EJ Johnson Is ‘Not Just Some Other Rich Girl’


Since he was outed as gay by TMZ in 2013, Mr. Johnson has seized his own place in the gender revolution (or at least its pop-culture incarnation), mostly as a fabulous dresser. His style is ostentatiously androgynous: fur shawls, ankle boots, diamond chokers, sheer tops, draped on a frame nearly as towering as that of his father, a former Los Angeles Lakers star.

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The Johnson family in 1997. From left, Magic, Elissa, Cookie and EJ (standing).

Credit
Russell Einhorn/Liaison, via Getty Images

Like his gender-diverse wardrobe, his brand of fame is quintessentially modern: celebrity scion turned reality TV star turned Instagram self-chronicler. (His 631,000 followers had a virtual seat on his family’s summer yacht trip through Europe.)

Though he is determined to escape his father’s 6-foot-9-inch shadow, he has not shied away from flaunting his hyper-privileged lifestyle, first on the reality series “#Rich Kids of Beverly Hills,” which ran for four seasons on E!, and then on his own short-lived spinoff, “EJNYC.”

While his show had many of the familiar tropes of reality TV (shopping sprees, contrived squabbles), Mr. Johnson was an unconventional protagonist.

“There wasn’t any show that profiled a young person of color with a different sexual orientation living their life,” he said at his apartment in Beverly Hills before the Beautycon panel. He was perched on a golden bar stool (the décor was what he called “modern princessy”) in a translucent leopard-print robe, as a makeup artist applied blush.

“I’m not just some other rich girl who’s trying to get a show.”

EJ’s public life began when he was still in the womb. On Nov. 7, 1991, Magic Johnson made the stunning announcement that he was H.I.V. positive and was retiring from the Lakers. At the time, H.I.V./AIDS was still widely thought to be a “gay disease,” a fallacy that Mr. Johnson’s case helped dispel.

The announcement came as his wife, Cookie Johnson, was two months pregnant with their first child, Earvin Johnson III. Cookie feared that she and the fetus might be H.I.V. positive as well (to say nothing of the revelation that Mr. Johnson had gotten the virus from another sexual partner), but they tested negative.

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Mr. Johnson and Dorothy Wang on the reality TV show “#Rich Kids of Beverly Hills,” which ran for four seasons on the E! network. He later starred in his own short-lived spinoff, “EJNYC.”

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Brandon Hickman/E!

EJ was born the following June, to parents grappling with a medical crisis, a marriage crisis and a publicity crisis. But he was unaware of his father’s health issue until elementary school, when he was assigned a book report and found a book about his father in the library.

“The school called my mom and was like, ‘We don’t know if you want him to do the book report, because it talks about the H.I.V.,’” he said. “I think it was at that point that they told me that he had been sick and he’s a lot better.”

EJ was already discovering his flair for high fashion. “I remember being, like, 4 and 5 and playing in my mom’s closet,” he said. “But also asking questions like ‘Who’s this?’ and ‘What’s that?,’ and my mom explaining to me, ‘This is a Chanel and this is a Versace.’”

Elisa Johnson, his 22-year-old sister, said, “The older he got, the bigger his personality got.” (Mr. Johnson also has an older half brother, Andre Johnson.) “We used to have these drawing sessions, and EJ’s stick figures always had, like, a Louis Vuitton bag.”

Through his father’s H.I.V. advocacy, he had an early window into gay culture. He recalled going to AIDS fund-raisers at Elizabeth Taylor’s house, where his mother explained that Ms. Taylor had lost gay friends to the epidemic.

When he was 15, his mother caught him staring at boys on a vacation in Hawaii and initiated a conversation, but Mr. Johnson was still figuring out his sexuality. It wasn’t until three years later, when he was about to leave for New York University, that he came out decisively to both parents.