Inside the wild world of ‘Love & Hip Hop,’ where the line between reality and fantasy is blurred
A dozen production crew members are crowded into a narrow corridor at SIR Rehearsal Studios in Hollywood when “Love & Hip Hop” star Ray J and his wife and costar Princess Love Norwood arrive with their 18-month-old daughter, Melody.
A makeup artist gets to work on the stars as a series producer briefs them on the scene they are about to shoot. A production assistant slides a monitor on my ear so I can hear what happens once a director cues the couple, who are dressed in matching black ensembles.
“Give me something interesting!” a voice echoes in my ear. “This is the last show.”
The scene for the season finale of the hit docu-series “Love & Hip Hop: Hollywood” is a rather innocuous one compared with the couple’s past — like the time an argument over infidelity ended with Ray J shoving Princess Love into a pool. Today the cameras are rolling as the R&B singer and reality TV veteran (“For the Love of Ray J,” “A Family Business”) performs a “concert” with ’90s boyband Immature at the rehearsal studio that has been transformed into a typical Hollywood nightclub, replete with VIP sections for the cast members and an audience of fans and extras.
Since 2011, “Love & Hip Hop” has documented the melodrama of women and men orbiting rap scenes across America, starting in the genre’s birthplace of New York and spinning off to cover the south (Atlanta and Miami) and the West Coast, which films across Los Angeles. Unapologetically outlandish and packed with juicy drama and scandalous antics, the show has been a ratings smash for VH1 and a pop culture phenomenon for the better part of a decade. It’s made stars out of R&B singer K. Michelle and Cardi B, and an impressive cadre of R&B and rap artists have starred on the series including Joe Budden, Stevie J, Jim Jones, Soulja Boy, Peter Gunz, Waka Flocka Flame, Remy Ma, Keyshia Cole, Lil Scrappy, Juelz Santana, Trina and Trick Daddy.
The Norwoods anchor the West Coast installment of the wildly popular franchise and have allowed cameras to document the ins and outs of their relationship alongside a group of friends (and rivals) connected to the music industry for six seasons.
“’Love & Hip Hop’ is like the Super Bowl of reality TV,” Ray J says a few weeks after the shoot for the season finale wraps. “You get a little drama here and there on other reality shows, but you don’t get action-packed, ‘Avengers’-style reality. The show is an explosion from the minute you start to the minute it’s over.”
The shows run in immediate succession and are sandwiched between a no-holds-barred reunion special. When the last episode of the current Hollywood season airs on Dec. 2, the 10th season of the New York installment (now filming) will debut with back-to-back episodes on Dec. 16.
Despite a ratings dip from the franchise’s strongest years between 2014 and 2017 — “Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta’s” 2014 Season 3 premiere, for instance, drew 5.6 million viewers, and in 2017 “Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta” and “Love & Hip Hop: New York” were the No. 1 and 2 top unscripted shows on cable — the franchise and its spinoffs still regularly rank among TV’s most-watched prime-time programs. Monday’s “Love & Hip Hop: Hollywood” was the seventh most-watched cable show among 18- to 49-year-old adults and the show dominates Twitter whenever it airs. It’s ubiquitous enough that former President Obama name-dropped the show when riffing about the last election.
Even if you’ve never tuned in, chances are you’ve seen one of the many viral moments from the franchise’s unpredictable cast members that have been immortalized as GIFs and memes.
There was ex-stripper and aspiring singer Joseline Hernandez slapping boyfriend Stevie J in the couples therapy session he invited her to with his live-in partner. Or entrepreneur and reliable pot-stirrer Karlie Redd tearfully flashing the results of a polygraph test. And of course, there were the many catchphrases that made Cardi B a scene-stealer and launched her to rap superstardom.
For all the drink-slinging, backstabbing and bed-hopping, the world of “Love & Hip Hop” is one of the few featuring predominately black and Latinx casts that regularly makes space for serious discussions around a breadth of topics. Cast members have navigated being queer and trans in hip-hop and story lines have focused on gun violence, incarceration, postpartum depression and infertility, domestic violence, abortion, suicide, mental health and colorism.
“The show is everyone’s guilty pleasure but it’s my real life,” says Karlie Redd, who was a video model and actress before she was cast for the Atlanta installment in 2012. “I’ve gone through so many real issues that people would be ashamed to discuss and put my whole life out there. I don’t regret any of it, but I’ll watch it and it’s like, ‘Oh, my God, this is my life.’”
At the heart of “Love & Hip Hop’s” guilty-pleasure appeal is its ability to float somewhere between reality and heightened fantasy with a mixture of unscripted and scripted scenes based on the real drama that exists in their lives (and is already playing out on social media). Those involved in the show liken it to a modern-day telenovela, and for good reason: Episodes are chock full of melodrama that’s messy but relatable and served up by provocative personalities unafraid to express themselves with colorful language and brazen behavior.
And for viewers watching at home, there’s a sense that everyone on screen is very much in on the joke — even when their personal affairs are the joke.
“What keeps people tuning in is it’s a stylishly produced drama that you can’t find anywhere else,” says Sylvia Obell, host of Buzzfeed’s online talk show “Hella Opinions.” “I don’t know where they find these shameless folks but they are really willing to go where no reality star has gone before. The shows are really a ‘ratchet’ version of Tyler Perry productions, but it’s a platform for tons of people who wouldn’t otherwise have one.”
The female narrative
“Love & Hip Hop” was born out of separate projects that Yandy Smith-Harris and her mentor Mona Scott-Young were working on over a dozen years ago.
The women, both New York natives, met when Smith-Harris, fresh out of college, landed an internship at Violator, the music management firm Scott-Young founded with the late Chris Lighty that oversaw the careers of Missy Elliott, Busta Rhymes and LL Cool J.
Under Scott-Young’s guidance, Smith-Harris rose up the ranks to become a junior manager with the company and left to represent Dipset rapper Jim Jones. She got VH1 interested in a docu-series that trailed Jones, then at his career peak.
“We had shot all this footage, but he got overwhelmed by the cameras one day and he cursed out the crew something terrible and kicked them out of his house,” says Smith-Harris. “I called Mona for help. We went out and I cried on her shoulder. I did not want to lose this deal.”
At the same time Scott-Young, who ventured into TV in 2005 after selling a music competition show with Elliott to UPN, was pitching a series centered on women in hip-hop to a different network.
“We saw a bigger opportunity with the rash of female ensemble casts that were happening,” Scott-Young remembers. “‘Real Housewives of Atlanta’ was taking off and we realized there was a world in hip-hop where women were living very different lives than the average women, and certainly different from the ‘Housewives’ they were seeing, and we wanted to set a show against the aspirational, sexy backdrop of the entertainment and music industry — but also have the underbelly of relationship dynamics.”
Indeed, while the franchise has revived the careers of men in the rap industry, the real stars of “Love & Hip Hop” are their girlfriends, wives and mistresses, all of whom have become household names and allowed their experiences both in the industry and with their famous men to drive the series. What’s more, the franchise has showcased more female rappers than any other series.
“This show is uniquely the woman’s voice and perspective on a really masculine-driven industry,” says Smith-Harris, who became a star on the New York cast. “Everything about hip-hop, for the most part, was catered to the men. This show shed light on the women who were pillars holding up their men. The guys got up there and performed and it was wives and girlfriends holding down the household, reading over the contracts and playing manager. That was something the world wanted to see because it was so unique.”
And so the show was retooled to center on Jones’ longtime fiancée Chrissy Lampkin, her immediate circle of girlfriends and a small network of loosely connected women. The arrival of “Love & Hip Hop” in 2011, along with series like “Basketball Wives,” “La La’s Full Court Life,” “T.I. & Tiny: The Family Hustle” and “Hollywood Exes” solidified VH1’s position as a leader in cable programming geared toward African American audiences, a demographic that wasn’t always well represented in reality.
“What Mona Scott-Young created in the ‘Love & Hip Hop’ franchise is impressive and formidable,” says Andy Dehnart, a TV critic and editor of Reality Blurred. “It’s an expansive, popular franchise that has helped elevate the celebrity of its cast members while also adding more depth to their personalities and lives — all within a soapy, glossy, narrative reality show.
“While the ‘Real Housewives’ franchises have [mostly] had all-white casts and there’s a disgraceful lack of diversity in casting on shows like ‘The Bachelor.’ ‘Love & Hip Hop’ has been there, consistently demonstrating that viewers absolutely will show up to watch shows starring people of color. If only fear-driven executives in Hollywood would pay attention.”
Considering African Americans have had the highest rate of total TV usage for years and the fact that black millennials dominate social media consumption and remain a critical demographic for advertisers, the success of the franchise inspired VH1 and other networks to pursue scripted and unscripted programming geared toward the same audience. It’s hard to imagine “Empire,” “Atlanta” or “Insecure” would have existed if not for “Love & Hip Hop.”
“Before ‘Love & Hip-Hop,’ black audiences saw themselves competing on shows like ‘Flavor of Love’ or on ‘The Real World,’ where we were usually a token cast member. On ‘Love & Hip Hop’ we were the cast,” says Obell. “And it was a show centered around hip-hop, which is the dominating genre of music. To me, it was a lens on black love and all of its complications, but I get why the show goes too far for some people.”
The bold and the vulnerable
Although Scott-Young has been credited with reinvigorating the reality format, she’s been just as skewered over her popular franchise, specifically the way it shows black women. There’s no great secret to her formula, she says. Each cast is built around strong personalities and the series explores what makes them tick. However, a constant through-line of Scott-Young’s work is championing the underdog — no matter how unpolished they may be.
“We try very hard to be representative of the culture and the people in the culture,” she says. “There’s the respectability politics of not wanting to show certain kinds of people living certain lives, but that isn’t true to this culture. We’re a wonderful mix of people from all kinds of backgrounds. The sooner we can embrace that and be true to that, the better we are for being able to show ourselves, in our full spectrum, on television and in the media.
The reason the [franchise] resonates across such a wide demographic is these themes are universal. People want to turn their nose up and the show gets a bad rap sometimes, but I stand by the fact that before I ever put a camera in front of any of these people, these lives existed. The things they’re experiencing were happening. I challenge anybody who’s really in the music industry, really in hip-hop and been witness to the relationship dynamics that exist within this specific piece of the world to say that this stuff doesn’t happen.”
In conversation, Scott-Young talks with the same striking calm she’s had to deploy on-screen in the instances she’s had to intervene in filming and put on the hat of a ringmaster or therapist when her subjects have spiraled emotionally or lost control in a confrontation.
“Half the time these cast members should be paying us for therapy sessions,” Scott-Young says with a laugh. “They’re dealing with things that under normal circumstances they would run from. Things that are too painful or too upsetting. But being on any reality show forces you to deal with the stuff you normally would ignore or sweep under the rug. And it’s cathartic for them.”
Filming the series has especially helped Smith-Harris as she navigates the complexities of her husband Mendeecees Harris’ incarceration on drug trafficking charges. The show has documented the birth of their children, their engagement and wedding (which aired as a live special). But their story is also one of the rare times when the harsh realities of the streets play out on air.
Viewers have tuned in as Mendeecees awaited trail and the show didn’t shy away from showing the pain of separation as cameras rolled when Mendeecees turned himself in to begin serving an eight-year sentence in 2016 (he appears in episodes via phone). Smith-Harris was initially reticent to show this part of her life, but saw an opportunity to educate and inspire others.
“That was not something that I wanted the world to know. I felt like I was going to deal with loads of judgment,” she says. “I love to be a role model for young girls and I felt like people were going to think I’m a hypocrite or that I did something wrong. But it has been therapeutic for me and I’ve been able to connect with so many mothers, daughters and even fathers that have been disconnected from their family because of the prison system.”
“I know there are people that say, ‘This show is hurting the black community,’ but you have the capability to turn the channel,” Smith-Harris says. “People hold ‘reality’ to a different kind of standard for some reason but ultimately these are highly situational and edited versions of our real lives.”
Personal cost notwithstanding, “Love & Hip Hop” has proved to be a potent launching pad for the franchise’s most enterprising talent.
“The platform has definitely changed my life,” Redd says. “I’ve been able to do my music career — whether it’s failed or not, I did it — and I have multiple opened stores, wrote a book, went back to school and became a sexologist.”
And she’s not alone. Cast members have parlayed their association with the show into spinoff series, brand endorsement deals and business ventures including clothing and makeup lines, bikes, waist trainers and sex toys that benefit from the show’s popularity. Even the franchise’s mastermind, Scott-Young, has launched a wine beverage, jewelry line, a book and a mobile app based on the series.
“The magic is the incredibly dynamic mix of talented people both in front of the camera and behind the scenes,” says Nina L. Diaz, president of entertainment for MTV, VH1, CMT and Logo. “Along with the casts, who are bold in unveiling their true selves and unapologetically sharing their stories — each reflects different layers and nuances of the ‘Love & Hip Hop’ community. Their unfiltered realities and vulnerabilities have left an indelible mark on our culture at large.”
That success hasn’t always carried over to music, though. Numerous stars of the franchise have enjoyed modest careers, but none have taken off to greater heights than Cardi B, who leveraged her Instagram popularity into a role on the sixth season of the New York show in 2015 and turned a viral one-liner she said on an early appearance into the deliriously catchy 2016 single, “Foreva,” before leaving the show and making chart and Grammy history while ushering in a new era of women in rap.
Considering how little air time is devoted to musicians on music-centric networks like VH1, the exposure on “Love & Hip Hop” could make all the difference for an artist trying to get their music out.
“Television, in general, serves as a really unbelievable platform for artists to not only promote and market their music, but also give the audience a chance to get to know some other attributes of the artists,” says singer-songwriter Bridget Kelly, who appeared on the Hollywood installment for two seasons. “In the past, artists weren’t supposed to expose themselves outside of their music but a show like ‘Love & Hip Hop’ allows us to showcase our artistry and build an audience by showing our interpersonal relationships. It’s a natural extension of the sharing so many celebrities do on social media.”
Inside SIR studios, apple-scented candles are working hard to mask the cannabis hanging thick in the air. A caravan of fans and extras have been moved into position and given a shortlist of rules: no direct eye contact with the cameras, pair up and talk naturally but not above a whisper and act like you’re in the club.
A mix of the Hollywood cast has shuffled into the studio. West Coast rap legend Yo-Yo (a new addition to the cast) is being fed questions by a producer to ask in the next scene and longtime cast member Moniece Slaughter is venting to producers about her storyline (she’s beefing with her baby’s father for dating her frenemy). “I take the most [trash] from viewers,” she says. “And I hate having to fight all the time.”
As cameras roam about a few dozen bodies dancing to the music in their heads, Ray J and Immature huddle for a pre-show prayer — a backstage ritual for many artists and their bands. He offers a few words of gratitude before stopping himself and turning toward a camera.
“Are we all in the frame? Make sure you get us all in the shot.”
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