A look behind the scandalous, controversial, profitable empire of Mona Scott-Young, the ruler of reality TV
Story: Clover Hope (@clovito) | Photos: Stacy-Ann Ellis (@stassi_x)
Stevie J and Joseline Hernandez have their game faces on. The Love & Hip-Hop Atlanta couple are at Hot 97’s Manhattan office, crashing a poker match between the radio station’s staff. And despite a series of losing hands, Stevie’s being his usual obnoxious self, bragging about his net worth (he’s got 10-grand to spare) and quoting Jay Z (that “D’usse so myself” line). Worst of all, he’s trashing his ex-girlfriend/daughter’s mother, Mimi Faust. The Atlanta cast member’s shower rod calisthenics in a sex tape with her boyfriend, Nikko, has been a trending topic lately. Stevie isn’t impressed. Joseline’s “got way more curves,” he says. His personal corner woman, Joseline, massages his shoulders and participates in the smack talking via one-liners. They’re both built for this. “I’m an actress,” she says.
None of this is real. Stevie and Joseline blew in from Atlanta to tape a cameo for Mona Scott-Young’s latest TV venture, This Is Hot 97, which is more an Office-like mockumentary than the chicks behaving badly programming that’s become Mona’s bread and butter. The made-up scenario for this episode: a poker game gone awry. From the sidelines, next to a conference table cluttered with camera equipment and stray phones, Mona plays point. “I want Joseline to be more playful and funny,” she tells the executive producer, Ian Gelfand. Her tone is warm but authoritative. The entire scene is taped multiple times with different improv lines. “It’s not as exciting as people think it is, huh?” says Mona.
Since the original Love & Hip-Hop premiered in 2010—with Dipset’s Jim Jones, singer Olivia Longott and Fabolous’ girlfriend Emily B. among its cast—Mona has been cross-examined about her role in the madness. She’s been painted as a puppeteer for exhibitionists who live by the motto, “Turn down for what?” The drama seems too outrageous to be real. And none of the incessant backlash has forced her to cancel any of the shows. It’s remained Vh1’s top-rated program. (Love & Hip-Hop Atlanta season 2 was the No. 1 cable series among women ages 18-49, averaging 3.3 million viewers.) She may not bust a Nae Nae when ratings slide in, but she does profit from a series that feeds off brawls and stereotypes. Yet, she’s confident in her good intentions and her platform. Her conscience is clear. And that’s the part that pisses people off the most.
“Should we just act like these women don’t exist or shove them under the rug? What’s the alternative?” asks Mona, sitting at a table in Hot 97’s break room before today’s taping. She’s wearing an off-white blouse and black power-trousers with matching Louboutins. Her signature big rings swallow up her fingers. The language she speaks is business pitch, even in casual convo. As a former manager to superstars like Missy Elliott, Busta Rhymes and 50 Cent as part of the storied Violator Management, she’s mastered the art of media training.
Members of Mona’s inner circle describe her as laser-focused, persuasive and a great storyteller, all qualities that have made her one of TV’s most powerful and polarizing (and only) black female executives, among the ranks of Shonda Rhimes, Debra Lee and, yes, Oprah.
The snap judgment is that Love & Hip-Hop appeals to the lowest common denominator. But (full disclosure) it’s also an escape for voyeurs like myself who laugh-cry at the ignorance while questioning its side effects. (It’s complicated.) Most tune in for the trifling moments. Peter Gunz secretly marrying his mistress while still living with the mother of his children (gasp). Erica Mena using champagne flutes as weapons (sigh). Kirk Frost suggesting that his wife, Rasheeda, get an abortion by telling her (seriously): “You still at a stage where you can X that right there out the picture.”
The entertainment value is undeniable. So are the scandals. In mid-April, the porn hub Vivid Entertainment released Mimi’s sex tape, Mimi & Nikko: Scandal in Atlanta. Pre-sales hit $400,000, and founder/CEO Steven Hirsch says, “It may wind up being one of our all-time best sellers.” Even CNN picked up the story.
Vivid won’t reveal who brought them the tape; a rep only confirms that it was a “third party,” not Mimi or Nikko. Mimi’s sticking to this: Nikko misplaced his luggage with the tape in it on a return trip from the Bahamas. Once Hirsch got hold of it and contacted them, she couldn’t refuse the potential profit. The natural suspicion is that Vh1 orchestrated the whole thing. Vivid won’t confirm or deny that either.
Shooting down that rumor, Mona says neither she, nor the network, had a role in shooting the tape, shopping it or distributing it. “I have no vested interest in that tape beyond that it’s part of Mimi’s story,” says Mona. When Mimi first told her about its existence, Mona had her doubts. “When she called and said, ‘The head of one of the biggest porn companies got a copy of it,’ did I have my own questions? Of course. Like, really? How did he know it was you? How did he get your phone number?” says Mona. “Did I go, ‘Oh god, this is gonna be insane in the worst and the best way?’ Yes, absolutely. ’Cause ultimately, I’m producing a show that you hope gets ratings and you hope people respond to. Good or bad. I’m just here to document it.”
When the tape surfaced (just weeks before Atlanta‘s season premiere), conspiracy theorists were already feeding off news that Atlanta cast member Benzino was shot by his nephew. “He had a hard time with that,” says Mona of the assumptions that Benzino set up the shooting for press. “The timing and the way that it happened, you have another moment that you go, you can’t make this stuff up. It’s like the reality gods have once again chosen this show to smile upon.”