Girls Just Wanna Have Fun
Reality television’s vengeful, ’bow-throwing drama queens get paid to ante up, catfight and go dumb for a living. They’re also funny, thoughtful mothers, sisters and self-made businesswomen who’ve spun our thirsts for theater into bankable fame. Can they live? —Bonsu Thompson
There’s a much-abused adage that’s referenced in chats, debates and tweets, usually in defense of questionable conduct: “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” That remixed Marilyn Monroe quote could be an unofficial slogan for the reality television explosion. Especially given scenes like one on the recent fourth season of Basketball Wives. While filming inside the pricey New York City eatery Cibo, a rabid Evelyn Lozada, the VH1 show’s most vocal star, stormed around the dinner table, lifted an uncorked bottle of wine and launched it at cast freshmen Kenya Bell, who’d previously called Lozada “loose.” The beverage whizzed past the head of BBW executive producer, Shaunie O’Neal and exploded onto the floor. Expletives followed, along with a plate, but no repercussions.
While networks have churned perverse drama like this into a ratings mammoth (VH1, Bravo and WE tv lead all cable networks in adult female viewing), the stars whose salaries average in the half-millions are left with much fandom, fortune and flack. Until recently, much of the outrage about going ratchet for ratings has been confined to social circles. But after viewing a later BBW episode—in which Evelyn leapt on the table this time—media personality Star Jones produced a petition in hopes of aborting Evelyn’s spin-off, Ev and Ocho, premiering in September. Jones stated: “The violence on Basketball Wives is horrible and disgraceful…VH1 is rewarding this behavior.”
Unfortunately, the majority of these mavens of mayhem are also some of the biggest public representatives for African-American and Hispanic women. While reasonable adults can relish in junk food programming as toffeed guilty pleasure, those same exhibitions pose risks for impressionable youth. How does a parent advocate lady-like decorum when Real Housewives of Atlanta’s Nene Leakes fetches a million dollars per season for misbehaving the most? VIBE opened the floor to four of the genre’s leading ladies and spinoff recipients—Evelyn, Kandi Burruss (Bravo’s Real Housewives of Atlanta), Tamar Braxton (WE tv’s Braxton Family Values) and Chrissy Lampkin (VH1’s Love & Hip-Hop)—in hopes of gaining insight on why these women are handsomely paid to seldom behave.
VIBE: Star Jones started a petition, lashing out against women and violence on reality TV. What’s your reaction?
Evelyn: [Bursts into laughter] I think she’s going to have to get a whole lot of names. Actually, I like the petition and I like the controversy because I’ve learned controversy is good. But I think she’s irrelevant. And she’s using our coattails to get relevant again. Nobody gives a fuck about her.
Chrissy: Whatever Star Jones is feeling is a little deeper than what she sees. I think she has her own issues.
Kandi: She may not be violent, but I’m sure she goes off on people in her day-to-day. I just don’t think it’s fair to block somebody from getting money.
What was the pivotal factor in your decisions to live in front of a camera?
Chrissy: They offered Jimmy [her fiancé, rapper Jim Jones] a show years ago and he wasn’t really interested. It was something that sparked my interest. It felt like something fun. There was another opportunity brought to me for a show with some other girls and it didn’t pan out. I came home upset and disappointed and Jimmy’s response was, “If you really wanna do this reality TV thing, since they offered it to me, I’ll put a call in and see if they’re still interested.”
Kandi: I wasn’t even thinking about reality television. I didn’t think they would really want me on [Real Housewives] because I’m not married, but they decided they wanted me to be a part of it.
Evelyn: I was a little skeptical in the beginning, but Shaunie and I have been friends for a few years. She called me up and pitched the show. I didn’t sign on to be famous or anything. I was opening up a shoe store [Dulce in Miami] and I thought this would be great for business.
Tamar: We just felt it was necessary to show us as sisters living different lifestyles. We felt it was important to have an honest show that women can relate to and learn from. I can only speak for our show, though. We’re a family show; it’s not like we’re girlfriends.
Did any of you foresee your show being as big as it is today?
Chrissy: I knew when they put that punch and kick in the trailer that would catch people’s eye. People watch reality TV for train wrecks. People wanna excuse their own bullshit and tune into yours.
Kandi: I liked the show before I got on it, but I didn’t think I’d be interesting on TV. But being on Bravo, we cross so many age and racial boundaries. Before in the community, people may recognize me, like, “That’s the girl from Xscape,” and then I would go somewhere else and not be recognized. But now it can be a 70-year-old white grandmother who will be like, “Kandi! I love you!” Or some 40-year-old Asian like, “Kandi Burruss?” And I’m like, “Wow, you know my first and last name.”
Tamar: There aren’t a lot of female African-American shows, better yet about sisters [on television], which I think is very important, not just for the Braxtons but…
Kandi: There’s a lot of things about your show that I like. I like the fact that you guys are an entertainment family. I think people love the whole music side of things, being able to see the behind-the-scenes of your careers. I thought that’s what I brought to Housewives—Atlanta is a beautiful town and you get to see that, but you get to see that people who are quote, unquote “celebrities” have normal real life issues.
Tamar: Kandi, this is the honest to God truth: to this day, I don’t see my family as an entertainment family. We’ve been doing this since I was a baby. So until our show aired, I thought we was like every other family!
Kandi: You are! Which is why people like the show. A lot of people don’t get to see your momma tell you, “I’ll slap you down.” [Laughs]
What surprised you most about the reality TV experience?
Kandi: Being a part of Housewives brought me so many opportunities that I would’ve never imagined. With the Kandi Factory spin-off, it was a dream of mine to be on one of those shows developing artists, and here it is, I [have] my own show.
Evelyn: For me, it was that so many people cared. They’re so emotionally involved and interested with what’s going on in your life. I watch shows but I’m never like, “Let me find this person’s Twitter or Facebook page so I can comment.” Even before the show it just wasn’t me. But people get so emotionally involved with what you’re doing, what you’re saying, what you’re wearing, how you handle this situation, so that surprised me. You think everyone watches TV the way you watch TV.
Well, Evelyn, you especially invoke a lot of emotion. On television, you seem as passionate as your fans are about you.
Evelyn: When I first signed on to the show, I said I’m going to be me whether the cameras are on or off. So you’ll see me crying, you’ll see me fighting, you’ll see me happy. You get to see everything. I think I show every aspect of who Evelyn is. Of course people only remember those moments when I happen to be…
Hurling a wine bottle.
Evelyn: Yeah, happen to be throwing a few things. It’s frustrating because, on the other hand, I’ve also done positive things like charities with kids. It’s unfortunate because those things don’t seem to mean anything.
Chrissy: It bothers me [too] because it’s not all of who I am. It’s a part of who I am. It’s also something that I’m working on because who am I to put my hands on somebody else?
Tamar: I just wanna address the biggest misconception with Evelyn. She’s not just beautiful on the outside; she’s a beautiful soul. I believe that people who want to make a difference in our community should be shown [doing so]. Sometimes, with our shows, you only see that [negative] side, but Evelyn will give you the shirt off of her back.
Evelyn: It’s tough because if we were only doing positive things, people wouldn’t want us. But if I say, “Tamar, you’re a stupid fucking bitch,” people love that.
Kandi: That’s because we’re a real life soap opera. You know how your family watched All My Children for 20 years? That’s what we are now.
Evelyn, you’ve practically raised a scholar. Yet, you’re on television screaming that you’d have no problem catching a court case. Do you ever look back at episodes with embarrassment?
Tamar: [Interjects] No. It’s television entertainment and at the end of the day that’s what matters. The networks want what makes the papers. But we’re blessed to be in a situation to show people a part of our life, to see us going through different changes, how we can be a better person. People can learn from our mistakes. I’m sure Evelyn didn’t get on TV and want to throw a bottle at somebody. But hey, that’s life. So maybe the next time somebody gets you out of your character you’ll know not to throw a bottle.
Evelyn: As crazy as it sounds, sometimes I’m glad I have the show because it’s sort of like a mirror. Most people don’t get to see the crazy things that they’ve done. So I’ll see it and go… [Grimaces].
Kandi, you have a knack for staying on the outskirts of the drama. Do you ever feel like Halle Berry in Gothika: the sane person stuck in an asylum?
Kandi, you have a knack for staying on the outskirts of the drama. Do you ever feel like Halle Berry in Gothika: the sane person stuck in an asylum?
Kandi: I’m just doing me. It takes a lot to push my buttons. That’s just who I am.
Tamar: Everybody’s not popolicious.
And why are you so “popolicious,” Tamar?
Tamar: I’m not like that with my girlfriends, though. If we’re all out, I’m more outgoing, more fun. I’m not poppin’ off. I’m just not gonna mess up my face [laughs]. But on the series [spin-off] with [my husband] Vince, you’ll see me in a friendship setting. I’m just as passionate. I’m not just gonna fight. I’m not gonna be a donkey. I’m definitely gonna give you my opinion because I feel like that’s why you love me.
Chrissy: I was easily angered because I signed up for something that was supposed to be about girl power and women embracing each other in this crazy world of hip-hop. I thought it was gonna be more of a support thing instead of Gladiators. They would always bring somebody to challenge me. I would knock ’em down and they would bring somebody else.
So you’re saying the producers orchestrated the violence?
Chrissy: Absolutely. They would go as far as telling the new girl, “Chrissy thinks she’s Queen Bee around here so we need you to step up because nobody here has a strong enough personality. We need you to shut it down.” They were feeding people this negative energy from the door. I have no reason to lie.
Kandi: If [the producers] know this person and that person don’t get along, they’ll be like, “Okay, we want you guys to go to lunch.” They know if they have a conversation about what’s going on, something’s gonna jump off. But nobody can make you physically punch somebody in the face. We end up doing that to ourselves from people being real disrespectful in the way they’re speaking to each other, pointing fingers all in people’s faces. Some people just can’t take that.
On the flipside, people can’t see the producers setting you up. Do you guys ever feel regret?
Chrissy: Absolutely. It’s like, why did I let them get me that angry? It’s compromising to your soul because I didn’t sign up for this, but I’ll be damned if I’m gonna allow somebody to make a fool of me because the cameras are rolling.
Evelyn: I do and [the bottle incident] was one of those things where I was like, “That was wrong.” The producers of the show could have edited that out but I take full responsibility. I mean, [Kenya] has kids at home.
Evelyn, does your daughter watch the show?
Evelyn: Yes, but if you know my daughter, you’ll know she doesn’t care about any of that. She’s very independent. She knows who mom is. And to her, mom is a character on a television show. [My daughter] knows that side of me because she’s seen both sides. The world hasn’t. But I take full responsibility for everything that I’ve done. It’s all me.
Tamar: This is what I’m saying—it’s not negative, because she learned from it. The beautiful part about it is that somebody can watch it and not make the same mistake. ’Cause sometimes when I watch Kandi, I wish I could be more like her. You’re never like, “Pop, pop, pop!”
Kandi: It takes a lot not to. The reason why I can be [so drama-free] on my show is that I wasn’t friends with [my castmates] before I got on the show. So anything they said didn’t matter to me. Tamar, you’re around your family, so you care.
Tamar: I mean, this is me, but if you family—cousin, brother, mother—you come at me crazy and I’m gon’ jump at you crazy.
Do any of you see yourselves as role models?
Chrissy: I guess if somebody is afraid to speak their mind and wanna stand up for themselves, then yes. I want people to realize that they can have whatever they want. You can be respected in your relationship exactly the way you want to be. It’s up to you to go get it. Some of the stuff is a little heavy, but you’re not going to be exposed to crazy situations in life just by watching reality TV. You can go to the corner store and see crazy shit going on. You can go to school and see crazy shit. Don’t put it all on me.
Kandi: You would never imagine how many people come up to me on the street: “How could you be a part of that? It’s a disgrace to Black people.” I’m on a show called Real Housewives and I’m not married so I guess I represent single mothers out there who are handling their business and trying to take things to the next level. So when people say, “You shouldn’t be on the show, it’s like, “Well, who do you want to go on there? More people you don’t like?”
Evelyn: As a parent I didn’t raise my daughter to look up to somebody on TV as a role model. I want her to look up to her mother, her family as role models. Also, I have nieces who watch the show and love it. So I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place because I’m being me but now I’m coming to the realization that I can’t do… I wouldn’t want my nine-year-old watching this, but their parents do. So I said to myself recently, “Young girls are watching the show. I really need to check myself.” Before reality TV was what it was, I had full control over my daughter’s television because you never know what they’re showing. Every parent isn’t like that. It’s not for me to judge but we’re talking a lot about sex; sometimes there are sexy scenes. I think it’s a little inappropriate, but regardless, I don’t think children should be looking up to reality TV stars as role models.
The executive producers behind Basketball Wives, Love & Hip-Hop and Braxton Family Values discuss their show’s nutritional worth, which gets lost between flying fists
SHAUNIE O’NEAL, Basketball Wives
I don’t look to reality TV to give me an example on how to live, think or function. Television is television, and it’s there for entertainment purposes. Being an adult, you have the power to make your own decisions on what you decide to guide your life by. Based off the language alone, my kids don’t watch [Basketball Wives]. I teach them what’s right and wrong and I lead by example. If your child is watching that kind of TV, that’s your household and that’s something you’re responsible for as a parent. ?Part of creating the show was to show that some of us had aspirations outside of being somebody’s wife or girlfriend or fianceé or baby mama. We would get together and brainstorm different business ventures. It wasn’t all: sit around and be pretty. I go to sleep well at night knowing who I am and what I stand for.—As told to Clover Hope
MONA SCOTT YOUNG, Love & Hip-Hop
The feedback I’ve gotten from my cast is that it’s difficult being vulnerable and showing the more sensitive parts of their lives. But for them, it ends up being almost cathartic. If in some small way, they touched someone else’s life or told a story that someone else can relate to, I think there’s always something positive to be gotten from it. Sometimes it’s hard to see your relationships or yourself even for what it really is, and I think this in a way held up a mirror for a lot of them. ?People have a tendency to think this is super glamorous and that these people live a happy, fantasy life and don’t have the same issues and insecurities. Sometimes seeing how they navigate certain problems helps other women realize that if this person on my TV screen can be honest with what she has to deal with, then it gives me a little backbone to deal with what I’m going through.
—As told to Adelle Platon
DAN CUTFORTH, Braxton Family Values
We never set out to make a show about conflict and drama because if you follow any family, there’s inevitably going to be some of that. What really struck us about the Braxtons was their sense of humor. Like any family, they may drive each other crazy, they might argue, but they also have a ton of fun together. I haven’t had to weigh the social ramifications. We’re airing a show that has a positive, aspirational message. As a program maker, I think you do have a responsibility. It comes down to the network and the individual producer to decide what they’re comfortable putting out. What works about reality shows is that they’re a mirror to society rather than shaping society. People like the fact that they can see aspects of everyday life that they can relate to. It’s hard to generalize because some shows people watch purely for escapism. Other shows people bond with the characters and it’s like catching up with a group of friends.
—As told to C.H.