MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. – There was no slipping unnoticed into a room when Prince was around.
“He would ask me ‘Who is that? Who just walked in the room,'” recalled Kim Berry, Prince’s hairstylist and friend for over 20 years. “He was watching at all times.”
Prince Rogers Nelson was a man who couldn’t afford not to be.
In an age where many celebrities don’t want to do anything away from the public eye, Prince avoided the spotlight. Instead, he wanted it to shine on his art.
Which is why it’s no surprise that just as quietly, his remains were cremated and a private ceremony held following his death at the age of 57.
He was a man who, despite his showmanship, shied away from fanfare. Having crafted a musical empire, taken on his industry to fight for the rights of artists and survived with a career artists half his age would have envied, Prince was careful and built his inner circle almost as meticulously as he did his compositions.
Friends paint a portrait of a funny, giving, and spiritual man who quietly gave whenever and wherever he could to help others and who was deeply protective of his privacy. He was the antithesis to the current culture of reality and social media stars who stay bathed in the glow of their followers.
Not that Prince was against being famous.
More that to him, fame was a tool to get his art better seen by the masses. Before today’s artists were offering free downloads of music, Prince was giving away CDs at concerts and sharing his music in any way he could.
What we do know is that transformed from a man whose sexual lyrics caused him to be condemned by the more conservative to a devout Jehovah Witness who would not allow swearing in his presence.
Toure, who penned the book “I Would Die 4 U: Why Prince Became an Icon,” told WBUR that Prince appealed to our desire to spiritually connect.
“And there were a lot of people following, worshiping celebrity at another level,” Toure said. “And when you have Prince as this massive celebrity who’s sort of feeding your sexual needs, and also giving you this sort of spiritual, religious thing, it’s a very seductive cocktail.”
Despite his earlier reputation as a lover with high profile relationships including some of his protegees, Prince slowed his roll in recent years where the ladies were concerned. In 2014, he told Rolling Stone’s Brian Hiatt that he was celibate.
“Libido is energy,” Prince said. “I go back and forth. It’s like fasting: it’s a practice and you get better at it over time, you know, but no one is perfect …”
It was all a part of how he insulated himself and his life.
His family was his band and his crew, and he was deeply devoted to that family. They were the ones who knew of his many philanthropic efforts that were done with such little fanfare. There are homeless people who have no idea that coats they are wearing came from the singer and his Love 4 One Another Foundation.
Berry knows first hand about his largess.
When her friend’s son died, she said, the woman had no insurance and Prince stepped up to bury the boy. He always wanted to bless others, even as he was scrupulous about who he allowed into his inner circle.
“To be that big in the music industry you have to be guarded,” Berry said. “So many people were takers. Everybody was trying to see what they could get from him, how they could steal from him, how they could con him into doing something he would regret later. So he was very closed.”
That meant using fake names when he traveled, throwing potential groupies off by putting the band and crew up at a different hotel so fans thought Prince was also there. And always engaging in activities that his group could enjoy together like going to the movies, traveling the world or even just playing basketball on his court at Paisley Park.
Prince was loyal to those who he allowed in and they returned that loyalty.
Berry first met the singer in 1992 when she was dating one of his bodyguards. When Prince’s hairstylist quit, Berry offered her services to which he asked her if she traveled. She hadn’t really, but she grabbed the tools of her trade and went for it when Prince announced that their flight was leaving in an hour and a limo would be picking her up.
She got the job, but with one caveat: Prince needed her to lose her long nails as he had a sensitive scalp.
“I said ‘OK’ and started popping [the nails] off in front of him,” Berry said. “He started laughing and said, ‘You’re funny!’ He said, ‘You’re gonna work out. Go back to the hotel, we leave for Miami in the morning. ‘ ”
No one loved a good jest better than Prince.
CNN commentator Van Jones was a good friend of Prince, and called him “a comic genius.”
“He could easily have given Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock and Kevin Hart a run for their money,” Jones said. “Sometimes we would watch black comedy acts together on his computer, and then he would riff their routines. He could always make them 10 times funnier — without ever using curse words!”
Berry said Prince was very cognizant of the celebrity culture and those stars who were tabloid fodder. She said they would sometimes watch television together while she did his hair, and Prince would remark on the openness of celebs in this day and age.
“He said he didn’t understand how people lived that way,” Berry said. “His business was his business. That’s how he stayed mysterious.”
As questions linger about his death, what is clear is that one of the biggest stars on earth knew exactly his place on this earth, even if fans didn’t know as much about him as they did other stars.
In one of his last interviews in November, he said he didn’t miss the years before he was famous.
“These days, I can get more done,” he said. “I’m far more respected than I was before, when I say something with regard to changes in the music industry.”