The first time I contact Just Mike the Poet, in June 2016, I’m sprawled out on my couch, feeling sorry for myself. I’d recently been ghosted by the guy I’d been dating for the last few months, and I was no longer furious, just sad and confused. How did I let this happen to me again?
But I don’t Instagram DM Mike a rundown of the situation and ask him for advice, like many women do. Instead, I ask if I can interview him. I’ve been wanting to write a story about him, the curious cultural phenomenon of his celebrity, a man who’s built a career by writing inspirational poetry for women and posting it on social media, and I decide I’m ready. Maybe he could give me some insight into my own situation.
It was a slam poet on the Philadelphia scene who told me about Mike. You have to check this guy out, he said. Here was a poet with an enormous — and near-fanatical — following. Women were posting photos of themselves reading his books and wearing his T-shirts, they were buying tickets to his shows, they were getting his logo tattooed.
His fans were a powerful army of brand ambassadors, flooding Instagram with their love and support for him. Even Halle Berry joined in when she posted a photo of herself last May, eyes shut and hair windswept, sporting a distressed version of Mike’s trademark “No more boyfriends.” T-shirt. “Summer’s coming… let’s shine up our crowns ladies! Let’s do it like @justmike_,” she wrote. Nearly 96,000 users liked it.
The slam poet pulled up Mike’s Instagram to show me.
It felt like a line from a smooth-talking “feminist” dude, a writer who was very clearly pandering to women. It was so over the top that it made me cringe. But, at the same time, I couldn’t deny that his writing spoke to me. All Mike’s poems offered pun-filled variations on the same message: Love yourself. Don’t settle. If a guy can’t see that you’re great, he just needs new glasses. These were the things I’d tell a friend when she was scorned by a man. They were lessons I had spent years learning, that I was still trying to learn, and for a guy to be advocating for them? It was powerful. Subversive, almost.
Except: was it really all that subversive if it was ultimately a man doing the empowering? No matter how much his message resonated with me, I felt skeptical of him, the way I’m skeptical of any man who speaks loudly about being a Good Man and especially one who’s selling a hoodiereminding me of the fact. Who was this guy whom so many women believed in? Was it all just a savvy marketing scheme targeting women who had lost hope in men?
I wanted to find out.