Craig Reschke, published in February. The book advocates new building codes to promote the creation of residential and commercial spaces — lofts, shops, music venues — in alleys and the garages that line them. It’s nothing less than a fundamental reimagining of the city’s anatomy.
Or consider the couple’s Night Gallery, in which they transformed the sidewalk of their Bridgeport design studio, Future Firm, into a space for watching movies and videos between sunset and sunrise in warm months. The idea, Lui says, is to create unexpected interactions with passersby and contribute to the pulse of city life.
Also no accident: that Lui was chosen to cocurate the U.S. Pavilion at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale. (The remounted exhibit can be seen through April 27 at Wrightwood 659.) The organizers saw in Lui not just an emerging design force but an activist willing to engage urgent topics in a fresh way. Case in point: Dimensions of Citizenship, a collection of installations by architects and artists as varied as Jeanne Gang and Shani Crowe (see below) that tackle belonging and exclusion and the role architecture plays in both.
“Architects, planners, and developers have been complicit in issues of segregation and leaving neighborhoods underserved and underdeveloped,” Lui says. Among the solutions she is working on locally: inexpensive model homes and the establishment of the architectural equivalent of a public defender to help people with building violations. Seeing problems as opportunities — that’s arguably the defining trait of a visionary. — Mark Caro
The Style Setter
Photographer, artist, and hair sculptor
Shani Crowe is a master of the humblebrag. “I’m kind of a hoarder when it comes to skills,” she says. And yet, if anything, that observation comes off as understatement. The 29-year-old South Side native’s exuberant creations encompass multiple artistic disciplines — photography, style, design — though they all share a single-minded focus on the beauty of blackness.
Crowe went viral following her 2016 solo exhibition Braids, a series of black-and-white portraits showcasing the sophisticated design of hair braiding. The project was a labor of love, with an emphasis on labor: Crowe spent hours braiding her models’ hair, then shooting her sculptural confections. Braids received notices in Vogue and the New York Times and got the attention of musical sisters Beyoncé and Solange Knowles. The latter enlisted Crowe’s help for her performance on Saturday Night Live, emerging onstage wearing a glorious braided halo adorned with crystal beads. Hair as art may not be mainstream yet, but it makes intuitive sense to Crowe: “Our natural hair practices and beauty rituals are a very important part of who we are.”
Crowe’s work has also delved into fraught territory. Last year, as part of the exhibition 29Rooms by Refinery29, she unveiled Rest in Power, Rest in Peace, an altar dotted with cowry shells commemorating victims of gun violence. And this spring, at the gallery Wrightwood 659, you can see Thrival Geographies (In My Mind I See a Line), a construction of braided ropes and cords on a steel armature that she created with Amanda Williams and Andres L. Hernandez. Crowe describes the work, which debuted at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale, as a study of “issues of race, fugitivity, and public space.” It’s a fittingly Crowe-esque description: at once provocative and hard to pin down. — Lauren Michele Jackson
The Fire Starter
Senior curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art
Naomi Beckwith doesn’t just want to expand the contemporary art canon. She wants to explode it. “There has been one primary story about art: It was born in Europe centuries ago,” says the 43-year-old Hyde Park native, who was promoted to senior curator at the MCA in August. In that narrative, she says, paintings of religious figures and representations of the human body took pride of place. “My shows are about championing artists who have been excluded from that big story,” she says. That means embracing artists of color, non-Americans, women, and interdisciplinary artists, among others.
Beckwith’s shows have been setting the MCA alight. The Freedom Principle, a 2015 exhibition she curated with Dieter Roelstraete, illuminated the connections between music and the visual arts in African American culture. “Dazzlingly ambitious,” the Tribune called it. Last year, Beckwith curated the first major survey of the experimental African American artist Howardena Pindell, whose abstract, often political works incorporate materials not usually associated with canvas: perfume, glitter, talcum powder, and lots of hole-punch dots. An exhibition currently on view presents the work of Laurie Simmons, “another woman who should’ve been shown a long time ago.” The feminist photographer uses dolls and props to explore gender roles.
Next year, Beckwith — whose parents, both public school teachers, began exposing her to Pan-African art and culture at an early age — will introduce museum visitors to yet another artist whose work dances across disciplinary distinctions: Nigerian-born Duro Olowu, a fashion designer who counts Michelle Obama among his clients and creates bold pieces that cleverly reference art history. Beckwith also plans to hire more MCA staffers, including experts in Latin American and Middle Eastern art, to help the museum become “far more inclusive, far more global, far broader, and, honestly, more equitable than in the past.” — Novid Parsi
The Big Data Guru
Head of computer science at the University of Chicago
“It used to be hard to get data,” says Mike Franklin, the big-deal computer scientist that the University of Chicago snagged from Berkeley in 2016. “People would build their whole career or company around getting access to data nobody else could get. Now data is everywhere, and the big question is, How do we extract value from it?”
Ask Franklin to get specific about the big data analysis and artificial intelligence research he and his colleagues are doing, and the affable 57-year-old Boston native demurs: “The problem is, it works for everything. Our lives are being modulated by and lived through networks and computing, and all our activities are spitting out tremendous reams of data about what works and what doesn’t work in the world.” Medicine, finance, education, government — everything is data driven now.
And yet data science is still an emerging field at best, Franklin says. Making U. of C. a leader in defining that field is why the school zealously recruited him from Silicon Valley with a chairmanship and a newly designed computer sciences building. As means to establishing a hub in a regional tech ecosystem, Franklin launched the Center for Data and Applied Computing, which serves as a “matchmaker,” pairing data science researchers with scholars and students in other fields such as urban planning or medicine. “I think that’s the way you do impactful computer science research: You work with people who are trying to solve real problems.”
For Franklin, whose move to the Midwest caused more than a few of his West Coast peers to scratch their heads, putting Chicago at the center of the data science map is nothing less than the opportunity of a lifetime. — Princess Ojiaku
The Giant Slayer
Founder and CEO of Clearcover
Kyle Nakatsuji had an epiphany while vetting startups for the venture capital arm of American Family Insurance. He realized that the big auto insurers, the top four of which claim half the consumer market, would be surprisingly vulnerable to competition from a nimble, ultralean newcomer. So three years ago, Nakatsuji, who’s now 33, created a plan for his own startup, Clearcover, to see just how lean a car insurer could be.
He envisioned a company with a minimal brick-and-mortar presence and few agents, and he would focus his initial hiring not on sales and marketing but on coders. Their job would be to develop new artificial intelligence and data analytics tools to improve the way the company manages risk and to automate interaction with policyholders. Perhaps his most revolutionary proposal: all but eliminating the need for a big marketing budget, in part by incentivizing partners, such as national auto dealers, to bundle his insurance products into car purchases.
The gambit worked. When he presented his plan in 2016, American Family jumped on board as a backer. Flush with an additional $40 million from a recent round of financing, Clearcover, which currently employs around 65 people, has recently moved into offices big enough for nearly twice that many — but it's still far smaller than a behemoth like 70,000-employee Allstate.
So how is that lean-and-mean plan working out? Clearcover has a few tens of thousands of customers so far. But another number tells the real story: “Our cost of getting new policyholders is lower than others,” says Nakatsuji, who has a penchant for understatement. “State Farm is close to $1,000, and we pay only $200.” — Ted C. Fishman
The Neighborhood News Savior
Cofounder of Block Club Chicago
Jen Sabella has a rallying cry for news organizations in the social-media age: “Get rid of your opinion and invest all in reporting.” That is the animating idea behind Block Club Chicago, the independent newsroom Sabella cofounded from the ashes of DNAinfo. That neighborhood news site fell to the ax of owner Joe Ricketts in 2017, a bloodletting feared to be the death knell for the hyperlocal news business model.
Sabella was having none of it. Last June, she and two other DNAinfo alums launched the new site, cramming three editors’ desks into a 100-square-foot office inside a South Loop coworking space. “Now’s our chance to try to do it our way,” she says, laughing as she delivers the catch: “Without money but also without anyone telling us what we can and cannot do.”
Sabella, 35, became the director of strategy, and she used hindsight to her full advantage. Why, for example, hadn’t DNAinfo sold subscriptions or accepted financial contributions? Block Club, by contrast, has a donation button on its homepage, applies for grants, and even sells T-shirts. All of that is buying Sabella and her colleagues their journalistic freedom.
To date, Block Club has about 6,500 subscribers and is hiring more reporters, with the ninth expected by June — still short of DNAinfo’s peak of 20 but enough to deliver street-level reporting on everything from restaurant openings to tax subsidies. “I want to be the journalist-run organization that makes it work, that builds something sustainable,” Sabella says.
Displaying the kind of moxie she brings to The Girl Talk, the monthly panel show she cohosts at the Hideout, she can’t help but add a zinger: “And yeah, we could’ve been doing this for a long time if people with all the money and power had listened to us.” Maybe now they will. — Mark Caro
The Cannabis Epicure
Founder and creative director of Kitchen Toke
“I am not a stoner,” says Joline Rivera, though her year-and-a-half-old quarterly cooking magazine, Kitchen Toke, might lead you to think otherwise. Thumb through its pages and you’ll find chefs from Michelin-starred restaurants crafting “elevated” versions of lobster mac and cheese (with eight milligrams of THC per serving), maple hemp granola (34 milligrams), and a Spanish omelet with honey ham (10 milligrams). In addition to recipes, there are reviews of high-end spas proffering CBD massages, explanations of the cannabis terpenes used in cocktails, and primers on the ever-changing legal landscape of marijuana in America.
Rivera, 50, a longtime creative director for various publications, hatched the idea for Kitchen Toke after she ferried some psychotropic edibles to Missouri for a friend’s father, who was battling cancer. “Within half an hour, his mood lightened, he could eat a sandwich, and play with his grandchildren,” she recalls. A little Googling turned up videos of rapper Action Bronson smoking a joint in the kitchen but few tips on cooking with weed. So the devoted runner who had barely touched marijuana decided it was time to teach the canna-curious to cook for wellness. Now she is selling 20,000 copies an issue nationwide at places like Whole Foods and hosting pot-themed dinners for fashion designer Prabal Gurung and rapper Vic Mensa.
By making cannabis cooking approachable and eye-catching, Rivera hopes to take away the stigma. After all, 10 states have already legalized recreational marijuana, and Illinois could be next. “We’re careful not to recommend dosage, and we never make claims of curing ailments,” Rivera emphasizes, but she does take pride in her magazine’s power to educate and delight through visual storytelling. In that way, Kitchen Toke is just like other upscale food magazines, only with a slightly higher purpose. — Heidi Mitchell
The Modest MC
Valee Taylor owes his start in rap to a moment of sheer boredom five years ago. He was in his mid-20s at the time, working in maintenance at schools and daycare centers. “I was at home and remembered that I used to make beats,” he recalls, “so I went to Guitar Center. I ended up with all this equipment and taught myself how to record music.”
Listening to Valee (pronounced vuh-LAY) recount his life story, which began in Bronzeville’s Robert Taylor Homes, is enough to make you reevaluate your own time management skills. He’s now one of the most buzzed-about MCs in America — “Womp Womp,” his single last year with Chicago singer Jeremih, has more than 20 million streams on Spotify — but he’s also a skilled carpenter, electrician, and auto mechanic. “I’m impatient,” he says, “so when I want something done, I just end up doing it myself.”
That sense of urgency helps explain Valee’s recent ascension in the rap world. Within the past 18 months, he’s been signed to Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music label and been profiled in the New York Times and Rolling Stone, all without having an album to his name. That changes this year, when he drops his long-awaited as-yet-untitled debut LP.
Valee, now 30, exudes humility, speaking softly and never changing his cadence, whether he’s talking about his newfound fame or his three Yorkshire terriers. His approach to rapping is equally laid-back: His smooth, conversational flow, filled with jokes and sneaky references, is as quietly disarming as a smoke bomb. Asked about his aspirations, he says: “I don’t want a mansion, I want a warehouse.” And the metaphor he uses for his career could be the template for a self-help guide: “There’s 90 flights of stairs, and I’m on like 23.” What’s at the top? “I never look up there. The way I think, it’s always about the very next thing I have to do.” — Tal Rosenberg