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Lizzo Explains How Making a ‘Positive’ Reality Competition Show Became ‘Provocative’

Lizzo tells IndieWire how her Emmy-nominated Prime Video series "Watch Out For The Big Grrls" avoids being "torture for entertainment's sake."

Lizzo

Lizzo at ‘Lizzo’s Watch Out For The Big Grrls’ Watch Party in Los Angeles.

JC Olivera/Getty Images for Amazon Studios

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It was about damn time that things shook up in the Outstanding Competition Program category at the Emmys, and this year Lizzo had the juice to make that happen.

Her Amazon Prime Video series “Lizzo’s Watch Out for the Big Grrls,” where she auditions and mentors dancers that have often been discriminated against at other jobs because of their body type, with the hopes they will join her on stage when she headlines the Bonaroo Music and Arts Festival, is the first show since “Dancing With The Stars” to being nominated in the category for its freshman season.

The artist, who just recently scored another No. 1 hit, told IndieWire that the show receiving that honor, and five more nominations to boot, left her “extremely moved, surprised, and excited. I love going to a carpet. I love award shows….I also was surprised to find out that this was the first freshman series nominated in a long time, like 16 years. I mean, that just speaks to how incredible this show is.”

Below, Lizzo reflects on what elements of making a reality competition show she embraced, which she avoided, and what it was like to get an early co-sign from fellow nominee RuPaul.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

IndieWire: What has your relationship to reality TV been over the years as a watcher, and a participant on other shows?

Lizzo: I’ve definitely been a watcher my whole life. You know, we all had “Real World/Road Rules Challenge” and saw what a phenomenon that was, and how it’s evolved. I was really inspired by shows like “Making The Band” and “America’s Next Top Model.” And also just being such a fan of “Drag Race,” how honestly the most incredibly talented people in the world are on that show, and how fun it is. Even when I was hosting on “Watch Out for the Big Grrrls,” I was like, “I’m Tyra RuPaul.” [laughs] It felt really cool and surreal to be in there doing the business and telling the girls about the challenges. I was really in the moment realizing I used to watch shows like this, and now here I am doing a show like this. I’m down to do it again.

Lizzo Tanisha Scott

Lizzo and choreographer Tanisha Scott on Amazon Prime Video’s ‘Watch Out for the Big Grrrls.’

James Clark/Amazon Prime Video

You mentioned “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” Did you learn anything from being on that set? And did you get any explicit advice from Ru about hosting?

Yeah, the utmost. I was sitting there, and it was the first time, because I’ve done “Drag Race” twice. First off, RuPaul having me on the show when I just had “Good As Hell,” even before “Truth Hurts,” was just incredible, because RuPaul is such a great crate digger, and is always on the cutting edge of who’s cool and what’s next.

I remember being on the show, and thinking, “Oh, this was just maybe a casting thing. I don’t know.” And RuPaul was like, “No, you’re one of my favorite new artists and I’m very excited about you.” And then on top of that, when we were doing the deliberations, and it came time to critique the queens, in between takes RuPaul turned and looked at me and was like, “You’re good at this. You’ve got it, kid. You need to do this.” And I remember Ross Matthews after RuPaul turned away was looking at me and was mouthing like, “What the fuck?! That never happens.” And I remember I was like, “Don’t cry, don’t fuck up your makeup,” but I could cry, to have that vote of confidence. So I believed I could do anything after that.

This is a very different show from “Drag Race” though. It’s a very different reality competition show in general. Did the show you ended up with resemble the show you had envisioned?

Amazing question. The answer is no. [laughs] Mind you, I had been looking for dancers. But my original idea was very punk rock. I was like, “I’m starting a dance agency because [big girls] are not getting representation. And even the girls who have agents, they’re not helping. I’m gonna start a dance agency, I’m gonna build it from the ground up, and we’re gonna do a docuseries. And then we’re also simultaneously going to be auditioning girls and having them do challenges.” It was gonna just be insanity.

But I always start big, because if you start big, it’s easy to scale back. And my team was like, “This is all great. Let us digest this, and make this something that is beneficial to you, because starting an agency right now, right before you have Bonnaroo and tours might be a lot of work.” So we scaled it down to what the show is now, which I think is incredible. But you know what it does? It gives me room to grow. Because I was like, “I want singers, models, dancers, everything.” And they were like, “Let’s focus on dancers because you need that.” “Cool, great, awesome.”

Lizzo's Watch Out for the Big Grrrls

The competitors perform on ‘Lizzo’s Watch Out for the Big Grrrls’ on Amazon Prime Video.

James Clark/Amazon Prime Video

When did you realize you made a show about professionalism? Was it important to portray a courteous way of auditioning people, and finding artists to work with without stirring up conflict?

I don’t think we needed to produce any drama, and I didn’t think it was necessary because I’m like, “This is gonna be dramatic enough. These girls are dancing their asses off every single week, and they’re performing at a high level. It’s high stakes.” I think the drama was that. I didn’t need the day-to-day, interpersonal snafus that normally drive reality shows. I wanted this show to be driven by the talent of the girls and their stories. I wanted to bring that same style of telling a real true story and bringing it to a reality show. Because I felt like they deserved their stories to be told. I felt it would be extremely relatable to so many people, because this is a story that’s seldom told or shown in this way. My favorite part about “Making The Band” and “America’s Next Top Model” was when they kind of pulled back the curtain and showed the inner workings of the industry. I always craved more of that. We’re definitely in a social media TMI age, where everyone wants to know everything. And I’m willing to show it, baby.

Another way of putting it is: Was it important to show people a positive, professional working environment? Even when those other shows pulled back the curtain, it was still heightened. Meanwhile watching this show, viewers better understand why you’re putting them through these challenges.

Not just torture for entertainment’s sake, yeah. Absolutely. I’ll keep it real with you: The industry can be a very toxic place. And it has a lot of old rules and cultures that don’t really breed a positive work environment. And I know this only because the people that I’ve worked with have stories, and I’ve heard them, and my heart breaks for them and their experiences. And I wanted my world to be a healing place, a safe space for people in this industry. This isn’t fake positivity.  You can be yourself, you have room to make mistakes, as long as you have room to grow. I wanted the girls to know that that’s what this was. I wasn’t tolerating anything less than a positive mind state, and a willingness to do better, do good, and to be kind to one another. I didn’t want to eliminate girls. I didn’t want to pit girls against each other, because the industry already fucking does that. So it’s really provocative to do the opposite.

Jasmine Lizzo’s Watch Out for the Big Grrrls

Ashley and Jasmine rehearse on the Amazon Prime Video series ‘Lizzo’s Watch Out for the Big Grrrls.’

James Clark/Amazon Prime Video

Yeah, this seemed more constructive. Other competition shows we talk about “She was robbed!” But here it’s like, “As much as I love this competitor I understand why they were excused.”

It was like, “How can you get better if you don’t know what you did wrong?” And understanding [someone] like Jasmine who went home—mind you she had a little bit of an antagonistic energy around her—but we didn’t just give her that one note, she wasn’t one dimensional. We showed her breaking down and being vulnerable. Most reality shows when someone’s eliminated, they’re like, “F*ck this bitch, I don’t give a f*ck about none of these people. And you know what, motherf*cker—” She got eliminated and was like, “I’m gonna go home, and I’m gonna go to therapy, I’ve learned a lot about myself, and I’m gonna work on it. And I will be ready when Lizzo calls me.” And guess what? I called her and she was ready. She killed it at the BET Awards [this year]. So these are real people. These aren’t characters. And I think that this show did a great job of showing that.

Have you found an angle on continuing the show, whether it’s keeping up with these girls that we’ve been introduced to, or finding new girls? Maybe an international edition when you go on a world tour?

Oh, look at you. Look at you. You tryna get a check? You want to be on the team? [laughs] I think that there’s so many possibilities. You just showed it right there with all those cool ideas. I think people are curious to know how the girls are doing, and if they really are curious, they can buy tickets to my tour that’s quickly selling out, because a lot of the girls from the show will be featured on the stage. Little subtle plug. But yeah, I want to continue the story. I just don’t know how yet.

Finally, we’ve seen a lot of artists doing more and more documentary projects, and in addition to this show you have a documentary about yourself coming to HBO Max. Why did you want to start doing documentary projects?

Because nobody knows where the fuck I’m from. And I’m sick and tired of having to explain it all the time. “I was born in Detroit, and I grew up in Houston, and I moved to Minneapolis, and I worked with Prince and I moved to LA and I won three Grammys.” It’s like I do this in every motherf*cking interview. And this documentary will be the last time I explain where I’m from. With this documentary, I just want to solidify myself in people’s hearts and minds, so you know who I am.

“Lizzo’s Watch Out for the Big Grrls” Season 1 is available on Amazon Prime Video. 

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