Tracy chats with Essence Magazine’s Entertainment Director, Cori Murray, to talk about the lessons she learned working at the longstanding media company and the importance of supporting the multitudes of Black culture.
Going Through It Season 2 Episode 4 Cori Murray
Tracy Clayton: This is Going Through It. A show about women who found themselves in situations where they said, "Girl, bye." And they made a decision to make a change and turn something around. I'm your host, Tracy Clayton.
Tracy: There is nothing like walking into that airport bookstore and finding one of your favorites gracing the cover of an iconic Black magazine like Essence. One of my favorites is the Issa Rae cover, where she has these long box braids. And just got on a head wrap and her skin was amazing. And there's a lot of thought that goes into these pictures. Right. Who gets an Essence cover? And why that person is the best person to speak to Black women at that moment. It's pretty involved. Cori Murray's dream job was to be the person that made those decisions.
Cori Murray: My first day at Essence, I still remember it because I kind of walked in in disbelief and being like, “Oh my God, I made it.”
Tracy: Cori showed up, guns blazing, ready to get to work and leave her mark at this place that she really admired.
Cori: I want to change Essence. I wanna make it younger. Why do we need covers of Nia Long? Like we were doing a cover with Nia Long, and it was probably Nia Long's fifth Essence cover at the time.
Tracy: Okay, wait. I love Nia. She has been in a lot of my favorite things, like the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Love Jones, Friday. But like, does she have stock in Essence Magazine or something? Because she really has been on a lot of covers. And like, honestly, I did not know that you could have that many Essence covers and not be Michelle Obama. It's amazing. But Cori saw this as a moment of opportunity. She was gonna say something to her boss.
Cori: And I sent my junior editors a note that says, "We should no longer have covers with Nia Long. We need to update Essence." I pretty much was like, “They're getting it wrong.”
Tracy: But Cori didn't know that her note would go to the big boss. Like her boss's boss.
Cori: And one person who came in early was our Executive Editor, Robin Stone, called me into her office, shut the door and was like, “Girl. Slow your roll.”
Tracy: It was in this moment that Cori knew, she done messed up.
Cori: She gave me such a read. And when I look back on it, it was probably the best lesson I could have had. She basically told me, A) I was being disrespectful to people who had been writing for years, people who had a long trajectory in their career. And that Essence was, for them, the pinnacle. Everyone wanted to write for Essence. So the fact that I was just discrediting them, being dismissive of the work that they did was offensive.
Tracy: And from then on, Cori changed how she moved through the workplace.
Cori: She taught me that if you want to make a case for anything, you need to go about it in a better way. You need to learn to have respect.
Tracy: So how do you slow your roll and still get ahead? How do you slow your roll, but still stick to your guns and stand by what you believe in? That is what Entertainment Director of Essence Magazine, Cori Murray and I sat down to talk about. This is Going Through It.
Tracy: So you got read for filth. But it sounds like it was a really formative lesson in how to communicate your opinion, right? How would you go about that memo differently today?
Cori: I think the better way was to reformat that note, because I came off very entitled and I came off negative first. Something I even do now, like when I have a criticism or a heavy edit or something, I try to start with the good and then go into like, “Okay, this is how this should have been done.” The better way, probably, were to have a conversation as opposed to putting it in writing, making copies and everything, and also going to them and asking, “Well, how do you pick covers? Well, how do you pick these people? How do they end up here?” And learning that process because fast forward to just a couple of weeks ago at work, one of the younger editors was like, “Why do we have such and such on the cover? Why are we doing this? And why are you doing that?” And I had to stand up and say, you know, actually I've made offers to that person, but they only want to do covers. They don't want to be featured in Essence. They want this or they, they want that or they want so much control over the story. And its control we're not willing to relinquish. I can still see her mind going, “but still”. But it's like, “but no, there's no but still. I've given you the answer and this is why. And until you can step in my shoes for a while and learn a bigger picture, you need to fig -- we need to all figure out a way. Well, how do we cover them or make them see that, Hey, they could -- should be a part of Essence. Or they should be featured.” So again, that Nia Long read, that was such a, a teaching moment for me and that I truly love it. Although I wanted to cry and run. But that moment taught me that I need to figure out a way to best pitch my bosses. I need to be smarter. I need to be more strategic. But it also taught me that I cannot deny my passion for what I think would be right for the brand or shining light on someone who deserves some.
Tracy: So is there a moment when you took what you learned from being read and you are able to successfully pitch somebody for a cover?
Cori: When 12 Years a Slave was just bubbling up, I was the entertainment director at Essence. The way Essence was structured at the time, I did not officially offer covers. Mikki Taylor's title was Beauty and Cover Director. And in her role, she literally would send letters to the publicist or to talent to say, We want to offer you for the cover. It was somewhat of an honor or, you know, access for Mikki to have that initial conversation. If you know Mikki Taylor, you know, she's like a beauty goddess. So a lot of celebrities love to kind of get her blessing on them. But the publicists for Lupita, she and I had developed a relationship and she said, listen, you know, I have this new girl. Her name is Lupita. I've been trying to get in contact with Mikki for her and Lupita to meet. But do you mind meeting her? And I was like, “Of course.” I just -- I had literally just came from the screening. I loved it. I was in a -- I cried. Like I didn't know what it was. But I felt with her role in 12 Years a Slave ‘cause I kind of was like, “She could win this. She could win acad” -- and I kind of felt a shift was about to come because things were getting stale. You know what I mean? We needed new blood. We needed new stars. I thought Lupita was this great chance for newness. They were like, “No, she's not.” When I came back and said, “I had saw this great movie, after seeing 12 Years a Slave and realized that she really was the heart of this movie,” they were like “who?” Because first they were like, “Lupita what?” Unfortunately, I was used to their pushback. I was very familiar with it because I had seen it before. And I'm like, “You guys just don't understand. It's going to be great. It's gonna be amazing. And they're just -- but you know, they need to know, like, real facts or real, real reasons. You know, they needed to be convinced. And I wasn't convincing them enough, especially for someone that they knew nothing about. I didn't get them to say yes.”
Cori: We were booking Black Women Hollywood. Someone finally said, “we need some newness.” Here's my moment! So I was like, “guys, guys. Lupita. Again, Lupita. Okay.” And I think probably by this point, award season has started. Lupita was bubbling. She was already making her rounds. She was already being kind of touted as the fashion girl. And I think she finally was like, fine. It was more -- it was one of those fine, Cori. Go do it. You know. And I was like -- I gather -- [Laughs] papers and stuff quickly and ran to email Lupita's team and say we want to honor her for Black Women Hollywood. There were still some teeth sucking in the rooms. It took them either being engaged with her, meeting her to, to finally see it. Black Women Hollywood usually is this -- it is the Thursday before the Oscars. So the Thursday before the Oscars, I mean, she had already been winning the SAG. She'd already been winning the Golden Globes. So she was hot, hot, hot, hot, hot. Like everyone wanted to be a part of her, right? So, when she came into the ballroom for Black Women Hollywood, I mean, everyone at this point just wants to touch her. Everyone. You know, I'm seeing my team. Everybody wants to just be -- And I was like, “Look at you bitches. Look at you bitches,” right? So I'm over here being smug and like, you know, but also but deeply proud. And also, I really believed in her. I believed in the moment when Lupita started out speaking. And when the first thing she said was, I want to talk about Black beauty, specifically dark beauty. The tears just started. Because one thing about Black that -- being in that room and Black Women Hollywood, we had kind of become known for our speeches. So fast forward to Lupita has the room crying. She's going on about Black beauty, dark beauty. How she wanted to be lighter, how she wished for whatever. But then came this moment where she's being celebrated. And her confidence came up and she was just thankful for it. And I remember crying. I remember everybody crying. And I mean, after that moment, you know, that speech went viral. Like immediately it went viral. And I remember people coming up to me just saying, "Cori, you did it."
Tracy: So, first of all, amazing. But when you had that moment of push back around wanting to center Lupita, did this experience change your perception of Black media and more specifically, your role within Black media? Like that happened and were you like, “Oh, now I know like, what to do”?
Cori: It did. And the reason it did is because Black Women Hollywood started in 2008. And when we started, a lot of people who we'd invite, they would say, you know, thank you for this because you're bringing us together. You're bringing us -- it's like a reunion, a homecoming, pajama party, whatever you want to call it. But as I would go into planning Black Women Hollywood, you know, I would read the trades. I've been reading the entertainment trades forever. And --
Tracy: What is -- I don't -- what is an entertainment trade?
Cori: Oh, so The Hollywood Reporter, Variety.
Tracy: Oh okay, okay.
Cori: Trade magazines.
Tracy: I didn't know that. Okay. [Laughs]
Cori: And the trade magazines, you know, now they're really glossy. But back then they were not. They were just very black and white, broadsheet papers. Like nothing sexy. But when they would get sexy was they would pull all the photos from the red carpet events or award season. And I would look at these things time and time again and see nothing but white people. A sea of white people.
Cori: Story of most of our lives probably? [Laughs]
Cori: Story of my-- Yes.
Tracy: And they're like, “We've got a Black one and an Asian one.”
Cori: [crosstalk] Yeah.
Tracy: “We're good. We've checked off all of the boxes.”
Cori: And you know that that conversation is happening where they're like, “We need a Black one. We need an Asian one.”
Tracy: [crosstalk] Mhm, yeah. Absolutely.
Cori: We need the Spanish one.
Tracy: And that's --.
Cori: Or the Latina.
Tracy: [crosstalk] That's them trying to be capital D diverse, right?
Cori: [crosstalk] Yes.
Tracy: Where it's like, “We've ticked off all the boxes, we did what we had to do. You're happy. You can't complain anymore.”
Cori: I just want to help tell really deep, beautiful stories. But that's what's next for me, because that audio experience is just, it really fulfills me now.
Tracy: A thing that I know is that podcasting is super white.
Cori: Yes, I know. I heard.
Tracy: You've been working with Black folks for 20 years.
Tracy: Do you think -- like does it -- does the idea of having to work with white folks, again, especially in media, because you know how media is. Does it make you nervous? Are you, like, dreading it? Do you think that your experience at Essence has bolstered you to, like, better deal with the rest of the world? Do you know what I mean? Like, how do you think about that?
Cori: I have been around Black folks all my life. Like I've lived in Black neighborhoods. I've gone to Black schools. Like not even -- I went to Hampton. Shout out to Hampton. But I also went to a Black high school. I went to Black middle school.
Tracy: So, you just lived this Black utopia.
Cori: I am Blackity Black Black.
Tracy: [crosstalk] I am so jealous. [Laughs]
Cori: Like whoever came up with that, that button, very Black. I was like, that is me.
Cori: And I never forget going to Ghana for the first time, about maybe fourteen, fifteen years ago.
Cori: And I thought I was gonna be embraced and, you know, like, “My sister.”
Tracy: “Welcome home!”
Cori: “Welcome home! You've been-” You know. And I remember calling my mother going, “I'm Black mama. We're just, we're Black Americans.”
Cori: And sometimes being around white folks, and especially in professional setting, I have a little bit of nervousness because I'm like, I'm not sure how to navigate. I mean, I, you know, I make do. I mean, you know, I've been successful in my career.
Cori: I get things done. But one thing that Essence -- been in Essence for 20 years has taught me and actually being a Hampton grad, actually -- well more so an HBCU grad, there is a lot of pride here. So I often think that if I'm going to be met with any resistance, I'm going to be okay because I know they're not the end all, be all. Like I know you said, like the podcasting world is white. Well, if I'm met with any doors closing or or I've hit a wall, then I know well, then I'm just gonna take it over to the Black folk or I'm gonna go start it myself.
Tracy: Yeah. That's another thing that I think about a lot--
Cori: [crosstalk] And build it from the ground up. And that's one thing, I will say that I do enjoy about my time at Essence right now, you know, the fact that we're you know, we're 100 percent Black owned. And that -- but it's something about that entrepreneurial spirit. I mean, initially I was having an issue because internally, you know, we're about to go into our fiftieth anniversary as a, as a company. But Michelle Ebanks, our President, would often say, but we're a startup. And I'd be like, “No we're not. We got 50 years in the game. What you talking about, girl?”
Tracy: [crosstalk] I have confusion. [Laughs]
Cori: Yeah, what you talking about? But I -- now I get what she's meaning in that we have to, it's a way for you to be hungering. We have to go out and get that business. Business is different now.
Tracy: So this is Essence's fiftieth year on the Earth, on the planet--
Cori: [crosstalk] Yep, praise God, praise God.
Tracy: In 2020. Yep, in 2020. Happy birthday. But that's a really long time for any publication to last, especially a print publication, especially now. But especially Black publications. Like, I miss Jet. And I miss Vibe and all those other magazines. And I know they were your competitors. But like, do you as a, as a magazine hoe, I do believe that you --.
Cori: That is correct.
Tracy: Self-Identify. [Laughs]
Tracy: Do you miss that era?
Cori: I miss that competitiveness. I mean, I have it now with general market magazines. But it's not the same as like to know, like to sit there and be like, “What is -- you know, what is Vibe going to have or who is Honey gonna have? Or-” Jet was a little different cause Jet was a weekly so you know, they, they got a pass. But I do miss that era because they were -- they also told different kind of stories.
Cori: And it wasn't just about us. And that was a great time because I think you kind of got into the totality of Blackness, which on newsstands you don't have anymore.
Tracy: So you have a pinned tweet about rooting for everybody Black.
Cori: I do.
Tracy: Quick story. So I used to work with the young lady who shall not be named at a company that also does not need to be named. And, uh, very, very white. Very, very white company. I think at the time there may have been ten Black people, or so.
Tracy: And we were all just like, you know, hanging out Black kids in the cafeteria at the same table as you always do. And she said something that first made me make a face, but then I was like, I kind of get it. And she was like, “I can't wait until we have enough Black people here that we don't have to like everybody.”
Cori: Ooh. [Laughs]
Tracy: Right? First of all, I was like, “What kind of uh -- what kind of Black are you, madam?” But then I was like, I do feel pressure in this company to just, like, stand shoulder to shoulder with all the Black people just because they're Black and because we're Black and we need this united front, you know what I mean? How do you see the phrase rooting for everybody Black? And do you ever feel that similar pressure?
Cori: It's funny you, you asked me this because -- [Laughs]
Tracy: I smell a good story. Let's go. [Laughs]
Cori: No. Because someone -- who shall not be named. We were at a screening of a movie. And we had critiques. It was -- and it was a recent Black movie.
Tracy: Uh huh.
Cori: And we had critiques.
Tracy: [Laughs] We have thoughts.
Cori: We have thoughts. But we both said we feel horrible because we're supposed to so support. And I know Wesley Morris did a beautiful piece when he, I think he was at a dinner and he critiqued Insecure. And the, uh, I think the guy next to him was like, “How dare you?” And he went and Wesley really did a beautiful job explaining, like, “I can have opinions. I don't have to --” Like you said I don't have to like everyone. So one thing at Essence over the years. One of our internal things is that we don't critique. We support.
Tracy: [crosstalk] Like as a rule?
Cori: As a rule, we support.
Tracy: How do you feel about that?
Cori: I think it's time to change. I think we need to talk about things. We need to talk about why something is not good, or why we have an issue with someone.
Tracy: And we're also individual human beings --.
Cori: [crosstalk] Yes.
Tracy: With differing opinions.
Cori: [crosstalk] Yes. Yes. You know, there's a shout out to Diarra Kilpatrick.
Cori: She had a show on ABC Go, a digital show called American Koko. And she was some sort of agent who would help you understand to be Black. It was brilliant. But fast forward to one of the episodes was a little Black girl was at school, and she didn't want to play Harriet Tubman. And another person was supposed to play Harriet Tubman, someone else got cast. And I think she was Latina or something. And the Black girls' parents was up in an uproar, like, “How dare you let --” you know but the daughter had to pull, you know, finally said, “I don't want to play her.”
Cori: “I don't, I don't want to do this. And they were like, well how -- you know, she's a staple. She's icon.” She was like, “I'm sorry. It looks like she got on a head wrap.”
Tracy: [Laughs] What?
Cori: Tracy --.
Tracy: [Laughs] Oh god.
Cori: I fell the fuck out. Because I thought, oh my God. First of all, the writing like, y'all said this?
Tracy: Right. Right.
Cori: But at the same time, because it's you know, I think, the girl was like in middle school. And I'm like, if that's her truth.
Tracy: Some people bes like that.
Cori: Some people bes like that.
Tracy: Yeah. Yeah.
Cori: She's not struggl -- she's not seeing struggle. You know, we come from a generation -- I know I'm older than you but you know, we come from a generation, like it's gotta be respected. You gotta --
Tracy: [crosstalk] Exactly.
Cori: But these new people are like, ah.
Tracy: Yeah. Yes. That's so true. It's like they're able to like look at themselves as human. I love that so much. Like I don't, I don't do hair wraps.
Cori: [crosstalk] Yeah, I’m good. I don't do --.
Tracy: Why isn't that enough? Why don't I have the option -- if Cindy was supposed to play a white person.
Tracy: And she was like, well, I don't want to dye my hair blond. It'd be fine.
Cori: It'd be fine.
Cori: But when we don't want to play Harriet Tubman it's like --.
Tracy: [crosstalk] Then it's an issue.
Cori: “What's, what’s wrong with you? You don’t respect your people, you don’t respect the struggle?”
Tracy: Right, exactly.
Cori: You know. So I get -- all that, so this story in that, there is a lot of that bubbling up. And I do wish -- there's a -- I mean, there's enough people who will critique things. But I do wish you were able to as Black media, as Black people to critique things, to really honestly have a conversation. Because, I mean, what did our ancestors fight for?
Cori: They fought for us to be fully human.
Tracy: And -- they didn't just die -- I feel like people only mention that. Like, this is what ancestors died for, is to vote. She -- Yeah. Voting is important. But there's also other stuff.
Cori: Other stuff.
Tracy: Like being able to be like, “Nah, I don't want to play a slave in this thing.”
Cori: “No, I just you know, I just want this latte.”
Cori: “And I want it with foam.”
Tracy: That's all.
Tracy: What advice would you give to a Black woman just graduated from college, wants to get into the field of media. What do you think is the most important thing for her to know?
Cori: Don't be afraid of her voice. Speak it, write it, nurture it, and if you're being told too many times to quiet it or say it this way or don't say it this way, then actively try to find somewhere else to be. Because I think there's one thing to have learning. But if you're constantly being told to change or being told your voice is not valid, then you need to move away from it.
Cori: Our voice is our most important thing. And right now, even as us when, when we hear of people who speak on things that, you know, either we've been afraid to say or it's a new idea, we gravitate to it. Cause it's newness.
Tracy: Yeah. Yeah.
Cori: So, tap into that more. And if you hit a couple of walls, then find an elder -- and look at me. I'm sounding like a, like an old Essence editor [Laughs] Find an eld -- find someone you respect.
Tracy: A mentor.
Cori: A mentor. And say I've been having these problems communicating or expressing my ideas or, or having my ideas used. What can I change? How can I change my perception? How can I change my delivery?
Cori: And listen to what they say. Constructive criticism is real.
Tracy: Talking with Cori was absolutely everything that I need today, because we all need a reminder to be a little more constructive with our criticism, am I right? But, you know who has absolutely no problem criticizing me? Constructively? My homegirls. They are the ones who get me, even when I do not get myself, which is often. There are just certain things that I feel like I can only talk about with my homegirls. Can't go tell my mom and them, because your girls just get you like nobody else does. You know? So due to social distancing and the time of the coronavirus, me and my homegirls had a virtual dinner party to talk about whether it's what you say or how you say it.
Tracy: All right. Cheers, everybody.
Tracy: Cheers! To technology!
Tracy: So does what you say matter as much as how you say it?
Akeilah: I think they both matter. I would like to, to be the sort of person that says tone doesn't matter. But I know we've all had somebody say something and you're just like, “I'm sorry. What?”
Tracy: Exactly. Yeah. Also, like, you have to be tactical when communicating with somebody. And if there's a thing that you really want somebody to hear, you can't come in all rah rah and aggressive cus they're gonna shut down. So tone definitely matters because it can dictate whether or not you actually have this conversation with somebody.
Akeilah: Yes. Whether it goes forward at all. Like, I cannot tell you the number of times my mom has been like, “You need to watch your tone.”
Tracy: Mhm, like, “First of all, take a bass out your voice.”
Maya: Sometimes I think people, especially if it's someone that you're really close to, you guys just need to be apart for like maybe a couple minutes or an hour, or maybe a day. Because, like, depending on what the context of the conversation is like, my like, my tone is just going to be angry. No matter -- like depending on the situation. So it's like maybe I just need some time to cool off. And then when we get back and then I can give you a more respectful, and knowing that, okay this is a conversation that's very triggering to me. So me talking about it right now when, like, I'm really upset, there's not going to be any, like, good could come from this conversation at all.
Tracy: [crosstalk] Right, yeah. Do you think that there's a particular relationship between Black women and their tone and how that tone is perceived by other people who are not Black or women?
Akeilah: Yes. [laughter]
Maya: I think when you have that, like, stereotype of being aggressive, that even when you are angry and your anger is justified, that people get like they can't even see past it because it's like a fear or like they just go along with, like, the stereotype. And so you just seem like you're just nagging or just like, “Oh there she goes being upset again about nothing.”
Maya: When like most of the time it is for a reason.
Akeilah: Yeah. I felt that I sort of like default to just not saying anything. Because I get the feeling that my anger is going to be too much for anybody else to handle. Even if it's justified that it's hard to feel like it can be expressed in a way that's appropriate because the audience might take it a way I don't intend it.
Dani: But also, I hate those interactions where I know that it's like just, there's just implicit bias. Like, no matter what I say, they're not listening. And then in those situations, I mean, if I'm gonna be strong, I got to really dial it back so that I am being heard in the proper way. But nine times out of ten, whenever that happens, I turn the fuck up. [Laughs] It turns ugly and then I get ugly.
Dani: And I'll be like, “Alright fucking everybody up. We're-” [Laughs].
Tracy: If I'm going down, y'all going with me.
Maya: I work in retail. And there'll be so many times where people, like the same customer, like I'll see them like talk me really rude. And then they'll go to like my white male coworker and be like, “Hey, hey dude. Like this happened.” I'm just like, “Wait. What? Where did that person -- Like what happened with that?”
Maya: And I literally had like one of those like That's So Raven moments, where I was like, “Oh! This is what this is. Okay, okay.” And like learning that it's like upsetting to yourself and like it's hard not to internalize that, but there is kind of like a superpower in knowing that too. Like knowing like you were completely, like, nice to that person, like there's nothing you coulda did. It wasn't you. It's how they perceived you.
Tracy: Y'all thanks so much for hanging out with me!
Akeilah: It was great. Thank you very much.
Tracy: It was an hour. I have actual [inaudible] now. Bye.
Tracy: Thank you so much for tuning in. Going Through It is an original podcast created in partnership with MailChimp and Pineapple Street Studios. Executive Producers for Going Through It are Jenna Weiss-Berman, Max Linsky, and Agerenesh Ashagre. Shout out to the producers of Going Through It. Our Lead Producer is Josh Gwynn. Production by Jess Jupiter and Emmanuel Happsis is with Production Support by Janelle Anderson. Our Editor is the new Supreme Leila Day. Also, thanks to the voices that you heard. Sound off in this episode. Let's hear those names!
Akeilah: I'm Akeilah.
Maya: I'm Maya.
Dani: I'm Dani.
Tracy: Our original music is by Daoud Anthony, and our engineer is Hannis Brown. Special thanks to Elenor Kagan for being the alpha and the origin of this whole party. Stay in touch. Find me on all the things @BrokeyMcPoverty and maybe send me a dollar so I can change my name on all the things. Tell your friends about the show. Make sure that you rate and subscribe to Going Through It on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever free podcasts are sold. And that's it. We're done. Again.
Tracy: Yay! Come back. All right. Bye. [Laughs]
Listen as 14 talented women tell the story about pivotal moments in their lives when they had to decide whether to quit or keep going. The new season, hosted by Tracy Clayton, is coming in 2020.
Listen as 14 talented women tell the story about pivotal moments in their lives when they had to decide whether to quit or keep going. The new season, hosted by Tracy Clayton, is coming in 2020.
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Ashley C. Ford on escaping toxic living situations and living for herself.
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