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The Bittersweet Story Behind 'A Very Special Christmas'

Even after moving to Los Angeles to pursue a career in the record business, Jimmy Iovine always came back home to New York to spend holidays with his family. The Iovines loved Christmas, and their annual gatherings were a tradition.

When Iovine returned in the winter of 1984, things were different. This time, he came home to be at his ailing father’s bedside. On January 12, 1985, Vincent Iovine passed away at the age of 63.

A recording engineer who had worked with Bruce Springsteen and John Lennon, Jimmy Iovine feared he’d begin to associate Christmas with his father’s passing—a sense of despair and sadness that seemed contradictory to how he had always enjoyed the season. He decided he’d create a new memory. Less than three years later, in 1987, Iovine’s A Very Special Christmas album debuted.

It wound up being more than just a way of celebrating his dad, who loved the holidays: Iovine’s work would eventually raise more than $100 million for the Special Olympics.

Jimmy Iovine (second from right) with the record he produced for his father. Special Olympics

Benefiting the organization—which was founded by Eunice Kennedy Shriver in 1968 as a way for athletes with intellectual disabilities to participate in competitive sports—turned out to be a consequence of recording industry politics. Iovine was a major force in the business, but all his goodwill equity didn’t mean much when he began to solicit artists signed to different labels. Record companies were reluctant to “lend” talent out. The only practical way for Iovine to pursue his goal was to take money out of the equation: No one involved would make a dime.

It was Iovine’s wife, Vicki, who suggested the Special Olympics be the beneficiary. Vicki was a volunteer for the organization and knew Bobby Shriver, Eunice’s oldest son. Shriver and Iovine met with Jerry Moss of A&M Records and convinced him to cover the $250,000 in production and studio fees. Moss agreed.

Iovine’s next thought was to call Quincy Jones, who had produced the 1985 single “We Are the World” with an all-star group of artists. Jones was apparently stressed by the experience, and told Iovine he’d never clear the logistical hurdles. It was one thing for musicians to agree to do it; getting them all together in the studio was another matter.

Iovine, however, was determined. After Springsteen called to offer condolences, he was able to get the singer to contribute an unused B-side single, “Merry Christmas Baby”; he flew to Glasgow to record U2’s rendition of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” while the band was performing a sound check before a concert; John F. Kennedy, Jr. was able to get Madonna for “Santa Baby.” Arnold Schwarzenegger, Shriver’s son-in-law, invited Jon Bon Jovi to participate. A fan of Arnold's movies, the singer agreed.

Iovine pulled every string he could. When he secured eight tracks, he thought it might be enough, but eventually decided to keep going. Run-DMC agreed to perform “Christmas in Hollis.” John Cougar Mellencamp did “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” and promoted the album by telling the Los Angeles Times that he had a disease of the vertebrae as a child and was nearly physically disadvantaged himself. 

Iovine eventually gathered 15 tracks. For the cover, Shriver was able to get permission from celebrated artist Keith Haring to share his portrait of a now-familiar maternal stick figure without any licensing fees. 

A Very Special Christmas was released on October 12, 1987. Because of Live Aid, “We Are the World,” and other “aid” recordings, the media cautioned that people might be growing tired of charitable music projects. The Special Olympics didn’t know what to expect.

In the end, no amount of real or imagined charitable fatigue mattered. In March 1988, the Special Olympics received a royalty check for $5 million. A Very Special Christmas was a spectacular success, selling over four million copies through 2014 and spawning several sequel albums. It became the biggest benefit recording in the history of music, allowing Shriver’s organization to open satellite programs in Russia, Uganda, and in underprivileged areas of North America.

Iovine—who went on to co-found Interscope Records in 1989 and Beats Electronics with Dr. Dre in 2008—was pleased with the donation, but the project remained a love letter to his father. He left the series in the hands of others following the release of the second album in 1992.

"The only thing I know how to do in life, Bruce,” he once recalled telling Springsteen, “is make music. I'm going to make a Christmas album for my dad."

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Before Bitcoin: The Rise and Fall of Flooz E-Currency
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In the late 1990s, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Spencer Waxman was in Morocco on holiday when he heard an Arabic slang term for money—flooz—that stuck with him. In the dot-com boom taking place back in the United States, URLs with obscure etymology were popular. When Waxman and partner Robert Levitan decided to co-found a novel way of disrupting the online commerce industry, calling it Flooz.com was almost a foregone conclusion.

What Levitan and Waxman envisioned was a virtual gift certificate that would drive business to participating online retailers, give consumers some sense of security over their private information, and make shopping for stubbornly gift-resistant recipients easy. Rather than merely offering cyber currency, this was a service with purpose.

Unfortunately, it was also one that was doomed to fail.

A screen capture of Flooz.com
Flooz.com

Non-cash currency has been with us since the Chinese used cowry shells to sort out debt for goods and services more than 3000 years ago. In the 1960s, credit cards became an alluring alternative to saving and carrying paper bills. When online retailing exploded in the 1990s, it was only natural that startups would begin to explore virtual payment methods.

At the time, digital transactions were perceived by many consumers to be a near-guarantee of identity theft. Handing a card to a vendor in a closed-loop retail environment was one thing, but the thought of hackers seizing their information once it was entered into the borderless environment of the internet kept many away from online shopping.

As it turns out, that paranoia would turn out to be justified in our current climate of constant data breaches. It was also good for businesses hoping to turn their apprehension over credit card security into a monetized solution. Flooz.com debuted in 1999, just one year after another currency-based URL, Beanz.com, had garnered press. Beanz were a kind of earned points system, with approved transactions gifting customers with redeemable gift vouchers. Flooz took a different approach: Customers would sign up to Flooz.com and purchase gift certificates for specific retailers, which they could then use themselves or pass along to a gift recipient via email.

For businesses, it was a way of driving traffic to sites; for consumers, it was a way to keep credit card transactions limited to one vendor; for Flooz.com, being the intermediary meant taking a 15 to 20 percent cut of completed transactions on the selected retail sites, which ranged from Godiva Chocolates to Barnes & Noble and Tower Records.

To help Flooz.com cut through online marketing noise, Levitan enlisted actress Whoopi Goldberg to be their spokesperson. In exchange for company shares and Flooz.com money, Goldberg led an $8 million ad campaign for radio, television, and print that extolled the benefits of using Flooz.com.

Whether it was Goldberg’s pitch or the concept itself, Flooz.com met with a receptive audience. The company debuted in the fall of 1999, and had opened 125,000 accounts by January 2000. That year, roughly $25 million in Flooz.com money was purchased and used. (In a nod to the impenetrable vocabulary of the internet at the time, the media loved to point out that Beanz could be used to purchase Flooz.)

Bolstered by the attention and early success, Flooz.com was eventually able to raise $35 million in venture capital. Consumers could meet their gifting obligations by emailing a code to their gift recipient without having to waste time shopping. For a time, it appeared Flooz.com would become a leading method of payment for online transactions.

Actress and Flooz.com spokesperson Whoopi Goldberg is photographed during a public appearance
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But it didn’t take long for the seams in the Flooz.com model to show. While gifting vouchers to family and friends was convenient for the gifter, the giftee was stuck with a very limited number of vendors that took Flooz.com as payment. If Amazon, for example, had a deal on a DVD or book that Barnes & Noble didn’t, Flooz users were out of luck. Shopping for a bargain wasn’t possible.

The second and most crippling detail was one Flooz.com was forced to make in order to strike deals with vendors. The company guaranteed its transactions, meaning that it would make good on orders even if Flooz dollars had been purchased via fraudulent means. By the summer of 2001, that commitment became a tipping point. Agents from the FBI informed Levitan that they suspected a ring of Russian hackers had purchased $300,000 worth of Flooz in order to launder funds from stolen credit cards.

This created a paralyzing cash flow problem: As their credit card processor withheld funds until Flooz.com could secure the transaction, people were still busy redeeming Flooz dollars they had already spent. Retailers then looked for Flooz.com to reimburse them. Suddenly, customers trying to pay with Flooz were greeted with error messages that the site was down.

Those issues, coupled with the fact that corporate clients had already started to move away from gifting employees with Flooz dollars, forced Flooz.com to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in August 2001. Court papers cited almost $14 million in liability. (Beanz.com was also a casualty of the dot-com bust, when participating retailers processing the points steadily went out of business.)

Levitan rebounded, founding the Pando file sharing network and selling it to Microsoft in 2011 for $11 million. Meanwhile, Flooz.com remains a barely-remembered footnote in e-currency, though it would be hard to chart the rise of digital funds like Bitcoin without it. Like with so many other good ideas, timing is everything.

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Thin Ice: The Bizarre Boxing Career of Tonya Harding
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In 2004, the Chicago Tribune asked Tonya Harding about the strangest business offer she had received after her skating career came to an abrupt end in the mid-1990s. “I guess to skate topless,” she answered. In 1994, the two-time former Olympian became infamous for her ex-husband’s attempt to break the leg of rival Nancy Kerrigan. Although Harding denied any knowledge of or involvement in the plan—which ended with Kerrigan suffering a bruised leg and Harding being banned from the U.S. Figure Skating organization, ending her competitive pursuits—she became a running punchline in the media for her attempts to exploit that notoriety. There was a sex tape (which her equally disgraced former husband, Jeff Gillooly, taped on their wedding night), offers to wrestle professionally, attempts to launch careers in both music and acting, and other means of paying bills.

Though she did not accept the offer to perform semi-nude, she did embark on a new career that many observers found just as lurid and sensational: For a two-year period, Tonya Harding was a professional boxer.

Tonya Harding rises from the canvas during a boxing match
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Following the attack on Kerrigan and the subsequent police investigation, Harding pled guilty to conspiracy to hinder prosecution, received three years’ probation, and was levied a $160,000 fine. (Gillooly and his conspirators served time.) Ostracized from skating and with limited opportunities, Harding first tried to enter the music scene with her band, the Golden Blades.

When that didn’t work—they were booed off stage in Portland, Oregon, Harding’s hometown—she disappeared from the public eye, offering skating lessons in Oregon before resurfacing on a March 2002 Fox network broadcast titled Celebrity Boxing. Using heavily padded gloves and outsized headgear, performers like Vanilla Ice and Todd Bridges pummeled one another on the undercard. In the main event, Harding used her physicality to batter and bruise Paula Jones, the woman who had accused then-president Bill Clinton of sexual harassment.

This was apparently the boost of confidence Harding needed. “I thought it was fun knocking somebody else on their butt,” she told the Tribune. Boxing, she said, could be an opportunity to embrace her self-appointed title as “America’s Bad Girl.”

Harding looked up a boxing promoter in Portland named Paul Brown and signed a four-year contract that would pay her between $10,000 and $15,000 per bout. The 5-foot, 1-inch Harding quickly grew in stature, moving to 123 pounds from her 105-pound skating weight. Following her win against Jones, Brown booked her a fight against up-and-coming boxer Samantha Browning in a four-round bout in Los Angeles in February 2003. The fight was said to be sloppy, with both women displaying their limited experience. Ultimately, Browning won a split decision.

Harding rebounded that spring, winning three fights in a row. Against Emily Gosa in Lincoln City, Oregon, she was roundly booed upon entering the arena. “The entire fight barely rose above the level of a drunken street brawl,” The Independent reported.

Of course, few spectators were there to see Harding put on a boxing clinic. They wanted to watch a vilified sports figure suffer some kind of public retribution for her role in the attack on Kerrigan. Following her brief winning streak, Harding was pummeled by Melissa Yanas in August 2003, losing barely a minute into the first round of a fight that took place in the parking lot of a Dallas strip club. In June 2004, she was stopped a second time against 22-year-old nursing student Amy Johnson; the Edmonton, Alberta, crowd cheered as Harding was left bloodied. Harding later told the press that Johnson, a native Canuck, had been given 26 seconds to get up after Harding knocked her down when the rules mandated only 10, which she saw as a display of national favoritism.

Harding had good reason to be upset. The Johnson fight was pivotal, as a win could have meant a fight on pay-per-view against Serbian-born boxer Jelena Mrdjenovich for a $600,000 purse. That bout never materialized.

Tonya Harding signs head shots on a table
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

There was more than just lack of experience working against Harding in her newfound career. Having been a longtime smoker, she suffered from asthma. The condition plagued her skating career; in boxing, where lapses in cardiovascular conditioning can get you hurt, it became a serious problem. Although Harding competed again—this time emerging victorious in a fight against pro wrestler Brittany Drake in an exhibition bout in Essington, Pennsylvania, in January 2005—it would end up being her last contest. Suffering from pneumonia and struggling with weight gain caused by corticosteroids prescribed for treatment, she halted her training.

In an epilogue fit for Harding’s frequently bizarre escapades, there was remote potential for one last bout. In 2011, dot-com entrepreneur Alki David offered Harding $100,000 to step back into the ring, with another $100,000 going to her proposed opponent. Had it happened, it probably would have gone down as one of the biggest sideshows of the past century. Unfortunately for Harding, Nancy Kerrigan never responded to the offer.

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