The Many Faces of Sean Combs
By David Hochman
Fortunes rise and fall, fashions come and go, but one thing never changes: It’s always good to be Diddy.
The Maybach 62 S, black on black on four gleaming wheels, waits in the gated carport of a photography studio on Sunset Boulevard, where Diddy—well, “It’s Mr. Combs,” says his chauffeur, who also drove for Michael Jackson—is finishing up a photo shoot. The trunk is piled high with Louis Vuitton attachés. “Be ready,” he says. “Mr. Combs likes to get rolling fast and you don’t want to be left.”
Sean John Combs, 43, has an excellent support team tending to his eclectic, farranging, ever-rolling needs. During the shoot, in addition to the standard wardrobe, makeup, and hairstylists, Combs had what appeared to be a cell phone bearer (the BlackBerry does not stop dinging), a jacket wrangler, and various defenders of the Diddy throne and flame.
“Mr. Comb's schedule is extremely tight, and he would prefer to conduct the conversation in the car,” his calendar keeper informed me. And by car, she meant the luxury vehicle of all luxury vehicles. With a top speed of 155 miles per hour and a price tag estimated around $700,000, the bespoke Maybach is emblematic of Combs’s status as the mackest daddy in the realm. His net worth is estimated by Forbes to be $580 million, making him the wealthiest figure in hip-hop, although that designation captures only a part of who Combs is.
Like driving with him, spending time with Combs is an exercise in switching lanes at top speed, and always with audacious style. Inside the vehicle, Combs alerts his driver of our destination—“House!” he says—before raising an opaque partition screen with a button. There’s much to discuss. One minute Combs is talking up a bold, new business venture or product he’s endorsing. The next he’s expounding on the state of the music industry, fashion, the Knicks (he once considered buying the team), his burgeoning acting career (remember him in Get Him to the Greek?), or a weekend activity he’s planning with his kids (he’s got six children from several relationships).
“Honestly, I’ve never been someone who does just one thing; that’s not who I am,” he says, adjusting his rear seat to recline-and-chill mode. “Life’s way too short. My goal has always been to excel in every direction and in a monumental way; to be number one in whatever I like to do—and I like to do a lot.”
Showman, CEO, role model, dad—Combs has as many faces to his life and career as he has names. But whether you know him as P. Diddy, Sean John, Puff Daddy or @iamdiddy, the man is riding one of the greatest waves of success the entertainment business has ever seen. Here’s a 360-degree look at a legendary lifestyle.
Other performers think in terms of hits, the next gig, or maybe a body of work. Combs concentrates on empire-building. “For me,” he says, “the most powerful art form ever created was music, and that’s still my greatest love, but I’ve always viewed myself as an entrepreneur more than just a music person. Being more than ‘just a’ frees me up to amplify my passions and opportunities.”
His latest conquest: Revolt TV, a cable music channel launching in the fourth quarter of 2013. “It’s a fearless platform for artists who have something to say,” is how Combs describes it. Partly the idea is to fill the music video space left vacant after MTV went all Jersey Shore. But Combs also knows there’s more to music on TV than singing contests and awards shows. “I want Revolt to do for music what ESPN does for sports,” he says, explaining that the network will cover music around the clock, with live hosted music videos, news, interviews, performances, and more. “I want to bring back the spirit of music. There’s nothing greater in life than those songs that make you cry, that make you laugh, that make you want to scream and jump up and down. That’s what music’s been for me all my life and I want to share that with as many people as possible.”
Raised by a single mom in Harlem and later Mt. Vernon, New York, after his father was murdered, Combs—known in high school as “Puffy” for puffing out his chest to look bigger, one story goes—studied business administration at Howard University. He dropped out when his own businesses—an airport shuttle service, weekly dance parties—began booming. By 21, he was vice president at a major record company, Uptown Records, before forming his own label, Bad Boy Records, which minted more than $100 million its first five years with artists like Mariah Carey, Faith Evans, Mary J. Blige, TLC, Aretha Franklin, and his late friend Biggie Smalls.
Money and power begat oodles more of the same as Combs branched out, not just with his own Grammy-winning recording career (“It’s All About the Benjamins,” indeed), but as a film, TV, and stage actor, high-flying fashion executive, restaurateur, movie producer, promoter, philanthropist, and host of a rather low-key annual affair called the White Party. That is, if your idea of low-key involves scores of immaculately dressed VIPs dancing until four in the morning.
“Sean doesn’t just want to be successful, he wants to be great,” says his friend Mark Wahlberg, who, along with Combs and others, co-owns Aquahydrate, a “performance” water brand. “Everything’s about quality. Nothing is second best with him. When he sets his mind on something, look out, because it’s going to happen, and it’s going to happen big.”
“He challenges you to go beyond what you thought was possible,” adds Dia Simms, executive vice president and general manager at Blue Flame, which worked with Combs to resurrect Cîroc Ultra Premium vodka. She had formerly been Combs’s chief of staff (you read that title correctly). To turn around Cîroc, Combs negotiated an unheard-of 50 percent share of profits as brand manager and chief marketing officer, but it paid dividends all around. Combs was involved on a micro level “right down to tasting and picking flavors,” Simms says. Cîroc went from selling 120,000 cases a year to almost a million with Combs aboard, and now sells 2 million annually. Says Simms, “At one point, we were running out of grapes in France. I totally blame Sean for that.”
The Sunset Strip is a glamorous place viewed through the blacked-out windows of Combs’s chariot: the Chateau, the Mondrian, the 50-foot bikini models stretched across the billboards. Dressed in tailored white cashmere and linen, Combs fits in with the scenery. The town looks good on him and vice versa. Moving to Los Angeles from New York in 2008 “allowed me to take a step back and reevaluate my life and ask what’s my purpose?” he says. “In New York, I’m just running around on a track. Here, I live on top of the mountain. I can breathe, I can pray, I can prioritize and figure out what’s important.”
The gentler pace has impacted Combs’s style, which, by extension, affects the rest of us. Sean John clothing outfitted a generation of hip-hop and rap artists like Busta Rhymes, Nelly, and Rick Ross, and millions more who aspired to swagger like them. He launched the line in 1998, and revenues have exceeded $100 million a year. He won the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s Menswear Designer of the Year award in 2004—an honor “bigger and better than winning the Oscar,” he says—and added vast fortunes to the coffers of Zac Posen, whose brand he invested in, and Liz Claiborne, from whom he bought the hip-hop fashion label Enyce.
Now Combs has gone classic. “My style has refined and has a little less flash to it these days,” he says. “I’m a big fan of Fred Astaire and Frank Sinatra, and love the simplicity of those 50s-era fashions. Vintage suits, old polos. Timeless, elegant, cool. My style right now is clean and pure like never before.”
Perhaps that explains the new alliance he made with Aquahydrate. But water is water, right? Not when Diddy’s involved. This one uses electric currents to supercharge the water and features a blend of 72 electrolytes and trace minerals. Maybe it’s marketing mumbo jumbo but when Combs offers a bottle, saying, “You’ve never tasted anything like it,” you almost start to believe in elixirs.
“Sean believes so much in whatever he pursues, it’s contagious,” says Wahlberg. “This isn’t just a celebrity-endorsement situation for him. He pushes us to stretch ourselves in making this a great product, in marketing it, and that’s his MO with everything. I’ve learned so much from him. I think everybody who works with him ends up becoming a student in some way.”
There’s a video on YouTube called “Le Premier” that shows the sway Combs has on those around him. I’ll let him tell the story:
“Last year in Cannes, I decided to walk from the hotel to try to get me a suit jacket to wear to the Brad Pitt premiere. I thought I could just walk the two blocks, y’know? By the time I got to the store there were maybe 10,000 people behind me. You can just see the intensity of it. I was like, Wow! They know me all the way out here in the South of France!”
Of course they do. People love to follow Combs. More than 8 million do on Twitter alone. When he tweeted recently the “big news” that he was becoming a series regular on Downton Abbey, @iamdiddy practically shut down the Twitterverse until he revealed it was a pitch for his hilarious “Downtown Abbey” parody on funnyordie.com. And then that link went viral.
“I love what you can do with a great, big crowd that has your attention,” Combs says. “Maybe it’s influencing people to listen to a performer or helping someone who wasn’t born into a financially stable situation. I get a thrill harnessing the force of all those eyes and ears. That’s what being a mentor means to me.”
Combs mentored some of the biggest acts of our time: Boyz II Men, Usher, Mariah Carey, TLC, Lil’ Kim. “He’s got the greatest instincts for culture and for what’s going to ignite people’s interest,” says Andy Schuon, president and founder of Revolt TV. They’ve worked together since Schuon was EVP of programming and production at MTV in the 1990s. He’s always been impressed by Combs’s divining rod-like ability to find talent. “Sean can watch a kid play in a neighborhood in Chicago or Atlanta and see the superstar they can be. It’s a gift. He sees the future in people.” And not just musicians. Entrepreneurs, designers, students—Combs mentors all types. “It’s really like a spiritual type of experience making that connection with someone,” Combs says. “You get these goose bumps when you encounter a diamond in the rough. You see potential. You see possibilities unfolding before your eyes. It helps me to help them.”
The road to the mountaintop is full of curves, but Combs’s driver knows the way. Combs is quiet for a moment, and I don’t jump to fill the silence. The houses are getting bigger and so are the hedgerows and gates. “The best way to help people is to be an example,” he says, finally. “You can’t tell people what to do. You show them where they can go. Spark the dream by living it.”
Top of the world. It’s really the only way to describe the Combs aerie high above Beverly Hills. Frosted security gates whisper open as the Maybach approaches. An interior door rises to reveal an entertainment room/gym/Diddycave. And, good lord, the view. We stay put in the car.
The modern steel, glass, and concrete home on the edge of forever looks like hip-hop Valhalla, but Combs tries playing it down. “I like nice things, but life’s pretty normal around here,” he says. He admits his videos and public appearances have “amplified” his image as a Champagne-guzzling, Gulfstream-flying man of means, but he says the fantasy isn’t exactly what people think. “People think, ‘Oh, Diddy’s probably running around his mansion spooning caviar into his mouth,’” he says with a laugh. “I don’t even like caviar.”
For Combs, home is about family. He is father to a sizable brood—sons Justin Dior, Christian Casey, and stepson Quincy, daughter Chance, and twin daughters Jessie James and D’Lila Star keep Daddy Diddy quite busy. Their moms, meanwhile, keep him honest, he says, smiling. “A lot of people say yes to me, I admit that. But I’m blessed by how much the mothers of my children love to tell me the truth. They don’t let me get away with anything!
“Some days I think my whole life is going from the park to their basketball games to recitals, and I love it,” he says. Los Angeles makes it easy to be out and about. “People don’t get worked up by a celebrity the way they do in New York. There’s an unwritten rule here that when you show up at school or even Universal CityWalk with your kids, people let you have that family time.”
That’s not to suggest family life is normal exactly. When Justin turned 16 a couple years ago, Dad gave him a starter version of the car we’re sitting in right now (Justin’s silver Maybach was only about $360,000). But Combs says it’s motivating to be a model of success. “I think I’m an example to them of working for what you want,” he says. “I don’t make apologies for what I have. Especially in these economic times, it’s an achievement to have financial success. If part of that is to spoil your kids, to give them things, it’s okay, as long as they appreciate what they have. You have to take responsibility for your own growth and happiness. Money doesn’t always bring you that. I want my kids to be kind people, to be happy people. But ultimately, it’s going to be up to them to make that happen.”
Something in Combs’ demeanor indicates it’s time for him—and me—to move on. He clicks a button to raise his seat back, puts on a pair of gold-rimmed sunglasses, and opens the door. “[My driver] will take you anywhere you want to go,” he says. “The world’s yours.” Actually, let’s face it: The world is all his.
Photography by Jeff Gale and jeff crawford; Styling by Derek Roche; Makeup by Lucia Rodriguez; Grooming by Curtis Smith
Cover shoot: September 2014 issue of Los Angeles Confidential magazine.