The Call of the Wild

I had a run in with an alligator, but I’m happy to say, I walked away from it without a scratch. OK, I was attempting to make it sound more dramatic than it was. Actually, I learned how to properly handle an alligator (should that ever come up) from the folks at Croc Encounters, a reptile park and wildlife center in Tampa, Florida.

Their goal is to help preserve the reptiles they have, provide a safe space for unwanted ones and also educate the public so they know how to better take care of them if they’re pet owners or just want to know more about them.

John Paner, who runs Croc Encounters with his family, filled me in on why it’s important to take care of these reptiles… and helped me become a little less scared of them! If it’s any indication of how positive my experience was, I did get on the back of one of the alligators.

Check out the full story below!

Name That VP Candidate

Do you know the names of the vice presidential candidates? If you watched Tuesday night’s debate, Mike Pence and Tim Kaine are probably familiar to you. And if you turned on the news the next morning or went online, you might have seen their faces more than you normally did in the months leading up to their only debate.

An ABC News poll published earlier this week found that almost half of Americans can’t name the candidates.

I hit the streets of Houston to test that theory considering these are the men who would be next in line to lead the country should something happen to the person elected president. So just in case you’re wondering (or wanted more confirmation since, of course, you already know!), Governor Mike Pence (R) is Donald Trump’s running mate and Senator Tim Kaine (D) is Hillary Clinton’s running mate. It was interesting to hear the different responses.

Check them out below!

Exploring Downtown Houston

If you’re headed to Downtown Houston and need to find a good place to eat, want to find the best entertainment or just need to figure out how biking in the area works, you can check out the website Downtown Houston Live.

I had the opportunity to be in a parking tips video. It can help you navigate the area, whether you’re new to the city, or you’ve been here all your life but need a refresher.

You can find more on the Downtown Houston Live website, including tips on walking and biking downtown.  Check it out!

Passion for Fashion with Christian Siriano

This year, Houston Community College‘s annual Passion for Fashion luncheon featured designer and Project Runway winner Christian Siriano. The event at River Oaks Country Club raises scholarship money for students in HCC’s Fashion and Interior Design programs. CultureMap editor-in-chief Clifford Pugh interviewed Siriano, who talked about life after Project Runway (he’s one of the show’s most successful stars), and his latest collection, which he showcased during the event. Siriano also has a sense of humor — which kept the room laughing!

Work from HCC students was also on display. I’ve always loved their designs and the talent that comes from the schools arts’ programs. Around May, HCC usually has a large fashion show featuring the collections of at least a dozen students. Scholarships to study in Paris, sewing machines and gift certificates are among the awards given to the top designers (though, those involved are all strong). I’ve modeled in the show before. It’s worth checking out!

On a personal level, I saw my great friend and former co-worker, Brittany. She’s a graphic designer who actually created all the materials (programs, signage, digital elements, etc.) for the event. A snapshot of her work is in the above gallery in the bottom right-hand corner. Before the show, I ran into Clifford Pugh and in between mingling with other guests, hung out with the mannequins. Turns out posing with them is harder than it looks! I also worked in a fierce picture with Christian Siriano.  Stay Stylish!

 

 

 

 

 

Derulo’s Debut

Since I didn’t make it out to the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo last year, I knew I wanted to check out the show this time around. I reviewed Jason Derulo‘s concert (my first concert review since high school!) on Black Heritage Day. It was his debut at RodeoHouston. He came riding into NRG stadium on the back of a pickup truck and left like a true cowboy  — on horseback. It was a rocky ride (a friend working closer to the stage told me Derulo accidentally kicked the horse, causing it go faster. Hence, a look of shock, or maybe terror?, was spotted on his face as someone helped catch the horse.) Read here or below to find out what other moments left his fans on Twitter talking!

DERULO AT THE RODEO
Shirtless Jason Derulo searches for H-Town’s ‘It Girl’ and gets the party started at sexy Rodeo debut

Jason Derulo made it clear early in his debut at RodeoHouston: If you didn’t come to dance, you were in the wrong place. “We came all the way to Houston to party, and I heard this was the hottest party in Houston, tonight,” he shouted out to an excited crowd of 59,236 on Black Heritage Day at NRG Stadium Friday night.

The sexy 26-year-old singer kicked off the show with “Trumpets”, “Wiggle” and “Get Ugly” before turning the stage over to his dancers.  Fans were on their feet, but it seemed the dancing didn’t really get started until he roared back with “Whatcha Say,” his 2009 debut single.

And for the fans who’ve followed Derulo’s career, he had another treat. “Single ladies that love Jason Derulo make some noise. If you’re not single, I bet by the end of this song, you’ll be riding solo,” he said.

What can I say? The man knows how to work a segue between songs. But it was enough to get a laugh and keep people moving well after his break-up anthem “Ridin’ Solo” was over.

Derulo wasn’t alone for long, though. He hopped off the rotating stage to touch fans’ hands and get one question answered.“All these beautiful ladies over here, and I was wondering if my ‘It Girl’ was in Houston, tonight,” he said.

For the purposes of this segment, she was. The strobe lights, glass-breaking sound effects and dance-offs mid-song all faded into the darkness as the spotlight shined on the fan he pulled from the crowd.

However, it left me thinking, how could I do that? I want to be the “It Girl.” Are these girls vetted?  But I digress.

The chosen fan did exactly right: She milked the moment, sneaking in kisses (on the cheek). At one point, she and Derulo were so close, I began to wonder if I should run out to the floor and offer breath mints. My favorite part of the serenade was how supportive the crowd was, cheering her on the entire time.

On that note, Derulo moved into an acoustic version of “Don’t Wanna Go Home,” but it was brief.

He brought back the dance party and upped the sex appeal in a way that many fans knew had to be coming. He ripped off his shirt. I don’t think you could say his chest was sweating. It was more of a glisten. But the fans didn’t seem to mind as he transitioned into “Talk Dirty.”

Derulo set up his finale in a way I thought was meaningful and believable, despite him being half-naked. “This next song is a celebration, and I want today to be a celebration of life.  Let’s celebrate our health. Let’s celebrate that we can get up and do what we want to do,” he said.

That part made me think. I’d wondered if that celebration of life was a nod to the near-death experience he had four years ago, when a neck-injury sustained from dancing could have left him paralyzed.

Derulo spoke with humility about his journey and success from the moment the show started until the final thank you, when he introduced his hit single,“Want To Want Me.” (He and Luke Bryan did an excellent karaoke version of that song. Maybe Derulo should make a cameo appearance at Bryan’s RodeoHouston concert on March 10. Can we make this happen?)

Derulo ended the show shirtless on horseback and rode off into the sunset – or rather, backstage. Gasps could be heard (or maybe that was just me?) when the horse sped off, catching Derulo off guard. But he laughed it off.

Overall, I found Derulo to be a talented, high-energy performer who mixed the hits fans love (“In My Head,” “The Other Side,” “Cheyenne”) with the vocal range he reminded everyone he has (“Marry Me”). Add in the snippet of “Broke” – a collaboration with Keith Urban and Stevie Wonder – and Derulo may have just danced, glistened, and ridden his way to another Rodeo.

Letting Off Some Steam

Hours before the AFC Wildcard showdown took place at NRG Stadium, another battle of sorts was going on at the George R. Brown Convention Center. It was a fight between fans of the Houston Texans and a car covered in Kansas City Chiefs decals.

The Bridal Extravaganza may have seemed like an unlikely place to take a sledgehammer to a busted old car, but the show’s organizers say it was a  fitting way to let brides-to-be and their soon-to-be husbands relieve some of the stress that comes along with wedding planning. Fans also say it was payback for the way the Chiefs beat the Texans at the beginning of the season.

Although we know how the story ended (KC shut out Houston 30 to nothing), fans were thrilled to destroy anything Chiefs-related, even before the game that put a wrap on the Texans post-season run.

This story was a lot of fun to do. I admit destroying things (in a somewhat healthy way) can be a great stress reliever. I could barely hold the sledgehammer, but I got a couple hits in! Check out the story above. I wrote and edited it.

Pink for a Passion

Mia Sharp’s personality is as bright as her cotton candy blue and electric neon pink hair. But even without the avant-garde wig she’s wearing, it wouldn’t be hard to spot the high school junior or feel the energy radiating from her when she smiles.

VisibleChanges_31
Mia Sharp, one of the models in the hair show, is also a bright teenager battling an inoperable brain tumor.

“It’s just motivational,” Mayra Sharp, Mia’s mother said. “She just reminds you that you can’t let this thing bring your life to a stop.”

That “thing” Sharp is talking about is cancer. 16-year-old Mia is battling pilocytic astrocytoma, or a brain tumor. It’s inoperable but that hasn’t broken her spirit or deterred her from playing tennis and managing to sing in a blues band through treatment.

“She’s not shy. She likes for girls to accept themselves for who they are and that’s part of her,” Sharp said.

That confidence was clear as Mia took the stage to model for the Visible Changes’ artistic team during the salon’s Fashion for a Passion gala October 15.

I was proud to be a part of the event as an emcee.  The gala, held at Momentum BMW Southwest, was the company’s first fundraiser aimed at expanding its Thair For You program – a free service that gives any woman fighting cancer, regardless of whether she’s a client, a custom wig that is styled to fit her. According to Visible Changes co-founder, Maryanne McCormack, the salon has given more than 2,000 wigs since it started in 2011 and last year alone helped more than 750 women.

McCormack with daughter Meagan, who not only owns the company, but is its Chief Happiness Officer
McCormack with daughter Meagan, who not only owns the company, but is its Chief Happiness Officer

McCormack knows first-hand the value of feeling beautiful inside and out. In 2009, McCormack was diagnosed with cancer. That’s when she got the idea for Thair For You.

McCormack is now cancer-free and so is long-time Visible Changes client, Olivia Kaufman, who found out she had stage 2 breast cancer last year when she was just 26-years-old.

“When you get diagnosed with cancer you feel as though you’ve lost control of everything that’s happening in your life,” Kaufman says. “You’ve got a disease in your body that you can’t control. There are things changing, things happening to your body that you can’t stop.”

But one day helped change that, putting her on the path to getting her power back. Kaufman says she was sitting in the chemo infusion chair when a Visible Changes logo caught her eye. It was part of a poster describing Thair For You.

The next day she called her stylist at the salon that cut off 16 inches of her hair, which was donated.

“I was really scared about being bald, but they made me feel beautiful when it felt impossible,” Kaufman says.

VisibleChanges_27
Olivia Kaufman found out she had breast cancer at 26. She’s now a survivor and raises awareness for early detection.

Kaufman told me she has the same genetic mutation, BRCA1, as Angelina Jolie Pitt, who had a preventive double mastectomy.

As a breast cancer survivor, Kaufman says she’s now raising awareness by encouraging people – especially those with a family history of cancer – to get tested for the disease earlier in life.

Kaufman shared her story at the inaugural gala, which raised a little over $19,000. All proceeds went to Thair For You. To find out more about the program, go here.

The fundraiser also included a fashion show with looks provided by Sloan/Hall, who was also a sponsor.

All photography is courtesy of Kristen Eide. Click here to learn more.

 

 

Demo: Deputy Darren Goforth Memorial

Deputy Darren Goforth’s death shook a community and I think you could really say — the nation. I’ve never seen complete strangers rally behind this man’s family the way the public has.

What was it that made everyone respond the way they did? Was it the way he was killed? The community’s outpouring of support has been stunning and it was clearly evidenced at the gas station the day this story was shot.

It was the first time that I’d been on a hard news assignment like this one. Even seeing the blue ribbons on the trees as we approached the gas station where the deputy was killed gave me chills. In that moment, everything that I’d heard about the story in the news (and written about it since I WORK in news) had become reality. The massive memorial was no longer just video or pictures used as broll for VO or SOTVO. It was live, right in front of me, with literally hundreds of people shuffling in and out, to pay their respects, take a picture, or just get a glimpse of it.

The ringing theme that stuck out to me from those interviewed was the deputy’s death was senseless. That was what the people we spoke to said repeatedly, bringing some of them to tears. It was difficult to watch them cry or feel that sadness. But it also gave me a taste of what I may experience as a reporter and further confirmed why I want to be in this profession – to do the stories that have value, give meaning and show we’re all in this together.

Take a look at my demo below. This did not air. I wrote the script.

 

Demo: Juneteenth Parade

Covering Juneteenth in Houston this year was a particularly emotional time because it was only a few days after alleged gunman Dylann Roof opened fire at an historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, killing nine of its members. While the Juneteenth Parade I went to featured the traditional sights such as marching bands and floats, groups also came through to use it as a platform for their own messages surrounding violence, the hope for peace, and the unrest between communities and law enforcement in the wake of the officer-involved shootings in places such as Ferguson.

I was really grateful for the opportunity to talk to the people involved in this story and get their perspective. Below is the package, which did not air, but could be used for my demo reel. I did write the script.

The event happened near Texas Southern University and ended at Project Row Houses.

Enjoy!

A Houston Homecoming

Getting back to the University of Houston was as much of a homecoming for me as it was for the person I was doing a story about that day. I hadn’t been back there since I graduated in 2013. The part that I went to, the Athletics/Alumni Center, was much like how I remembered it. The youth football camp hosted by Oakland Raiders cornerback and NFL star D.J. Hayden was held on the practice football field. That was just as fresh as I’d left it, too, having last been there for an actual practice when I was a production intern at CSN Houston. The new turf laid down there probably helps, but I digress.

Hayden came back to host his second annual camp and launch his foundation to see to it that kids who might not otherwise have the chance get to learn from a pro athlete.

If the atmosphere at the camp could be described in one word, I’d say it’s “family.” Well, maybe also “hot” because the sun was blazing even though the camp started early in the morning.

The full story is posted here on CultureMap. Or as always, you can get the scoop below. Enjoy! And are you ready for some football?

——-

“Let’s go! Let’s go! Let’s go! I know we aren’t walking!” The commands blaring through the bullhorn are being well-received by the football players running onto the field at the University of Houston’s Athletics/Alumni Center.

The aspiring athletes quickly fall into formation, warming up with lunges, sprints and back pedal exercises. It’s only 8 in the morning, but it doesn’t take long for beads of sweat to start bubbling across the foreheads of this ambitious group of athletes.

But are they really listening to that voice coming through the bullhorn?

“Of course. They don’t have a choice. I’m very convincing,” Zachary McMillian says, with a smile.

It turns out McMillian is a close friend and former teammate of the man these 100 or so players are here to see – Oakland Raiders cornerback and former UH standout D.J. Hayden.

A few minutes later, they’re huddled around him as the NFL star opens the activities with a simple demand, “Work hard.  Make plays.”

It’s a theme summed up in a few words that would set the tone for the rest of the day at Hayden’s Second Annual Play Your Heart Out Football Camp.

The free camp gives kids ages 10-14 the opportunity to learn techniques and sharpen their skills on both sides of the ball, whether their dream is to be a starting quarterback or a linebacker.

“When I was younger, I didn’t really go to camps like this and I wasn’t a part of them,” Hayden says. “For me, to have it at the University of Houston, it’s just giving back.  For them to see me doing what I’m doing lets them know that they can do it, too.”

No doubt, boys like 13-year-old D.J. Pena have taken notice.

“It’s the first time I could see an NFL player up close. It’s good that he came from Oakland down to Houston to teach us kids how to play football,” Pena says.

The connection to Hayden could be closer than Pena and the other middle-school students at the camp might think.

The offensive and defensive drills they’re running on the practice football field are similar to what Hayden and his teammates were doing on the nearby Carl Lewis Field almost three years ago. The field was also the place of a serious accident where one moment could have been Hayden’s last.

“He went down and we didn’t think anything was wrong,” McMillian says. “We moved the drill up, we kept going and he was out there on the floor.”

On November 6, 2012, Hayden had suffered a life-threatening injury.  During a passing drill, a teammate had crashed into Hayden, accidentally hitting him in the chest with his knee. That collision would result in a torn inferior vena cava – the main vein that pumps blood from the lower half of the body to the heart.

The injury is typically 95 percent fatal and one that is often seen in high-speed car crashes. However, Hayden went on to make a full recovery, becoming a first round draft pick, selected by the Oakland Raiders in 2013.

Now two years later, Hayden is healthy and looking ahead to the start of the football season.

“OTAs (organized team activities) were great with the whole new coaching staff,” Hayden says. “With head coach Jack del Rio and defensive coordinator Ken Norton, Jr., I feel like we’re going to do some special things this year.”

But before Hayden rejoins Raider Nation for training camp, he has some unfinished business to tend to at the home of the Cougars.

That’s because his camp also serves as the kickoff of his DJ Hayden Foundation.

“Whether it’s helping kids with clothes or anything they need, we’re just giving back to them,” Hayden says. “My foundation will be giving back to underprivileged kids, kids in the hospital with heart problems. We want to give them a solid foundation with everything.”

Current UH linebacker and camp volunteer Rasheed Tynes says he wouldn’t expect anything less from Hayden. And like many of the young men there to help, he also echoes a common sentiment.

“This is great. It’s what’s supposed to get done. Nobody helped me when I was younger. I always had to struggle and fight for everything I ever had, so it’s always good to find somebody and help them out,” Tynes said. “You’re never supposed to forget where you came from.”

The friends, relatives, UH players and staff surrounding the practice field probably wouldn’t let Hayden forget even if he tried.

That includes Andre Johnson, a family friend who says he watched the star cornerback grow up. He’s known Hayden since he was about 3 years old and says he was also the ring boy in his wedding. Johnson brought his son out to the camp, hoping he could pick up a thing or two from Hayden.

“It’s a good feeling knowing that he got this far, and God blessed him even during his injury,” Johnson said. “Every time he’s hurt or had difficulties, he’s still out there making it happen.”

Even though Johnson’s 13-year-old son, Avante, normally plays defensive back, he’s mixing it up at the camp, running fade routes as a wide receiver.

“I want to say thanks. It’s a good opportunity for me to get better and for players around me to get better,” Avante says.

He offers this advice to future players looking to join the camp next year.

“Do your best. Whatever you’re capable in, just play hard.”

Sound familiar?

“Just go out there and play your heart out,” Hayden says. “I see a lot of kids second-guess themselves because they don’t feel as athletic as some of the other ones.  But if they go out and give it their all, the sky is the limit.”