Five top unscripted makers — also including Kris Jenner, SallyAnn Salsano and W. Kamau Bell — open up about the challenges of living your life on camera ("Stop thinking about what America will think") and raising a "middle finger up to society."
Each time SallyAnn Salsano launches a new reality show, of which there have been many, including Jersey Shore and the VH1 breakout Martha & Snoop's Potluck Dinner Party, she doles out the same advice: "Stop thinking about what America will think." Instead, she tells her subjects, "worry about your five best friends and your parents. You want to be true to them." That authenticity no doubt has been key to the success of the four unscripted talents — W. Kamau Bell, 44; Leah Remini, 46; RuPaul, 56; and Kris Jenner, 61 — who joined Salsano, 43, in early May for THR's annual Reality Roundtable discussion. Over the course of an hour, they spoke candidly about their desires and concerns when it comes to putting themselves and others onscreen.
Why do you think your respective shows are striking a chord, and what does their success say about our culture today?
LEAH REMINI (Scientology and the Aftermath, A&E) The Church of Scientology has been in the news, but more so for fodder and a headline. What we are trying to do is show that this is a real thing that's tearing families apart. People really had no idea. It was like, "Oh, this is that crazy thing where Tom Cruise is jumping on a couch and everybody believes in aliens?" I think that worked for a very long time to sell headlines. But we're showing how a person actually can get there, and that's what's resonating. Also, we're standing up to a bully and, in a culture where people are feeling apathetic, we're representing a group of courageous people who are saying, "No, I'm going to do something about it."
W. KAMAU BELL (United Shades of America, CNN) My show is about me traveling around the country and talking to people who you wouldn't expect me to talk to or who you don't think I should talk to. And right now, the country feels hectic and divided — it's splitting apart at the seams. People who like the show like to see somebody actually going into those seams to see what's going on. That, and [my show] follows [Anthony] Bourdain. (Laughs.)
RUPAUL (RuPaul's Drag Race, VH1) The subtext [for Drag Race] really is the tenacity of the human spirit. These are little boys who are ostracized from society and from their families a lot of times — boys playing with girls' things, it's an act of treason in a male-dominated culture — and here they are blooming and thriving, and it's interesting to watch someone reveal their struggles.
KRIS JENNER (Keeping Up With the Kardashians, E!) I think the reason we became something of a phenomenon is because there are so many of us. Everybody can relate to somebody in my family, whether you're 7 or you're 107. And people just got emotionally attached and invested in seeing this family evolve: They're getting married, getting divorced, having babies.
SALLYANN SALSANO (Martha & Snoop's Potluck Dinner Party, VH1) I'm proud of where our show is right now in that it's two different people — an older white woman with a white-collar lifestyle [Martha Stewart] and one of the best rappers in the world [Snoop Dogg] — uniting over food and hanging out with friends. I think it says that we're going in the right direction.
When was the last time you were genuinely nervous to tell a story?
BELL The whole idea is that I'm getting outside of my comfort zone. Every time we tell a story, whether it's going to Appalachia and talking to poor white people there or going to Dearborn [Michigan] to talk to Muslims about the election or going to the South Side of Chicago to talk to gang members, every single show, before we start to film, I'm like, (sigh) "All right, here we go." But without that feeling, I'd be like, "This probably isn't worth doing."
REMINI I feel scared every time I sit down with somebody, even though I was in the Church of Scientology for 35 years. I was raised in it.
Scared of what exactly?
REMINI I'm scared to hear what they're going to tell me.
SALSANO Like, it's worse than you think?
Are you also scared of the repercussions of exposing the church?
REMINI Oh, no, no, no. Don't misunderstand me. People who know me know that I have a very big mouth, and I have been that way since I was a kid. I would go up against men and go, "What, what are you going to do?" They were like, "I'd knock you out in two seconds." I'm all, "Try it, try it!" But I never want to give the organization of Scientology the idea that anybody is scared of them. We are not. And the more they react in the way that they do, it makes me think we're doing the right thing.
JENNER It's a very brave thing to do.
REMINI But it's not me, that's the thing. I wish I could say, "Look how brave I am." I'm telling their stories. When we leave, they go back to their regular lives, and they are the ones the church goes after. When we air a show, I go, "Just know, within minutes your daughter is going to be saying horrific things about you on the church hate website." Literally every single person who has done a story about Scientology has a hate website on them.
For the rest of you, how do you prepare yourself or the people on your shows for the possible repercussions that come with having a camera on you?
RUPAUL I wish there was a therapy group that is specifically for new-to-reality stars. I brought this up to the producers recently. We want to produce a video, like when you get on an airplane and they tell you about the emergency exits and the safety belts. We want to do that for the girls on our show because they need to be prepared for the trolls on social media and for family members. I always say, "Don't have your boyfriend manage your career."
SALSANO Or your money!
RUPAUL Right. They see the fame, they see that their career is going to be propelled, but they don't know about all the other stuff that, for a lot of us, took years of wrong turns to figure out.
SALSANO One piece of advice I always give is, "Stop caring what America thinks." Fame comes to people who just are who they are. One of the things I do on my shows is have dinner with people's families, especially when you're dealing with young people, because they can come tell me they're whoever, but if they'll sit next to their mom and say it, then you know it's legit.
Kris, you brought your younger daughters into this world early on. How did you prepare them?
JENNER We decided as a family that if we're going to do this, we would just show everything. And one of the best decisions I made not only as a producer of the show but as one of the stars of the show was to say, "We're not going to remove anything." With that philosophy, I told the kids, "Don't get on the internet." Ryan Seacrest, my producing partner, had told [my daughter] Kim about this little thing called Twitter, which she might be interested in. There wasn't Instagram or Snapchat or any of this other stuff then. Now, it's so heightened and, you know, haters are gonna hate. You expect it now.
As a mother, how do you tell your daughters to tune that out?
JENNER Kim leads the pack, and she's the queen of thick skin. She counsels everybody else. So if something happens in the family, she's the first one you call. "What should I do? How should I handle this?" But it's my grandchildren who I worry about because I have six of them; the oldest just turned 7, and my youngest is 6 months old, and they don't have a choice. And I worry, I do, because it is such a bullying environment.
REMINI I'm sure everybody in the public eye hears, "Well, you should be used to it by now." But I'm like, "What?! Do you think that we in the public eye should be immune to having insults hurled at us all day?" It's not easy to put your family on TV. I did it for two seasons [on TLC's Leah Remini: It's All Relative], and I was like, "I'm out."
What was the breaking point for you?
REMINI Because my mother's a pain in the ass, OK? (Laughter.) Imagine working with your mom!
JENNER That's how my kids feel, trust me.
REMINI And I'm producing, and we're doing an interview, and my daughter doesn't want to do it, and she's like, "What am I getting out of this? Why am I here? I have dance class."
JENNER "Where's my check?"
REMINI She just wanted gifts! She wanted to be gifted things. And I was like, "I don't know if TLC does that. Read your contract." She had a whole list. "I want this Gucci thing, I want …" I was like, "Slow your roll, please." And then my mother is giving me a note like, "You shouldn't wear black all the time," and "You're looking a little heavier now." It's not an easy thing to work with your family. And then you are constantly being barraged with insults toward you, toward your kids, toward anybody who is around. We're putting our life out there for entertainment. You don't need to make a comment about the way I look or the way my daughter looks. Imagine walking down the street and somebody going, "You look like shit." Or, "I don't love that jacket, buddy."
Kamau, how do you balance trying to get the best television show with trying to keep yourself and your family safe?
BELL It is a challenge. My wife is going to be on an episode of my show this season. The premise of the episode is, should I buy a gun to protect my family, which means I have to talk to my wife about it. She's a modern dancer, she is smarter than me, and she's fine to be on TV. But not only did we not shoot it at our house, we went to another house, and at the end of the episode, I reveal this is not my house because I don't want anybody coming to this house thinking they're going to find me here. And you're not going to see my kids on this show. My daughter is about to turn 6, and my youngest is 2 and a half, and they haven't chosen this life. I've sat down with the Klan, I've sat down with alt-right people, I've sat down with activists who think I did things wrong that I do want to engage with and talk to, but then how do I make sure that my family is separate from that?
When is the last time your wife said, "I don't know, Kamau. I don't want you to do that or go there"?
BELL She knows this is what I want to do. She always just wants a phone call when it's over. Luckily I'm working with CNN, and they've got a lot of experience doing this with people who are way more important than me that they need to protect. Anderson Cooper is worth more to them than I am. But she trusts I'm going to be safe. And she knows that at the end of the day, I want to come home. I'm not some extreme-sports, adrenaline junkie guy who's like, "I'll do whatever it takes." I will cut it off before she will, most likely.
Leah, how much vetting is done of the people who are going to tell their stories on your show?
REMINI It's funny you ask that because when we started the show, legal was like, "Do you know this person personally?" I said, "I don't need to know the person. I just know that they're telling the truth." I thought, "How dare you. This is not somebody who is getting paid to be on this show; there are repercussions to them being on the show." And what the hell fame would they get from saying, "I was coerced by my church to get an abortion"? Or, "I was raped by someone." … I mean, nobody really wants to tell that story. So there is no vetting. I take their word for it. [Per an A&E spokesperson: "Although Leah does not personally vet the participants in the show, the network and production company legal teams do carefully vet people and stories featured on the program."]
Do you keep in touch with these people after the episode airs?
REMINI They have my cellphone number and [use it] all the time. It's a very emotional struggle for them, and they think about things after they've said it, and they text me. I have 50,000 memos on my phone: "Make sure you don't put this in." "This one doesn't want to say that." And so, when I'm editing, I'm like, "Hang on, I got 50 pages of notes that I got to go through." But I do that because they were brave enough to come on the show, and I made them a promise that I'm going to take care of them.
SallyAnn, are the Jersey Shore kids still calling you? Do you still feel protective of people you've worked with?
SALSANO I do, and sometimes I feel guilty if I don't talk to them enough.
REMINI You feel responsible.
SALSANO Yeah, and it's impossible because I do about 10 shows a year, so you have 10 different casts, and you do like to stay in touch with them. My rule is, "Here is my address, here's my home phone number and here's my cell. Literally hit me up at any time."
SALSANO Oh, yeah. They call you for advice. Someone could have gotten a DUI, someone could be in a bad situation with a boyfriend, I've gotten the call from jail. And I feel responsible. That's what our job is. If I'm saying, "Trust me with your life," then when those cameras [stop rolling], I am still a part of their life.
Ru, you once said you made a pact with yourself at 15: "If I was going to live this life, I'm only going to do it on my terms and I'm only going to do it if I'm putting my middle finger up at society the whole time." Is your middle finger still up?
RUPAUL Yeah because this is all a hoax. When I was a little boy, I wanted to fit in and I could never, but I thought, "You know what, I'm smart enough to figure this out. Let me see what my entry will be." And I figured it out. I said, "Oh, this is all a joke, it's all an illusion, it's all made up." I was surprised that other people weren't going, "You know, this is all made up, right?" And I was looking for my tribe of people to do that. You know where I found that tribe?
RUPAUL On PBS' Monty Python's Flying Circus. I thought, "They exist; my people are out there!" (Laughter.) Because it was so irreverent, they made fun of everything and, if I really thought about it, before that it was Bugs Bunny, who was just heckling everything. He's like, "Don't take life too seriously." So I still feel that way, and I have to remind myself every day.
Occidental College had or still has a course called "Reading RuPaul: Camp, Culture, Gender and Subordination and the Politics of Performance." At the end of a semester, what do you hope the takeaway is?
RUPAUL Well, I don't know the curriculum, but I would hope that these kids would learn how to navigate their lives. Everybody walks around this life, and it looks like they have the instruction book. Nobody does; everybody is faking it. And kids need to know that. It's back to the Bugs Bunny philosophy, which is that this life is an incredible experience, so have fun with it. Don't take it too seriously and try everything. Use all the colors in the crayon box.
What's on the cutting-room floor because a network or somebody else on your team did not want something to air?
RUPAUL A lot of times, kids come on, and after the show they'll say, "I was edited unfavorably." The truth is, we used the best of them. We never want someone to look bad. They say a lot worse things, and we actually soften them.
How do you make that decision? Because outspoken or outrageous characters can make for wonderful TV.
RUPAUL Sure. Sometimes they may go just a little too far, and we know that if that got out, their lives would be hell.
SALSANO Also, people aren't going to tune in to watch a TV show about people you don't like. People are tuning in to see people that you like. I always feel like normal people have ups and downs; there are weeks and days that you're good, and there are weeks and days that you're bad. And if you're doing a show like Ru's, there are some shows where so-and-so was the bad guy this week, but you only can show that when you know that the human spirit on the other side comes out. And when the contestants say, "You edited me unfairly," I'm like, "Hey, real quick, I'm going to go in the edit bay. Let's FaceTime. I'll show you what would've happened if we were live."
RUPAUL Yeah. (Laughter.)
SALSANO I love to show them the footage because they're like, "Oh, I love you."
Kamau, are there things you didn't show?
BELL We shot an episode about Muslims living outside Detroit, and so there was the natural inclination, which I don't like, to find somebody who is anti-Muslim. As much as people think I want to give all sides of the argument, I don't feel the need to give that side of the argument at this point in this country. I just feel like there are so many stories we can tell, we don't need that side. But we booked somebody, and we sat down, and it was the only interview where I ever walked out on the other person.
BELL At some point, I said to the showrunner, "Are we done?" And he said, "Yeah," and I just (hits hands on table) got up and walked out. I took a walk for about an hour, and I called my best friend, and he talked me down. I was so frustrated by the argument and the lack of any sort of openness to a conversation. As much as people think that talking to the Klan is crazy, they were all open to the conversation at least.
Kris, by putting your family out there and saying everything is for the cameras, when bad things happen — and not long ago Kim went through something that was pretty horrific in Paris [she was robbed and held at gunpoint] — your audience expects to see it. How challenging was that for you, not just as a producer but as a mother?
JENNER It was really tough. First of all, we got out of there before the sun came up, so we didn't have time to think. We talked to the police and got on the plane. But when we landed in New York City, Kanye [West, Kim's husband] was there to meet us and he had his videographers there because he always does. He thought, "I'm just going to get everything raw," because they keep a lot of their stuff for personal use anyway. Weeks later, we made the decision to go ahead and have Kim tell her story. So many people felt like they deserved the explanation of what happened because they had, for the last decade, followed every moment of her life. And she felt it would almost be a relief to be able to say it on her terms and explain what happened and what she went through. And the fact that we did have a little bit of Kanye's footage made it really interesting to see that point of view of how she dealt with it and how she handled it from within. But she couldn't talk for a minute because it was under investigation.
Were there moments that gave you pause about continuing with this show?
JENNER No. But it really changed all of our lives and the way that we live. Not only do we now have an enormous amount of security — everyone is armed and licensed; it's legit companies that protect all of us — but also the way that we deal with our lives on social media took a huge turn: what we show, what we don't show. If we go to Disneyland, we're not snapping pictures with Dumbo; we'll wait until we leave and then share something we want to share. But it also gave us great pause about what to share. There is nothing wrong with working hard and getting something wonderful for yourself if you want to or that's what you're into, but I think the way that we share it with other people really changed. You think five times about what you're going to put out there on social media.
Did anyone tell you guys not to do these shows? And if so, why?
REMINI Everybody on my team told me not to. They want me to be an actress. They don't want me to be known as somebody who does a show about Scientology. I'm like, "What am I going to do? Not do it? This is my passion."
BELL I get pushback about who I talk to on the show.
As in, "Don't give these people a platform"?
BELL Yeah. But I think that's intellectually lazy. I know a lot of activists and people who work in social justice, and they think everybody is as woke as they are. But it's the people trying to run away from the fact that things are hectic: If I don't see it, I can pretend it's not as bad as it is. And I'm like, "I want you to see how bad it is." That's how you save your life.
This story first appeared in a June standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.