Nia Long, who recently costarred opposite William Shatner, Candice Bergen and James Spader in the acclaimed ABC drama Boston Legal, is having a girl moment. Dressed in gray leggings, she’s curled, kittenlike, in the corner of her overstuffed sofa, in front of a fire, sipping red wine and estimating the number of pairs of shoes she owns. “Umm,” she says, squinting her eyes, “I guess, 60?”
 From across the room, her longtime girlfriend CBS Paramount TV exec Abra Potkin laughs. “Ha,” she says, “you are so bad at math!”

The figure, it turns out, is closer to 150, each pair lovingly arranged in a floor-to-ceiling closet in the corner of Long’s airy bedroom. Shoes, Long says, are her passion, falling somewhere on the list below her career, her girlfriends, her son and God. And that’s precisely why the widely circulating rumor about Long losing her shoe while running from a street brawl she was allegedly involved in seems so, well, absurd. But surprise, surprise: The gossip is partly true. Senior writer Jeannine Amber visits Long’s Los Angeles home to dish about men, shoes and what a nice girl like her was doing at a throwdown like that.

Essence: Last summer everyone was talking about how you were involved in an ugly scuffle at The Grove, an upscale shopping mall in Los Angeles.
Nia Long:
I know! It was all over the radio and it was really blown out of proportion. They said after the fight, I was running around looking for my shoe; they kept calling me Cinderella. But come on, you see my shoe closet. I love my shoes; there is no way I’m leaving one behind.

Essence: So there really was a fight?
Yes. But I want to get this straight: It wasn’t my fault. I didn’t start it; I didn’t throw any punches. It was one man’s ego against another man’s pride. It was all about them.

Essence: But how do two grown men start fighting at a mall?
What happened was, I’d gone out to dinner with my son and a friend of mine. This was the first time I’d ever brought my child around someone I was dating, so it was a big deal. After dinner, my son’s father (to whom Long was previously engaged; the couple broke up when their son was a toddler) needed to pick him up, so I told him to meet me. Really, I had no intention of introducing him to my friend right then, because my life is my business. He knows I’m a good mother, and that’s the most important thing. But he got to the mall a lot faster than I thought he would. It’s like he put on his Batman wings and flew (laughing).
 When I saw him I thought, Okay, this is nothing to get excited about, and I introduced him to my friend. They shook hands, and then I guess my son’s father just got emotional, because he basically punched my friend in the face.

Essence: He shook his hand and then popped him for no reason?
Words were exchanged, but I’m not going to repeat them. Really, I don’t think that fight had anything to do with me. I think it had to do with our son. Men are very protective of their children, and ours is his first and only child. I think my child’s father was like, “This is who’s around my son?” and just kind of lost it. Then they started fighting, so I walked off because I didn’t want my son to get the idea that this is appropriate behavior. That’s when the mall security came and broke it up, and the police were called. (Long’s ex did not return repeated phone calls from Essence.)

Essence: How did you explain to your 6-year-old son why his father just hit a man in the face?
I told him his father got emotional and lost his temper, and he didn’t use his best judgment.

Essence: Did the friend you were with happen to be 21-year-old first-round NFL draft pick Reggie Bush? Because that’s what I heard.
I’ve never even met Reggie Bush! Actually, that’s not true. Just before he signed his contract (with the New Orleans Saints) I was at an NFL party in New York, and this man comes up and asks if his boy can take a picture with me. His boy is like, “Hi, I’m Reggie.” We shake hands, that’s all, and the next thing I know, I’m his girlfriend. After the fight, everyone was calling me, asking, “Did Reggie Bush beat up your child’s father?” And I was like, What?

Essence: So who was the guy at the mall?
Nobody famous. Just someone I was dating. We’re not even seeing each other anymore. The thing is, where I come from, having spent some of my youth in South Central and part of my youth in Brooklyn, this wasn’t that big a deal, except that I’m famous, and it really isn’t a good look. Do you know I’m not even allowed to go to The Grove for a year? We’ve all been banned! But, whatever. They don’t have any good shoe stores there, anyway.

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Essence: Did this change your relationship with your child’s father?
(Pausing) I was pissed. But it wasn’t like I stopped letting him see his son. That’s the gangster in me: No matter how crazy things are, you have to maintain your cool. Anyway, he apologized to me, my son and my friend. The bottom line is, he’s really a good father—an amazing father. The only thing I demand is that he speak to me with respect and that we maintain healthy communication.

Essence: Speaking of dating, I see there’s a giant vase of long-stemmed red roses on your kitchen counter. Who are they from?
My friend.

Essence: Oh, really? Just a friend?                                                                N.L.: Actually, I think we’re changing into more than friends. We’re exploring the possibilities. He’s soooo nice. For my birthday he sent me a giant flower arrangement and all these chocolates.

Essence: What does he do?
I guess you could call it a form of entertainment.

Essence: Sports?
(Giggling) I’m trying to be protective of it because I don’t want it out in the open.

Essence: You were on Third Watch and before that The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. How are you enjoying being back on television?
The writing on Boston Legal is so beautiful, so layered and full of life, and I’m working with the crème de la crème—true professionals who take their craft very seriously. So it’s been challenging, but in such a great way. Of course, there’s the constant struggle to find the balance between work and motherhood: You know, dealing with my son’s school and school plays and the bake sale and the million things mothers do.

Essence: You have played the love interest of a fantastic array of men: Cuba Gooding, Jr., Ice Cube, Will Smith, Larenz Tate, Martin Lawrence, Taye Diggs, Mekhi Phifer, Jude Law. Who was the best kisser?
The most natural chemistry was definitely with Larenz. But Will set the standard for leading men. He really knows how to make a woman feel special. He likes to cater to a woman, and you don’t need to be his wife for him to do that. If you are his costar, he’ll take care of you.

Essence: Black male actors have been getting great opportunities to showcase their talents. Last year Jamie grabbed an Oscar, and this year there’s buzz around Will Smith, Forest Whitaker and Derek Luke. Black women don’t seem to be getting the same chances to shine.
It’s not just Black women, it’s women period. Many times we’re cast in supporting roles; meaty roles are few and far between. Also a lot of Black men are branching out and doing mainstream films that don’t necessarily have all-Black casts. And they aren’t really giving those same opportunities to Black women. They’ll cast an ethnic woman, but she won’t necessarily be Black. But I can’t really get caught up thinking about the situation because it’s depressing. Personally, I tend to mind my own damn business. I’m on a great show and I have two films (Premonition), opposite Sandra Bullock, in March, and Are We Done Yet? with Ice Cube, in April]. I’m happy. I have great friends. I have my mother, my grandmother, my son….

Essence: And your shoes.
Yes, my shoes (laughing). Every single one of them.

 —Jeannine Amber is an Essence senior writer.