Prince’s Hand Warmers

It all started with an email to my boss, Zooey Deschanel. Prince said he loved New Girl and wanted to be on it. We were sure it was a prank.

Music Features Prince
Prince’s Hand Warmers

“It was unfathomable to think we were in her presence. Those moments you don’t believe are real. When you know life will never be the same after.” —Warren Ellis, Nina Simone’s Gum

Prince noticed that I had painted my nails purple when I first shook his hand. We were at the bottom of an L-shaped staircase inside a house in Altadena, which opened to a massive room full of camera equipment and extras hoping to make it in front of those cameras. Despite the pain from his hip, he stood to shake my hand—because one of his delightful paradoxes was how traditional he was about manners, despite his history of assless pants. He shook my hand, then softly twisted my wrist, as though to kiss the top of my hand, so he could nod his approval at my nails—a slow head bow with his eyes closed, almost a blessing. At 5’2”, we were also the same height and, though he didn’t mention it, I like to think he noticed it.

It was almost midnight and, after weeks of not being sure he would show up, Prince was here to shoot an episode of New Girl. It all started with an email to my boss, Zooey Deschanel. Prince said he loved the show and wanted to be on it. We were sure it was a prank. The email was almost too on the nose, written in total Prince-speak, like “Would like 2 B” for “would like to be.” Emails were exchanged, more official phone calls between his management team and the New Girl production office were placed, and it turned out to really be Prince. On long tour bus rides, he and his band, 3rdeyegirl, apparently watched two things: “New Girl and the news.” Scripts were written and sent to Prince, to which he responded with notes and even re-wrote parts of it himself (yes, all sentences with “2,” “4,” “U,” even “NRG” for “energy”). Wardrobe boxes of clothing started appearing at the New Girl production offices from Paisley Park. All of us were sworn to complete and absolute secrecy. Nothing official—it was more like everyone on set knew about it through whispers, and each whisper was prefaced by “This doesn’t leave this room, but…” In the month leading up to shooting the episode, I went to a wedding that included a ceremonial unveiling of a Prince poster and still kept a complete poker face. Never had anything felt more sacred than keeping Prince a secret. We honored his inclination towards the element of surprise, popping up where nobody expected him. Nobody was willing to risk ruining it.

Purple Rain was released a few months after I was born in 1984, so I’ve never had to live without it. My big sister and I danced to his music as children, wearing scarves, headbands and ruffles from our dress-up box. The aforementioned assless pants, worn during the MTV Video Music Awards in 1991, were on every newspaper cover, blurred in varying degrees, becoming an immediate subject of political debate. In 1994, when he started going by a symbol instead of the name we all knew him as—in a public protest against his record company—he sent computer disks with the downloadable symbol to newspapers so they could use it when writing about him, which they all did. We all drew that symbol on our notebooks in grade school.

In 2004, every single person I knew would quote from various parts of the Prince skit from Chappelle’s Show—in which Charlie Murphy told a story about meeting the Purple One at a club in the 80s, him beating Murphy and his friends in a basketball game and Prince serving them pancakes for breakfast. A couple of months after that sketch came out, Prince so dominated the all-star lineup of a tribute to George Harrison for a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction that the New York Times published an oral history of his guitar solo.

In my early 20s, I took a dance class with my Mom at her gym on Saturdays, where we danced to “Lolita” from Prince’s then-newest record, 3121, with a dozen women of varying ages and backgrounds, who all squealed and got in formation when the opening bars played. In 2007, I was one of the 140 million people who watched him play “Purple Rain” for the Super Bowl halftime show—the first one in history to happen in the rain. He was such a phenomenon that we all believed it was completely possible that he chose for that weather to wash over Dolphin Stadium—that he could even control such a thing. Prince was an icon, someone revered while they were still living. And so it seemed out of the realm of reality that I might end up in the same room as him, even as the day drew closer that he was due on the set I was working at.

His possible presence sent everyone scrambling hours before his call time. The premise of the episode was that the cast of the show ended up at a party Prince was throwing, so the network enlisted a bunch of guest stars to set the scene of an A-list party. Word had gotten to Prince’s manager the first day of the shoot that the guest stars included some Kardashian-Jenners, which caused the first on-set kerfuffle. They, apparently, would “never” be invited to one of his parties. After I ran lines with Zooey a few times in her trailer, our DGA trainee Jinny knocked at the door frantically, asking to swap us one-for-one our scripts with new copies she was clenching in her fists. Behind her, a garbage can had been turned into a sacrificial bonfire that all copies of the Kardashian scripts had to be burned in. Prince was never to come across one of the discarded pages. It was 8 PM, and he was due on set at 10:45pm. There was still a chance we could do something wrong and jeopardize everything. While Zooey got her hair and makeup done, I stood in the middle of the parking lot by the garbage can, monitoring the pages until they were ash. We were so close.

I jumped in the transpo van to ride from base camp to the set, and Damon Wayans Jr. (Coach) queued up the Chappelle’s Show skit for all of us to watch on the way. We all quoted almost every single line of dialogue together, and I completely believe that every quote attributed to Prince by Charlie Murphy was word-for-word. But how can you have memories about someone you haven’t met? None of us could believe we were truly about to be in the same room as Prince. Prince. He couldn’t possibly be real.

When our van arrived at the enormous house in Altadena—scouted and rented by our location manager for the shoot—we walked up a front path lined with security guards wearing headsets. Inside the house, the internal balcony was spattered with various Prince employees: his stunning manager who resembled Apolonia, assistants, more bodyguards, his hair and makeup team. They milled about, waiting to be summoned. The house had been transformed into a “Prince party,” adorned with a stage, his symbol, flowers and purple rugs. A scene was being shot that Prince wasn’t in yet. Action, keep rolling, let’s go again, cut. And then, the security staff started whispering into their sleeves: A door upstairs opened, and Prince glided down the stairs.

He joined production at video village, where the camera and monitors and all the directors’ chairs were housed. He chatted with our executive producer, Erin. Then, he sat down on the bottom two steps of the staircase. He and Zooey finally met, after many emails. He was formal, kind and quiet as they greeted each other, letting her take the lead. After a while, Zooey looked around the room for me, and introduced me to Prince. This is when he stood, with the help of his cane, and the handshake and the nail polish and the small, approving nod happened. He was unbelievably slight, polite and, somehow, also completely gigantic. After a few minutes, he said to Zooey, “I want to meet Nick,” referring to the character played by actor Jake Johnson. He called Jake “Nick” for the entirety of the shoot.

After the first setup, shot on a bench in the garden, Prince, Zooey and Jake sat outside in the chilly December night. Prince clutched a Hothands hand warmer, passing it back and forth between his hands, right to left, left to right. I couldn’t believe that a mythical being like Prince could get chilly, but he was grateful when the makeup artist handed it to him while doing touch-ups. The lighting needed to be adjusted for the next take, and instead of going back inside to sit in video village, or the warmth of the room upstairs, Prince stayed with Zooey and Jake. When the lighting was ready, he walked from the garden towards the equipment-covered porch, looking to dump the hand warming packet before the next take. His crew stood just inside the doors, and he looked around for a familiar face—clearly wanting to be efficient and ready to jump back into the scene. I extended my hand. He softly placed it in my palm. I wrapped my purple fingernails around it. I noticed his perfect posture the exact moment he said “Thank you.” He twirled on his heel to return to the bench. I lowered the hand warmer into my parka pocket, but kept my tightened grip. I’ve kept it ever since.

It was pure instinct to pocket it and keep it as a treasure. Later, I’d learn about how Warren Ellis (a member of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds) grabbed Nina Simone’s chewed gum from her piano after they played a festival together, and he has held on to it for over 20 years. I can relate. Phones were absolutely not allowed on the set while Prince was there—or cameras, or anything of the sort. There would be no way to memorialize that I was there—in fact, as a personally hired assistant, not through the studio or network, I wasn’t even on the call sheet. Because the setting was a “Prince Party,” his scenes were filmed over the course of two night-shoots to account for lighting, with all of us driving back home at dawn. It would only ever be a fever dream. So, I kept that hand warmer in my pocket and, when I got home the first night, I nestled it in my jewelry box, where it has lived ever since. I’ve never even let anybody else touch it, but I do sometimes touch it myself for good luck or for a little pick-me-up, sweeping a finger over it. But I have only held it again in my hands once, on the day he died in 2016. The surreality of shooting overnight with an icon, these indescribable, you-wouldn’t-believe-who-I-was-with memories can only be grounded by this one tangible souvenir.

From my memories: It was Prince’s idea to include an outfit montage in the show episode, and he personally approved each outfit Zooey wore for those scenes, all of them mostly gathered from his own wardrobe. His cane was custom made and absolutely gorgeous—more of a walking stick, with his symbol adorning the top of it. We oohed and ahhed over it, and he let a few of us take turns holding it because he wanted us to feel its weight and how well it was made. Someone got a little too excited and Vaudevillian with it, and Prince snatched it back and said “that’s enough,” but with a little grin to show he wasn’t actually mad. Once, between scenes, he disappeared in the upstairs bedroom that had been designated as his dressing room. We all kind of hummed about and waited, anxious that something wasn’t to his liking, that he might never return. When he resurfaced, he’d changed his shoes and was wearing platform boots with a light-up heel that flashed with every step he took. Every single person in that house watched in awe as he descended each stair back to the main floor aglow.

Speaking of lighting up, that’s exactly what Prince did when someone smartly brought up his beloved Minnesota Vikings. During the filming of the montage scene, only a few people could fit in the bedroom and closet. As Zooey’s assistant, I was one of them. In between takes, re-sets and hair/makeup alterations, Prince sat on the couch I was sitting on and played an acoustic guitar. The three or four of us in the room at the time couldn’t look each other in the eyes. We were getting a private Prince show. After wrapping that scene, a couple of us had to raid a hair/makeup set bag to reapply deodorant because we were so sweaty from the magic we’d somehow just witnessed.

During the scene where he and Jess, Zooey’s character, are having a snack—pancakes, naturally—Prince decided that the chef in the scene should be played by the New Girl craft service director, Alex Hernandez. Alex was one of our on-set saviors, always keeping us fed and energized, secretly stashing yogurt for me in the back of the fridge, remembering everyone’s favorite foods and allergies, putting out snacks at 2 AM when we’d been shooting for 10 hours. A vital and unsung part of any production, and now he’s immortalized on screen forever as Prince’s personal chef.

After the episode wrapped, I drove home as the sun rose, got in bed and took a photo of myself—because I knew my life was different now. It would be “before Prince” and “after Prince” from now on. I wanted to see if I looked as different as I felt. I think I look like a completely different person in that photo than I’ve ever been, before or since, though nobody else would see it. I just know that I’ve never again felt the way I did then. If you can meet your hero and they can surpass your expectations, what else could be possible? It was the height of the high of that feeling, only accessible in that very moment.

Several months later, the wrap party for the third season of New Girl took place at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. We all gathered, brought our loved ones and celebrated getting to the end of the season. There was booze, food, legendary cars, a raffle for a good parking spot at the Fox lot and a massive cardboard cutout of Zooey, Jake, and Prince sitting on the bench, a still from the episode. You could put your face in a hole where Zooey and Jake’s faces went. About halfway through the party, an audible buzz arose and spread through the crowd. And there he was once more: Prince, ascending the escalator with his entourage. He did one lap of the party and left—literally no more than 90 seconds, tops. All of our families and spouses now had their own Prince story to tell, too.

Since I first accepted the discarded hand warmer from Prince, the world has buried him. But how many babies are still conceived to Prince? How many people are married and buried to his music? How many more times will I get to dance to “Lolita”? When I moved across the country several years ago, the postal service lost all of my books, clothing and most family memories—but I traveled with my dead dog’s ashes and Prince’s hand warmer in my carry-on, both too precious and invaluable. How many times has this expired item given me courage or consolation? I’ve poked it with my fingertip before a first date, let its siren call lure me out of bed on the days I haven’t found any other reason to get up. It has long since stopped giving off any warmth. But it reminds me that someone larger than life, so tiny in person, was sometimes human just like me.

Lexi Kent-Monning is an alumna of the Tyrant Books workshop Mors Tua Vita Mea in Sezze Romano, Italy, taught by Giancarlo DiTrapano and Chelsea Hodson. Her writing has been published or is forthcoming in The Believer, XRAY, Joyland, Little Engines and elsewhere. Lexi’s debut novel, The Burden of Joy, is available through Rejection Letters Press.

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