L Is for ReaLity

By Ari Karpel

Originally published on Advocate.com May 12 2010 4:00 AM ET

Let’s get this out of the way first: All the women on The Real L Word are beautiful and Hollywood thin.

If you have a problem with that, creator Ilene Chaiken, godmother of the lamented Showtime series The L Word, has most likely heard your complaint before. “Where are the women of size?” she says, recounting the litany of gripes she heard during the original series’ six-season run. “Where are the women of color? You’re not representing me! I’m not rich! I’m not skinny!”

Whether you loved or hated (or loved to hate) The L Word—and how could you not have mixed feelings about the series that first showed lesbians’ lives through a soap opera’s lens—there’s no denying that it was groundbreaking television. In the year since the show ended (and Jenny Schecter’s murder was left unsolved), there’s been nothing like it on TV. Until now.

One part Showtime’s original L Word series, two parts Real Housewives,The Real L Word is a nine-week reality series set in the same upscale Los Angeles of ambitious urban women that inspired the first iteration. This one, premiering June 20, will even fill Showtime’s same 10 p.m. Sunday time slot.

“It’s about six real women, so nobody can say that’s not real,” says Chaiken, whose first post–L Word spinoff idea was rejected by the cable network.

“Let’s call it a ‘docu-series’ because it’s Showtime,” insists participant Nikki, a rep for TV commercial directors, whose preparations for her wedding to fiancée Jill are chronicled on the show. “We’re not a cast. We weren’t forced to live in a house. We each had our autonomous story. All of our lives are very different.” THE REAL L WORD XLRG (ONDREA BARBE/SHOWTIME) | ADVOCATE.COMUnlike most reality shows (sorry, Nikki!), The Real L Word airs on a premium cable network, which means that nudity, language…anything goes. “Were the cameras [in my bedroom]? Yes, but I kept it pretty PG-13,” says Rose, a real estate adviser. Her story line on The Real L Word involves her struggle to commit to her girlfriend and her search for support from her traditional Puerto Rican family. “I didn’t get into the X-rated side of it. That I’ll leave to Whitney.”

Whitney is a special effects makeup artist for movies who knows her player reputation and feels no shame about showing off her body on camera. “It’s not weird because I’m comfortable with myself,” she says. “I don’t see it as a vulgarity.” (Rose jokes that she’s going to give Whitney the Golden Strap-On Award when they all get together to watch the show.)

Also on the show are Mikey, a motorcycle-riding fashion show producer who’s too focused on her career to plan her wedding (to someone not in the cast) and Tracy, a newly out TV and movie executive involved with Stamie, a woman who has two children and a very present ex.

“I hate to use the word ‘titillating,’ but it is from time to time,” Chaiken says. Her partner on the series, executive producer Jane Lipsitz, whose company Magical Elves created and produced such gay-friendly reality shows as Top Chef and Project Runway, agrees. “The Real L Word is going to be a sexy and salacious reality show series,” she says. “We shot everything from bubble baths to actual sexual activity.”

Not that every woman was willing to be completely “real” on TV. Nikki, for example, instituted a no-sex-on-camera rule for her and her partner. “I’m not here to open up my bedroom door to cameras,” she explains. Plus, she and the other women had higher-minded reasons for participating, she adds. “If we can help one person who’s struggling with being gay, it’s worth doing.”

Nikki decided to be on the show ­after participating in a 2006 episode of Oprah Winfrey’s talk show, where she told the world how she came out of the closet to her husband and ended their marriage. “Reviewing all of that on Oprah was very cathartic,” she says of the segment, which later won a GLAAD Award. “I have received so many letters from so many women saying ‘Thank you, thank you for helping me, thank you for showing the community in a positive light.’ Those letters really touched me.”While Nikki hopes to be a beacon of support, some of the other women on the show have found the experience personally gratifying. Rose says the camera became a conscience of sorts as the on-air confessionals forced her to examine herself. “You can’t bullshit the camera, you really can’t,” she says. “While doing these interviews you sort of hear yourself. It really made me want to change a lot of things about myself.”

She continues, “I thought, Wow, I really need to reflect on some things and be a 35-year-old woman and not a 25-year-old up in the club trying to get the girl. That’s not over for me, but I’m accepting that coming to a close soon.”

And that’s all before seeing any footage. Shooting wrapped in mid April in Palm Springs, where many of the women attended the Dinah Shore Weekend. Two nights later, they gathered at Nikki and Jill’s house for Chinese food, wine, and some serious downloading. Unlike the casts of several of the Real Housewives shows, these ladies barely knew each other when the show began, but now they have a real bond.

“As cheese-ball as it sounds, a lot of these girls became an inspiration,” Rose says. “I want to have a relationship like Nikki and Jill, and even Tracy and Stamie, y’know? Kind of hopefully one day be grounded enough to achieve that.”

Lipsitz recalls initially intending to cast the show with a group of women who knew each other. “But we found this amazing group of diverse women,” she says, “and we felt that it would be really interesting to tell their different stories and see when and if they intersected.” Plus, the reality-show vet says she found these women to be particularly compelling subjects. “They are dramatic by nature, which we love, and they’re very open sexually, which we also love.”

In other words, let the complaints begin!