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Joel Schumacher’s Fire: How The Batman Director Shaped The Past And Present Of MTV

MAURIX/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images By Aaron Cooley When director Joel Schumacher died at the age of 80 last week, the lion’s share of the media attention focused on his iconic four-decade filmography, from St. Elmo’s Fire and The Lost Boys in the 1980s, to two John Grisham adaptations and two Batmans in the ’90s, to…

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Joel Schumacher’s Fire: How The Batman Director Shaped The Past And Present Of MTV

MAURIX/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

By Aaron Cooley
When director Joel Schumacher died at the age of 80 last week, the lion’s share of the media attention focused on his iconic four-decade filmography, from St. Elmo’s Fire and The Lost Boys in the 1980s, to two John Grisham adaptations and two Batmans in the ’90s, to Phone Booth and Phantom of the Opera in this century. And of course, his resumé includes his own personal stamp on the music video era of early MTV, with videos for INXS, Seal, U2, and Bush.
But left largely anonymous — just the way he wanted it — was the work he actually considered the most important of his life. This was work he also did for MTV, and he did it all for free.
When I started working for Joel as his assistant in 2002, there was no better perk of the job than traveling to New York at his side. Joel grew up in the city, and the bustling energy of Manhattan was very much his lifeblood. Spending most of the year drowning in the claustrophobia of Los Angeles car culture, Joel thirsted for periodic injections of New York like drinking water, and that meant walking its avenues, being a real New Yorker again. We made most of our trips there to work for MTV, so Joel’s best opportunities to hit the streets were lengthy walks from his hotel in SoHo up to the company’s Times Square offices, with not a block spent in a taxi or underground. On a warm day, he’d even do it in flip flops.
A slender, 6’3” figure, he had once dabbled in amateur modeling. Now topped with flowing silver locks and clad with his own sense of unassailable high fashion, Joel commanded every room like a movie star. This was never truer than when we would stop by MTV, where legions of young, aspiring artists and filmmakers clamored to hear him hold court. Judy McGrath, former CEO of MTV Networks, still recalls, “the clusters of MTV employees gathering around Joel to hear him talk about creativity and taking chances and discovering talent and making your mark.”
Joel began working with the company in 1998 when his friend Stephen Friedman (who would go on to become president of MTV and now is an advisor to SYPartners and Chris McCarthy, head of Entertainment and Youth Brands, which includes MTV, at ViacomCBS) was offered his first job there. Friedman was hired to create a social impact department that would produce in-house campaigns around contemporary justice issues and movements to air across MTV, MTV2, VH1, and eventually, mtvU. Anyone who ever knew Joel felt an insatiable need to go to him when faced with a large decision in either career or romance — he was like the Delphic oracle of sex and Hollywood — so naturally, when Friedman was presented with this job offer, he first bounced it off Joel. “Of course you should take it,” Friedman remembers Joel telling him. “Look at the scope and the possibility and the potential reach of this opportunity. You’ve got to take it — and I’m going to help you.”
At first, Friedman thought Joel meant he would offer him occasional filmmaking tips, but he soon realized Joel meant he would literally help him; he wanted to direct the spots for MTV himself. And for free.
Let’s take a step back. In 1998, Joel had just directed Batman & Robin, one of the highest-budget Hollywood pictures of 1997. No matter what you think of that movie (the reconsideration the movie’s getting online is probably the most surprising side-effect of his death for me), Warner Bros. had already asked him to direct another John Grisham adaptation (his second one, A Time to Kill, had been a surprise top 10 hit of ’96) as well as his third Batman. He was unquestionably an A-List director. And here he was, volunteering to do free work for a cable network?
Hector Mata / AFP via Getty ImagesArnold Schwarzenegger, Alicia Silverstone, Joel Schumacher, Chris O’Donnell, and George Clooney at the premiere of Batman & Robin.
Collaborating with MTV offered Joel something much more valuable than money: an opportunity, maybe for the first and only time in his already two-decade career, to do what he really wanted to do with film. He had received his biggest paycheck for Batman & Robin (rumor had it, the largest ever for a director to that date), but left that set feeling like his only job was to sell toys. On a fateful beach stroll with his then-assistant Eli Richbourg, Joel would decide to leave big budgets, private jets, Batman, and Grisham behind to go indie and dark, ushering in the third act of his career, which would bring, if not his most popular, his most unique and original work, in movies like 8MM and Tigerland. Joel had realized he wanted to do more with his talents — and like these more personal films, MTV gave him an opportunity to do a lot more. “The idea that MTV would create an entire department to harness the power of storytelling to change lives,” Friedman describes. “He loved everything about that.”
As a man who always knew he would never have children of his own, one of Joel’s passions was being a surrogate parent and mentor to dozens of young people, the most famous of which have been well-documented since his passing: the Sutherlands, the Farrells, the McConaugheys of the world. The Julias, the Sandys. Mentees of Schumacher have gone on to run studios, win Emmys and Oscars as producers, edit major magazines, and even direct and write their own movies and series. One is even a vice president at MTV.
In 1998, MTV provided Joel the opportunity to make this kind of indelible mark on a whole generation. This started with those “clusters” of MTV employees that gravitated to Joel as a fount of entertainment industry knowledge. “If you’ve ever hung out at MTV,” Friedman says, “you realize it’s a lot of young people.” But it was with MTV’s vast and diverse audience that Joel had the opportunity to impact the most lives.
Soon after Friedman took the job as the head of the new social impact division, Joel would send him an episode of Ira Glass’s iconic NPR show This American Life. Rattling out of Friedman’s speakers came the voice of Lucia Lopez, a 16-year-old who had recently appeared as herself in an ensemble theater piece describing the traumatic experience of watching her brother’s best friend get shot and killed on the streets of Chicago. Joel envisioned building an anti-violence PSA campaign around Lucia’s story.

The idea matched up perfectly with what Stephen was already reading in surveys with young viewers compiled by MTV’s research department: Young people were worried about violence, a sentiment that rings painfully true to this day. “Our research department was constantly doing deep dives into our audience,” Friedman explains, “and listening to what was bothering them.” Within days of Joel’s first spot featuring Lucia debuting on the networks of MTV, a young man named Matthew Shepard was beaten and tortured to death in Wyoming for the crime of being gay. Six months later, two boys shot up their high school in Columbine, Colorado, in what is now considered the first modern school shooting. The timing of MTV’s Fight For Your Rights: Take a Stand Against Violence campaign which prominently featured the Lucia Lopez PSA, was eerily prescient, struck a deep chord with MTV’s audience, and won a network — which had been considered by many at the time as nothing more than rot for teenagers’ brains — a coveted Governor’s Award, perhaps the most prestigious award given out at the Emmys.
On his next trip to New York, Joel was taken to dinner by Friedman and his bosses, Judy McGrath and Van Toffler (former head of the Music and Logo group at ViacomCBS and now CEO of Gunpowder and Sky), to thank him for his generous contribution to MTV. Joel’s response? “Don’t thank me. Let me do more.”
Over the next 16 years, Joel would create and produce spots for campaign after campaign on a nearly annual basis, several of which went on to win multiple Emmy and Peabody Awards. Catalog the themes of Joel’s MTV work and you have a list that still seems ripped right from the struggles of today: from LGBTQ+ sexual health to voting rights, from online bullying to depression and suicide. “Joel used his superpowers for good,” McGrath says, especially “his ability to tease out their stories, stories few others knew or wanted to hear, so we could blast them out across MTV like a beacon to a kid alone in a bedroom in Iowa.”
As a fan with a front-row seat, what I consider the period of peak MTV-Schumacher collaboration might have come when Friedman was tasked with starting the new channel mtvU. He immediately realized that bringing Joel over was a must. He involved the director in the creation of a mental health campaign called Half of Us in which celebrities from the Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan to Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz talked openly and honestly about their struggles with mental health. Today, it’s a ubiquitous topic, but in 2008, there was still a stigma attached to opening up about depression, especially for celebrities under the scrutiny of the public eye.
Andrew Meares / Fairfax Media via Getty ImagesJoel Schumacher photographed in 1993 while promoting Falling Down.
“I had the pleasure of collaborating with Joel” on Half of Us, recalls Mary J. Blige, “and he was a genius.” Over a decade after watching Joel shoot this series, hers is the episode that still sticks with me the most, a searing confession to being a victim of sexual abuse and contemplating taking her own life even at the height of her fame. Joel conducted all celebrity interviews himself. “To this day, I marvel at how Joel conjured up a safe environment for people to share things they had never said out loud before,” reflects Amy Campbell, a senior vice president of creative and production at MTV who oversaw all of Joel’s shoots on set. Stephen Friedman now teaches “The Art of Creating Social Impact Campaigns” at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, and the Half of Us campaign is included in his syllabus. The initiative would go on to win the Oscar of pro-social media, the Peabody.
Through all of this work, Schumacher not only refused to be paid, he didn’t want any recognition at all. (He’d probably fire me just for writing this article.) “I once gave him an Emmy we had won for one of the campaigns he helped to produce,” Friedman says with a laugh, “and when he walked out, he left it in my frigging office.”
Watching Joel create social impact content for MTV was when I saw him at his best: guerilla filmmaking techniques with little budget. Bringing people’s truths out of the cores of their souls. Helping young people. I worked on seven movies with Joel, and never saw him as passionately invested in his work as he was on those MTV campaigns. If the youngest generation of Americans has been teaching us older fogeys something during the pandemic, I think it’s that the time for charity donations and social media platitudes is over; we all need to be throwing our complete passion and energy and talents and much of our time into hitting the streets to make change in this country.
Joel already knew this. Whenever he wrapped a movie, Joel could’ve flown first class to some private island, but instead, would travel home to New York to throw himself into another campaign.
Like many Americans, one of the first things I will do when we’re all healthy again is to return to New York, to walk its streets bustling with people who don’t have to concern themselves with social distancing. I think I’ll honor Joel by walking from SoHo up to Times Square — but I won’t be doing it in flip flops. Only he could do that.
Aaron Cooley is a former assistant and development executive for Joel Schumacher, who now is writing and executive producing First Ladies for Showtime.

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Janelle Monáe Leads The Revolution In Stirring ‘Turntables’ Video

YouTube “We are in the middle of a revolution right? What’s a revolution without a song and a song without a revolution.” That’s the question the Grammy-winning artist Janelle Monáe posed to Entertainment Weekly when describing her latest single, “Turntables.” The song was released on and flips between cleverly rapped lines about “liberation, elevation, education” and a harmonic…

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Janelle Monáe Leads The Revolution In Stirring ‘Turntables’ Video

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“We are in the middle of a revolution right? What’s a revolution without a song and a song without a revolution.”
That’s the question the Grammy-winning artist Janelle Monáe posed to Entertainment Weekly when describing her latest single, “Turntables.” The song was released on and flips between cleverly rapped lines about “liberation, elevation, education” and a harmonic refrain with clear gospel influences. It’s Monáe’s take on a contemporary protest song, a call for a political sea change, in the vein of, say, Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” or Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.”
Courtesy of Atlantic RecordsAnd on Tuesday (September), Monáe released a moving music video — or, as she calls it, an emotion picture — that solidified that message. The visual opens and closes with the singer walking along the beach in a beige trench coat and military cap. At times, she can be seen singing into a retro microphone before an American flag; in others, she moves through staged breakfast scenes, with a family reading through newspaper headlines as they mouth her lyrics. The visual flashes through archival and contemporary footage depicting inspirational figures past and present: Where one scene shows the model and activist Jillian Mercado at a photo shoot, another depicts a conversation with lifelong activist Angela Davis.
What rings true without is a hopeful cry for change and for equality, and a recognition of those who have been leading that fight for decades. Monáe wrote “Turntables” for the new Amazon Studios documentary, All In: The Fight for Democracy, that shines a light on voter suppression, particularly through the lens of Stacey Abrams’s failed bid for the Georgia governorship. “Right now, I am focused on turning the election in our favor,” Monáe told Entertainment Weekly, “and I hope this song can inspire those who are on the ground doing the work.”

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Joe Keery’s Reinvention, Mxmtoon’s Carly Rae Jepsen Collab, And More Songs We Love

Getty Images/April Blum The search for the ever-elusive “bop” is difficult. Playlists and streaming-service recommendations can only do so much. They often leave a lingering question: Are these songs really good, or are they just new? Enter Bop Shop, a hand-picked selection of songs from the MTV News team. This weekly collection doesn’t discriminate by…

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Joe Keery’s Reinvention, Mxmtoon’s Carly Rae Jepsen Collab, And More Songs We Love

Getty Images/April Blum

The search for the ever-elusive “bop” is difficult. Playlists and streaming-service recommendations can only do so much. They often leave a lingering question: Are these songs really good, or are they just new?
Enter Bop Shop, a hand-picked selection of songs from the MTV News team. This weekly collection doesn’t discriminate by genre and can include anything — it’s a snapshot of what’s on our minds and what sounds good. We’ll keep it fresh with the latest music, but expect a few oldies (but goodies) every once in a while, too. Get ready: The Bop Shop is now open for business.

St. Vincent ft. Yoshiki: “New York”

St. Vincent, the intuitive musical goddess that she is, must have sensed our collective need for another quarantine ballad. Enter “New York [Feat. Yoshiki],” a classical arrangement of the standout single from 2017’s Masseduction. An added string section courtesy of Yoshiki, a Japanese multi-instrumentalist, beautifully complements the song’s original piano instrumentals. What more can I say? “New York isn’t New York / Without you, love” just hits different in the middle of a pandemic. —Sam Manzella

Djo: “Keep Your Head Up”

Last year, Joe Keery (of Stranger Things fame) released a glossy solo album under the moniker Djo. It was titled Twenty Twenty, and its sparkling arrangements ended up being quite far removed from the overall vibe of 2020 the year, but who could fault him for his optimism? Keery has also long been a contributing member of Chicago psych band Post Animal, but Djo is simply Joe — and latest “Keep Your Head Up” feels like several Joes ripping open a vortex in the funk-time continuum. This is a groove, peppered with buzzy synths and icy falsetto and an honest-to-god sax part. It’s akin to Todd Terje doing Tame Impala, a lightheaded cocktail rush that feels both clubby and bedroom ambitious. Positively galactic. —Patrick Hosken

Mxmtoon ft. Carly Rae Jepsen: “OK On Your Own”

When Mxmtoon’s Maia said she recorded “OK On Your Own” for the girls and the gays, she wasn’t kidding. The mellow bedroom-pop bop soundtracks a journey of self-reflection after a breakup, complete with the soft ukulele instrumentals that put the 19-year-old singer-songwriter on the map. Is it revelatory? No, but with pop icon Carly Rae Jepsen lending her sugary-sweet vocals to the second verse, it doesn’t have to be. Now I’m just waiting for “Party for Two.” —Sam Manzella

Video Age: “Aerostar”

Pleasure Line, the third album from emerging indie pop quartet Video Age, delivers perfectly escapist ’80s new wave vibes for when you need to get outta 2020 for just a moment. “Aerostar” is its punchy center, a hip-twisting, shoulder-shuffling groove that delivers quirky robot dance commands (“Slide to the left, now! Shimmy to the right!”) over hoppin’ funk synths and a kickin’ drum machine. It all harkens to a simpler time, one where dance floors were actually a real thing. Oh, the ’80s! —Terron Moore

Ruel: “As Long As You Care”

About a year ago, Australian middle-part heartthrob Ruel told MTV News that for him, “songwriting is exaggerating to an extent.” On his latest, the technicolor, soulful “As Long As You Care,” his exaggeration is so seamless, you’d be forgiven for believing the 17-year-old is actually a time traveler. The neo-soul groove he rides propels everything upward, even as the sound cheekily looks backward. “As Long As You Care” has one amazing hook, coupled with sonic candy that makes his upcoming third EP, Bright Lights, Red Eyes (out October 23) one to watch. —Patrick Hosken

Alycia Bella ft. Boogie: “Cue the Sun”

Something magical happens two-and-a-half minutes into “Cue the Sun,” the exploratory new collab between striking R&B voice Alycia Bella and rapper Boogie. After piping in the aural equivalent of stage smoke via jazzy piano and gorgeous vocalizations — “It feel like being lost in the right direction” — Bella’s song enters a more sparkly realm for Boogie’s recitations. By the end, you’re lighter, like your mind’s been cleared of all the cobwebs. Cue the sun. —Patrick Hosken

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Michael Love Michael’s XO Is A Service To Their Queer Ancestors

Ross Days It can be tempting, as a writer, to compartmentalize, to define by a set of fixed words or parameters. Pinpoint the detail about your subject that most interests you — an unexpected gesture, a prime soundbite pulled from an interview — and flesh it out into a full story. But in the case…

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Michael Love Michael’s XO Is A Service To Their Queer Ancestors

Ross Days

It can be tempting, as a writer, to compartmentalize, to define by a set of fixed words or parameters. Pinpoint the detail about your subject that most interests you — an unexpected gesture, a prime soundbite pulled from an interview — and flesh it out into a full story. But in the case of the New York-based artist Michael Love Michael, who last month self-released their debut album XO, it’s simply not possible, in part because they do so much.
As the former culture editor at Paper magazine, the 32-year-old “Cancer-Leo cusp,” who grew up between Chicago and Gary, Indiana, crafted celebrated profiles of such disparate musicians as Paramore’s Hayley Williams and cyborg sensation Poppy, while also serving up weekly playlists packed with the best bops from Megan Thee Stallion, Yves Tumor, and beyond. One day, it seemed they were stomping a runway in New York in a leather tank top and a cherry pout for the queer designer Willie Norris; the next, they were escaping to a farm to study permaculture at an undisclosed location “out West.”
XO, by design, rejects easy categorization. The collection, which was produced in under a year in collaboration with Michael’s longtime creative partner Rich Dasilva, fluctuates dramatically between glittering power-pop — as on the synth-heavy “6 Jaguars,” which dissolves at the bridge into a biting rap (“They call me bitch if they don’t like me… Does that tell you who I’m voting for, honey?”) — and lush, emotional ballads. Michael’s voice boasts a similarly wide range, whether as a groaning whisper in a spoken-sung segment closing “The Hatred,” or as a looping, crystalline falsetto as they perform as their own backup singer on “Blueberry.”
Their first comprehensive artistic statement, Michael tells MTV News, was intended to dispel any notion of essentialization, particularly as a Black, nonbinary artist making their mark in the industry (in June, they left Paper, citing its treatment of its Black staffers). “I think Black, queer people can sometimes just be lumped together in sort of this really offensive, monolithic way, and it’s just a way of me saying that I have multitudes,” they say. “I am a very tender, spiritual, sensitive person. And I’m also fierce.”
Ross DaysMTV News: Did you record XO while you were on the farm, or was that all done before?
Michael: I basically worked on it from April until late July, so there was part of it that was finished here, but most of it was done during quarantine in New York, four or five tracks. I started recording my vocals on my iPhone and my computer, and I’m really happy with how it all turned out, because, at least in my opinion, none of it sounds like it was done at home. It has a uniformity, and it sounds kind of expansive in a lot of ways.
MTV News: I really connected with the song “Blueberry,” and there was this sound on it that reminded me almost of a dulcimer, though I couldn’t quite make it out. Given that much of it was produced at home, was there a lot of live instrumentation on this?
Michael: So there’s acoustic guitar, there’s whistling, there are actual finger snaps, and then the rest is electronic. So then there’s kind of the 808 bass drone and there’s that sound, which is like a fake electronic guitar. But I’m glad you like “Blueberry.” “Blueberry” is very, very sweet and comes from a sad place.
MTV News: Would you tell me about it?
Michael: OK, so “Blueberry” is about an unrequited love. When I was a teenager, I had this really intense crush on this guy who was closeted and involved with this girl as a way to kind of conceal, as we all do when we’re going through that journey. But we always had a connection, and it was very kind of the teenage lust kind of factor. And then, after high school, he went to the Iraq War and died.
There are lines about going off to war but also being brave and being who you are. There’s this line about purple hearts beating wild with red, red blood — the idea of a Purple Heart for bravery, while also referencing the bravery it requires to be out as yourself. There’s also the idea that both of us are sacrificing something, my jealousy and my self-reflection, and the blueberry gates became a place I would go in my mind when I would think of him. I wanted to find a way to talk about having a closeted relationship full of young lust and love, and to speak about what’s involved when two people sacrifice parts of themselves to make things work that can’t work, ultimately.
MTV News: What are some other songs on the album that feel special for you?
Michael: This is almost like my second coming out, as an artist and sharing my music with everybody. Even though I’ve been making music since I was 16, I’ve never actually had the courage until now to release anything. “XO” is my favorite track, because that’s the thesis of the project. It’s about overcoming some of my own personal demons to love myself enough to realize I had something to share and something to say, like a love letter to a damaged former self.
“Mother’s Day” is another one that I really love, because it’s kind of strange and cryptic. This one is more about people’s relationship to all things maternal, how you have to be a reciprocal give-and-take dynamic with whatever those things are, whether that’s the earth, someone you look up to who is a femme person or a mother figure. It has echoes of my own relationship with my mother and my grandmother. There’s a line about planting a garden — “Every Mother’s Day, I plant a garden for you / Every Mother’s Day, I water your flowers that bloom” — and that was something I used to do for my grandmother as a kid.
MTV News: Do you have a good relationship with your mom and your grandmother?
Michael: With my grandmother, yes. With my mother, that’s something that’s very much in process. It’s a tricky song. It’s really complex, obviously. But I love it for that reason, and I love that I feel like I’m learning how to be really good at writing about things that are personal broader and nuanced ways. I can be descriptive and I can also not be descriptive, and all of it’s intentional. It kind of reminds me of a St. Vincent, Brian Eno vibe. It feels kind of stompy, crunchy, stadium rock or something.

MTV News: What made now feel like a good time to release an album and share this project?
Michael: It was something that I didn’t intend to happen. I was happy with just having some demo recordings and maybe an EP released on SoundCloud, and then I had friends who really encouraged me to think bigger. Also, I had my own aspirations that I buried because I was trying to be realistic and I was trying to hold down full-time jobs and I was trying to be sort of a traditional careerist, and it’s just like, no bitch. Don’t dull your own shine, don’t gaslight yourself just because society gaslights you.
And so, that’s what kind of really motivated me to kind of come out with it all, and I just feel really grateful for the ability to have unlocked this avenue of creativity. Even for this to happening, for us to be talking about my album for MTV is fucking cool. Everything is luxury now, I just get so excited about everything else because creativity begets more creativity. So I don’t take any of it for granted, it’s so fucking cool.
MTV News: Yeah, I can really relate with feeling vulnerable in sharing something creative. 
Michael: This is an exercise in proving something to myself. I really do believe, if you see something missing and you have the capacity to provide or be that missing link, then do that. If you feel empowered and you feel like you can and you have the resources and the energy, do that. Where queer voices are sort of becoming less and less marginalized, people want to hear what it is we have to say. Remember that there are so many people who fought and died for so much of the freedom that I and many of us take for granted. Part of being a person with a voice and sharing it is also being in service to your ancestors who came before you.
MTV News: In listening to XO as a whole, there are songs that are very soft and almost indie-leaning in a way, and then you also have these songs that are very fierce and very hard. I wondered what your intention was, or were you expressing different sides of yourself?
Michael: Well, I love that you picked up on the contrast, because that was the exact point. I definitely wanted to present duality. It’s an introduction to me as a musician and, hopefully, if there ever were any expectations, it surprises, maybe it shocks. Maybe it’s exactly what people expect — I have no fucking idea. I called it XO because I thought of X-O as sort of an expression of contrast, because it’s like hugs and kisses are sort of opposite things, but then so is the idea of being open and being closed.
I think Black, queer people can sometimes just be lumped together in sort of this really offensive, monolithic way, and it’s just a way saying that I have multitudes. I’m a complex, fully realized human being. So it was important for me to show a hard edge and a softer, gentler side, because at the end of the day, I am a very tender, spiritual, sensitive person, and I’m also fierce. The Cancer-Leo cusp is really that, it’s very that.

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