From fairy tale to fairy godmother

Princess Anne Banton-LoftersWhen I first interviewed Princess Anne Banton-Lofters I felt her life read like a modern fairy tale. She had been a young single mother from Toronto who worked in a bank.  Then, she met a handsome man, fell in love, got married and moved to Atlanta. Shortly afterwards, she created and produced one of the hottest shows on Bravo TV, The Real Housewives of Atlanta. You can read all about it my original interview.

A year later, I met with Princess as she launched her new production company, Loft 22. A lot has changed in that time. Princess is the still the same outgoing, friendly women I first met. In case you are wondering about the lady behind The Real Housewives of Atlanta, she is attractive, well-spoken and not remotely wild or crazy acting. Princess Anne is her real name. She has a sense of humour and there is no doubt she loves her adopted southern home.
Beneath her mild-mannered exterior, this transplanted Canadian is ambitious. She is building her own film and TV empire here in the south. She has a spanking new production facility in hip midtown Atlanta. There is also an exciting new project called Boy’s ClubATL in development. It sounds like Real Housewives with a cast of high-status men.
So, Princess is also holding the first Southern Television and Film Summit (STAFS) this October in Atlanta. She is very excited about it.
Her enthusiasm for the region is hard to contain. She explained that, as we spoke, there were 265 productions shooting in Georgia. She rocked back and smiled as she delivers her coup de grace; there is a 35 percent tax break on all types of film and TV production in the state.
Princess wrangled some impressive talent for the STAFS. Her keynote speaker for the event is independent film and television producer Monty Ross. He is best known for his work with Spike Lee on films such as She’s Gotta Have It. He has 27 years of experience the industry.
Attendees will also hear from and have access to an impressive list of industry insiders. They are all listed on the website.  But most important to those who aspire to write, direct, or produce, is the opportunity to pitch. For a small additional fee, participates will get to pitch their projects one-on-one to an appropriate industry insider. I asked Princess point-blank whether these would be legitimate opportunities. She answered me with an emphatic ‘yes’. She told me that one of her main motivations in starting the STAFS, “is to give someone else the opportunity I had. Not everyone gets the opportunities I have had,” she said ruefully.
Princess has very clear ideas about how her weekend of television and film mentoring will run. The summit will take place in one big room – even food and drink will be available there. “I didn’t want anyone thinking they missed anything or that they were left out of anything”, she explained. “This way, if they miss something, it is because they chose to leave and miss it.” She also accepted only experts who agreed to interact with the attendees. She told me she did not want anyone to speak who wanted to just speak and leave. She still has high hopes of getting Bravo’s Andy Cohen to participate. But because of his heavy work schedule, she won’t know until closer to the date. Andy Cohen is Vice-President of Bravo, the cutting edge realty TV network, as well as a popular on-air personality.
As she spoke, I remembered our first interview. She described her initial life-changing meeting with a television executive; it was facilitated by mutual friends. She also described her access here in Atlanta to a much flossier lifestyle than she had in Canada. The women she met at parties here became the inspiration for The Real Housewives of Atlanta. This was followed by many months of travel between Los Angeles and Atlanta
Princess laughed when I said she had come a long way from working in a bank in Toronto. She candidly shared that she had also worked very hard as a single mother attain her position in that bank. I don’t doubt it. In of spite of her success, there is something real and refreshing about Princess in her aspirations for herself and others. It could also explain why she has kept the cost of the summit very affordable. A student pass for all three days is $150, and an advance registration pass for all three days is $249.
She also told me that her teenage son, Anthony, was working at Loft 22 for the summer. “He gets the perks, so he has to know it isn’t all for free”. She said with a laugh. The mother and son clearly adore each other. But I could tell she meant business. As we chatted, it became clear that Princess has no intention of bringing up a spoiled child.
I am interested to see how the next chapter of Princess Anne Banton-Lofter’s modern fairy tale plays out, as she transforms herself from the woman who got her fairytale dream-come-true, to a fairy godmother for television and film hopefuls.
The Southern Film and Television Summit in AtlantaOctober 15-17, 2010 information:

The real-life fairy tale behind the Real Housewives of Atlanta

Princess-Anne Banton-Lofters and her son AnthonyNot many people would call The Real Housewives of Atlanta a fairy tale, but the TV show has been for Princess- Anne Banton- Lofters.  Before Princess (her real name) married her orthodontist husband and moved to Atlanta to be just another housewife, she lived in Toronto and worked in a bank.

 Now she lives in “Black Hollywood” and is the producer of Bravo’s (Slice) hit series The Real Housewives of Atlanta.  So how did a nice Canadian housewife come south and become the power behind the wildest of all the Housewives shows?
She did it by going to parties in Atlanta, finding her fairy godfather, and then selling her tale to Hollywood.  To find out the whole story in one of Princess-Anne’s first interviews ever don’t miss a word of this exclusive DolceDolce interview.
DD: How did you, a Canadian woman, end up creating and producing The Real Housewives of Atlanta?
PABL: I am from Canada — very much so. I am actually from Hamilton, little bitty Hamilton.  I had worked in Toronto, too.  But, I had moved to Atlanta when I got married and was trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to work in TV. My husband kept saying find something you want to do.  He is an orthodontist and all his friends are doctors, ball players, and in the entertainment industry.
My husband kept bringing me to parties and I kept seeing these feisty women. I kept thinking they should be on TV. These women kept pulling me out of the crowd talking about their Louis Vuitton bags and such.  They did things we don’t do in Canada.  I kept watching them and thinking they should be on TV. 
As a black female I saw it as chance to represent this lifestyle; after all Atlanta is nicknamed black Hollywood. I would sit (at the parties) and write things down on napkins.
Then I finally had several ideas.  I got to meet the former president of BET(Black Entertainment Network) Curtis Gaston. He was going into retirement, but he agreed to take time from his busy schedule to meet with me.  From that meeting I got a show.
Then I started flying to LA.  I’d literally fly to LA just have coffee with someone. Then I met Brian Hale of True Entertainment and I got a development deal.
At this point, I had not seen the Housewives shows. I had only seen a few of the original OrangeCounty shows.  I just had an idea about doing a show about these feisty women in Atlanta.
More than one group wanted the show.  It was finally decided that it would be part of the Bravo franchise.
DD: Was it supposed to be a black cast originally?
PABL: Not to my mind. I was never narrowing to just an African-American cast.
I started with casting and I stated with NeNe Leakes. Casting is something that I do very well. I interviewed many, many women. And the women I chose all gave me that “wow thing’.
Kim came in with NeNe. She started out as a supporting character for NeNe. But she gave me a “wow thing”. She wowed the Bravo producers too.
But after I watched all the (Housewives) shows I noticed that there was not one black woman on any of them. And I get it that Atlanta could represent that. And it has been great that all types of women, black and white, have congratulated me on doing a show that represents African-American women. So I do feel good about that.
DD: Do you think the show or being on the show makes the women more competitive with each other?
PABL: No, I just think it’s their individual personalities when they are together in a group. They can get defensive.
Princess went to on to stress that all the wives are very family-oriented and “100 percent mommy first”.  I did observe at the premiere party that when a scuffle broke out among some of the party-goers, Kim dropped everything to check on her daughters.  Princess, herself, is the mother of a charming, well-mannered teen-aged boy.
DD: Why are reality show and shows like Housewives popular?  What resonates with women?
PABL: People like to live vicariously. If you are just a housewife, it’s exciting to see a catfight and watch women who drive fancy cars. They like to see a fantasy life and watch these women who are larger than life with all their drama. They may sit at home and say “Isn’t that awful that she did that!” — but they enjoy it.
At the end of the interview Princess mentioned that she had a new project. She added that she hopes to inspire and help others to realize their dreams. She never forgets the debt she owes to the Scott Dunlop, the creator of the original Housewives show The Real Housewives of Orange County. Even though she has never met him, she feels he indirectly helped her to realize her dream.

Why the “Real Housewives” are relevant

Tucked in the back talking to Sheree Whitfield (front-left) about her fashion line She by Sheree

Recently I attended the premiere party for The Real Housewives of Atlanta. It is perhaps the wildest version of the Bravo TV (Slice in Canada) Housewives’ franchise. Some may argue that the New Jersey Wives gave the Atlanta women a run for their money with the Last Supper episode last season, when one of the women flipped a table. I don’t know how you measure these things, but when it comes to outrageousness and brassiness, I think Atlanta is winning – if you call it winning.

 I have been a fan of the Housewives shows since they began with The Real Housewives of OrangeCounty in 2006. That appalls some people. I think it shocks those who see the shows as being about rich women and conspicuous consumption, but that’s not what fascinates me. Working as a fashion and beauty editor, luxury and all that goes with it is nothing new. Actually darlings, I am a fan of a little luxury myself.  What I find fascinating in these shows are the women and their relationships.
I’m a very private person. I have a hard time, even after all these years, adjusting to new people working in my home. I cannot imagine being on one of these shows. Yet, part of me admires women who can do it. Those who do it well can use the exposure to advance their careers.
I remember interviewing Bethenny Frankel of The Real Housewives of New York City about this subject. She was candid that it was her motivation for doing the show. Jill Zarin, her friend and another popular housewife on the show, also understood the value of the platform, as “she is a business woman too.” Bethenny currently has a line of drinks and a New York Times Best Seller, both under her Skinny Girl brand. In addition to promoting the high-end designer fabric and decorating business she owns with her husband, Jill Zarin now has her own website, various ventures, a book deal, and plans to do a talk show. It seems that all the New York housewives were quick off the mark with book deals and various deals after Bethenny. 
The same could be said for the Orange County Wives, but to a lesser extent. Most of them had full-time, profitable businesses before they were on the show. Recently, a few of the wives  have started doing endorsements. As for the Jersey Girls, the pretty blond, Dina, has set up a website to sell “her favorite things”. She sells mostly designer fashions, accessories, and some home goods. Part of the profits will go to benefit her charity. She already was a successful designer and events planner, so the venture makes sense. Theresa, the full-time mom and housewife of the group, was the first to set up a website selling fans her branded merchandise. Danielle, the bad girl of the show, has so many deals in the works, she actually gave out her agent’s name during an on-air interview.
On all of the shows, except for the Atlanta show, there are genuine friendships between the women, or at least some of them. There is also cattiness and competitiveness. I think it is only natural, to some degree. Many of the scenes, including some of the uglier ones, reminded me of working in publishing.
Recently, Hoda Kobt, who appears with Kathie Lee Gifford on the Today Show, spoke ruefully about “the sharp elbows some women in the news business get”. Kathie Lee talked about being smart and treating people well as you get to the top. I think she is smart and we know she is successful. I have seen both kinds of thinking on the Housewives shows and in my own life.
I think most of the women on these shows are smart and out to make a name for themselves. But then again, so are most women you meet in business today — at least the ones I meet. 
As for the Atlanta show, its creator is Princess-Ann Banton Lofters, a Canadian from Hamilton, Ontario. She designed it to be a showcase for Atlanta as the “Black Mecca and Hollywoodof the U.S., as much as a platform for the divas who fuel the weekly drama.
After a season of backbiting and fighting — and a second season that promises more of the same — the Atlanta housewives were all billing and cooing in each other’s arms at the premiere, with the possible exception of NeNe and Sheree.
(L-R) Sheree Whitfield, NeNe Leakes, Kim Zolciak, Lisa Wu-Hartwell, Kandi BurrussNeNe waltzed in late and seemed to distance herself from the other wives, except when it came time to take photos. She talked about “her camera-claws coming out during the tapings”. She has made it clear that she sees herself as the breakout star of the show. I asked her whether she plans to do a talk show. She said she would like to, but that there are no plans yet. Like all good housewives, she too is writing a book.
Kim, the wanna-be singer, told me her worst moment last season was in the recording studio with famous music producer Dallas Austin. She also stressed that many of her problems and regrets on the show stemmed from “miscommunication”. This is a fabulous understatement on a show where the women curse a blue streak and even get physical.  I couldn’t help liking her honesty.
Lisa Wu Hartwell is the only one of the original wives who actually lives up to the billing of an entrepreneur and career women in her own right. She is a stunning woman who is a successful real-estate broker, as well as a clothing and jewelry designer. She also has a newly-minted clothing line called Closet Freak. According to Lisa, "it has a lot classic pieces, but we wanted it to be a little flirty too."
Lisa chatted charmingly. She was the only wife who mentioned the recession. She told me she had scaled back her Wu Girl jewelry line.  “I really like diamonds, but many women can’t afford them now. So we have lots of fun and costume pieces for everyone to enjoy.”  When I asked her if she wore the line too, she said “of course”
Lisa in her Sergio Hudson dressLisa was worried that last season she was perceived a robot-like workaholic. She assured me she was going to show her more-vulnerable side this season. She stressed that family is the most important thing to her.
Lisa is also quick to share her spotlight. She brought her designer Sergio Hudson to the premiere, and was quick to introduce him to me as the man who made the gorgeous emerald green silk dress she wore that night. She showered him with praise and told me he made many of her gala dresses.
One can only wonder how Sheree will feel abut the competition to her new fashion line, She by Sheree. It finally launched this spring after a rocky start last season. I was surprised she did not wear She by Sheree to the premiere. Sheree was dressed in a lovely pale green Dolce&Gabbana dress. I would have thought it would have been the perfect opportunity to show off her new line. Her line has received mixed reviews from the fashion press. What I have seen is very flamboyant, not unlike the designers she admired. I asked Sheree what has been her most positive experience from the show. “I feel I have my independence now,” she told me, “and it’s good.”
Sheree in her Dolce&GabannaIt will be any interesting season. This group of women fight and scrap like no women I have ever known. I know it is show business, but it is also their lives. Will they know when enough is enough?  Have they noticed that wives who have been successful have built that success on genuine talent and hand work?  Bethenny Frankel, for example, has been working at her career for a long time. Jill Zarin does a tremendous amount of charity work and is a trained business woman, as are many of the other successful women from these shows.
Darlings, this may all seem irrelevant, but I am not so sure. We live in a culture where prospective employers look at your Facebook page. Many companies may want you to use Twitter to improve sales and rating.  I was rereading my copy of Julia Child’s’ My Life in France, and she talks about how much she underestimated the need for personal publicity to be successful as a writer. That was more than 50 years ago.
Darlings, the line between public and personal is becoming so blurred it makes my head spin. I will continue to enjoy my guilty pleasures — and wonder when enough is too much.