‘Sweet Life’ Showrunner Leola Westbrook On Breaking The Mold In Reality TV

If the phrases “legacy” or “You got me fucked up” have made it onto your social media timeline a bit more than usual, it’s most likely due to one of HBO’s newest reality shows, “Sweet Life: Los Angeles.”

The show, executive produced by Issa Rae, follows a group of seven friends living in South Los Angeles: Tylynn Burns, Jordan Bentley, Briana Jones, P’Jae Compton, Amanda Scott, Cheryl Des Vignes and Jerrold Smith II. The group lives the lives you’d expect from friends in their early to mid-20s: turnt up, messy, chaotic, dramatic and confusing, yet determined to make the most out of life and get it right. Add in a couple of birthday trips, some real conversations and relationship debates, and you’ve got yourself a show.

“Sweet Life” is a ride, an addictive one at that. That’s largely courtesy of showrunner and reality TV veteran Leola Westbrook. Westbrook is the producer of numerous reality TV series, including “College Hill” and “America’s Next Top Model,” and is the mastermind behind several iconic moments in TV, including the infamous trek for cheesecake across the Brooklyn Bridge on “Making the Band 2.”

The Chicago native said when she was first approached about the show, she jumped at the opportunity. “I had not been inspired as a producer like that in a very long time,” she told HuffPost. Westbrook said “Sweet Life,” which many on social media have likened to “Baldwin Hills,” shows a side of South L.A. that often goes ignored on TV. 

“I loved being able to open up a window into the community,” she said. “And I will not disparage any project that has told the story of the South L.A. community — it feels [overall] very myopic in the way that South L.A. has been told. And that’s why I feel like [“Sweet Life”] is so exciting.”

On Thursday, the series rounded out its first season with a reunion-esque “Group Chat” episode, but Westbrook made it clear that she has big plans for “Sweet Life. The showrunner spoke with HuffPost about tapping into her TV roots, the burden she carries working in reality while Black, and working with Rae to turn the show into an “immersive experience.”

HuffPost: Congrats on “Sweet Life.” You’ve had quite the career in reality television. I also have to say, “College Hill” was one of my top reality shows of all time. So when I saw your name attached to this, as the showrunner, it was really amazing to see. What was the journey as far as getting involved with “Sweet Life”?

Westbrook: When this project came to me, we were still in lockdown mode. This was September, and all the uncertainty, and pretty much our industry had shut down. So nobody was back yet. And I kind of had taken that time while we were all staying at home to have one of those moments in my life to grow my epithet, what I wanted to be, everything I’ve wanted to say as a producer in the genre. And I felt like I had not hit it yet. And trust and believe there are some projects there that I will hold near and dear to my heart forever. One of them being “Making the Band”; I was “cheesecake,” we did that walk to Brooklyn.

And I sat there and I felt like, “Have I said everything I needed to say, have I been able to produce in the way that I feel at this stage?” Everything has kind of been “been there, done that” and is a bit derivative. And then I thought maybe I’ll just go to graduate school. Maybe I’ll get the young producers coming up, and I’ll just maybe start that way. And then, sure enough, as I make the curve, the curve made me.

I remember they sent over the document, and I was like, is this for real? Because you got a group of friends that have known each other since the days of Underoos. You have that history of them going to sleepovers and roller skating, all that stuff. So they have to derive pivotal change points in our lives because you shed friends, 16, 20, 21, you go off to college, you shed friends, you gain new ones. These people have been in each other’s lives for that whole span of time. What a rare treat that is.

The ladies of "Sweet Life."

The ladies of “Sweet Life.”

And this is coming a lot from literally the woman who is attached to so many pivotal reality TV moments. What are some of the lessons that you learned in “Making the Band,” “College Hill” and other shows that transferred into the making of “Sweet Life”? 

Even just down to “America’s Next Top Model.” Those were my favorite shows to work on because they were, in essence, wish fulfillment shows, right? I want to be a model. I want to be a pop star. They don’t have a family friend that can hook them up and let them in. This was their entry into this universe. And so that was fun. And I love doing the show because the responsibility to own this one was twofold. I got to protect this person’s dream because it’s what their dream is but also opened them up enough so that we get to see who these people are and care about them enough that we would want to stay on their journey for them. And those are the tenets of storytelling that always stayed with me to this day. It doesn’t change. We took those same tenets and took it to this project as well.

We’re seeing this cast navigate friendships, navigate love, building their own legacies and even having those moments of vulnerability. Even seeing Jordan break down in Episode 3 and identify some of those emotional barriers. How were you able to create space for the cast to tap into some of those more taboo topics? 

A benefit of my longevity in working in this space is that I’m very sensitive to not repeating stories or really kind of finding a fresh take into telling different struggles because the struggle doesn’t change that much. It doesn’t vary that much from when you were 21 to 25. It’s “How am I telling this through a different lens?” I remember the first conversations I had when I came on with the men that I was, like, these two are really tapped into their mental health, and I felt like it was also kind of zeitgeist in the moment. Again we’re coming off of a summer of Black Lives Matter and Me Too. And also all the reckoning that came from COVID and how that was rocky, for a lot of people personally and as communities. And we were ripe for tapping into this about Black men, sharing how every day affects them mentally, just the everyday walking out your front door, just being able to literally walk from your car because you got cornrows or you’re wearing certain clothes or just the uncertainty of every day.

I think those men were able to share thoughts in a safe space. And to me as a producer, that was also the blessed thing that they felt safe to speak so openly and honestly with one another but then also on camera. And we took that and did not take that lightly. It was, “How do we provide the environment so that they are not burdened by us? That they could just be.” And they did their part.

A lot of people have this stereotype of Black women on reality TV shows, and they don’t really look at the multidimensional sides of Black women, of sisterhood, of how they love, of how they care for, of how they operate in friendships, and that’s unfair. What was your approach in intentionally showing the women of “Sweet Life” in their full spectrum?

I was on a diversity panel about six years ago where we were having this exact conversation about Black women and the lens through which they are told in this genre. And did I feel a burden of responsibility as a producer. I do carry that burden because I want to be truthful. Everybody deserves a story. I think that a lot of other programming out there gets so much heat about the way that Black women are portrayed. But everybody’s story deserves to be told. 

I think where the imbalance comes, and where people get upset, is that not all of it is shown. They’re characters that are loud and hyper-emotional and reactionary, which is great for televised moments, but you don’t know all of the beats and all the moments that have gotten that person to that moment while they’re excitable. How traumatized are they? And so that is the part of the story that we need to include or find ways to include to help understand why this person went from zero to 100.

Logistically, how was shooting “Sweet Life,” especially in the age of COVID?

We took great care. I am a producer who definitely puts the physical and emotional well-being of my cast and crew foremost. I was very lucky to be partnered up with HBO, who had very like-minded mandates. So, literally, as much time as I spent on planning out what we were going to shoot, we had equal amounts of time going over safety and COVID precautions. And we had a whole COVID team on there. 

There is nothing in life worth putting anyone’s health or safety at risk ever, and the fact that we were blessed to be in alignment all the way across the board made it so that we literally had very little incidents, and everyone was safe and sound, praise be on that one. And I’m so happy that, again, I had such great partners that helped us navigate through everything that it felt almost normal, like a normal production, because everybody was in alignment on the goal, which was keep everybody safe.

The men of "Sweet Life."

The men of “Sweet Life.”

What was it like having Issa Rae involved in this show as executive producer?

You know how you always say never meet your heroes in person cause they always let you down? I remember meeting her for the first time and I was so nervous, and then within 30 seconds I was, like, I’m just talking to my mom. She’s like, this is one of my girls. And she is so insightful and trusting but also has a great story sense and guidance and application to everything we did. And she was so present and read everything and is up early because she’s got a lot going on. But you don’t even feel the burden. She’s just making it happen.

I feel like she’s really setting a new standard for all of us. It’s like you’re trying to level up. That’s what you got to level up to. If you were trying to be a producer, a mogul, shut up about it, make it happen, because that’s what she’s doing.

I know that’s right! So I know you said she read everything. So how does she guide on the show? Is it hands-on? 

Absolutely. You know the goal for “Sweet Life” was really to also kind of have, she called them 360 immersive experiences. So it wasn’t just great story, but it was also great visuals, great music. So the sound, sight and just kind of an emotional pull. So that for me, that story, that’s the music and that’s the way that the show is shot and kind of put together, and she hands-on throughout the entire process. 

One of the things that I’ve been seeing a lot on social is that everyone is loving the music and can feel her hands in the music process. Issa is all over that. Half the times, I ain’t even think about that track. She is so good. And it’s so encouraging because when she was like, this is my favorite show, she was like, this is my favorite show. OK. Issa Rae is fucking with us.

Nipsey Hussle was right at the top of the series. To me, I also feel that was the chef’s kiss to South L.A.: We hear you, we see you, we’re not starting this without a nod to you first. Then you see those opening moments, those opening moments before you ever see the cast, you see the community.

L.A. is a character in itself in the show.

I’ve said It from the very beginning: We have eight cast members. South L.A. is the eighth.

Were there any standout moments that you feel really encapsulate what “Sweet Life” is and what that mission is that you were talking about?

One of the things that was particularly special to me that I see time and time again being mentioned on social: the inclusion of the parents. That we’ve seen so many between the moms and the dads, and that was intentional to include them because, God, these people are so extraordinary. So it was a no-brainer for us to dive into that. And you see the dynamics. 

Like Jordan’s mother is so wise, but that is literally just a woman who has lived life and has unpacked it. That scene at the kitchen table where she starts to cook, because that’s a tough lady and she cried, she started to tear up because she was like, my job is done. I’ve raised two strong Black men that are healthy and doing the right thing in the world. Daryl and his dad, his daddy is old-school, but by far Ms. Juanita, P’Jae’s mom, I’ll whip your butt. Who does not know that mother? She was not playing around.

Listen, I straightened up when she said that.

She was not playing around. Yeah. I love that relationship that  P’Jae has with her because I think one of the things that we look at is a good man, to watch the man, how he treats his mother, and the way that you were dealing with your mom said so much more about your character than anything that will ever come out of your mouth.

That’s real. That’s a word right there. 

He’s taking some heat about his dating relationship.

I’m not going to lie. I was quietly dragging him. I’m, like, what is he doing?

He is 25.

I had to recognize that because, especially when you watch reality TV, that’s one of the main draws. You attach yourself to different characters. You try to figure out, do I like this person. Why don’t I like them? I knew I had a feeling, you know? And I keep reminding myself, this is so dumb. Why are they making these decisions? But then, oh, I was making these same decisions when I was 24, 25.

That’s exactly what I said. I said, don’t think I didn’t get pulled out of a bush at 20 [laughs]. I dare anybody that throws a stone at you that does not have a similar or worse story, I dare to challenge anything.

How, if at all, are you privy to how the show has impacted the cast’s friendships? What are those conversations like, if you’ve had any?

The one interesting thing about reality TV and shooting, and shooting dark series like this, is that’s what it does, because have you ever heard about the reality TV curse on marriages? It speeds up conversation. Conversations that might’ve taken five to 10 years to come up are brought up sooner and worked out, and then you come to the conclusion that you would have come to down the road anyway. So it’s not the show comes in and breaks up relationships. It just speeds up conversations that would have inevitably happened. And so there are conversations that will need to be had that will impact the group. 

So what’s the future of “Sweet Life”? I’m curious if there has been any conversation to move it to different cities?

That would be the dream, right? Because there is a “Sweet Life: LA” in every community. There is a South L.A. in every community that you don’t feel like you’ve gotten the full story. But, like I said, I grew up in Chicago, and that’s why I love seeing Amanda’s boyfriend Rob [in the show]. Because where Rob grew up is two blocks away from where I grew up. So he felt so familiar to me, but he’s such a different dude, but recognizable to the Midwest. I feel like we’re like a mini New York, but I feel like the reception that we’ve received so far in “Sweet Life: L.A.,” that, to me, would be the only place to go is to re-up. Come back with bigger, better and stronger, and reach out to other cities. So many stories to tell.

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