Cleo Wade loves you. She really does.
“I don’t need to know you to love you,” Wade said on a recent Thursday afternoon, in her spacious one-bedroom apartment overlooking Tompkins Square Park in the East Village of Manhattan.
Dressed casually in a striped La Ligne sweater, she was seated on her living room floor before a wall covered with biodegradable botanical wallpaper, as lavender-scented incense burned and Donny Hathaway played softly in the background.
It’s the type of place where one would imagine Wade dreams up her fortune-cookie-size poetic self-affirmations like:
“Self-love: it costs nothing and you gain everything”
“Be yourself. I love you like that.”
Those motivational mantras have been splattered across Times Square and her popular Instagram feed, which counts Nicole Richie and activist DeRay Mckesson as fans. The words have also been used in advertisements for Gucci’s Chime for Change campaign, stenciled on Nike AF1 sneakers and inscribed on dishes for Fishs Eddy.
And now they have been compiled in a book, “Heart Talk: Poetic Wisdom for a Better Life,” published by Simon & Schuster in March.
Pouring herself a second cup of turmeric-infused ginger tea, Wade apologized for feeling tired. She had spent the previous night in a floral Erdem gown at the New Museum, where she hosted a book party with old classmates from elementary school and newer pals like Elaine Welteroth and Prabal Gurung.
“If people treat ‘Heart Talk’ less like a book and more like a best friend, I would really like that,” said Wade, 29, who has a mop of springy caramel-hued hair and an enviable closet of Gucci and Stella McCartney.
Her social calendar and political activism have been chronicled in Vogue and Marie Claire, and she has also been linked romantically to Sen. Cory A. Booker, D-N.J., though their current status is unknown. In the book’s acknowledgments, Wade writes: “To my partner, Cory, for being a constant source of light and inspiration in my life. You have truly been my rock during this process.” (Asked if they were currently dating, Wade, who is extremely reticent about her personal life, declined to clarify the status of their relationship.)
Being the world’s most tireless BFF is part of her package, as her book underscores. Filled with handwritten notes and underlined sentences, “Heart Talk” reads more like a user guide for a vague set of life’s hardships than as anything too preachy or precious.
Her brand of pin-able prose (sample line: “I love myself more than I loved the idea of an ‘us’”) and emotional transparency (she often posts screen grabs of her girlfriends’ breakup text messages) appeals to a social media generation that expresses their hopes and fears through the brevity of Instagram posts and political T-shirts.
Indeed, a number of young women at last month’s March for Our Lives protests against gun violence quoted Wade’s works on their handmade signs and tagged her on Instagram. Sample placard: “May all children have the freedom to safely be children.”
“I connect with my audience because I start with where they are in life, and I just try to walk with them,” she said. “I want you to rip out pages and put them on your fridge.”
Wade traces her empathetic nature to growing up poor in a biracial family in New Orleans. Her father, Bernardo, who is black, is an art photographer. Her mother, Lori, who is white, is a chef.
Her parents divorced when she was 5, and she fell in love with writing at 6, after taking a summer course in poetry. In high school, she experimented with a quirky fashion style cultivated from thrift shops and hand-me-downs.
“We didn’t have a lot of money, so I became expressive through whatever weird thing I could find,” she said.
Her fashion sensibility led her to skip college and move to New York in 2006, where she interned at M Missoni and worked as an office manager at Halston. Wade’s photogenic looks and penchant for wearing arty headpieces soon helped her achieve lucrative “It” girl status that resulted in consulting for Alice & Olivia and appearing in advertising projects for Cartier and Armani.
“I was making money for the first time in my life, but I realized I wasn’t happy,” Wade said. “Nobody tells you what to do when your girlhood dreams bump into your womanhood dreams.”
Seeking perspective, she packed her vintage pink typewriter and traveled across the world, from Morocco to Mexico, where she reacquainted herself with painting and poetry. Fashion was replaced by a new artistic mission: “How can I be a better friend, a better sister, a better daughter and be better to other women?” she said.
It was around this time, in 2014, that she posted her first Instagram poem on the “unbreakable nature” of “women everywhere.” She traded her paintbrush for a pen and rebranded herself as a high-profile social butterfly with a social conscience, making appearances at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia with her close friend Katy Perry and at the Lower East Side Girls Club in Manhattan with actress Reese Witherspoon to talk about self-esteem.
“I watched how personal her connection was to all the girls,” Witherspoon said. “They revere her in the way that you would adore your favorite loving, creative aunt or older sister.”
Not long after the Democratic convention, Page Six, the gossip section of The New York Post, reported sightings of Wade and Booker together at the New York Edition Hotel and at a party given by Refinery29, where Wade had created a love-themed poetry installation. In an interview with NorthJersey.com last September, Booker said he has “been a bachelor too long” and that he was “hopeful” a marriage to Wade was in the cards.
Wade blushed when the topic of her romantic life was brought up. She has long refused to discuss her relationship with Booker, once telling New York magazine, “I don’t confirm or deny anything in the romantic realm.”
After much prodding during her interview this time, she finally said, “We’re very close, and I consider him family.”
Putting down her teacup on one of her small serving trays that reads, “keep your reality, I am fine with my dreams,” she explained that her uncharacteristic tight lips were less for personal reasons than for philosophical ones.
“Listen, I put my friends’ text messages on the internet,” she said. “But, every time I am interviewed, who I’m dating is the second question. For Cory, it’s the 10th question, even if that. It never ends up being a qualifier for men, but that’s not the same for women.”
Appearing deep in thought as to not mince her words, Wade took a deep breath.
“Men shouldn’t define women who are speaking about their work and what they’re trying to do in the world,” she said.
And just like that, she had effortlessly created another affirmation right out of thin air.