MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif. — He didn’t need to tell that video director to shut up.
It’s evening in this Southern California beach town, where Ken Baker is sipping a Diet Coke on the patio of the Shade Hotel. He is at ease. His chin stubble and USA Hockey cap make him seem more hockey dad than Hollywood, which is mostly true. But Baker, a Hamburg native, is Hollywood too. He’s been Hollywood for 20 years now.
Baker, 47, has been a television personality on E! News for nearly 10 years. For the decade before that, he was covering Hollywood for People and US Weekly. He’s written books, produced a movie, and his phone contacts read like a red-carpet lineup. (Spend any amount of time with him and you’re likely to catch him texting with a Kardashian.)
Tonight, as the sun is dropping into the Pacific horizon and leaving behind an inky-blue sky, Baker is talking about being peaceful, open and connected. For him, mindfulness is a quest, one he wrote about in his 10th book, “The Ken Commandments: My Search for God in Hollywood,” which was released earlier this month. Baker embarked on that “search” a couple of years ago, when he realized that Hollywood had sucked any sense of spirituality from his life.
Which is why, here in Manhattan Beach, as the tanned and beautiful tote their designer bags and designer dogs, grabbing tables or slipping into the boutiques across the fireplace-lit plaza, Baker is questioning something he said on camera earlier today.
Every weekday morning, Baker co-hosts “Live from E!,” a half-hour online show packed with celebrity gossip and chatter. Baker and his colleagues were talking about a tweet from the director of Taylor Swift’s music video, “Look What You Made Me Do.” That director, Joseph Khan, tweeted that Swift was being held to a double standard because she is a woman.
“I don’t know what this guy is talking about,” Baker said during “Live from E!” “I think Joseph Khan needs to shut up!”
From an E! perspective, this is presumably fine. A large part of his job on the network is to opine on pop culture, much as a sports broadcaster would on yesterday’s game. And it’s TV, which means it’s a performance. So an energetic “Shut up!” – which Baker peppered repeatedly into the conversation – is perfectly appropriate for the situation.
But not necessarily for the new Ken Baker.
“I told him to shut up — that’s not super mindful,” Baker said. “That’s not nonviolent, loving, compassionate.”
If I plan something as a man I'm a "genius." If Taylor as a woman plans something she is "manipulative." Double standards. This is wrong.
— Joseph Kahn (@JosephKahn) August 30, 2017
The old Ken, the pre-search-for-God Ken, used to think, This is my job. I have to be this way. But his journey, which began nearly two years ago, changed him. The idea for “The Ken Commandments” was seeded in the fall of 2015, when a Kardashian in-law, the basketball player Lamar Odom, was near death in a Las Vegas hospital. Baker was in Vegas covering the story and texting with a Kardashian family member who was in the hospital. Baker, who has long had a friendly relationship with the Kardashian-Jenner clan, asked if there was anything he could do.
The response: Please pray for Lamar.
In that moment, Baker had a jolting realization: He couldn’t remember the last time he had prayed. As he dug deeper into his own psyche, he also realized he didn’t know what he believed. Baker was raised Catholic in Buffalo, but no longer associated with that – or any – religion. Neither did his wife, Brooke, or their teenage children, Jackson and Chloe. The Baker kids know devotion and hard work – both are top-tier hockey goaltenders who live with their mom in Chicago and play tournaments around the Western Hemisphere. Baker knew he was raising good people and hard workers.
But where was the spirituality? Should it be there too?
Around that same time period, Baker was nearing his 20th year in Hollywood and wanted to do something special to recognize that two-decade mark. That deeply personal spiritual void become his next project: For the following year – most of 2016 – Baker embarked on a search for God in what might be one of the most narcissistic places in the world: Hollywood.
He went to Bible study, where he (nearly) bumped into Gwen Stefani. He learned about meditation from Taryn Manning. The celebrity psychic Tyler Henry helped him communicate with his long-deceased father. He explored (and quickly rejected) Scientology. Baker went to retreat run by Deepak Chopra, where he was granted personal (and private) mantra. He went to church with the Kardashians.
“When Kris Jenner goes to church,” Baker said, referring to the Kardashian matriarch, “and she’s got her millions of dollars and her designer bag and she’s got her makeup, it’s like, she’s no further ahead in figuring out anything than anyone else, really. She doesn’t know what’s going to happen when she dies. What does she believe? Well, she believes something. But she’s still grappling.”
So is Baker. He emerged from his yearlong journey not as a subscriber to any single religion, but with a stronger sense of understanding of spirituality.
“We have all these different languages to speak to each other: French, English, Spanish, Chinese, hundreds,” Baker said, repeating a thought her recently shared with his daughter. “Similarly, human beings have constructed religious faiths, spiritual traditions that in some way, I believe, are just different languages trying to speak to the same God.”
Baker now meditates daily; the practice clears his head and, he says, allows him to view thoughts and worries like cars on a two-way street. “They come and they go,” he said. “But when you can step back and not be caught in the middle of it, give it some space and look at it, things don’t seem so daunting anymore.”
He lives in the moment more. He stresses less. He has started an educational website, the Mindful Writing Center.
“I’m very focused right now,” Baker said. “Everything is very simplified, minimalist, almost.”
But he struggles still. In “The Ken Commandments,” and still today, Baker questions whether his livelihood – which is based on gossip – is a healthy one.
“The conflict is still alive and well, but what job where you can provide for your family and do things, are you going to be 100-percent fulfilling your dharma” – your purpose – “ every breath you take while you’re doing it?
“In a way, it’s almost as if the challenge is to fight for that and find the lessons in it.”
Like this morning, with his shut-up shut-down whack to Khan.
“I learned a lesson today, and I’m really grateful ,” Baker said. “I don’t want to be the person to tell (people) to shut up. I can say, ‘I disagree with them, and here’s why...’”
He’s still pursuing that better way.