By Curtis Bunn, Urban News Service
When Monica Cooper walked into a smoke-filled room, it changed her life.
She was a New York promotional model in 1998, when she worked an obscure event that she hardly remembers — except that men there smoked cigars. That occasion welcomed her into a culture in which few black women had ventured. It also inspired Cooper to launch a niche organization last year that meshes black women with cigars.
Stixx & Stilettos is Cooper’s brainchild. It acquaints black women with the world of cigars while also helping professional ladies gather to network and socialize, much as golf courses help cultivate business connections.
“The name symbolizes successful women who not only like rolling up their sleeves and working hard,” Cooper said, “but also relaxing and playing hard by enjoying great cigars while loving everything about being feminine, including rocking sexy stilettos.
“But Stixx & Stilettos was created to be an environment that women can smoke in that is tailored to them,” Cooper added, “a place where women can talk and discuss issues that are important to them, all while indulging in great cigars.”
The culture has been overwhelmingly male-dominated — a sort of giant, public man cave. Many women found such spaces inhospitable.
Cigar venues increasingly have become “female friendly” simply through the presence of other ladies of the leaf. The Surgeon General and numerous health organizations warn about the risks of smoking, which discourages many women. This contrasts with the early 1990s, when female celebrities such as Whoopi Goldberg were photographed smoking cigars. Such images made it vogue for women to try “stixx” alongside their male companions.
“We are not promoting smoking,” said Cooper, a New York novelist and realtor. “We are offering an opportunity for women who want to smoke or try cigars to do so in an inviting environment.”
Atlanta’s Sherry Johnson, who has smoked cigars for a decade, has detected a shift.
“There seems to be a dramatic increase in the cigar-smoking culture, including black women,” Johnson said. “Part of the increase is the perception of cigars being a lifestyle product for young and financially successful people. Some think it’s the cool and upscale thing to do. Some are intrigued and enjoy the aroma, taste and ritual. It relaxes them, gives them time to reflect, a way to meet new people.”
That’s the hook, said Vanessa Olivier, a Stixx & Stilettos co-founder and New York attorney. She saw cigars hand-rolled at a wedding reception five years ago and became intrigued.
“The networking that takes place at some cigar events is far more beneficial than standard networking functions,” Olivier said. “The cigar culture tends to encourage more authentic, in depth and honest exchanges of information, contacts and resources. When I started my law practice, many of my first clients were people I had met at cigar events.” Such events help “people to get to know one another in a setting that is intimate and professional.”
Since NBA legend Michael Jordan gave Ron Williams a Cuban cigar 15 years ago, he has been an enthusiast. He is launching Harlem Cigar Company, an e-commerce store with selected brick-and-mortar locations that will produce cigars in Harlem and target women.
“Women clearly add to the ambiance of the cigar lounge, but don’t necessarily change the culture,” Williams said. “While it will continue to be a man’s sanctuary, I’ve always felt that a cigar levels the playing field no matter what your walk of life, including gender.”
Cooper and Olivier recently concluded Stixx & Stilettos’ Women Run the World Tour, in which they hosted cigar events in New York, Washington, D.C. and Atlanta. Cooper called traveling and meeting women cigar smokers “empowering.”
While Stixx & Stilettos does not sell the idea of meeting gentlemen at its events, “You can’t help but notice all of the handsome and distinguished men who frequent cigar lounges,” Cooper said. “The same goes for men. Seeing a beautiful woman who enjoys cigars in a lounge, while possibly an anomaly to them, can be quite refreshing.”
At its core, Stixx & Stilettos is about bringing together women and the cigar experience. It offers summer classes on cigar smoking, regions where leaves are grown and other aspects of this industry. Its website, stixxandstilettos.com, has become a popular destination for female smokers.
“When you infuse professional, forward-thinking black women with a business concept that was virtually untapped, you have the opportunity to carve out your destiny,” Cooper said. “And so we are excited about the future and expanding our reach to African-American women.”