Ever since a New York singer said "no" to big tobacco and
a big record deal, her career has been smoking By Lisa Jones, San
Francisco Chronicle, July 6, 1998
A year and a half ago, Leslie Nuchow was getting by. Between her office job
and singing gigs, she managed to pay the rent on her Brooklyn apartment. She
was winning praise for her velvet and steel voice, snagging awards for her provocative
lyrics and hoping to scrape together the money to produce a CD. Then last January,
she got The Call. A talent scout who had heard her at the Mercury Lounge in
the East Village offered her the chance to sing in a heavily promoted concert
series. The scout also hinted at a chance, Nuchow says, to have her songs included
in a CD under a new label: Woman Thing Music.
"I was absolutely ecstatic," says Nuchow, an effusive twentysomething.
"It's the call every artist waits for." Then she learned the name
of the company behind Woman Thing: tobacco behemoth Philip Morris, maker of
Virginia Slims cigarettes. Each Woman Thing CD, Nuchow was told, would come
with two packs of Virginia Slims. She paused. A former smoker herself, she didn't
feel particularly sanctimonious about the habit. But she was appalled by how
the tobacco industry's advertising campaigns targeted young women. On the other
hand, she was very ambitious. Nuchow agonized. She brain-stormed. And then she
turned Woman Thing down-and left Philip Morris feeling burned. "How could
I take something as precious and pure as my music, and use that to lure anybody-especially
young girls and women-to buy a product that could kill them?" she says.
'Too incongruous. Not possible." So Nuchow decided to organize a concert.
Virginia SLAM!, she called it. Her apartment became a war room: a place to wage
battle against the way tobacco companies woo young women. Volunteers moved in
to make phone calls, posters and concert plans. They found a venue-a Manhattan
club called Wetlands-and lined up recording artist Jill Sobule, who headlined
for Nuchow, Nedra Johnson, Heather Eatman and Susan McKeown and the Chanting
Four days before show time last June, Nuchow got The Call again. This one was
from the Indigo Girls-the wildly popular duo who have championed causes from
Native American rights to Habitat for Humanity. It was too late to include them
in the show, but the Indigo Girls said that was no problem, they would sing
at the next SLAM! concert At which point, laughs Nuchow, "I fell on the
floor and started screaming."
In the aftermath, Nuchow put out "Tenderland," her first CD and SLAM!
Records' first release. (Part of the proceeds from SLAM! records and concerts
will go to humanitarian groups, particularly those that help young women resist
SLAM! No. 2 took place April 27, with the Indigo Girls, as promised. The sold-out
show at the club, Irving Place, drew more than 1,000 people. Tobacco officials,
not surprisingly, were not amused. Nuchow "has continued to misrepresent
the facts," says Tara Carraro, a Philip Morris spokesperson. "We believe
she's doing so to make a name for herself." Carraro disputes Nuchow's story
on a number of key points, among them whether she was ever offered a concert
tour or CD spot. The only thing mentioned, Carraro says, was a tryout: a chance
for Nuchow to become the warm-up act for Woman Thing's main artist, singer Martha
Byrne(who plays Lily on the soap opera "As The World Turns"). WomanThing
CDs did come with packs of Virginia Slims, Carraro acknowledges. But the goal
was not to get young women smoking, she says; It was to give adult female smokers
a positive association with the brand. To that end, Philip Morris kicked off
Woman Thing Music in 1996 with a self-described goal of showcasing "voices
that need to be heard....Each year, Woman Thing Music plans to seek out aspiring
vocalists from around the country and underwrite their debuts," said the
label's premier CD.
Designed with women in mind, Virginia Slims-and its "You've come a long
way, baby" ad slogan-has long been associated with sporting events and
other entertainment, including a recent concert series with Gladys Knight and
the Pips. But Woman Thing was Philip Morris's first attempt at producing CDs.
And the attempt, for now, appears to be over. After just two CDs-the second
featuring singer/actress Pauley P-Woman Thing has disappeared. Carraro says
everything has gone as planned; the label was intended to be short-term. Woman
Thing's inaugural CD, however, alludes to grander visions. "Watch for future
volumes on the Woman Thing's Music label," the liner reads, "with
more exciting new artists and formats ranging from pop to country to R&B."
Which raises the question: Did a young, relatively unknown singer derail Philip
Morris's effort? Absolutely not, says Carraro. And certainly, the tobacco company
has far bigger headaches than Nuchow, with an estimated 800 lawsuits on the
horizon and efforts by at least 13 states to recover the costs of treating smoking-related
illnesses. In the meantime, the governments of both the Czech Republic and Poland
have asked Nuchow to help counteract the cigarette advertising campaigns currently
aimed at the young women in their countries. A SLAM tour, says Nuchow, is planned
for both places in November.