STORIES FROM THE PARK
PRN Alumni Foundation is comprised of the former employees of Prince, Paisley Park, Paisley Park Records, PRN Productions, NPG Records, Love4OneAnother, any and all of Prince’s companies spanning his impressive nearly 40 year career.
There have been, quite literally hundreds of us in Prince’s employ. The Foundation represents our collective voice.
We are musicians, engineers, managers, lighting directors, wardrobe designers, stylists, makeup artists, drivers, bodyguards, admin staff, valets, drivers (and more!)
This ‘Stories From The Park’ chronicle is a way for our colleagues of all tenures and job types to share a little bit of Prince’s magic with you through our individual voices.
We hope you enjoy getting to know us…we feel as if we’ve known you, Prince’s fans (fam) forever <3
With love and gratitude,
PRN Alumni Foundation
Spotlight: Karen Lee
“Yeah, I Can Do This!”
Public Relations Guru Karen Lee Reflects on her Time Working for Prince… Whether it was on the road, inside Paisley Park, or Beyond
By Tony Kiene
When she answered the telephone in her downtown Detroit hotel room, publicist Karen Lee was not prepared for the sense of panic that would soon envelop her entire being. It was April 1, 1993, and her new boss, Prince, was only a few hours away from taking the stage nearby at the spectacular Fox Theatre.
“He said to me, ‘I want to do a photo shoot before the concert tonight.’” And, while she began to contemplate how that was even possible on such short notice, Karen’s mind began wander as she wondered if she was cut out for this job at all.
Although she’d officially been employed by Prince for the better part of a year (including the last few months at Paisley Park), this was the first conversation they’d ever had. Sure, he had someone bring her down to a rehearsal once. And, she’d see him in the building from time to time. But again, the two of them had never so much as spoken a single word to one another.
She thought to herself, “Is this a test? Does he want to see if I will become unnerved?” One thing that Karen new for certain, this was no April Fool’s joke.
Although she felt like crying, Karen was a seasoned professional and managed to keep her wits about her. Once she received all the particulars from Prince, she placed a call to an old friend at the Detroit Free Press, who in turn put out an alert to all available photographers. As she explained the situation to this friend, Karen underscored the five essentials to Prince’s request. “Whoever gets there first gets the shoot. This has to be completed in one hour’s time. Prince will own the photos. The photographer will get credit. And… there is no fee.”
Karen quickly got dressed and made her way to the historic venue at 2211 Woodward Avenue. Approaching the Detroit Fox for the very first time, she was immediately mesmerised by the theatre’s Art Deco exterior. And, when inside Karen was equally impressed by the lush interior which skilfully mingled Asian and Persian motifs. “What a marvelous location to capture Prince on film.”
Within five minutes of Karen’s arrival a photographer was on the scene. “I got down on my knees and just said ‘Thank you Jesus,” sighs Karen. About twenty minutes later Prince showed up with a couple members of the New Power Generation and the magic began.
Karen recalls “The guy (photographer) was fabulous. As for Prince… he just loved those photos.” In essence, the entire affair went off without a hitch. And, it was at that moment that Karen realized, “Yeah, I can do this! So what’s next?
“… Such a Blessing to Me”
Karen Lee’s career in public relations began in the eighties as Executive Assistant for Hollywood legend Henry C. Rogers, whom the New York Times dubbed the father of modern publicity and who “elevated the industry’s ethical standards.”
Having established Rogers & Cowan (with business partner Warren Cowan) in 1950, Rogers earliest clients included the likes of Gregory Peck, Judy Garland, Audrey Hepburn, Paul Newman, Lucille Ball, Cary Grant, Elizabeth Taylor, Olivia de Havilland, and Rita Hayworth. Rogers also famously testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee in support of friends, clients, and colleagues who’d been accused of communist sympathies by members of the United States House of Representatives.
When he observed Karen’s willingness to learn, Rogers immediately took her under his wing. “Those first couple of years or so I spent many Saturday afternoons at his home soaking up as much as I could about public relations,” remembers Karen, “To have entered the industry under the tutelage of this man was such a blessing to me.”
Among the things that stood out to Karen – in addition to Rogers’ professionalism, responsibility, and dedication to his clientele – was his benevolence. Of this, she notes, “Not only were Henry and his wife Roz philanthropists themselves. But they helped foster an ethic of philanthropy and civic engagement that permeated Hollywood and brought surrounding communities together.”
1999 Avenue of the Stars
After Karen’s first two years with the agency, Rogers informed her it was “time to move on.” Knowing how much Karen wanted to work in music, Rogers first insisted that she learn exactly how companies work and he promoted her to Manager of Corporate Entertainment. And, as she continued to prove her mettle, absorbing more and more information along the way, Karen soon matriculated to Vice President of Rogers & Cowan’s Music Division.
It was in this role that she met the one and only Jill Willis, who was handling Prince’s accounts for Rogers & Cowan. Prince ultimately asked Jill to work directly for him in Chanhassen, where in addition to media and public relations she managed the Diamonds and Pearls Tour before being named Vice President of Paisley Park Enterprises. And, it wouldn’t be too long before another call was placed from Paisley Park to the Los Angeles offices of Rogers & Cowan.
This time however, it was Jill calling for Karen. “Prince needs someone handling his PR out in Los Angeles. Are you by chance interested?” Reminiscing about that moment, Karen can’t help but laugh. “I didn’t need to be a rocket scientist to recognize that this was the opportunity of a lifetime.” So, in the spring of 1992 she flew to Minneapolis where she interviewed with both Jill and Gilbert Davison who wasted no time in offering her the job.
Back home, Karen knew it was kismet when she set up her new offices at none other than 1999 Avenue of the Stars in the west Los Angeles neighborhood of Century City. At first, she mostly handled publicity for Paisley Park’s roster of artists and began to work closely with Jill and Gilbert.
How’s that for a First Act
After six months or so on the job, Karen received word from Jill that Prince wanted her to permanently relocate to Minneapolis where she was to take on an even greater role and the new title, Vice President of Media Relations. So, in November of 1992, Karen settled in the neighboring suburb of Chaska and began her new life at Paisley Park.
Although family and friends cautioned her about the Minnesota winters, Karen’s first impression of her new home focused more on the cost of living as compared to her native Southern California. “For what it cost to live here, I could have moved my entire family to the Twin Cities.” Plus, as she would later learn, “the winter cold was not nearly as bad as those summertime mosquitos.”
In March, although she’d still never spoken with him, Karen joined Prince on the road for what would be his first North American Tour since Lovesexy visited 27 cities in the fall of 1988. Kicking off outside of Miami, the Act I Tour consisted of 25 dates in 13 cities. And, after Karen famously proved herself at the Detroit Fox, the tour moved on to Chicago and San Francisco before wrapping up in Los Angeles in mid-April.
My Name is (and I am Funky)
Just a few short weeks after the tour, Karen was back in Los Angeles where she was anxious to attend to world premiere of the Tina Turner Biopic What’s Love Got to Do with It. That is, until Prince called. “He was in Paris,” says Karen, “And he tells me, “Tomorrow is my birthday. I’m going to change my name.”
Initially unaffected – after all she’d already fielded more than a few atypical requests from Prince – she looked for a pen and some paper. “Okay. How do I spell it,” she asked. “There is no spelling for it,” he said.” Karen then inquired how to pronounce it to which Prince replied, “There’s no pronunciation for it either.” Prince then explained that the name he had chosen was, in fact, the symbol () from his most recent album.
“He wanted me to get a press release together right away,” says Karen, who adds “Even now, I still break out in hives when I think about that conversation.” She suggested to Prince that people would start to make up nicknames (which proved true) for him, which he seemed unconcerned about. “He always used to say that I was a naysayer,” acknowledges Karen.
Realizing that her night out on the town was now officially quashed, Karen set about having Michael (the indie publicist for the company) draft a press release and faxed it on to Paris, which was already nine hours ahead of Pacific Standard Time. Prince approved, and on June 7, 1993, Prince Rogers Nelson publically became known as .
Of course, things didn’t exactly end there for Karen relative to the name change. Prince, or , as he was now known asked Karen to investigate how much it would cost to modify the printing press of a major publication so that his name could appear in print. Her first call was to a high profile daily that stated the cost would be $250,000. A second inquiry was made to Billboard, which, just by chance was already in the process of revamping their press.
Karen remembers, “He was pleased.” And, when the first single (“The Most Beautiful Girl in the World”) credited to charted in early 1994, Karen raced to show him his name in print. His response? “Why is it so small?”
“I just can’t win here,” Karen thought to herself. Still, she confesses that “As crazy as he sometimes made me, I had so much respect for him. Prince had a phenomenal mind. He was a visionary.”
“One of the Sweetest Things I’ve Ever Seen…”
It was on the Act II Tour, where Karen was able to witness another side of Prince most people never get to see; an experience which she refers to as “one of the sweetest things I’ve ever seen in this business.”
During the afternoon of August 6, 1993, Karen was on her way back from the Park Lane club in Gothenburg, where she’d booked an aftershow for Prince and the NPG that night. When she arrived back at the 12,000 seat Scandinavium for the main show that evening, Karen noticed three young women outside the arena, each holding two or three dozen pink tea roses.
As security tried to shoo them away, Karen stepped in and asked who they were. “We’re from Prince’s Swedish Fan Club,” revealed on of the girls, “Each one of these roses contains a personal note from one of our members.”
“Okay, give me the flowers,” Karen told them, “Now. You girls stay right here.” Making her way toward Prince’s dressing room, one of his bodyguards intervened, “You know he’s not to be bothered before the soundcheck.”
“Yeah, I know,” responded Karen, “Let me in. He’ll holler at me. I’ll take it.” When she walked in with the roses, a perplexed Prince asked, “What’s this?” Karen explained that the flowers were from three young women representing his Swedish Fan Club and each rose contained a hand-written note from one of its members. “You’ve gotta be kidding me,” said Prince. “No,” replied Karen.
Prince continued, “Where are the girls now?” Karen informed him there were outside, to which Prince said, “Okay. Have security set up three chairs right in front of the stage.” The girls were then ushered in and Prince and the NPG preceded to perform the entire set list for just the three of them. “I don’t know that their mouths ever closed,” recalls Karen, “They were over the moon.”
Following the soundcheck, Prince gave each of them a small gift. As they began to exit, Prince asked Karen, “Do they have tickets for tonight?” “No,” she said. “Alright then,” directed Prince, “Take the ten of the best seats left and give ‘em to them. They can share the rest with other members of the club.” To see Prince give that much of himself to these girls is something that was never lost on Karen. “He loved his fans so much. I mean, how many artists would do something like that?”
That Prince Mystique
With Prince now navigating the media world as , he asked Karen to arrange three interviews; one with a US outlet, one from the UK, and another from Germany. “He didn’t care who they were with, just as long as they were from those three countries. The three publications she chose were Vibe, the British monthly Q, and the Hamburg-based Max. And, the interviews would all be conducted in Monaco in early May of 1994, where Prince was to be honored (and perform) at the World Music Awards.
The Vibe interview, which would ultimately appear in the magazine’s August issue, had already been more than a year in the making. Karen had been in on the ground floor at Vibe since it was “nothing more than a meeting in Quincy Jones’ living room.” Plus, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Alan Light, was already a dear friend of hers.
“I’d been schooling Prince on Alan as a writer for some time,” notes Karen. The first meeting between the two men took place in San Francisco, before Prince invited Light to Paisley Park for a preview of the Act II Tour, which included opening sets by The NPG (sans Prince) and The Steeles. So, according to Karen, when Alan arrived on the Rivera “he had quite an advantage” over both Adrian Deevoy (Q)and Uwe Killing (Max). But it would be the Q interview that Karen remembered most.
She greeted Deevoy one morning at the famous Hôtel de Paris Monte Carlo. “It was 10 a.m. and we were just waiting for Prince’s cue to bring this gentleman up to his room.” An hour goes by, then two, then four. Finally, sixteen hours later, at 2 a.m. the next morning no less, the call comes, “Prince is ready now.”
Karen giggles and adds “Me and this guy knew so much about one another. We sat there are talked the whole time. I now knew everything about his family, he knew everything about mine.” By the time they arrived Prince’s room, Deevoy was a “nervous wreck.”
“Prince opens the front door in a chiffon outfit,” says Karen, “At the same time the room’s chiffon curtains are blowing in-sync out the glass doors onto the deck overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. It was a crystal clear night. There was a full moon. It was a picture perfect moment. He walked in, the door closed behind him.”
As Karen and a security guard walked away, they both “fell out laughing,” with Karen adding “That guy doesn’t stand a chance.” When Deevoy returned downstairs “he had completely sweat through his shirt and his jacket.” He was looking to first get some rest, but Karen immediately interjected, “Oh no. You need to go directly to your room and write.”
Deevoy heeded her advice, and, Karen was happy for both him and Prince that it turned out to be “such a great piece.” Upon reflection, Karen further observes, “That was the genius of Prince. He didn’t put this kid through all of this to be mean. Prince was completely aware of the mystique that surrounded him… that he himself cultivated. And this was one of the ways he could simply continue that fantasy.”
The Music in Heaven
In addition to her many memories traveling with Prince, Karen has more than a few recollections of daily life at Paisley Park.
“It was not uncommon for him to call three or four of us at two in the morning to hear a new song he just recorded. When the phone rings at that hour, you know its him. You pick up and he’d say ‘Get out the bed. Get your clothes on.’ And, to Chanhassen you went.”
Although it might seem to some that Prince was “putting people out,” Karen didn’t see it that way at all. “To be one of the first to hear a new Prince composition… after he played all the instruments, did all the vocals, and completed a done rough mix. What an honor that was. Especially considering that was the only time he ever seemed vulnerable. He would stand off to the side waiting to hear what we thought of his work.” Always awed by his talent and creativity, she often asked Prince, “How do you do this.” His response was always the same, “I’m just the pen” Prince would say.
Another memory that sticks out revolves around the New York Times #1 Bestseller, Embraced by the Light by Betty J. Eadie. Released in 1992, Embraced by the Light chronicles Eadie’s near death experience where she says she visited heaven and was embraced by Jesus before returning to her earthly body.
Fascinated by her story, Prince bought hundreds of copies of the book that he shared with others. “Among the things that really piqued his interest,” explains Karen, “Is how much music Eadie said was in heaven.”
When Eadie embarked on a speaking tour, Prince asked Karen to accompany him to the Minneapolis stop. “What a strange couple we made,” chuckles Karen. Following the event, Prince told Karen to contact Eadie and invite her to Paisley Park, an offer she readily accepted.
On the evening Eadie arrived, she was with her son, but Prince asked if he could visit with her alone. “Her son said that he didn’t allow anyone to meet alone with his mother,” reveals Karen, “And the four of us gathered together as Prince and Betty talked.”
At one point during the conversation, Prince mentioned that he was interested in securing the film rights to the book. Eadie explained that both Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas had already made offers, but she wasn’t inclined to sell the rights. “I don’t believe God gave me this experience for that reason… to give someone else control over my story.”
As she left and her son left Paisley Park that evening, she approached Prince to give him a hug. Of that moment, Karen says “Of course, Prince was not big on hugs. Still, there was something unusual about this one. I could see he was unnerved by it.” When Eadie turned to hug Karen, she soon knew why, “I could feel her heart, her energy… it seemed otherworldly.”
Back to Los Angeles
Karen eventually left Paisley Park to become Vice President of Media Relations and Artist Development for Warner Bros. Records. Regarding the move, Karen says “You just always sort of knew you weren’t going to be a Paisley long enough to collect a pension.”
By this time, Russ Thyret - who was instrumental in the development of Prince’s early career with the company – was now Chairman of Warner Bros. “Russ told me that Prince said I was the only person he trusted at Warner Bros.,” laughs Karen, “I know better than that. I already know the game, okay. So am I believing that? Uh-uh. Not, not, not, not, not.”
After having worked with Prince on some of his final projects with Warner Bros. Karen didn’t see her former boss much in the ensuing years. However, she fondly recalls running in to him a few years before he passed. “He asked me about my grandson, who is autistic,” she marvels, “The fact that he remembered after all those years speaks volumes to the kind of person he was.”
Today, Karen serves as Senior Vice President of Public Relations for W&W, a PR, marketing, communications, and brand management firm founded by the late Patti Webster, a highly respected PR professional. Established in 1991, W&W has offices in Bridgewater, New Jersey, Miami, and her native Los Angeles, which Karen continues to call home. During her three-plus decades in the industry Karen’s client roster includes names such as Curtis Mayfield, Patti LaBelle, Chaka Khan, Charlie Wilson, Tupac Shakur, Seal, Bobby Brown, Nona Gaye, Quincy Jones, Eric Benet, The Estate of Barry While, The Chris Paul Family Foundation, Dwight Howard, Lalah Hathaway, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, and Kershaw’s Challenge.
“He Was Ahead of his Time”
When Karen first heard the news that Prince had died on the morning of April 21, 2016, she immediately wrote it off as “some tabloid mess.” However, when she discovered the rumors were true it was difficult to process. “I was so heartbroken. And, what a terrible way for him to go… in an elevator, all alone.” Knowing that Prince would have never wanted to die like that, the only solace she can take from it is thinking that “he would have wanted it be at Paisley Park. After all, “That’s where he lived and breathed.”
Karen’s mind then turned to those three young ladies in Sweden. “I know they must have instantly thought of that amazing day they shared with him.” Personally, Karen still thinks of Prince all the time and recently had an experience that all at once, blew her mind and warmed her heart.
After attending a family funeral in Delaware a few months ago, Karen was making her way to Boston for business. “I was taking the Amtrak to Newark Airport and sat down next to this woman and her grandchildren.” Upon introducing themselves to one another, this woman mentioned to Karen that they were returning home to Minnesota (after a trip to Washington, D.C.).
“Oh, I used to live in Chaska,” responded Karen. When the woman then asked if she’d ever been to Paisley Park, Karen revealed, “Actually, the reason I moved to Minnesota in the first place was to work for Prince.”
As it turns out, the woman Karen was talking to was, in fact, from the Northside. Moreover, since Prince’s mother Mattie had to get to work early in the morning, this woman took turns (with another mom from the neighborhood) walking Prince to the school bus stop when he was about ten-years-old.
Still flabbergasted, Karen wonders aloud, “What are the chances of that?” Karen continues, “She told me how the other kids would bully him because he was so small.” In later years the woman – who also knew Bernadette Anderson quite well – owned a local club that Prince would occasionally visit. “I could tell she was so proud of him… and so sad that he was gone. As was I.”
As she ponders his growth as a man and an artist, Karen imagines Prince at 70 or beyond, “performing with a philharmonic orchestra somewhere.”
“There were so many things he hadn’t done yet,” she laments, “And I’m just sorry he didn’t get those opportunities.” That said, she’s still comforted by the legacy that Prince did leave. Beyond his talent, which is in a class all its own, Karen reminds us “That Prince was hiring women in positions of power before anyone else.”
“And, no matter what it was; be it the control of his image, the quest to own his own music, whatever,” Karen declares, “Prince was ahead of his time. He was always opening the doors for others, even when the rest of the world couldn’t see it.”
© PRN Alumni Foundation