Seven years ago, when The L Word premiered on Showtime, we came together to see our stories blaze on the small screen and beyond. Showtime promised us a show about our lives and they delivered it for six dramatic seasons, complete with bitchy catfights, implausible hook-ups and surprisingly tender moments. When The L Word came to its inevitable end, we made do with the few lesbian celebrities television still offered us. While networks like Bravo continue today to feature openly queer women on both their scripted and unscripted shows, the need for programming by and about lesbians living in the US is as pressing as always.
On June 20, The L Word will be returning to the screen in an entirely new form and genre, debuting as a "reality docu-drama" on Showtime called The Real L Word: Los Angeles. Like its predecessor, The Real L Word will be brought to us by the head honcho of contemporary lesbian mainstream media, L Word creator/producer/ director/writer Ilene Chaiken. The show will follow six lesbians in L.A. as they go about their daily lives. As a reality show, this new series has the potential to show the entire world "the way that we live…and looooove" with unprecedented honesty and frankness.
The women bearing the burden of our representation are Tracy, Whitney, Nikki, Jill, Rose, and Mikey, an impressive bunch. Tracy is, according to her official description, a film and TV development executive. "Beyond her smoking hot looks, Tracy is a hip chick, doing her thing — developing blockbusters during the week while skating and hanging with friends on the weekend." Then there are Nikki and Jill, who are also fiancées. Nikki is a Rep/Manager/Producer by trade, “proud to be called a ‘barracuda’ in the industry.” Nikki’s fiancée Jill is a writer, and we gather she’s quite a catch:"[This] girl next door wears running shoes by day and heels by night….the girl all the guys want, but only one girl has."
The final three cast members are Whitney, a special effects makeup artist, Rose, a real estate advisor, and Mikey, a producer of LA Fashion Week. The first two will probably provide us with the Shane-like drama we all lived and loved, or at least that’s what it looks like. Whitney has "a passion for women [that] gets her into trouble….especially with straight girls." And then there is Rose, the inspiration for The L Word‘s womanizing Papi, "a heartbreaking Lotharia trying to shake old habits and be in a serious relationship." Finally, the rough and tumble Mikey is described as "tatt’ed up and cruisin’ into downtown…on one of her custom-built motorcycles.”
As with all reality shows currently on television (think Real Housewives of wherever), having such a small cast has its pitfalls, not the least of which is the impossibility of representing the entire lesbian community through six individual stories. And, as most reality show "characters," these women are TV-ready: professionally successful and soap opera gorgeous. They are also noticeably vanilla, though reps for the show point out that Rose is of Latina heritage, Tracy is half-Hispanic and Jill and Nikki are both Jewish. It’s as if you can hear the protests already. Executive producer Chaiken is the first to recognize the constraints of the form: “It’s only six women, and just like the characters on the L Word they don’t represent every lesbian person on earth but hopefully they speak to many of us in a lot of ways,” she tells GO.
Nikki and Rose reveal to GO that the main reason for their participation with the show is their devotion to lesbian visibility. Nikki went from being unaware of her sexuality to being an active spokesperson for gay issues. From "a small upper class family" on the East Coast, she had a "wonderful childhood.” She married a man in her early twenties. During her marriage she began an affair with a woman and for the first time confronted her homosexuality, eventually leaving the marriage. She recalls her own coming-out talk with her mom. "I took her to the most public place possible," she says, "and I said, ‘Mom, I’m having an affair.’ And before I could catch my breath, she said—and I’ll never forget this—’with a man, or with a woman?’ And I said: ‘Mom, how did you know? When did you know? Why didn’t you tell me? I’ve struggled so much." She came out publicly for the first time in 1997, the year of her divorce, when the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) tapped her to be on Oprah as an out gay woman.
Nikki feels that key to her decision to join the cast was a potential the show has to influence public perceptions about homosexuality. She says, "lt wasn’t an easy thing for me to say yes to. But Jill and I are in love and we have a beautiful relationship. And if we could possibly change someone’s mind who’s against the thought of gay marriage, or help someone who’s struggling with their sexuality and feels like there’s no way out, or help parents to understand that it’s not that scary, then we’ve succeeded." Rose, the California-bred daughter of Puerto Rican parents in New York, echoes Nikki’s sentiments. "When my family, my grandmother in P.R., found out, she said ‘I don’t care who you love as long as you’re happy.’ When I told her and my family I was going to be on the show, I told them: ‘you guys are so supportive of me—this show may help someone else come out and deal with their family.’"
Both women were also drawn to the project out of their devotion to the original L Word. Nikki was a die-hard fan, and recounts the show as being very influential in her own life. "I loved that show," she pines nostalgically. "I had my girlfriends over the night that it premiered, and if I had had a show like that when I was struggling, it would have changed my life. It truly would have. Ilene has done so much in the media to portray us in a positive light. " Rose, on the other hand, was a loyal viewer of the show in part because she, as Papi, was on it. Asked if it’s accurate that she was the inspiration for Papi, Rose says: "Yes, me in my younger days. I met Ilene through mutual friends and she was creating a Hispanic character and she based it on a little of my philandering and shenanigans at the time." Rose says that she initially enjoyed the "celebrity" of Papi on the L Word but that "it became a stigma. It made it hard for me to date." What has she learned from being on a reality show? "Wow, I’m 35, I’ve met someone I care about [her girlfriend of seven months, Natalie]–I need to grow up and slow the fuck down a little bit."
So why did Chaiken decide to shift from the fictional to the reality TV genre? "We were finished doing the fictional L Word. We were finished telling those particular stories for now. But I thought that the franchise still had a lot of value, and there still were many, many more stories to be told about gay women, and they weren’t being told anywhere.The L Word as a brand had such meaning and created such a place for community to gather, and I wanted to continue that." The change in form was challenging for Chaiken, who had previously been in complete control of her creation. "It was terrifying not to be in control, not to be able to direct the story," she says, laughing. "I just disciplined myself to have faith that truth is more interesting than fiction. Or at least, every bit as interesting."
Throughout the conversation, Chaiken returns to what she sees as the duty to represent our community positively and accurately. "When I tell stories especially about gay people, I don’t want them to be just for gay people. I want them to be for and about gay people because I’m telling some truth about us, but I really really want my stories to reach a much much larger audience than that. Firstly, I believe that our stories are entertaining to people who aren’t necessarily gay, and I believe it also makes the mission part of it much more significant. The mission part is representing us in a world in which we’ve been marginalized, telling our stories and putting forward the notion that there’s some kind of universality of experience."
Speaking of universality, what of the whispers that, if successful, The Real L Word might spin off into a roving franchise that visits and films in other urban areas, such as New York? "That would be lovely," remarks a closed-mouthed Chaiken. And what about those incessant L Word movie rumors? "I would love to do an L Word movie," says Chaiken carefully. "I just haven’t yet found the moment to write it. Most of the L Word cast members have told me that they’d love to do an L Word movie. I adore the L Word cast and I would like nothing more than to bring them back for a movie."
For now, fans will have to be satisfied with the real-life version of the L Word. On June 20, pull up a chair and fix a cocktail before the debut of a series that will again inform us—and the world at large—about the reality of our lives.