The Twitter alert on my phone is dinging. I spot a tweet from a man with shoulder-length black hair, a black beard, and what appears to be blood around his eye. “Hello @AdrienneTB- thoroughly enjoying your book on @TheRealToriAmos. Thanks for the mention on page 100.”
The message is from none other than Mick Foley (aka Mankind, Cactus Jack, and Dude Love), a WWE wrestling champion who holds the title "Hardcore Legend." He's also a HUGE Tori Amos fan.
I knew of Mick via this essay he'd written about Tori and how her music had "changed his life." I'd discovered his activism while researching ways that women had used Amos' music to heal themselves -- a study that became my doctoral dissertation.
A few years ago, Mick was volunteering for RAINN's (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network) online hotline and offering to mow the lawns of folks who donated. I included a passage about it in my book, Sing Us a Song, Piano Woman: Female Fans and the Music of Tori Amos, and it was that chapter that inspired Mick to contact me on Twitter.
In the days that followed, we began messaging online, and we eventually took up texting. As I've gotten to know Mick (and I'm under no illusions that I'm his new BFF), I've found myself consistently surprised by some of the things our unexpected friendship has shown me, such as...
Never underestimate the importance of finding your identity.
Last week, I went to see Mick's comedy/storytelling show in Port Charlotte, Florida. Afterward, over dinner, we discussed our views on everything from LGBT rights to Amos’ music, as well as his opportunity to sing with Norah Jones (!) and his love of Santa Claus (he's working on a documentary called "I Am Santa Claus," about "professional Santas").
As part of his act, Mick mentions that the WWE didn’t see him as “a face they could make money from." He was told that he didn’t fit the definition of what a star looks like, presumably because of his hairy face, build, and -- as he put it -- his lack of natural athleticism.
But that experience only served to feed one of Mick's greatest underlying messages: that finding what makes you distinctive and using everything you have to maintain it while tossing aside (in his case, sometimes literally) anyone who tells you that who you are is wrong.
Mick has observed that he'll probably never fully grasp the vulnerable place that Tori Amos goes to when she sings, but he might come close when he feels the anxiety and powerlessness of being open about who he is in front of an audience. I think most of us can relate to that on some level, even if we aren't performers.
Yes, men can be feminists.
Mick has joked that you can Google any variation on “Mick Foley,""Hardcore Legend," "Hell in a Cage," and "feminist” and pull up a number of hits supporting his feminism. (When he signed my copy of his memoir, Countdown to Lockdown, he wrote, “For my fellow feminist.”)
Lots of us struggle to find ways to address topics like self-esteem, body image, and identity, and rarely are men the mouthpiece for these discussions (perhaps with the exception of Louis C.K). In fact, as great as it would be for us feminists to have more vocal male allies, it's common in this culture for folks to scorn or mistrust the idea of a guy feminist.
But Mick took the inspiration he gets from Tori Amos’ music and turned himself into the poster boy (poster man?) for the unlikely feminist activist. He broke through that “male feminist” glass ceiling by showing that even the most “manly” men have a responsibility to support women’s rights and human rights, and to challenge gender norms.
His commitment to issues commonly seen as "women's problems" is inspiring. He donated the entire advance from his memoir to RAINN, and has talked about how his weekly volunteer work with the organization is something that changed him forever.
As he once said, "I'm really hoping that I'll be able to get more men to at least think about getting involved. If I could pass along one piece of wisdom to the world about sexual violence, it would be to understand that it is far from being just an issue for women."
Quiet activists can be just as passionate as "louder" ones.
By “quiet” I don’t mean that Mick stays behind the scenes or doesn’t put his name on his philanthropy. Rather, he simply does what he can to help. Though he may not be screaming into a megaphone or leading a march, he is making YouTube videos about RAINN, and appearing on "The Daily Show" to talk about his writing and his passion for activism against sexual violence.
Mick has also helped build schools in Africa, visited the schools after they were built, and made a list of ways he would help sustain them after the fact. He and his wife sponsor a child in Sierra Leone and three in Mexico, as well as a child in Ethiopia. His sponsorship helped one woman in the Philippines graduate from nursing school, and he makes it a point to get to know the kids he sponsors.
I'm proud to know Mick. And I know he won't rest until he has used all his physical and mental strength to change the world for the better. So if you spot a tall man with black hair, a black beard, and a slight limp wearing Santa Claus-themed clothes (and possibly a fanny pack), do yourself a favor: Follow him to his show, and listen.