MSNBC has 147K followers on Instagram. CNN has 3 million. Fox New has 1.3 million. TMZ has 1.4 million. E! News has 7.9 million. The Shade Room, however, has surpassed all of these entities with a whopping 8.8 million followers.
The Shade Room is an Instagram-based media company founded by Angelica Nwandu that offers news around the clock. With Black audiences in mind, TSR specialises in entertainment news — spilling tea about who’s dating who, celebrity beefs, and new deals in the works for all members of Black Hollywood, from A-listers to Instagram models. The New York Times called them the TMZ of Instagram. However, their pop culture coverage is broken up by news and political updates, in addition to some usually hilarious online content like memes and videos. TSR is essentially a one-stop shop for culture at a time when media outlets still don’t “get” Black consumers.
As far as I’m concerned, Nwandu is my generation's Oprah. She’s revolutionised a media platform, in the same way that Oprah did with daytime television back when it was our main source of information on culture. I had the honour of speaking with Nwandu and TSR’s Senior Editor, Debra Oh — who doubles as the company’s VP of operations and secured her job by, you guessed it, persistently direct messaging (DM'ing) Nwandu on IG. They gave me the real tea on exactly the role TSR plays in Black entertainment, media, and culture.
Nwandu laughed when I asked her if celebrities really hate sites like TSR or if they’re flexing for the ‘gram. “The celebrities are always flexing for the ‘gram,” she declared between chuckles. “They don’t want to look like they like the attention. But obviously a lot of the time they love the attention. It’s publicity for them.” When celebrities market themselves and their work almost exclusively online, they need sites like TSR to generate buzz.
Like any other celebrity gossip conglomerate, TSR has connections with celebrities who will sometimes reach out to them directly to set the record straight. It's not uncommon for celebrities to verbally spar with TSR commenters — another way that TSR has one-upped much of its competition — or reach out to TSR directly with an exclusive scoop. Nwandu told me that some of the perceived hostility toward their site comes from celebrities who feel that such a courtesy should only result in positive news coverage for them on the platform. But Nwandu made TSR’s intentions clear, “We just want to get to the truth. If the truth just so happens to be against you, that’s just what it is.” She added that TSR tries to provide balanced coverage, which helps keep things amicable. “We might drag you this week. But we’ll still love you next week.”
Other fun facts about the stories that do and don’t make it on the site? TSR will typically pass on a story about a cheating celebrity spouse the first time a lead surfaces. They only run the story once they have definitive proof and multiple tips. Nwandu says this “recklessness” on the part of the cheater leaves her hands tied, because it’s “bound to come out” eventually. Most leaks about infidelity usually come directly from the scorned lovers themselves. Speaking of lovers, Nwandu has seen her fair share of rappers and artists trying to cozy up to her in an attempt to woo her into some free TSR promo — proof that the word “groupie” is actually gender neutral.
There are certainly some hard ethical lines at play in TSR, as well. Nwandu told BuzzFeed that she has learned from previous mistakes not to out someone’s sexuality, make fun of people’s appearance, or target their families. But if celebrities “do that to each other” she told me — think Blac Chyna’s recent accusations against Tyga — “it’s news” and thus fair game for TSR, even if it is a grey area.
When comments made by rapper The Game included a homophobic slur and were posted on TSR, one of Nwandu’s gay friends called her out on it. She understood his concerns, but ultimately stood by the post. “Again, our intentions are to get to the truth. So if homophobia is huge in hip-hop and a rapper feels comfortable enough to say the f-word, then we’re going to post it.” And she was pleased to see that it was hip-hop’s lingering homophobia, not the rapper himself, at the centre of conversations in the comments section that day.
One thing that Nwandu and Oh make very clear about TSR is that it’s simply a link connecting Black entertainers to fans and audiences. “It’s the people’s blog. It’s run by the community and we’re just the moderators,” Nwandu clarified. Everyday, TSR receives thousands of DM’s across social media, hundreds of emails, and about as many tips through their website from readers, whom they’ve ingeniously labeled “Roommates.” With the exception of exclusives, it is these hyperactive Roommates who dictate what the rest of TSR’s 8.8 million followers see. “We have to get a certain amount of DM's or e-mails from our Roommates about a certain topic to post it,” Nwandu explained. “We’ve found that they know better than we do what they want to see.”
With millions of followers with just as many opinions, there are bound to be trolls. Nwandu explained, “No one likes abusive comments because it leaves a bad taste and makes you not even want to participate in the conversation.” I certainly can’t argue with that. She says they have certain words filtered on their website. But when it comes to Instagram, it’s a different beast. “Sometimes we get 20K comments so it’s impossible to moderate all of them. We try to block and clear out racist and homophobic comments as best we can, though.”
The “we” Nwandu is referring to is a staff that works around the clock to break news 24 hours a day. Oh, who was the first person to join TSR, manages the entire writing and social media staff. She herself spends at least eight hours a day working TSR’s social media in addition to collaborating on advertising, merchandising, event coverage, business meetings, and more. Nwandu admits that it took a lot of trust to bring on people like Oh and her brand manager, Brian, who “flipped the platform on its head” by bringing in better advertising deals. After all, it was her baby. So who else does Nwandu trust? An anonymous group of entertainment industry insiders who can make sure she has the guest list at one of Jay Z’s private brunches without even getting out of bed.
Trust is actually one of the foundational concepts that makes TSR so popular. Despite what celebrities would like us to think, technological advances like screenshots and widespread access to cameras make it pretty easy to confirm the validity of TSR stories. We trust them to break accurate the news about things we actually care about. Nwandu is very aware of this. But more importantly, she knows that her real leverage lies in who we don’t trust. “I don’t feel like Black people trust mainstream media anymore. From how they cover us to Donald Trump yelling about fake news,” Nwandu said. “So what’s happening is they’re coming to independent Black media companies to get the tea.”
So what’s next for a platform that has nicknamed Trump “Donnie” in order to criticise his foreign policies, while keeping us up to date on Cardi B. and Offset’s blossoming relationship? Debra Oh made her intentions very clear: “I want to see TSR become the best thing since sliced bread!” Meanwhile, Nwandu has her sights set oversees. “Our second biggest city is Lagos in Nigeria. And then the UK, and a couple of cities in Canada are all big traffic places for us,” she told me. “We're starting to see that there is this connection between Black people worldwide. They’re linking up at TSR. If we can harness that power, we could do something great.” But until then, she agrees that the paparazzi should be just as active in Atlanta as they are in L.A. and NYC.
The real magic of The Shade Room is that they honour the role Black people play in both creating and consuming pop culture. Nwandu doesn’t feed into the narrative that engaging celebrity culture online is toxic, because “the things that go viral during events like Grammys — the memes, videos, and clap backs are all Black content. It's an expression of our creativity.” At a time when Black people’s original content is appropriated and/or devalued before we even get a chance to enjoy it, TSR is reintroducing the concept of FUBU (for us by us), while recognising that we’re not a one-dimensional group. So no, the Black media revolution will not be televised, it’ll be Instagrammed.