“For better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; to love and to cherish; till death do us part.” The vows are familiar, but for many, after a year of the in-tandem epidemics of COVID-19 and a resulting economic crisis, they have been put to the test. It’s Valentine’s Day tradition here at The Glow Up to explore the depths of Black love, romance and commitment, all of which have taken on deeper meanings in the wake of this most challenging year. For Jeanine Hays and Bryan Mason, partners in life and their well-known interior design and lifestyle brand, AphroChic, this past year brought their lives—and love—into sharper focus.
We’ve featured AphroChic before here at The Glow Up (full disclosure: this writer’s home was also featured in their first book, Remix, Decorating with Culture, Objects and Soul). However, we’ve never explored the 25-year relationship behind the 13-year-old brand, a story that began in 1996 when the then-high school seniors first crossed paths in the Philadelphia International Airport en route to a college tour of Florida A&M. Jeanine now calls their meeting “kind of like love at first chat.”
“I saw her first as the plane was boarding—she was headed the wrong way with her family going to get breakfast,” Bryan tells The Glow Up via email. “I went up and asked if they were with our trip and let them know that she was about to miss the plane. Then during the flight, I saw that she was sitting alone—and, judging from how deep her nails were dug into the armrest, not comfortable flying. So I went and sat next to her.”
“We’ve pretty much been together ever since,” Jeanine adds—though ironically, neither ended up at FAMU. Jeanine attended Spelman in Atlanta while Bryan chose Drexel University in Philadelphia. “There wasn’t like a ‘the one’ moment,” she continues. “My mom knew, though. She told my sister on the way home from the airport that the boy who came up to us was going to be my husband. She has a sixth sense.
“It’s been a 25-year hangout with someone who makes me laugh, always has my back, and who honestly intrigues me,” she adds.
“Yup. What she said,” Bryan agrees.
The two dated for a decade before marrying in December of 2006 at Tensing Pen Hotel on the cliffs of Negril, Jamaica. Already building a life together, their intimate family-and-friend-filled affair felt more celebratory than ceremonial.
“One of the benefits of being together for 10 years before getting married is that you have time to get past most of your biggest challenges,” Bryan explains. “By the time we landed in Negril, we’d already lived together in Philadelphia for a year, in Washington D.C. for a year, and moved all the way to San Francisco where we’d been living for another year. So the main thing we had going for us was that there were no weird expectations or notions about what the other would be like as a ‘wife’ or ‘husband.’ Our relationship was what it was. The marriage had already happened. The wedding was just a party to celebrate the fact.”
A year later, Bryan was finishing his first master’s degree while Jeanine’s affinity for interior design was proving a welcome distraction from her less inspiring work as a policy attorney. “She was really into design and I really wasn’t,” Bryan recalls. “She was reading a lot of design blogs, so I suggested that she start one, thinking that would limit the time I’d spend talking about design in the future. Who knew?”
Indeed, no one could’ve predicted Jeanine’s natural eye for aesthetics would lead to a feature in the Washington Post. Overnight, her then-burgeoning blog had an audience of thousands monthly—and opportunities to design products and spaces came rolling in. “It was a total shift,” says Jeanine. Bryan’s prior disinterest in design also shifted, as he became her business partner.
A book deal with Random House soon followed, as did partnerships with the likes of Lowe’s, IKEA, HGTV and recently, Home Depot, Perigold and the (RED) Campaign. A move to New York was accompanied by features in Elle Decor, Architectural Digest and New York Magazine, which named AphroChic one of New York City’s top interior design firms. By the time the brand launched its own quarterly lifestyle magazine in the fall of 2019, things had been on a steadily upward trajectory for years. But just as the first wave of COVID-19 cases were beginning to make headlines in the U.S. late last February, Bryan suddenly became “extremely ill,” says Jeanine.
“He was so ill he could hardly move and I didn’t know if I should take him to the ER. I was afraid he’d contract the virus,” she recalls. “We ended up going to the doctor instead…he was diagnosed with double pneumonia. They couldn’t believe he was even able to stand up. It wasn’t until an IgG (immunoglobulins) test in the spring that it was finally confirmed that it was COVID.”
Bryan spent the next several months under Jeanine’s care at their Brooklyn apartment, during which the couple shared “some scary moments.” But as he slowly recovered, Jeanine began to experience mysterious symptoms of her own following “a 48-hour bug.”
“I was developing skin issues. My feet would feel on fire. I’d break out in hives,” she recounts. “Food I regularly ate no longer agreed with me. The IgG test eventually revealed that I had had COVID as well; mine was just more skin and allergen-based.”
“It’s been a really rough 12 months” since, says Jeanine. Her grandmother was one of many to succumb to COVID, and other family members passed amid the continuing lockdowns. Then, last August, Jeanine’s allergies terrifyingly escalated.
“My flare-ups included anaphylaxis. I had to get an EpiPen that Bry had to administer to literally save my life,” she shares.
Jeanine is what has commonly become known as a “long-hauler,” a post-COVID diagnosis encompassing a range of symptoms theorized to result from an immune system gone into overdrive in response to the virus. For the past seven months, Bryan has become her full-time caretaker as her symptoms became so severe she could no longer speak or eat solid foods, sending her body into such a state of decompensation she could barely walk. After discovering their much-beloved but allergen-laden Brooklyn rental was making Jeanine sicker, the couple was compelled to purchase a house in upstate New York.
“I’ve always been a city boy with no interest in being anywhere else,” says Bryan. “But in a situation like this, with so little being done to really help people or curtail the spread of the virus, this move was the only real choice…staying only invited more risk,” he continues. “It’s a steep learning curve under the circumstances but we’re getting the hang of it.”
“COVID has changed our lives,” says Jeanine. “But through all of this, we think of those vows—for better or worse—and what they mean. You never know what ‘worse’ is going to be, but if you’re with someone who truly loves you, they’ll be there by your side through all of it.”
When asked about the most frightening moments of the past year, Bryan responds, “Any time that one of us thought that the other might die. And there have been too many of those.”
Both politically and community-focused, he and Jeanine understandably share frustration over “too much concern for the economy and not enough concern for humanity,” as well as how the lack of containment continues to disproportionately affect Black and Brown communities.
“At this point, the scariest part about coronavirus isn’t the virus, it’s how much we’ve done to help the virus,” says Bryan.
Each credits God—and their extensive circle of family, friends, followers and even their new neighbors—for helping them survive a year of unprecedented challenges. What has never been challenging, however, is their commitment to each other.
“I don’t subscribe to the idea that ‘relationships are hard,’” says Jeanine. “Life is hard. And as Black people, it’s challenging on multiple levels. I believe that at the end of the day your relationship should be easy. It should be the easiest thing in your life. Because with so many challenges out there, we all need and deserve to come home to someone who makes life a little easier.
“[Surviving COVID] has reiterated what I already knew—that God is love and that God can help lead you to your person that personifies that love,” she continues. “Love that advocates for you as you see tons of doctors. Love that develops a physical therapy routine for you so that you can walk again. Love that works all day creating meals for you so that you can learn how to chew again. Love that holds the bag when you vomit. Love that cleans you up after. What we are experiencing right now is truly unconditional love.”
Bryan’s less inclined to the rhetoric of “unconditional” love—“But I do believe in true love,” he says. “I believe in love that stays the same—not regardless of what someone does, but regardless of the circumstances that go on around it. How I feel about my wife and what I will do for her is the same, no matter where we are or what else is happening in the world. It’s not affected by pandemics or long-term symptoms or where we live.
“And like she said, this situation has reinforced what I already knew: that that kind of love is good to have because it anchors you when the world goes crazy. And when the person you love is sick or in danger it gives you clarity because you know exactly what your priorities are,” he continues. “Between my illness and hers, we’ve been trapped inside now for an entire year of some of the worst experiences of our lives. But no matter how bad the experience, it’s okay as long as we’re experiencing it together. And at the end of every day, no matter how bad, it’s okay because we’re still together, and because we know that when the days get better, and there’s more of life to enjoy than to endure, we’ll be together then, too.”
For now, that includes sustaining AphroChic—which, with the help of their small team, Bryan has taken the lead on. Jeanine, meanwhile, has used her small reserves of strength to publicly share her health journey, “because this is a real situation with dire consequences—especially for our community—and if you can’t put a face to the stories it can be easy to miss that until the face and the story are yours,” Bryan explains. “Hopefully, by being open about what we’re going through we can help someone else avoid it.”
With that in mind, perhaps “transparent” love is a better description of what Jeanine and Bryan share.
“Real love is not about artifice. You have to be yourself with your partner. Let them see it all—the good, the bad, the ugly cries. And they have to be themselves too,” says Jeanine. “Once you let go of what you think the other person should be or what you think a relationship has to look like and find what works for the two of you, being together is just joy. Because it’s not about what should be. It’s about the two of you.”
“At the end of the day, there’s no one whose thoughts, opinions or perspectives I value more than I do Jeanine’s. And that is the basis for every other part of how we interact with each other,” Bryan adds. “Because of that, there’s no one I’d rather talk to or spend my time with. I can talk to her more than I can with anyone else and expect to be understood more than with anyone else—and she can do the same. So it’s really not that complicated: She’s her, and I’m me, and the rest really takes care of itself.”