Inside D.C. entertainment

DC Fab: A website for 'the browner D.C.'

January 30, 2012 - 11:31 AM
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Yodit Gebreyes, being fabulous on DC Fab. Photo: DC Fab.

Joi-Marie McKenzie had no idea that the blog she started as a bored 21-year-old in her first year in the workforce would five years later be a mini media empire, spanning four cities and partnering with major news outlets. In 2007, McKenzie, fresh out of the University of Maryland, started the blog Fab University, mostly out of boredom with her 9-5 job. The college angle was quickly abandoned for local nightlife, which McKenzie had just begun exploring. She kept the “fab” part — “I love the word fabulous” — and DC Fab was born.

Part events listings, part party coverage, and part personality profiles, DC Fab chronicles a scene less covered by mainstream local media. “We cover the browner D.C.,” explains McKenzie. Black faces from the worlds of sports, non-profits, music, and occasionally the clergy fill DC Fab’s pages.

“I remember when we started, there was no one like us,” says McKenzie. “You’ll flip through Washington Life, or Washingtonian, and you’d never guess there was this whole world, making hundreds of thousands, I’d say millions of dollars, of these urban professionals.”

“I want to showcase my peers,” she says. “There’s industry here. There’s tastemakers. Who’s going to talk for us? Who’s going to navigate this world?”

The Washington Post’s veteran gossip columnist Amy Argetsinger, whom McKenzie says she looks up to, says the Internet has been a good place for society news to blossom. “In a town the size of Washington, there are so many glittering social circles that never overlap,” she writes by email. Though socialites love to read about their own parties, they don’t so much love to read about strangers’ parties. “That’s why society news has blossomed on the Web,” she writes. “It can accommodate all these niches.”

Argetsinger says she loves and learns from McKenzie’s work: “She’s putting new people on my radar — like Yodit Gebreyes. Who? I don’t know, but I will remember her the next time I see the name and know that she’s a rising It Girl in a certain social circle and the object of some interest.”

Though DC Fab has expanded to Baltimore, New York, and Boston, maintains a small fleet of interns, and scores interviews with bold-faced names, it started simply enough as a scribe of local nightlife. Rather than act as a promoter or a listings agent, McKenzie turned a critical eye on parties and nightclubs. She realized the blog was having an impact after an incident with K Street Lounge, which had promised an open bar one night and failed to deliver.

“I went to my blog, kind of sounded off about it, and the next week, K Street Lounge issued an apology about it,” says McKenzie. “That’s when I knew I had a great idea.”

The blog became, as she puts it, “a checks and balance system with D.C. nightlife” — holding clubs accountable and keeping the public informed, the role of traditional watchdog journalists. Readers stopped her at Mai Tai and 1223 to discuss her posts. The point wasn’t to bully clubs or cost them money, but “to see the quality of nightlife improved,” she says. Still, things occasionally got ugly.

One promoter threatened her. “He was like, I’m going to get you,” recalls McKenzie. “You’re never going to party in D.C. again. I was threatened physically. But I thought oh, this is really cool. I’ve hit a nerve.”

Since expanding to other cities, DC Fab and the entire Fab Empire has evolved from critiquing parties. “We’re not just a blog anymore,” says McKenzie. “It’s a movement for quality nightlife and entertainment.” The Fab Empire is partnered with NBC4 locally and with Radio One, and page views for the site top 130,000 a month. The organization has spawned rewards shows (the DC Fab Awards, given for best party, DJ, socialite, venue, radio personality, and so one, are February 12) and drew attention for its “Insider’s Guide to Howard Homecoming.”

McKenzie, who is still “the CEO, CFO, and the janitor,” earned a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia last year (she's been dividing her time between New York and D.C.) and is working for Loop 21 while keeping the Fab Empire rolling. She’d like to do more.

“I didn’t even expect to get this far, honestly,” she says. “I have bigger aspirations than being a nightlife writer.” A pastor’s daughter, McKenzie has sought to portray a more nuanced view of nightlife and the players on the scene. “I don’t think nightlife has to be evil and bad,” she says. “Let me tell you, it’s hard. But you’ll see the same people partying as you’ll see in church."

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