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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 BBWepisode—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. Tamar: True.
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].