Cookie Johnson Makes Philanthropy Her Life Mission

All photos by Andreas Branch
All photos by Andreas Branch

Cookie Johnson remembers the most terrifying day of her life with perfect clarity: it was the day her husband, former NBA all-star Irving “Magic” Johnson, revealed that he was HIV positive.

Her shock and concern for her new husband turned into an all-consuming fear for herself and the couple’s unborn child: Cookie thought she was going to die.

“I was scared to death; we both thought it was a death sentence. It was the biggest fear of my life,” she admits now, a safe distance away from that traumatic day in October of 1991.

Her husband was terrified for himself, but even more so for his new wife. “He didn’t hesitate,” she recalls. “He told me as soon as he found out. His fear for himself turned into fear for me—I had just found out I was pregnant. So it wasn’t just me, it was me and the baby.”

After waiting for almost two weeks, Cookie and baby Johnson—now better known as Rich Kids of Beverly Hills star E.J., 22, received the all-clear. Cookie said her prayers and gave thanks for her health, while quietly asking God for the strength to get her through the aftermath of her husband’s public announcement. The backlash came quickly, and it was cruel. After his agent announced that he had contracted the disease through unprotected sex with multiple female partners, he was shunned, condemned for his loose morals, and ostracized for having a disease the world at large knew very little about.

All photos by Andreas Branch
All photos by Andreas Branch

Eventually, the NBA great retired, and devoted himself to becoming a spokesperson for HIV and AIDS prevention. Cookie was right there beside him every step of the way. The same year of his diagnosis, the couple formed The Magic Johnson Foundation, an organization that works to develop programs and offer HIV/AIDS education.

Over 23 years later, Cookie, now 55, is still working tirelessly to promote awareness of the disease. “There are so many misconceptions out there, and because of that, it has caused so much discrimination,” she says, shaking her head. “It’s really sad. A lot of people are afraid to hug and kiss those with HIV or AIDS because they’re afraid they’re going to get it! It’s shocking how many people don’t get it.” She adds, “I don’t know where they live—maybe under a rock.”

Impassioned, she continues, “In our church communities, people are not very welcoming or very compassionate toward people who have HIV. Technically, they think of it as a sexual disease, and as a result, you get treated like a leper. Most people — not all, but most—relate it to a sexual disease or a gay disease. In the church, both are no-nos, so they’re not welcoming you and saying, ‘Let’s figure this out and get you the support they need.’ They don’t tell you to go away, but that’s the attitude.”

Cookie combats this fear with kindness, inner strength, and, of course, a drive to educate. “We are determined to stop this disease,” she says, and we believe her.

Through the Magic Johnson Foundation, Cookie—who serves on the organization’s board of directors—and the team have developed and funded programs addressing HIV/AIDS prevention, HIV testing, and effective treatments for those living with AIDS; started an AIDS scholarship program (named after now-deceased Magic Johnson Enterprises’ COO Taylor Michaels); and built technology empowerment centers in urban areas.

Cookie’s love of philanthropy isn’t just limited to her husband’s organization; she has, by her own admission, “always volunteered,” devoting herself tirelessly to causes benefitting battered and homeless women, such as the Union Rescue Mission and the Downtown Women’s Center, where she’d like to become a board member.

Despite her considerable charitable commitments, Cookie found herself at a bit of a loss after her two children grew up and became capable of taking care of themselves, so she turned her attention to her passion for fashion, founding the denim brand CJ by Cookie in 2009.

“When I decided to start the company, I was at a great time in my life where my kids were a little older and Irving was healthy. I just felt like God had just blessed us so much that I wanted to do something specific for Him, so I started my company and named my jeans after the fruits of the spirit—love, faith, peace, glory, and love.”

If she’s being really honest—and Cookie strikes us as a woman who is nothing but—she really founded the brand because there was nothing on the market that suited her shape.

“I couldn’t find jeans that fit my body!” she declares. “I like to work out a lot, so I have muscular thighs—and I definitely have a butt that I was born with—but when I tried on the premiere denim that was out there, it wouldn’t come up high enough in the back, or it would squeeze my thighs. I had the money to buy jeans, but I couldn’t find anything to fit me, so I decided to start my own denim line.”

Five years later, the company, which is sold in retailers like Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom as well as over 500 specialty stores around the country and online on her own website,, is an unqualified success. It has done so well in fact, that she’s thinking of taking her line to the next level by creating a wear-to-work collection of pants, jackets, and tops.

Though the collection’s growth is all Cookie, she does credit her husband with giving her the best business advice necessary to live out her dream. “[Irving] said, ‘When you’re trying to make a big decision, especially with your business, always go with your first mind, because it’s always the right one.’ It’s always the truth of what you see in a situation. Once you get in it, you can overthink it and other things can get in and cloud it, but that first mind is always right on.”

Cookie went with her gut and followed her “first mind” in business, and she applied this same rule in love. She and Irving are college sweethearts, and have been together since the age of 18 when they met as undergrads at Michigan State. They recently celebrated their 23rd wedding anniversary, but have been together for a staggering 37 years. This kind of long-lived love should especially be celebrated in fickle Hollywood, where relationships seem to last as long as hair dye. Cookie, for one, does not take what she has for granted. In fact, she and her husband are going through a rediscovery phase, and their relationship is as new and exciting as when they both met almost 40 years ago.

“I’m in a good place,” she declares. “I’ve raised my kids and they’re branching out on their own, so it’s just us and Gizmo [the dog] here. We’re reacquainting ourselves with being together without a bunch of people around, and we’re loving it. We’re having a ball! It’s like the beginning, before the kids; we’re rediscovering how to socialize with each other, and it’s fun. We’re at a different place now; we’re a little more settled, older, and more mature. It’s funny—when some people get to this place, they get bored with each other. For us, it’s a new adventure.”

Getting reacquainted with one another is only part of Cookie’s magic formula for a long, successful marriage. “You have to grow together,” she advises. “You can’t put too much expectation on a relationship right away, either. A lot of people have that fantasy, that Cinderella Syndrome, of thinking that once you get married, everything is perfect. Nothing is ever perfect. We take each day at a time, respect one another, and communicate. It’s something we’ve learned over time.”

Another thing they’ve learned is how to make time for one another. For most of their marriage, Magic and Cookie would occasionally take 10 days, rent a yacht, and set sail for the French and Italian Rivieras. Over time, this relatively quick jaunt from St. Tropez to Portofino has evolved into a month-long sojourn in July that includes friends and family.

“It was our vacation as a couple to connect back,” she explains. “No kids, no friends, nobody. It was the first time my husband could really relax; being on the yacht, nobody could bother him. We had to disconnect from everything.”

Tuning out the world for some quality time with the love of her life? Not such a kooky idea. Her nickname, however, is an entirely different story.

“My mother gave me the nickname [Cookie], but I don’t even like sweets! The truth is, it started off as ‘Kookie.’ Not that I was kooky, but there was a character on some TV show and his name was Kookie. My name is kind of difficult to pronounce; it’s Earlitha. My dad is Earl; my parents just made something up to go with Earl.”

Believe it or not, the one person who does not call the sassy Mrs. Johnson by her given nickname is, ironically, her husband.

“My husband calls me Earl,” she confides. “When he comes home he says, ‘Where are you Earl?’”

Funny he should ask. She’s making the magic happen.