Cover Story

Toughing it Out

Who is Vanilla Ice? -- The rapper faces heavy criticism for being a rich suburban poser, but are the rumors about Robby Van Winkle true?

''I told everybody I used to be a terrible kid, that I used to steal cars, I've been stabbed five times, stuff I'm not proud of, stuff I wished never woulda got out, you know, 'cause I'm supposed to be a... a... a role model around here! I told them, and everybody tried to make it look like I was lying so I could get accepted by a rap audience or something like that! So now this stuff about a warrant for my arrest comes out, and I mean, what kinda news is this? People say I lied and stuff like this! Well, it's a crock of s---!''

Vanilla Ice, who's lying in bed in an Alexandria, La., hotel room with a 100-degree-plus temperature and a couple of gallons of Theraflu in his system, is one miffed rapper. For months the press has been howling that rap's first white solo star fabricated a tough, streetwise background for himself just to gain credibility in the rap community, and that the Iceman — whose debut album, To the Extreme, has sold 10.5 million units and made him the hottest new face in pop music — is really just a suburban middle-class twinkie from Dallas named Robby Van Winkle, which actually is his name. Suddenly, the day before this interview, another story broke — that Dallas police had issued a warrant for his arrest in connection with an unpaid fine dating back to an assault conviction in 1988, when he maced a kid in the eyes and beat him over the head in a parking lot. This combination has to set some kind of media record. Ice makes headlines for being a punk after first making headlines for not really being a punk.

It's odd testimony to the power of his persona that, even as he's curled up under the covers all adorable and pathetic and ill — a condition helped along by a brutal concert schedule on this Southern leg of his first solo tour — you can see exactly why vast numbers of otherwise reasonable people might hate Vanilla Ice's guts: Tall — well, long, anyway — and model handsome, with surprisingly delicate features and a masked expression that could easily be interpreted as simple sullen arrogance, he looks like the snotty, middle-class white kid he's accused of being. But looks alone can't account for Ice's gift for rubbing people the wrong way; his mouth helps. At the American Music Awards ceremony in January, he accepted his Favorite New Artist award by telling his critics they could ''kiss my white butt.'' He's made self-aggrandizing comparisons between himself and rapper M.C. Hammer, the man who gave him a big break by inviting him to be the opening act on Hammer's fall tour. (Ice insists there never was any feud: ''We've always been friends, straight through. It's just that journalists like to stir s--- up.'')

The night after the American Music Awards, Ice demonstrated that he isn't always the out-of-control thug he often seems, when Arsenio Hall asked about his past and about the Hammer remarks with such naked contempt that even his own audience was shocked into booing him. Ice scored points then by staying cool. And how are the two of them getting along now?

''I have no comment to say about Arsenio Hall,'' Ice says stiffly. ''All my fans are...''

Real mad.

''Even his fans are mad at him.''

Do you think he was trying to go to bat for Hammer?

''He was trying to go to bat for Hammer because of stuff he'd read, because he's Hammer's friend and he doesn't like me. I don't know why. He was just trying to break me, you know? But ain't nobody gonna stop this train.''

Maybe not, but you can't say nobody's tried. Ice's troubles began virtually moments after To the Extreme (the fastest-selling album out of the box since Prince's Purple Rain in 1984) went to No. 1 in early November, and the press began finding omissions, exaggerations, and discrepancies in his life story. He claimed a rough upbringing in a racially mixed neighborhood in Miami, for starters, while leaving it to reporters to discover he'd gone on to high school in a middle-class suburb of Dallas. And, telling a tale that might be titled ''Ice's Epiphany,'' he claimed he was once stabbed five times in a knife fight, lost half the blood in his body, woke up in the hospital, found God, reformed, and became the positive role model he is today, while not seeming able to remember whether it happened in Coral Gables or Coconut Grove, Fla., or somewhere in Dallas. He now claims that Richardson, Tex., was the scene of the great event. But while it's reasonable to believe that something like this happened to him along the way — he did, after all, drop his drawers on Rick Dees' TV show to flash what could have been knife scars — there have been a few too many inconsistent flourishes in his story (the best being that he once said it was a member of a devil-worshiping posse that stabbed him) to swallow it whole.

Ice has admitted he ''bent the truth'' in some of his early statements, but only to protect his family's privacy. And for all his embellishments, it's not as if he's been nailed for fabricating his entire history, as many people seem to think. Nobody disputes that he was born in Miami and raised there in racially mixed areas, or, as his mother, Beth Miño, has confirmed, that ''he was definitely in a lot of trouble.'' Miño — who cared for Ice and his older half brother by herself for most of Ice's early years — was a pianist and music teacher. But when you ask Ice if she made him study piano, he says, ''She never made me do anything. Nobody was ever able to make me do anything.''

He attended his much-touted suburban high school for just two years before dropping out; the only evidence that he was anything like well-heeled is that he drove a white IROC Camaro Z28, hardly amazing in a country where adolescent males regularly manage to furnish themselves with a hot car even if it's the only thing they own. He hung out, meanwhile, with black friends in South Dallas, one of whom, according to his manager, Tommy Quon, brought him in 1987 to Quon's now-defunct black club called City Lights, where he won a talent show. Ice ''had this rich-kid look, for sure,'' says Quon, ''but when I talked to him I thought he was street, not just because all his friends were black and the way he moved, but because he had a street attitude.'' Ice opened at City Lights and elsewhere for stars like Hammer and Paula Abdul. Yet last summer, when SBK Records signed him, he was still working as a lot attendant for a car dealership managed by his Ecuadoran stepdad.

Even so, one critic called Vanilla Ice a ''suburban'' rap imitator who ''takes his privilege for granted'' — as though calling him privileged might not be as big a misrepresentation as anything he himself has managed. The portrait seems especially wrong when you talk to him: He comes off as a 23-year-old edition of your basic alienated kid, still belligerent, still insolent, a guy who, as he says, ''don't need to talk to nobody'' about his problems. He approaches his career with deadly seriousness (everything matters to him, big-time) and he has the seemingly compulsive propensity for exaggeration often found among wayward types who grew up with big ambitions and limited prospects. Vanilla Ice didn't just go to a lot of different schools, he ''went to more different schools than anybody.'' His mother isn't just cool, she's ''the coolest person on earth.'' Everything about him, from the words of his raps to the car he drives — an Acura NSX, ''the fastest sports car on earth'' — is the most, the best, ''to the extreme.'' This, you figure, is one of the ways he gets himself in trouble.

You might expect Ice to romanticize street gangs, but when he's asked what kind of gang he was in, he displays anything but cockiness in his answer. In fact, he conveys no sense of outlaw romance at all.

''I was in one of the thuggy, nasty gangs that beat up people for no reason. It was terrible, very terrible,'' he says. ''For money or somethin', you know, or because... no, I can't say that... well, in other words I used to beat people up because they were... [he gives the slightest broken-wrist gesture]... different, you know what I'm saying? And I hate it! I hate the way I used to be, and if I could go back and change it I would. I feel so terrible now inside because I beat those people up, hurtin' these people for no reason...''

He lies back with his eyes closed. But he's soon back to bombast, explaining that's he's about the most competitive guy you'll ever meet. Maybe this is the moment to ask how he feels about a piece of bad news: His album is about to drop from No. 1 to No. 2.

''I didn't know that,'' Ice says, looking up with a guarded expression, maybe wondering if this is some kind of satanic journalist joke.

Yes, Mariah Carey will displace you on next week's Billboard chart.

He visibly deflates. ''Well, the truth is I'm still outselling her three to one,'' he brags, but his voice has dropped to a monotone. Even talking about his immediate future doesn't snap him out of it: not his upcoming album, Ice Capades, due in March, with live versions of his hits and new songs sampling music by the Rolling Stones and Steve Miller; not the fact that he's hitting movie theaters this month in the breathlessly awaited Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze; not even that in April he starts filming a project designed for him, Cool as Ice, for Universal.

''It's about a motorcycle gang,'' he says, perking up a bit.

Slipping a notch on the charts is hardly what you'd call a disaster, but for Ice, you have to wonder if it doesn't provide a glimpse of mortality. He has, after all, been dismissed as a talentless 15-minute wonder, and pegged by many other rappers as someone who's whitewashing black music for popular consumption, simply paving the way for other whites to push the black originators out of the way.

''A lot of rappers do respect me,'' he objects, bellicosity restoring his spirits. ''I've been out on the road with them, done shows with them, and they know where I'm coming from. But the ones that don't know where I'm comin' from, they think I'm some suburban kid tryin' to rap or somethin'. The bottom line is they're jealous 'cause they're not sellin' as many records as me and they think they're better.''

His shows — with their black dancers and screaming audience of white teens — do in fact seem to support his image of himself as a color-blind white guy who grew up with an instinct for black music. They come off not as a bad imitation of hard-core rap but as a peculiar new hybrid: half rap and half small-town high school pep rally. But how long will this success last? Is Ice afraid that all the attention, the money, the platinum records, will disappear someday?

''That's up to me,'' he fiercely responds. "That's a hundred percent up to me!'''

You think so? You don't think changing tastes will...?

''I know it for a fact. What causes a person's downfall is when they get tired of it, the hotel rooms, and the shows, and the interviews, and all that. I always set new goals, and that's my new goal, to be here, keep it goin'! The media can try and break me all they want, but the bottom line,'' he hoarsely insists, ''is it's up... to... me.''

His eyes are now glittering, presumably with fever; time to go. There's no way he's going to get up and do a show tonight, but there's a slim hope that he'll be able to drag himself downstairs for a photo session later with the story's photographer, Jeff Katz.

Next day, back in New York, the phone rings. It's Katz. ''I just thought you should know,'' he says, ''that Ice made it to the session. He was sitting in a chair with his head in his hands, so sick he was weaving. Then he just got up, did the session, and he couldn't have been nicer about it. Didn't you tell me this guy is supposed to be trouble?''

He did the show, too.

Originally posted Mar 15, 1991 Published in issue #57 Mar 15, 1991 Order article reprints
Advertisement

Today's Most Popular

  1. Photo Gallery: American Music Awards 2014 American Music Awards '14: We grade the performances
  2. Photo Gallery: American Music Awards 2014 American Music Awards 2014 style: What the stars wore

From Our Partners