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Despite COVID Pandemic, Startup LGBTQ magazine, Embrace, Off To A Great Start In Its Rookie Year

An interview with John Sotomayor.

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It can be said that 2021 is proving to be John Sotomayor’s year in publishing, and he would be the first to agree with that. His media company produces two startup magazines, Elevate and Embrace, established in 2017 and 2019 respectively. Embrace, the first-ever LGBTQ magazine published in North Central Florida, published its first issue in May 2020. Having won national and statewide awards in Florida, Elevate and its Spanish language edition, Elevar, the first-ever faith-based magazines in North Central Florida, are eclipsed by the success of Embrace in its first year. Recently, the Florida Magazine Association bestowed Embrace as Magazine of the Year at the 2021 Charlie Awards, held at the Westin Sarasota. Embrace also won Charlie Awards as Best New Magazine, Best Overall Magazine, Best Overall Writing, and Silver Awards in Best Overall Design, Best Overall Digital Innovator, and Best Special Theme or Show Issue, along with 15 other Charlie, Silver, and Bronze awards in writing, design, photography, and general excellence. Embrace made history as the first LGBTQ magazine member of the FMA, established in 1953, and the first LGBTQ award winner in the Charlie Awards, established in 1957.

Embrace made history before. In November 2020, The Associated Church Press granted Embrace membership becoming the first-ever LGBTQ publication member in the ACP, established in 1916. In April 2021, Embrace made history again becoming the first LGBTQ publication to win national awards in the organizations Best in Church Press Awards, having won second and third place in Magazine News Story. 

Prior to that, Embrace received 15 awards in the Florida Press Club 2020 Excellence in Journalism competition, in writing, design, photography, and illustration. Nine awards were first place and six awards were second place. No other publication ever received that many awards in only first and second place positions. Embrace hopes to repeat or exceed their performance as the FPC 2021 Excellence in Journalism competition closed their call for entries mid-August with the winners announced later this year.

What is most impressive is to learn that Embrace was able to publish in its first year at all amidst the COVID pandemic of 2020 and early 2021. 

How did you begin as a journalist?

I began my career as a freelance journalist in my native New York City. I was an entertainment reporter for ETV, specializing in Mark Burnett reality TV shows in 2003 – 2004. He produced SurvivorThe Apprentice, and others. Like much of my life experiences, my introduction to writing was unconventional. I was a litigation paralegal at the time, assigned to a class action lawsuit with an attorney I had nothing in common with. He and I had to spend numerous hours together, just the two of us, reviewing and organizing medical documents. To pass the time, I learned he was a fan of Survivor, at the time in the middle of its first season. I was unfamiliar with the show but watched it, studied it, and quickly learned it was ultimately a show about strategic competition. I shared my thoughts of strategic analysis and he was hooked on my words and concepts. I shared my thoughts with a blogger, who suggested I write my own column. In short time, the editor of ETV reviewed my work and loved my take on the program overview. I became a writer and soon, I was a fan-favorite. One of my most read articles was a mock trial if one of the Survivor contestants, Susan Hawk, filed a lawsuit against Richard Hatch for sexual harassment in the first-ever All Stars. Another popular article was a mock psychological assessment of Omarosa Manigault from The Apprentice. No one else wrote like I did. Everyone else wrote cheeky play-by-play overviews of each episode. I wrote edgy intellectual fiction based on the real contestants of the show. My fans loved it. My editor loved me. I fell in love with writing. 

Who are some of the notable people you’ve interviewed?

There have been many over the past 18 years. During my time with ETV, I would say the most notable was Donald Trump. He was promoting his book, “The Art of the Deal.” I was impressed that he was on time. Most stars made me wait. He was also very charming. Of course, we were surrounded by dozens of cameras, so I figure he was conditioned to be charming in front of cameras. Twelve years later, I would be proven wrong or he decided he could say whatever he wanted despite constant cameras so long as he was POTUS. My favorite US leader to interview was US Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. That is not a bias because we share a last name, and no we are not related. I like to say we are in the same family tree, but many branches apart. Her surname is from Puerto Rico, and mine is from Peru. We have common ancestry reaching back to conquistadors in the 1500s, but that is another story. I enjoyed my interview with her because she was smart, witty, and charming. Not Trump charming. More genuine. My favorite to date, and most frequent is John Travolta. He lives in Marion County, Fla., near Ocala, where I live. From 2007 to 2010, he donated proceeds garnered from red carpet appearances around town to local causes. His efforts raised anywhere from $60,000 to $100,000+ per red carpet appearance from one of his movies, including “Wild Hogs,” “Old Dogs,” and “From Paris with Love.” JT is the most pleasant celebrity I have ever met. A genuinely good guy. His entire family is kind-hearted. I would sometimes run into a family member, like his daughter Ellla at the local movie theater and we would stop and say hello. Or I would run into the late Kelly Preston at a local low-key charity event. We would also stop and chat. I really liked her a great deal and feel for the family for her passing. 

When and why did you move to Florida?

I moved to Ocala, Fla. in January 2005. My parents retired here, and I wanted to be close to them. The original plan was to move to Ocala for six months or so to help them with their transition, then move to either Tampa or Miami to find work in larger markets. However, the previous year Florida was hit hard by four back-to-back hurricanes: Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne. Zoning permits were delayed. What should have taken six months dragged out to a year and a half. So, I decided to find journalism jobs in Ocala. I was impressed with the top quality of the two local magazines at the time: Ocala Magazine and Ocala Style. I sought freelance work with both. At the time, Ocala Style did not use freelancers, so they politely declined. Fortunately for me, Ocala Magazine needed freelancers, so I was offered work. My editor at the time saw my potential but did feel I needed to polish my skills to fit their level of magazine writing. Other than my work for ETV, my writing was highly influenced by legalese. I practiced and honed my skills as a narrative journalist, which fit their long-form feature articles enough to garner me regular work. I decided to stay; that I could grow faster under the mentorship of an editor for a small-town magazine more successfully than competing with seasoned journalists. I am glad I did. 

Tell us about Embrace and how that got started.

My freelance work with Ocala Magazine led to a staff position as an associate editor. I applied my job as an educational experience equivalent to a four-year BA degree. In fact, I considered returning to college to study journalism at the prestigious program offered at University of Florida in nearby Gainesville. My editor advised me not to. She said, “Let me save you $40,000 … everything you will ever need to know to become a successful writer and editor, you will learn on the job here.” She did save me $40,000, and I was paid a salary for my education in magazine journalism. Thank you, Heather! Over time, I was promoted to managing editor, then executive editor. I learned how to lead the editorial department, as well as an overview of the business. Also, the genesis of Embrace began with an idea. 

In 2012, the publisher of Ocala Magazine asked me if it was a good idea of cover a gay life story as a filler for a feature that fell out. It had never been done before, and Ocala Magazine was known to take on challenging, unconventional topics. I agreed we should cover it, but not as a filler story. We should devote more time to develop the best angle to cover. She agreed. Ultimately, I asked myself, what is Ocala/Marion County all about? It was about faith and families. So, I decided that would be the angle, from an LGBTQ point of view. It took time to get people to share their stories. When they did, we had a fantastic presentation of how faith and families are defined for the LGBTQ community. The article was groundbreaking. We thought there might be some backlash so we prepared for it. We did not receive any. Not one negative letter or complaint. Instead, we received hundreds of letters of support and congratulations for taking on a story for a marginalized community. I decided then and there, if I ever had the opportunity to create my own magazine, it will be LGBTQ oriented. 

My next job in journalism was as staff writer for Akers Media Group based in Leesburg, Lake County. I wrote for five publications: Lake & Sumter StyleLake & Sumter Style the Villages EditionHealthy LivingLake Business Magazine, and Welcome to Lake. The experience taught me how to manage several assignments at once, and the best practices on how to manage the creative side of the business. My next job was as content coordinator for Best Version Media overseeing content for four magazines: Country Club LivingInnovationOcalaDowntown Neighbors, and Southeast Neighbors. The experience taught me how to manage the business side of the industry. In 2016, I had the opportunity to launch my first magazine, the prototype to Elevate called Ocala Christian Advocate. The project was ambitious due to the wishes of my then business partner. We only had 30 days from concept to completion. I achieved it; however, it was clear I had to separate from my partner and start over with a new concept right away to capitalize on the momentum. With the appropriate amount of time taken to conduct market research and development, I launched the premiere issue one year later. Elevate and Elevar were critically acclaimed, garnering national and statewide awards. Commercially, the brand was not doing well. I decided to put the magazine on hiatus to restructure the business model from a For-Profit to Non-Profit, then placed all my resources on starting Embrace. Having learned valuable lessons and insights with ElevateEmbrace launched smoothly, except for one clear problem – the COVID pandemic that began in March 2020, one month before publication of our premiere issue. 

Advertisers closed their budgets. So, I decided to launch the magazine anyway with all ads in place as a community service – to support the LGBTQ businesses and ally businesses who would have advertised with our new magazine and only decided to drop due to the unexpected pandemic. That way, we help the businesses promote their products and services during a natural disaster recession, and we get to showcase our new magazine as it should look with all editorial and advertisement intact. What saved us were the economic relief funds available to small businesses to move forward. We were able to launch our quarterly magazine basically on time each quarter with a limited print. The accolades received show the industry recognized our valiant efforts; not only launched during the COVID-induced recession, but also launching a high-quality magazine with the mission to unite LGBTQ and straight communities to live, work, play, and pray. Our message and execution were on point. 

Embrace has changed history in a substantial way. There hasn’t been a magazine that has achieved anything like it before. Tell us about those milestones.

First, Embrace made history as the first LGBTQ publication to be granted membership into the Associated Church Press, established in 1916. That is a major game-changer when it comes to changing, in my opinion, the greatest obstacle in acceptance, the condemnation of same sex people by organized religion. Others have vocalized the desire for the change in direction, such as the ACP executive director, Gregg Brekke. I established membership with the ACP for Elevate and Elevar magazines in 2018. They are faith-based, so membership was easily granted. Before presenting my application for membership for Embrace, I spoke to Brekke about it. I mentioned I launched a LGBTQ magazine and had at the time two published quarterly issues, working on the third. He replied, “John, you attended the ACP national convention in Chicago so you are aware that many of our member publications are actively including proactive LGBTQ content in their editorial. Yours would be the first LGBTQ magazine that includes faith-based content in your magazine. That inverse is precisely what we would like to include in our membership as we diversify.” With that support, I submitted my application. We were granted membership shortly after. 

We have also made history with our local chamber of commerce in Ocala. To my knowledge and that of the immediate CEO/president Kevin Shielley of the Ocala/Marion County Chamber and Economic Partnership (CEP), Embrace Magazine is the first openly gay-owned business member. Meaning we are the first with services and products that openly state serving the LGBTQ community is in our mission statement, and operate as an openly gay business. In April 2021, we were granted Certified LGBTBE® by the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce (NLGCC), and again, to my knowledge, the first business member of the CEP to have that status. We hope to encourage other LGBTQ-owned businesses to also seek Certified LGBTBE® status. We are grateful to the CEP for actively bringing awareness of Embrace Magazine, which includes an invitation to promote ourselves in 1 Million Cups Ocala, the local chapter of the national event designed to “educate, engage, and connect entrepreneurs.” 

Finally, Embrace made history by becoming the first LGBTQ magazine member and award winner with the Florida Magazine Association, established in 1953 with the Charlie Awards established in 1957. We hope that the attention we have garnered as Magazine of the Year and the 21 other awards including Charlie and Silver Awards in all four Best Overall categories, the only magazine to do so, will open the doors for other LGBTQ magazines to join the FMA. Inclusion and diversity can only help both the FMA and potential LGBTQ magazine members. 

What are some stories your magazine has covered?

Embrace Magazine is published quarterly with a different theme each issue. To date, we have four published issues: The Premiere Issue, The Heroes Issue, The Arts Issue, and The Business Issue. We have 11 departments in the back divided between three sections: Embrace Your Self, Embrace Your Community, and Embrace Your World, positioned in reverse order starting with World and ending with Self. The departments under Embrace Your World include: International News, Travel, Issues + Politics, and Religion. The departments under Embrace Your Community include: Art + Culture, Style + Trends, Fashion + Design, Activism + Charity, and Seen (Events). The departments under Embrace Yourself include: Health, divided into our three columns – Mind, Body and Soul, and Comic Commentary. Each department covers a broad range of topics and stories. Some of our most eventful include “Precedent for President: Pete Buttigieg” (Issues + Politics) the final interview he has given just before dropping out of the presidential race, thus of historic significance; and “Transgender Youth Medical Care Bans” (Issues + Politics) which includes an exclusive interview with the sponsor of HB-1365/SB-1864, Senator Dennis Baxley of Ocala. 

The themed feature well offers some of our most compelling coverage. Our Heroes Issue contains both “On the Front Lines” about LGBTQ nurses combating COVID-19 both in NYC and Ocala containing news not found elsewhere such as how COVID is a greater risk for those with HIV/AIDS and “Called to Move” on the LGBTQ point of view on Black Lives Matter and Trans Lives Matter. Our Arts Issue serves as a showpiece issue with arts related news stories across the nation and around the world. “Thinking Outside the Box” is a photo-essay from famed LGBTQ photographer Magnus Hastings. Located in West Hollywood, Calif., Hastings work has been featured prominently in LA, NY, Miami, and London. “Indragenuis” features multitalented artist, filmmaker, fashion model, and Princeton University lecturer Indrani Pal-Chadhury. “Haute Couture” features fashion stylist, journalist, and activist Max Brava. “Showstopper” features acclaimed Broadway producer and entrepreneur Marc Levine. “The Write Stuff” features revered biographer and film historian Stephen Michael Shearer. Our remaining photo-essays feature the stunning work of Brazilian visionary portrait painter Paulo Cesar Barros Pimenta (“Stroke of Genius”), Moroccan artist Khalil Douisse’s passion for fashion with spectacular style (“A La Mode”) and multi-medium Brazilian artist Rubem Robierb (“rEvolutionary”). Finally, our Business Issue features innovations in business. “Mastering the Chamber Role” features #1 ranked Ocala Metro CEP and Greater Seattle Business Alliance (GSBA), the largest LGBT Chamber in the USA reveal partnerships and programs that work. “Mine Your Business” features jewelry designer Charlie Lapson, who reveals his rise to the top, including the Miss Universe pageant jewelry account. Finally, “No Place Like Rome” features developer Tom Carlucci plans for the largest and greatest LGBTQ resort, to be built in St Petersburg, Fla. These stories and more make me a proud publisher. 

You’ve done radio before too. What’s your experience with that?

To date, I have produced, written, and hosted three radio shows, each correlating to the magazine I worked on at the time: Ocala Magazine RadioElevate Magazine Radio, and now Embrace Magazine Radio. My concept remained the same for each of the three programs, which is a “60 Minutes” style program featuring three separate stories that were featured in the magazine, only done in 30 minutes. Rather than 20-minute segments, they were done in 10-minute segments. I invited some of the people who contributed to a specific feature and sometimes added someone new, for a different perspective on the topic. 

I thoroughly enjoyed preparing for the show and hosting it. For me, the key to an ideal show is to come prepared. I would develop talking points I would share with the radio station owner and morning hosts, as well as my guests. I encourage them to talk freely but the talking points offered guidance. What also made it fun was diversity in topics. Like each magazine issue, each radio program was never exactly the same. Some were cutting edge or serious. Others were lighted hearted fun. It depended on the subject matter. What was important was that it was riveting programming for the radio listeners while also true to the brand of the magazine. 

You’re writing a memoir now, and have described this experience as the beginning rather than the end. How far along are you in your memoir?

I have a rough draft completed that solely served as an exercise in memoir writing. I do not plan to publish that version. In fact, now that 10 years have passed since that draft was done, it no longer carries that same message I thought it would. So, I am starting over. The experiences I have had over the past 10 years help convey the true message I desired to share in the first version. Much if the experiences include world travel. When I began the memoir draft in 2009, the only travel I had done as a journalist included Alaska in 2007 and Pakistan in 2008. After I completed my draft in 2010, I added travel to China, Greece and Turkey. I am planning upcoming travel to Colombia, where my mother was born, and Peru, where my father was born. Most of my blood relatives still live in both nations. I am also planning a trip to Spain. I would visit the origins of my family with a castle that still exists with the family name. It is in Ponte Vedra in the Galacia providence in Northern Spain, above Portugal. 

What is also different now is that I have a literary agent. She found me. I cannot say much about it as it is still too early. I can say that she is based out of Chicago and is one of the top five literary agents in the USA who specializes in Hispanic non-fiction. She reviewed my overall outline and supportive materials and likes what she has seen. She has told me the story has real potential as a bestseller. Once I have the foundation set on the next issue of Embrace, I will begin writing chapters for the memoir. I am delegating more of the writing in Embrace to my freelancers so that I have time needed to write my memoir. 

I feel this will be a cathartic experience and my message could be useful to others. If successful, I see this as a series. A good story never ends, and can be shared in layers. I can always come back to other past experiences to flesh out another aspect of my life that was not fully revealed in a previous book of the series. Isn’t that what is truly fantastic about the human experience? There is never just one story to tell. And if presented correctly, a layered story can open new perspectives on a person or storyline you already thought you knew. 

What do you hope is in store for Embrace’s future?

As a startup, my first hope and priority are to become sustainable. I need to increase circulation and distribution. We publish a digital edition on issuu.com. According to issuu analytics, Embrace is read on every populated continent: North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia. The only continent we have not be read is the uninhabited Antarctica. This is also a major accomplishment given the anti-gay stance in much of Africa and the Middle East. 

The next goal is to increase our limited print circulation so that we are publishing tens of thousands of copies distributed to key LGBTQ markets throughout Florida. The highest LGBTQ populations in the state are located on the Gulf Coast (Tampa and St Petersburg), Central Florida (Orlando), and South Florida (Ft. Lauderdale and Miami). I am coordinating media relationships with the local LGBTQ chambers of commerce and LGBTQ community centers in those key regions. The idea is that each would serve as a key drop off so that the LGBTQ community could readily locate the magazine within those LGBTQ chambers and centers. I would also like to establish a partnership with Barnes & Noble so that print copies can be found in every Barnes & Noble in Florida, from the Panhandle to the Keys. The final step has already been enacted, which is the establishment of a multi-media platform called Embrace Lifestyle Network. We will create a new website that would have multi-media capability, such as video and podcast, so that we can include event coverage, behind-the-scenes coverage, and celebrity interviews. The content will tie in to our Instagram and You Tube accounts, so that images and video will be additional content to our digital magazine editions. We have already begun on a small scale with our Embrace Lifestyle NetworkFacebook page. We shared a podcast called “Inspired to Be” by Doc Cynthia and Sherrye in South Florida. They interviewed Embrace Magazine Arts + Culture and Style + Trends editor, Max Brava. The podcast was an overview of his life in fashion, theater, journalism, and activism, as well as his contributions to Embrace. We also shared a podcast by Kellie Crofford based in Georgia called “Burn the Ship.” The episode was called “Quality in a Quantity World” on creating an award-winning LGBTQ magazine. She interviewed me as the magazine creator and publisher. The purpose was to provide useful tips for entrepreneurs creating a new startup, specifically a magazine. In the future we plan to air behind-the-scenes video interviews Max Brava conducted with several contestants from the Miss Universe pageant. Brava pitched and wrote the feature story for our Business Issue on jewelry designer, Charlie Lapson. The pageant took place on May 16, 2021 at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Holllywood, Fla. Days later, Lapson held a special photoshoot with more than 14 of the participating contestants at the Wynwood celebrating Diversity, Unity, and Community Empowerment. Brava was there and video interviewed the contestants asking “Embrace Magazine tagline is ‘Boldly Uniting Lifestyles. How do you ‘boldly unite lifestyles’ with your platform?” The contestants loved the question, and provided keen insights to their charity work. The videos will correlate to the launch of Embrace Lifestyle Network website at the same time our Advocacy/Charity Issue publishes in Nov 2021.

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