I'm sitting on a couch on the 19th floor of the Affinia Manhattan, just a few feet away from the world's most coveted rear end. Legions of men from around the world would pay dearly to be here, in Buffie the Body's boudoir. And I'm not even an ass man.
With more curves than J.Lo, and more badonkadonk than Vida Guerra, Buffie the Body is a phenom. Forty-five inches around, with the word Tasty tattooed on the right cheek, her ample backside makes Maxim models look like surfboards.
In town last month to buy a new Mercedes CLS 550, the Atlanta-based former stripper is easy to spot in the crowded hotel lobby. She's the woman of average height wearing the Bebe tracksuit that strains to contain her.
"At least I don't have to tailor them in the waist," she says in her slight Southern drawl, after shaking my hand. "There are a lot of jeans that they just don't make in my size."
Heading for the elevator, she grudgingly accepts an offer to carry her suitcase. There's no entourage to grab the bag; Buffie Carruth doesn't travel with one. She doesn't have much use for other "model" behavior either. She eats nothing but junk food and sugary drinks, and she doesn't work out. But make no mistake: She's as recognizable in the black community as some supermodels, having starred in a G-Unit rap video and appeared in the movie ATL (character name: Big Booty Judy). She makes $5,000 to $10,000 a night hosting parties around the country.
She's best-known for appearing on the cover of urban men's magazines like King, BlackMen, Sweets, SSX, and Smooth. All of them parade semi-nude buxom pin-ups à la Maxim, but primarily with black and Latina models, and with a particular obsession with asses. And none of them are very subtle about it. Smooth leaves readers with a final-page pictorial it calls "Rear View." King's closer, meanwhile, is "Backshot."
"Maxim has Pamela Andersonthe person they can put on the cover and it's guaranteed to selland King and the rest of the urban men's magazines, we have Buffie," says Kingeditor Jermaine Hall, also mentioning Melyssa Ford and Guerra as genre favorites. "Buffie, no pun intended, gets a rise out of our readers."
"She broke all the rules," says Marcus Blassingame, fashion editor of BlackMen. "She wasn't slim, didn't have a commercial-looking face or a commercial-looking body. But people were like, 'Wow! Look at the size of that behind.' Her butt is so huge, it's like a phenomenon."
"I'm the definition of a true black woman," Buffie explains, sitting down awkwardly (you would too) in a plush chair in her suite. "I'm not light-skinned, my mom is not from China, and my dad is not from Yugoslavia. People normally see the light-skinned, small girls with the pretty hair in magazines, and maybe they were just tired of that and wanted to see something different, something real."
The same could be said of the urban lad rags' appeal. Though Maxim and Stuff still vastly outsell them, BlackMen and similar titles have seen their subscriptions swell in recent years by featuring women with increasingly huge back ends.
"Urban men, we like butts, we like hips. It's a black and Hispanic thing," says Antoine Clark, publisher of Sweets. "We like the feel of butts, we like to rub on them, we like to stare at them. It's like a magnet for us. I have no explanation for it; that's just something we like."
BlackMen operates out of a bland Paramus, New Jersey, office building, across the street from a Staples store. Sharing the building are publishers of niche porn titles like Plumpers and Mature Nymphos.
Founded in 1998, BlackMen once featured supermodels, celebrities, and toned fitness models. But fashion editor Blassingame says he began to question that strategy after a fateful haircut.
"Guys in the barbershop talk about everything from cars, sports, and finances to women," Blassingame says, sitting in his conference room on a recent afternoon, clad in a matching gold Adidas jacket and tennis shoes. "Now, the one type of women they don't talk about are supermodels."
He realized that the men at the barbershop were his target demographic, but they talked about a very different type of woman than the sort that was gracing the front of his magazine. It was the women they saw gyrating in music videos on BET that got their attention, he says, as well as the women walking by on the street outside the shop. Lenny Hansen, longtime owner of the Cutting Room, the Harlem clip joint where Blassingame sometimes gets his fade, confirms his client's observation. "Fat asses and pretty faces" get the greatest response from his patrons, Hansen says.
After his epiphany, Blassingame two years ago orchestrated a makeover for BlackMen. "I had to bridge the gap between the face and the energy of a supermodel, and the curves of an urban model," says the 37-year-old son of the magazine's founder, John Blassingame. "We wanted to get the type of models that fit that kind of 'street' element."
He began searching for the girl-next-door look, even if that meant soliciting girls who literally lived next door. "If we meet a girl in the mall and we think she's going to make it, we'll give her a chance," he says, adding that he gives a $200 stipend for photo shoots. (Many other magazines don't pay at all.)
He met Angel at a runway-model competition at the Newark Airport Marriott about a year and a half ago. She wasn't competing; she was in the audience. And although Angel had no prior experience, Blassingame liked her look and all the attention men at the event were giving her.
Angel adorns the cover of BlackMen's AprilMay 2007 issue, which Blassingame proudly displays, calling her look "fire." With dark eye shadow and a tattoo across her neck, she tugs at the drawstring of her bikini bottom.
"When I take my pictures, I'm not thinking about butts and titties," says the model, an Ethiopian-born resident of Washington, D.C., whose real name is Fershgenet Melaku. "I'm more into showing beauty, how Marilyn Monroe used to do. It's not about sticking your butt out. It's about showing sex appeal."
Angel, 34-22-40, has also graced the covers of Smooth and I.B. Concept magazines. Blassingame predicts similar success for his new discovery, Tasha Destiny, who has a 50-inch backside, bigger than Buffie's and seeming to approach the limit of what a petite woman can support on two legs. (For comparison, Playboy's Miss May is 34 inches around.)
"I think we finally got our mojo," he says. "We've become comfortable now, knowing who our audience is. To come up with one product that can reach guys from the East Coast, the South, L.A., Jamaicans, Haitians, Creoles, all those type of guys, it's a learning process."
Since his magazine's reinvention, Blassingame goes on, circulation has increased 50 percent, to 200,000. That would sandwich it between Manhattan publications Smoothwhich editor Sandy Vasceannie says now prints 150,000 copies per issue, up 25 percent in the past yearand King, founded in 2001 and considered the genre's first breakthrough. King's circulation has been steady at about 250,000 over the past few years, making it about one-tenth the size of Maxim. (Maxim and King are monitored by the Audit Bureau of Circulations. BlackMen and Smooth are not.)
The marketplace may be shifting. FHM, a "white" lad magazine that is enormously popular in the U.K., recently ceased publishing the American version of its print magazine, while new urban titles seem to spring up like weeds. Show magazine, launched just last year by a former Smooth staffer, claims an (unaudited) circulation of 200,000.
Vibe and XXL have long featured teasing pictorials of black women, but titles exclusively devoted to the subject are a relatively new phenomenon, and national advertisers don't yet seem convinced of their power to persuade. While King features spots from Newport cigarettes, Harley-Davidson, and Budweiser, BlackMen relies partly on porn titles like The Big Ass Party 2 and Booties on Duty 3. Smooth resorts to penis-enlargement pills.
"Advertisers refuse to advertise in Smooth because a black woman with curves seems a little gratuitous to them," says Vasceannie. "They think it resembles pornography."
"These magazines are a niche within a niche," counters Ken Smikle, president of Target Market News, a Chicago-based research company that specializes in black media. "African-American magazines are by definition only for a segment of the population, which constitutes one niche, and a men's magazine constitutes another niche. As far as advertisers are concerned, it's a small audience."
Though urban lad titles dominate New York City newsstands on streets and in subways, Smikle says they have a more difficult time winning rack space elsewhere.
"It's a very competitive environment to begin with, and retailers generally have been conservative in how they display their magazines," he says. "Even covers which don't show frontal nudity still sometimes have to be covered up."
"It's a double standard," contends Buffie the Body. "You can go in a grocery store and see Maxim up front, but you're not going to see BlackMen in the checkout aisle, because people would be offended by it and go and complain to the management."
"In the '80s and early '90s, women were led to believe you had to be skinny to be attractive, that the Barbie doll was believed to be the perfect body type," says Vasceannie, a rare female executive in the industry. "But Smooth and its competitors have completely destroyed that belief. You're as beautiful as you feel. Across history, black women have always been more curvaceous, but it's just now that full-figured women are getting some attention."
Back in Buffie's boudoir, the woman who says she takes in practically nothing but Southern-fried pork and Kool-Aid is telling her touching life story. While living in Athens, Georgia, her family was abandoned by her father. She now supports her mother with her big-butt earnings, and recently bought her first house.
Buffie wasn't born with her prodigious moneymaker, she says, and her siblings and parents certainly don't have similar physiques. Her attributes developed about 10 years ago after she started drinking GNC supplement shakes. "I weighed only about 120 pounds and wanted to gain weight," she says. "Black women don't want to be skinny."
Her behind plumped to her satisfaction within a few months, and guys on the street began taking notice. Three years ago, a friend put amateur photos of her on a Yahoo group, and 20,000 people signed up to view them within a week.
"That's how I knew there had to be something about me," she says. "I knew girls who had Yahoo groups up for a while, and nobody's numbers grew like mine." Soon afterward she was contacted by G-Unit and appeared in Tony Yayo and 50 Cent's "So Seductive" video. She made the pages of F.E.D.S. ("Finally Every Dimension of the Streets"), and a half-dozen other magazine covers quickly followed. "She became, like, a hero for big-butt girls," says Sweets' Clark.
Now she has a hot-selling DVD and calendar, an ad campaign with Azzure Denim, and a MySpace page that gets up to 200 messages per day. (The lion's share solicit sex, or her hand in marriage, but an increasing number are from girls who admire her look, Buffie says.)
Having done pretty much all the urban men's magazines, she's attempting to branch out, and is slated to play Satan's girlfriend in a touring gospel-music play.
"I'd be lying if I said it's been a struggle, 'cause it hasn't been," she says with genuine modesty. "I thank God every single day, because I am blessed, I am gifted, and I know if it wasn't for my butt I wouldn't have made all this money. I wouldn't be traveling; I wouldn't have met all of these people. I wouldn't be sitting here talking with you."
She's sweet. But I have to come clean. The fact is, her big ass does nothing for me. Perhaps, as a white guy, I'm just not hardwired to understand.
"Even white guys are coming out of the closet, admitting their fetish for big butts!" she assures me. "They were just always shy about it, sort of scared, before I hit it big. But now there are people from Switzerland, the U.K., Ireland, and Canada who order calendars from me." "Even guys from China and Korea order my calendars. I'm like, how do them people know about me all the way ovw er there?"
"Do Chinese guys even like black women?" she asks, laughing at her own question, before concluding with a contented sigh: "The world is changing."
The largely incarcerated readership of F.E.D.S. magazine went crazy when Buffie made her print debut in the January 2005 issue, shortly after a friend had sent in her pictures.
"They thought it was incredible," remembers Antoine Clark, who, in addition to Sweets, also publishes F.E.D.S., a true-crime quarterly. "We had a lot of response about her butt. Some people thought it was too big to be real."
When Clark debuted Sweets in December 2006 as a spin-off of F.E.D.S.an underground hit with about 90 percent of its subscriptions going to incarcerated readershe knew just who to put on the cover. Along with Buffie, inside were the same swimsuit and thong shots as in King, but without the hip-hop interviews, fashion spreads, or articles of any sort. "It's just page after page of short, stocky urban chicks with fat butts and big hips," Clark explains. Like F.E.D.S., Sweets' basic graphic layout and untouched photography gives it a gritty, unpolished feel. Even his wife likes it. "She actually thought the first issue looked kind of good. She thought it was gonna be crazy, but it was kind of tasteful."
Clark, a 37-year-old father of three from northern New Jersey, runs his publishing empire from an unmarked former auto garage in the north Bronx. (He asks that the location be kept secret, as some folks are occasionally made cranky by F.E.D.S.) He estimates Sweets' circulation is 25,000, making it considerably smaller than his competitors. But Clark believes there's a sub-niche to be mined within the genre for those who prefer more cellulite and less airbrushing.
"They're all kind of washed," he says, mentioning King as the major culprit. "They touch up their photos too much. You'll find no flaws. Sometimes a black woman no longer looks black; their complexion almost looks golden. You don't see a real black woman that's actually golden." Of Sweets, he boasts: "We're a little more raw; we're a little more about the big-buttage. You can still see the stretch marks."
"I also feel we show dark-skinned women," counters Jermaine Hall of King, which is owned by Harris Publications, publisher of XXL. But he allows, charitably, "I think [ Sweets] could work."
Smooth's Vasceannie says she routinely gets letters from readers asking for more dark-skinned females. As to touching up her magazine's pictures: "There's airbrushing and there's airbrushing," she says. "We do take away blemishes, but in terms of reshaping models, we don't do that. What you see is what you get."
Stephen Jay Gould, in his 1985 book The Flamingo's Smile, recounted the 19th-century phenomenon of the "Hottentot Venus," a stage name applied to two or more Khoisan women from southern Africa. The Venus was paraded in European sideshows for her prodigious backside. People paid to touch it.
So the obsession isn't new. But Buffie admits to being baffled by it.
"I've asked guy friends of mine, and guys I used to date, 'What is it about a big booty that makes y'all go so crazy?' " she says, between hysterical fits of laughter. "They say, 'It's just the way it looks in jeans, or the way it feels, or the way it moves back and forth. Or how when you're having sex you can hold onto it. Nobody could give me one answer."
To barber Lenny Hansen, the butt is simply the ultimate Pavlovian sexual trigger.
"If a girl walks by, you really get a good idea from her back of what it would be like to have sex with them," he says. "Not from the front. If she has a fat ass, there's just a lot more to work with."
Whatever it is, the derriere hysteria has prompted women to put on padded underwear and submit to butt augmentation surgery. (Buffie swears that she hasn't gone under the knife.) Doctors credit Jennifer Lopez with inspiring the relatively recent trends of silicone implants and fat injections.
Vasceannie says that Smooth's modelsnot to mention many of her white female friendsroutinely pony up for the implants. "Whether it's a healthy choice or not, that's for the scientists to decide," she says.
But BlackMen's Blassingame says his models aren't cheating with surgery, and adds that he prefers what their mamas gave them. In fact, he's helping develop a fitness-training program for women to attain killer curves naturally.
"It's going to teach you how to thin your waist and raise your butt through protein diets and exercises," he says, adding that the program is coming to NYC-area gyms this fall.
It could well catch on, says Blassingame's assistant Mercedes Gomes, herself well-endowed in the caboose.
"I would like a little extra back there," she confesses. "We all would. Women don't really mean it when they say, 'My butt's too big.' They want to slim down overall, but I bet my life on it that they would prefer to put on a few extra pounds on their ass. A girl with a pancake butt is not that attractive."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.