A look behind the scandalous, controversial, profitable empire of Mona Scott-Young, the ruler of reality TV
Story: Clover Hope (@clovito) | Photos: Stacy-Ann Ellis (@stassi_x)
Stevie J and Joseline Hernandez have their game faces on. The Love & Hip-Hop Atlanta couple are at Hot 97’s Manhattan office, crashing a poker match between the radio station’s staff. And despite a series of losing hands, Stevie’s being his usual obnoxious self, bragging about his net worth (he’s got 10-grand to spare) and quoting Jay Z (that “D’usse so myself” line). Worst of all, he’s trashing his ex-girlfriend/daughter’s mother, Mimi Faust. The Atlanta cast member’s shower rod calisthenics in a sex tape with her boyfriend, Nikko, has been a trending topic lately. Stevie isn’t impressed. Joseline’s “got way more curves,” he says. His personal corner woman, Joseline, massages his shoulders and participates in the smack talking via one-liners. They’re both built for this. “I’m an actress,” she says.
None of this is real. Stevie and Joseline blew in from Atlanta to tape a cameo for Mona Scott-Young’s latest TV venture, This Is Hot 97, which is more an Office-like mockumentary than the chicks behaving badly programming that’s become Mona’s bread and butter. The made-up scenario for this episode: a poker game gone awry. From the sidelines, next to a conference table cluttered with camera equipment and stray phones, Mona plays point. “I want Joseline to be more playful and funny,” she tells the executive producer, Ian Gelfand. Her tone is warm but authoritative. The entire scene is taped multiple times with different improv lines. “It’s not as exciting as people think it is, huh?” says Mona.
Since the original Love & Hip-Hop premiered in 2010—with Dipset’s Jim Jones, singer Olivia Longott and Fabolous’ girlfriend Emily B. among its cast—Mona has been cross-examined about her role in the madness. She’s been painted as a puppeteer for exhibitionists who live by the motto, “Turn down for what?” The drama seems too outrageous to be real. And none of the incessant backlash has forced her to cancel any of the shows. It’s remained Vh1’s top-rated program. (Love & Hip-Hop Atlantaseason 2 was the No. 1 cable series among women ages 18-49, averaging 3.3 million viewers.) She may not bust a Nae Nae when ratings slide in, but she does profit from a series that feeds off brawls and stereotypes. Yet, she’s confident in her good intentions and her platform. Her conscience is clear. And that’s the part that pisses people off the most.
“Should we just act like these women don’t exist or shove them under the rug? What’s the alternative?” asks Mona, sitting at a table in Hot 97’s break room before today’s taping. She’s wearing an off-white blouse and black power-trousers with matching Louboutins. Her signature big rings swallow up her fingers. The language she speaks is business pitch, even in casual convo. As a former manager to superstars like Missy Elliott, Busta Rhymes and 50 Cent as part of the storied Violator Management, she’s mastered the art of media training.
Members of Mona’s inner circle describe her as laser-focused, persuasive and a great storyteller, all qualities that have made her one of TV’s most powerful and polarizing (and only) black female executives, among the ranks of Shonda Rhimes, Debra Lee and, yes, Oprah.
The snap judgment is that Love & Hip-Hop appeals to the lowest common denominator. But (full disclosure) it’s also an escape for voyeurs like myself who laugh-cry at the ignorance while questioning its side effects. (It’s complicated.) Most tune in for the trifling moments. Peter Gunz secretly marrying his mistress while still living with the mother of his children (gasp). Erica Mena using champagne flutes as weapons (sigh). Kirk Frost suggesting that his wife, Rasheeda, get an abortion by telling her (seriously): “You still at a stage where you can X that right there out the picture.”
The entertainment value is undeniable. So are the scandals. In mid-April, the porn hub Vivid Entertainment released Mimi’s sex tape, Mimi & Nikko: Scandal in Atlanta. Pre-sales hit $400,000, and founder/CEO Steven Hirsch says, “It may wind up being one of our all-time best sellers.” Even CNN picked up the story.
Vivid won’t reveal who brought them the tape; a rep only confirms that it was a “third party,” not Mimi or Nikko. Mimi’s sticking to this: Nikko misplaced his luggage with the tape in it on a return trip from the Bahamas. Once Hirsch got hold of it and contacted them, she couldn’t refuse the potential profit. The natural suspicion is that Vh1 orchestrated the whole thing. Vivid won’t confirm or deny that either.
Shooting down that rumor, Mona says neither she, nor the network, had a role in shooting the tape, shopping it or distributing it. “I have no vested interest in that tape beyond that it’s part of Mimi’s story,” says Mona. When Mimi first told her about its existence, Mona had her doubts. “When she called and said, ‘The head of one of the biggest porn companies got a copy of it,’ did I have my own questions? Of course. Like, really? How did he know it was you? How did he get your phone number?” says Mona. “Did I go, ‘Oh god, this is gonna be insane in the worst and the best way?’ Yes, absolutely. ’Cause ultimately, I’m producing a show that you hope gets ratings and you hope people respond to. Good or bad. I’m just here to document it.”
When the tape surfaced (just weeks before Atlanta‘s season premiere), conspiracy theorists were already feeding off news that Atlanta cast member Benzino was shot by his nephew. “He had a hard time with that,” says Mona of the assumptions that Benzino set up the shooting for press. “The timing and the way that it happened, you have another moment that you go, you can’t make this stuff up. It’s like the reality gods have once again chosen this show to smile upon.”
Mona takes after her mother. Living in New York, Canada, Puerto Rico, St. Croix, she had an itinerant childhood. Her dad died when she was 9 years old. Her sole memory of him is riding a red tricycle with him when she was 7. She went to Catholic and private schools, including Park West High School, and always wondered how her mother made enough money for tuition. Seeing her mom in the hallways at school, she’d figure it was for parent-teacher meetings, not knowing she was actually on the cleaning staff.
“The stuff that she shielded me from in an effort to give me the best, I always felt like how dare I not succeed,” says Mona. “I watched my mother take care of us and always have a good business sense, a good head on her shoulders, and I think I adopted a lot of that very logical, systematic thinking. That helped develop the business side of my brain.”
The family moved from their apartment on 88th St and Columbus on the Upper West Side to a house in St. Croix, where Mona spent her teen years and connected with the island. Once back in New York, she took a class at Broadway Dance Center, which evolved into a career in artist development. A pragmatist like her mom, she never romanticized the music industry. She enjoyed the work of organizing and strategizing. The relationships she formed led to her managing hip-hop production duo The Trackmasters and, later, working with Chris Lighty at Violator Management.
Yandy, who Mona hired as her assistant/intern, remembers hearing her boss’ raspy voice from across the office. “I would answer my calls and try to emulate her ‘cause I was so impressed with how she spoke,” says Yandy, adding that Mona’s also fluent in French and Spanish. “Her vernacular is crazy. I’m like, do you read the dictionary in your free time?”
Mona dated within her circle and built most of her lifelong friendships in her early 20s, but work largely trumped her social life. While the Def Jam and Bad Boy camps cliqued up, she was always “an island,” she says, and somewhat of an enigma.
“Chris Lighty told me I would’ve made such a great dude,” says Mona. “I think it’s because people thought I was asexual. They thought I was gay. Wendy Williams, for a very long time, swears I was “how you doin’?” and was very surprised when I got married. It’s not that I didn’t want to be hanging out and having a great time with the other girls and sowing my wild oats. I was just focused in a different way.”
Mona met her husband, Shawn, while he was doing security for Busta Rhymes. Around 2007, she started transitioning from Violator—an office where a picture of 50 Cent pointing a gun greeted you at the elevator—to a Soho locale for her newfound Monami Entertainment, which she decorated with lilies, orchids and Jo Malone candles. The idea for Love & Hip-Hop spawned from a show that Vh1 producer Jim Ackerman was creating around Jim Jones. (A lawsuit alleging that Mona stole the idea is pending, though Mona says she hasn’t been served and that the claims are ludicrous.)
“The intention was to create a hybrid of what was working in reality television, but in a way that made it feel like a soap opera,” says Mona. “There are people who get it and say, ‘This is entertainment’ but who understand that this is the stuff that’s really going on in their lives.”
With any reality TV series, there’s manipulation. Instead of shooting uninterrupted, documentary style footage (think Real World), shows like Real Housewives and Love & Hip-Hop film on location. There’s hair, makeup and stylists. In Love & Hip-Hop’s case, certain scenes intentionally mimic music videos. When Joe Budden is seen riding around Manhattan in deep thought, it’s clearly staged. “Real life is rife with mistakes and ugly settings and backdrops,” says Mona, “and that wasn’t the intention here.”
Storyboards in her office (culled from in-depth conversations with the cast) outline the day’s events when shows are in production— “We never get to see the storyboard. If you do, you’re definitely lucky,” says Love & Hip-Hop New York‘s Erica Mena. Mona insists that’s the extent of the planning that goes into each episode. She reiterates that nothing’s fabricated and there is no script. When juicy events happen off camera, other reality shows may choose to have cast members address it in their confessionals (those first-person green screens). For Love & Hip-Hop, scenes get recreated. This artistic license makes some interactions seem scripted, no matter how personal.
On the first Atlanta season, viewers saw Joseline take a pregnancy test in a bathroom stall. It looked like something ripped from a telenovela. In reality, Mona knew Joseline was pregnant before Joseline did. “She took the test for me, but then gave me the test and didn’t want to know the results,” says Mona. “When I knew the outcome of it, I said to her, ‘Are you willing to do this again? Will you do it for the cameras?’ And she said yes. I didn’t tell her what the result was. So her reaction was real.”
To viewers, the producers’ involvement in the show is questionable. To the cast, it’s part of the game. Reality show participants accept the necessary evils of editing. There’s only so much control they have over their stories.
“If people are like, ‘We don’t get to see more of her in the studio or with her friendsand family,’ that’s not my choice. That’s what they wanted to follow,” says Olivia, who before joining the inaugural cast was a Violator client. She’s since left the show. “So it bothers us when we can’t do certain things, but it’s not up to us. If another girl had beef, we had to go with that and talk about that.”
Vh1, naturally, thinks they’re doing a great job in the editing department. “People, when they sign up for shows like this, know that they’re letting it all hang out,” says executive producer Susan Levison. “We would never do anything to demean or exploit them. We’re very sensitive to that and so is Mona. I think most of the cast members would say that Vh1 has portrayed them accurately and fairly.”
Somaya Reece, who was part of the first New York cast before quitting, once called the show manipulative. She now calls Mona a genius. Completely unrelated: she’s rumored to be returning for Love & Hip-Hop Hollywood. “I think some people go in with their own agenda and it blows up in their face. You have a choice,” says Somaya, repeating what’s become an unofficial tagline. “I never felt pressured to do things that I was not comfortable with. Some of the people I thought were the bad guys really weren’t. When I cussed out Mona, it was not my favorite light to see myself in. I apologized to her because it was so unnecessary.”
Addressing the criticism often becomes the nucleus of Mona’s interviews. Like Bravo’s Andy Cohen (The Real Housewives) and Vh1’s Shaunie O’Neal (Basketball Wives), she’s the Frankenstein behind a franchise that’s hated as much as it’s loved. Unlike Cohen, she’s not depicted as a joyously shady figurehead.
“I think people put a tremendous amount of responsibility on me being an African-American woman than they’d ever put on him, because they feel that somehow I am more responsible for protecting these women from themselves, maybe?” she argues. “I’m not a sociologist, I’m not a psychologist, and I’m not trying to use that as a cop-out. I’m a producer. I’m trying to cover a specific segment of the population, one that I felt I knew well because I had navigated that world.”
Love & Hip-Hop, like a website opting for click bait over substance, chooses to highlight the crazies and pencil in the rest. Anything less is a ratings risk. Mona pulled double duty as host of the initial, Maury-esque reunion specials, which only put her more in the line of fire. Critics have been ruthless. In a July 2012 article for thegrio.com titled “Is the Black Woman Behind ‘Love & Hip-Hop ATL’ to Blame for Stereotypes?” Sil Lai Abrams wrote that: “Businesswomen like Basketball Wives’ creator and executive producer Shaunie O’Neal and Mona Scott-Young are just exploiting their opportunity to make some serious cash at the expense of their own people.”
On Love & Hip-Hop New York, rapper Saigon came across as angry and defensive toward the mother of his son, Erica Jean. This portrayal, well, angered him, and he quit after one season. “I’m watching this shaking my head, like, look at you. I could see how I look crazy from the outside looking in. I looked crazy to myself,” he says. “During the reunion [taping], I said one thing I hate about this is you guys try to marginalize us and make us all look fuckin’ stupid. I see how y’all egg on arguments. It’s almost like being on Bad Girls Club. The arguments are what gets used. But I don’t knock Mona. She gets too much flack for how we go up there and act.”
Social media’s the most rabid. Mini monologues about the destructiveness of Love & Hip-Hop and Mona are as rampant as the witty live-tweets. In light of Mimi’s sex tape, on the day of our interview, Twitter user @ariel_runsri wrote that Mona’s “brand is no longer respectable.” That’s one of the nicer comments; @Thefabfemme said “she’s worse for black people than crack cocaine ever was.”
Mona’s past life as an industry power player to black superstars now gets overshadowed by the comedic Jerry Springer storylines.
“I think Mona’s bad rap is somewhat earned. She’s so focused on these types of shows that people wonder if she can leverage her power for something better,” says Twitter personality and pop culture critic Luvvie. “But people aren’t giving black women enough credit, in that many of us don’t relate to those characters. They’re not the group of friends I roll with. We watch them as a sort of fantasy.”
Mona’s grown tired of playing defense. She knows that even this story, like the ones she aims to tell, is likely to be misinterpreted. “In the process of shielding myself from the crazies, I don’t foster the open dialogue that I’d love to have,” she says. “These people don’t give a shit about what I really think. They don’t want to hear the truth. They just want a soapbox they can get on to spew their venom, and they want you to engage. And that’s what I won’t give them.”
This Is Hot 97 is partially an opportunity for Mona to play nice, with a series that turns reality TV tropes into satire. But viewers, she says, have to tune in. Ratings wise, her other shows, including Gossip Game and Bravo’s Taking Atlanta, are step kids to Love & Hip-Hop.
“I think Mona wants to be known for more than that, so she’s taken a chance with us,” says Ebro Darden, Hot 97’s bearded programming director turned personality. “She gotta wear that. She makes those programs. She’s just trying to entertain and people give her a bad rap because there’s not a balance. T.I. & Tiny is a positive show, very successful. Run’s House was a very positive show. The instant reaction that some of that drama gets, people go for, but I think people love a little balance.”
Outside of the office, Yandy has seen Mona as the silly family woman who loves dancing (“She can probably dance as good as J. Lo,” says Yandy) and whose boardroom savvy (you might call it manipulation) is underrated. “If you can manipulate someone to do what you need to do and make money from it, that’s what’s called business,” says Yandy. “Bill Gates manipulated people to buy Microsoft computers. He found a niche that was missing and monopolized the whole market.”
Mona has a hand in selecting every cast member for Love & Hip-Hop, from scouting to interviewing (she casted the first two seasons herself). She knows what makes a star. The best candidates, she says, “have to be willing to go places most people would fear to tread.” Mimi recalls auditioning for the show at the Mansion Hotel in Atlanta with Stevie J. They argued in the lobby. She won the casting producers over with one line: “He doesn’t know how to come home at night.”
Reality TV clearly benefits from casting Type As who’ll act up for the cameras. Some have more of a fame itch than an entrepreneurial agenda. Being your authentic self on screen is seen as a badge of honor. “There are people that they pick because they know they’ll do the buffoonery, and there are people who they know will be level-headed,” says Olivia. “We liked how it started out because it showed girlfriendsdealing with rappers and music. It evolved into a whole other thing. Everybody has a gimmick.”
More beneficial than the ego strokes are the financial perks and exposure. After years in label hell, K. Michelle landed a deal with Atlantic Records. Her album, Rebellious Soul, debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard pop chart. Stevie J and Joseline generate income from event appearances. For Mimi, it’s like any 9-to-5, as odd as that sounds. Apparently, filming dinner-table squabbles can cause early aging.
“It’s stress because I never know what to expect when I go to set. And you never know how it’s gonna end up,” says Mimi. “Most of my experiences on the show were actually not that great, because I was living out my real-life situation in front of the whole world. At this point, this is my job and I’m not a quitter.”
Erica Mena, whose recent plot revolved around a love triangle with her ex-manager, Rich Dollaz, and her new love, Cyn Santana, found the show therapeutic. Erica’s hot temper often seems more fit for a playground on screen… and off screen. Mona, known for toeing the producer-confidante line on set, once talked her down after she punched a wall while cameras weren’t rolling.
“Had she not stepped in and played that role of not just being the producer, I would probably not have that real aha moment,” says Erica. “I have an openness with one producer in particular, so I was able to open up for the first time. I’ve always liked women, but this time I really fell in love with one. I was scared how this was gonna play out. My fear came to fruition because right away people assumed this was not real, that I went out of my way and did the Tom Cruise casting, when this is really my life.”
After the Hot 97 shoot wraps, Mona heads back to her corner office facing the West Side Highway. Having swapped her Louboutins for bright orange and yellow flip-flops, she takes a breather. Her work day isn’t over. Later today, K. Michelle, a transplant from the Atlanta season to New York, is shooting a scene for her spin-off. Next week, production on the next season of Love & Hip-Hop New York begins. Footage of a fight between the Hollywood cast members has already made TMZ headlines.
When asked how, considering all this, she convinces people to do her show, Mona rattles off a speech about the perils of reality TV. “A lot of them will tell you that I usually give them the worst-case scenario,” says Mona. “My speech often starts something like: Do not do this if you’re not built for this ’cause it is not pretty. People are gonna have an opinion. They’re going to be vicious in the way they render it. You’re going to be in moments when you’re at your most vulnerable, at your most uncomfortable, and when you wish you were anywhere else but right there is when you’ll probably give incredible television.”
Mona barely looks exhausted. Before heading to her 4 p.m. meeting, she rests her hands on the desk, next to a small pile of books that includes Mama Jones: My Guide to Love & Romance, by Jim Jones’ mother (who appeared on the show). On top of the books, there’s a rectangular, wooden plaque. It reads: “I’m not always right, but when I am, it’s usually all the time.”