It's safe to say that Olivia Fortson is not scared of change.
Fortson, who worked with Creative Loafing between 1987 and 1992 (she spent two of those years on the CL sales team, the rest as a reporter) is one of the few who have made the transition from Loafing contributor to staffer at The Charlotte Observer, and the folks there never let her live it down.
"It was funny, they never really trusted me when I went there," Fortson says. "When I got on there [in 1992], there were some people — to the day I left 23 years later — who looked at me like, 'She used to work for Creative Loafing.' It was not a good thing for me there."
Her move to the Observer offices eventually led to a turn-around in the beats she covered. While at CL she covered the darker side of Charlotte, patrolling the Wilkinson Boulevard corridor with CMPD's graveyard shift and writing a feature on Charlotte's seediest strip clubs, while later at the Observer she became a social editor, covering high society parties hosted by Charlotte's privileged population, some of whom she remembered partying with in her Loafing days.
As someone who has for years covered crime on the same streets Fortson once stalked — and for much of the last eight years has written The Blotter, a column Fortson was the first to bring to Charlotte — I was drawn to her work while researching our archives for this issue.
When I met Fortson on a recent, rainy morning at Panera Bread, her outfit affirmed her effortless talent for dealing with that duality; a sensible white sweater complimented by a dazzling gold necklace, while underneath the booth, camouflage capris betrayed her history on the front lines, a chic soldier.
The Spartanburg, S.C., native shared with me the story of her beginnings at Loafing — when there were still chickens in the backyard of the so-called office — and what it meant for her to fight on the side of the underdog, even after she eventually flipped sides to work for "the big guy."
Creative Loafing: How did you get started working with Creative Loafing?
Olivia Fortson: I graduated from Queens University in '87. I had these ambitions to write for a newspaper, and I wanted to write for the Observer, because that was the big paper here. I didn't have a journalism degree, because Queens didn't have one, so I double-majored in English and communications. Back then, if you didn't go to Chapel Hill journalism school or Duke, forget it. They were not interested in me at all. I would trudge my little portfolio up there full of things I had written for my school newspaper and my hometown newspaper, and they were like, "No, you've got to get out there and write some more."
[Former CL columnist] Frye Gaillard took an interest — he was another Queens connection — and took me out to lunch and was really supportive. That's how I met John Grooms [see story on page 14]. He was an excellent editor and I still adore him.
I was already working for the county, I did their justice system newsletter, and I think John took pity on me. They asked me to originate The Blotter here, of course it was already in [Creative Loafing] Atlanta. I got my first press badge in December 1987, and that was such a big deal. John's thinking was, "You're aready there at the courthouse," so when I left my shift up there, I would just go and show my press badge and sign in and flip through reports.
What was it like working at CL when it was still a start-up in this city, and a subversive one at that?
I remember the first office was up on the edge of the Cherry neighborhood, and there were chickens in the backyard. Then we moved over to South Boulevard and it was still just this little strip with low ceilings. It was a funny place.
The main thing people maybe don't realize now is how cool it was to go to work for Creative Loafing. [Editor's note: It's still pretty cool.] We were all young, and it was such a big deal in Atlanta, and I guess they had expanded into Tampa [in 1988]. And in Charlotte, even now people still say we're so conservative, and that was even more so back then, so to have this kind of wild alternative weekly, you really felt like, "Oh my god, I'm a cool kid, I work at Creative Loafing."
- Olivia and Beth Obenshain (right) at a Loafing party in the early days.
The other thing is how threatened the Observer was by Creative Loafing, which I never could quite understand then. Now I do, because it's business, but back then I was like, "Why are they being so mean to us?" There was even a lawsuit at some point because they were not letting us put our racks out. They were doing everything they could to keep us out because they were threatened. They started Break [a weekly arts publication] because they knew we were coming, so there was this feeling not only that it's a fun place but you were kind of battling the big guy.
Was that experience valuable for you, even when you joined sides with said big guy?
It set me up for having a media career here. I don't think of myself as a media personality, but people did remember me. "Oh, she used to write for Creative Loafing." It really set me up and helped introduce me to different people. I had good connections when I went to the Observer. Later, I progressed and became the social editor and covered all the galas, but it's still funny when you see people out that you were partying with at Park Elevator [an old South End nightclub].
Before that, though, at Loafing, you covered crime. How did you make such a drastic turn to social editor?
I got to the point where I really wanted to show the positive side of Charlotte and everything. I did start out on the local news staff [at the Observer], but long term I wasn't cut out for it. When a young boy was killed in a tragic accident and my editor asked me to call the family and ask them how they felt, I said, "I can't do that." He said, "Well, you're not going to work here, then." I realized then that this was not for me. I was like, "I need to go to the features department and write fluffy stuff."
I'm sure you didn't miss flipping through those police reports, something I still do to this day.
Wow, I thought it would be online. I figured you'd be sitting at your desk scrolling through.
Nope, I think it's about the only database that hasn't moved online.
Ok, so you know then, how you would see all these things that are not in the paper, that were never reported, horrible things, and then you have to find the really funny or bizarre stuff in between all that. To this day, I am so paranoid, when you read what all can happen to you.
So you're telling me this jaded feeling I've gotten from flipping through those reports is not going to go away?
No. You'll still be locking your doors wherever you go. Even when I go outside to get my paper in the morning I'm looking around all crazy. I'm always looking for an exit wherever I am.
People always ask me about the craziest crime I've reported in The Blotter. Do you have one?
The biggest one, and actually it was such a stupid one but so funny. It was this guy who stole a bottle of Thunderbird fortified wine from a convenience store, and when they caught him he said, "Well, I'm going to Planet Thunderbird to be with my people." That is like the number one thing people remembered. Even when I went to the Observer, some of the editors said, "That's the Thunderbird girl."
Did your work on The Blotter make you interested in covering crime more thoroughly? Because I've read some of your feature work and it's dark, seedy stuff.
Definitely, but also, as the saying goes, you want to hold up a mirror [to society.] I was always interested in showing a side of Charlotte that maybe not everyone gets to see, and for me at the time, because I was so young, I wanted to get out there. As my mom said, I've always been attracted to the carnival side of life, and I wanted to know, "What is that like? What's going on? What are we not seeing?"
A lot of it stemmed from flipping through those reports. I would tell anybody that if they want a big eye opener, go down there and do that for one day. But when you do that week after week after week...
Yup, it wears on you. I find myself not surprised by anything anymore, and laughing at things I really shouldn't. However, it also makes you want to take a deeper look, which you did in stories like the one from 1988 in which you rode with police through a full shift patrolling Wilkinson Boulevard between midnight and 6 a.m. at a time when it was the most troubled area in Charlotte. What was that experience like for you as opposed to just flipping through the reports?
You get to see it from their side and how dangerous it is. They're going into all these different neighborhoods and all this crazy stuff is going on. To be honest with you, when I started that story I was like, you know, we were all young and we were like, "Oh, the police [dismissive wave]." But when I came out, that's when I really began to have a true respect for that profession and what they do. It's like anything, until you actually get a taste of it firsthand, you really shouldn't judge one way or the other. They made me feel very safe in some unsafe situations. I think about it now, we rode all night long and it was from one extreme to the other.
What was an experience from that night that sticks with you?
One of the wildest ones was the grits story. It was wild, but it was some sad stuff, too. We went to a house and there was a woman whose husband had been beating her and she waited until he had gone to sleep — and this is an old Southern thing — she cooked up a pot of grits and waited until he went to bed and she threw it on his face. Of course, that scars you and it's a terrible thing, but that's apparently an old-fashioned revenge tactic. I was like "Holy cow." Before the MEDIC even came, we were already gone. They were just always off to the next thing.
Did you ever get the itch to return to the streets while covering those stuffy parties later on?
I have this saying that all the world is a trailer park, it's just that some people have single-wides and some people have double-wides. All this stuff that you read is still going on at that level, the people are just dressed better while they're throwing grits on someone's face — and it's probably organic, hand-milled grits.
As one of the originals, back when chickens roamed just outside the office, are you surprised to see Loafing make it to 30?
I wasn't surprised because they had been so successful in other markets, Atlanta was so successful and there was that backing. But I do remember being an ad rep and making $90 a week and getting my check and being like, "Holy cow, I can't do this. Somebody else is going to have to come up who's young and ambitious, because I've got to make some money."
When I left in '92, things were just starting to open up. I remember telling Carolyn Butler, the publisher — because we struggled, Charlotte was not Atlanta, we struggled here — I told her I think it's really going to start exploding. And it did, it went from like 30 pages to 80. It really did well and y'all are still doing great and have hung in there.
Charlotte needs an alternative weekly. We are a big city, so we need Creative Loafing. It's tough out there. The Observer, they used to take up that whole block with Charlotte Observer on the side of the building, now they're in two floors of an office building.
Just like with y'all, I think that model of all freelancers and just a few editors, that's where it's all going back to, so it's all coming back full circle. Everybody cut their staffs, and now it's back down, but the quality is still there.
It was just such a good, special time in Charlotte when we started, where this new thing was coming and just to see it still here and going strong for years, I always get such a smile when I pass by a rack and pick it up and see what's going on. It makes me feel great to see y'all still around and doing well.
Fortson, now 51, left Charlotte Observer in 2015 and started The O Report, a website with an annual magazine that takes a chic look at life for women over 50. You can find her at oliviafortson.com.