It takes a certain kind of person to do a reality show… and I am not saying that in a bad way. You just have to have a certain personality or you end up like John (aka the dude with eight kids and a wife that drives him crazy on national TV only to allegedly cheat on her). I just don’t have that kind of personality (Thank God) but I am fortunate to know someone who does and who actually was on a VH1 reality show.
I first had the pleasure of meeting Planet Abiola, one of the stars of VH1’s Tough Love, when GIANT magazine’s parent company acquired BlackPlanet. An author, celebrity journalist and TV personality in her own right, Abiola was born to be on the screen. Check out this interview I did with her a few months back while the show was in full swing
Rashaun Hall: I actually watched the show last night for the first time. It’s a good look, congratulations.
Planet Abiola: Oh, thank you, thank you very much. Yeah, see, I gotta make us proud, I’m just not on Flavor of Love or I Love Money or anything like that. It’s a good show.
And you’re not the crazy one, that’s a stereotype.
PA: No! Rashaun, you expected me to be crazy, stereotype-ish?
I was a little worried about the edit.
PA: Yeah, I was worried about that too; I was very worried about that, too. So far, so good.
Tell me what made you do the show. The persona that your audience knows and loves seems so in control and so self-assured; it seems like a bit of a departure.
PA: That’s good that that’s your first question because that’s the main thing. I have a really strong fanbase of women of color in their 20s and 30s and in their 40s who were perpetually asking this question. We’ve got the career part figured out, we’ve got the education part figured out, we’ve got great groups of friends, we’re so “in control” as you said — that’s the black woman’s mantra: “I’m in control” — but then we don’t have this one area of our lives — relationships — figured out. And I had done a lot of writing like in my book (Dare) and in other anthologies that I’ve been published in and that sort of thing, about my own personal foibles in love, dating and relationships. I felt like, what better way to say, “It’s ok to not have this area figured out” than for me to be the voice of us; to be the voice of young single women trying to figure it out. And even young women in relationships who are also trying to figure it out. The main thing is that there’s no shame in being single. I think that we’ve come to this kind of stigma in our society where people were feeling like something is wrong with you if you’re not in a relationship and that there’s some kind of shame in saying that you’re single and being a single woman. And for me, I think completely the opposite. I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with that and I don’t think that there’s anything wrong in any area in saying, “Hey, I don’t have this figured out and I need help.” Whatever format that takes.
Speaking of formats, how did that translate into this particular show? Did they contact you?
PA: They did. A very vocal part of my work is that I am a single woman. I’ve made it kind of a joke, like through different episodes of the Planet Abiola show, like there are segments of the show called “Manville” where I talk to men to find out what men are thinking. And it’s something that I had been joking about and writing about for awhile and so they thought that that would be a great aspect of the show. Drew Barrymore is the key executive producer and she represents a woman who’s got it all together but hasn’t been able to figure out how to make relationships work. And so she did a film called He’s Just Not That Into You and this was the reality venture into that. And so there are great people involved: there’s Drew Barrymore and High Noon Productions and I was a little bit wary because of the history of reality shows and black women on reality shows, you know, don’t have a great record. But my motto always is: If you don’t like the way you’re being represented, you have to represent yourself. And so for me, that goes as a thread through everything. And something that I’ve always repeated to my viewers and my readers is that I am not a guru, I am far from a guru, I wish that I was. Yes, I do have a lot of things figured out, but I have a lot of things not figured out. I am flawed. I say, I’m just you with a microphone, or you with a pen. And so, for me, I felt like it was really important to jump at this opportunity.
And in speaking of representation, they have labeled you “Miss Picky” on the show. Explain the “title” and what were your feelings on that kind of tag or description.
PA: It’s funny. We didn’t find out the tags until the first episode aired or the previews. And I spoke to one of my executive producers – I’m still really good friends with all of them – and she said, “I thought that you guys wouldn’t like your labels.” And I said, “Well, some of the labels I think are offensive and I could see how people wouldn’t like them but I’m glad to be ‘Miss Picky.’” And after the show, after the process, I remain picky. To me, I think we deserve to be picky. We deserve to be selective in every area of our lives, you know what I mean? I’m not offended by that, at all. One of the things that I learned from the show was to broaden my options because, being a New Yorker, I had honestly only dated one kind of type of man. I’d only dated bankers, lawyers, you know, like New York. Everyone in New York who’s a non-media or non-artist personality type, type A personality. And the one thing that was very valuable for me on the show was that I dated outside of that box, and so that was good, to be able to broaden our options is, I think, a really smart choice for women and for men. But I don’t take offense to being called Picky.
Are you at all surprised by how the show has been received thus far?
PA: It’s been crazy. Seriously, crazy. The ratings are through the roof. It surpassed Rock of Love. VH1 is so happy because this show is very much a departure for them. I feel comfortable saying it; it’s like completely different than the tone of their other shows. So they didn’t know how their viewership was gonna take to something that was, they call it “reality romantic comedy”. It is a little more serious [than other shows], and not slapstick, and not sambo, or whatever, you know what I mean? So they didn’t know how their audience was gonna respond to that. And the audience response has been through the roof. It’s like if you keep feeding people fast food, you can assume that that’s what they like, but If you feed them a better meal, then they probably would be very happy to have that. And so, for me, just as an individual artist-writer-media producer, it’s been amazing. And I honestly did not expect that because I’ve already been on television as a host. So in my head, I’m thinking, I’m already on TV, it’s not such a big deal, it’s already what I do. But, honestly, everyone and their mother literally watches VH1 and I didn’t realize that. The other day, I got chased out of a subway, like these kids following me. Literally, it’s really crazy. I did not expect that. That’s weird to me.
Given your personal message, it also has to be empowering to have this sort of platform.
PA: It’s very empowering actually. And it’s very exciting even just from that standpoint of being a microphone for my viewers and it’s very exciting. Women of all ethnic groups and all ages are sending me messages. People are now going and finding old works and old episodes of the Planet Abiola show or old things that I’ve written and it’s very exciting.
What’s one or two lessons that you’ve learned working with Steven Ward?
PA: The main lesson that I personally learned just being in the house and going through the whole process was to be less judgmental. I realized that I’m a lot more judgmental than I thought I was. It’s almost literally bringing tears to my eyes to say it. Those are women that for the most part that I would never meet, that I wouldn’t usually associate with and, for the most part, they all turned into really good friends. I went to L.A. and hung out with five of them. Also, in terms of the guys that they hooked me up with, that they’re not necessarily people that I would choose to go out with but there’s something to be said for doing things for the experience of it; just having a human experience with another human being. Especially as African-Americans, we like to think that we aren’t judgmental of other people, but it’s a human quality to look at people and judge and make assumptions. That’s definitely something that I learned about myself.
The other thing that I would like very much to point out to your readers is that [the show] is edited. It is an edited version of our lives living in a bubble and so, obviously, even with the best intentions and a great production team, that seven days of your life are narrowed down to 42 TV minutes. And so there are partial conversations. And the only one that I would like to clear up so far is that on the first episode. The first episode of the show featured an exercise where we walked around a pool, walked around a group of men and they made comments about our bodies. And they said that I was heavy or I was overweight. And I wear a size 8, which for most African-American women is small. And I started crying, I have the dubious distinction of being the first person in the house to start crying. And so the part of the conversation that they showed was I said, “I’ve always struggled with my weight.” What they didn’t get to show was that we had a whole conversation about cultural preferences, and that I did stress that I love my body and I love having hips and I love having a butt. This is my body and I love it and I’m happy with that. And any struggles that I’ve had with my weight have come from the outside, from growing up and being a lot of times the only black kid in the group. And so for me, that’s something that I just wanted to clear up because a lot of women wrote about it. They actually, like, stormed the VH1 message boards and, yeah, it’s been interesting.
So what’s next? I know the show has wrapped, anything that you can divulge about what’s coming up next for you?
PA: No, what I can say is just keep watching Tough Love Sunday nights at 10 and visit my site, planetabiola.com. For people to have a full picture of who I am they need to watch the Planet Abiola show.