Love & Hip-Hop, the VH1 reality television franchise empire built by Mona Scott-Young, has a formula that works. The show brings together hip-hop artists (both former and aspiring) and a gaggle of of players on the industry’s periphery (like hairstylists, managers, models, and event planners) for an ongoing saga about their romantic and professional drama. If you’ve been even a lackadaisical fan (like me) in the seven years since it premiered, there are certain things you know to expect: a drink thrown in the thick of an argument, promises of a hit single that will likely never come, and lots of small waists making way for big butts among them. Like all of the greatest problematic television shows, Love & Hip Hop is nothing if not predictable in its approach to storylines and bodies. But this season the show threw viewers a curveball when they cast Tokyo Vanity, the first plus-size castmember with her own storyline.
The uniqueness of Vanity’s position on a reality show that normally only validates one kind of beauty is not lost on her. “The world just needed to see something different on TV, and I definitely feel like I brought that,” she told me when we spoke earlier this month. “We haven't really had a poppin’ plus-sized girl on TV really since Tanisha Thomas [of Bad Girls Club fame]. And even with her, everything was about her being big, or her being violent. Or they always tried to project her like she was the big bully, and she was jealous of the girls because they were skinny. That shit was wack.”
Vanity is a rapper, hailing from New Orleans and responsible for the 2015 viral hit, “That’s My Best Friend.” (A hip-hop theme that was conveniently borrowed by the likes of Young Thug and 2 Chainz, just saying.) She prides herself on writing her own material and hopes that her part on the show will help her gain respect as a “real rapper.” Vanity got her start as one of Instagram’s funny women two years prior to her viral hit, racking up thousands of followers in the process. In fact, she credits the internet for preparing her for a platform on a national cable network show. “It's easier for me to deal with trolls and public opinions because I'm from the internet. The internet is more viscous than anything that people will ever come into contact with,” she explained. I know she’s right because with only a fraction of the followers Vanity has, I, too, have come up against way too many adversaries online. Anything a random viewer of Love & Hip-Hop would have to say about Vanity would be nothing that she hasn’t already heard before.
Luckily, one of the best things about Vanity’s addition to LHHATL is that her weight is not at the center of her storyline at all. Across mediums, an underlying issue with representation of the 67% of women who wear above a size 14 is that they are denied the same range of experiences given to thinner women. Plus-sized women in television and film are never allowed to spend too much energy on anything besides the fact that they are fat. This has been one of biggest critiques of the character Kate (Chrissy Metz) on This Is Us. Black male comedians have spent decades pretending to be fat Black women for shits and giggles. And in the LHH world, fitting into a rigid standard of attractiveness is seen as an important tool in building a career in the music industry. But so far, Vanity has been immune to this differential treatment.
This season, the woman known for her thick accent and colorful hair is bringing nothing but her dreams of making it big in hip-hop, and confrontations dealing with the fallout of her boyfriend Tobias cheating on her. With this in mind, it’s safe to say that Vanity is fitting right in with her peers. Rather than her membership in the big girls club, the thing that has set Vanity apart is the fact that she is a self-identified virgin. But Vanity is unapologetic about herself and her body, including whether or not she has shared it with someone else sexually. It’s a refreshing and unexpected change in a world of “reality” where the script seems so pre-written.
When I asked Vanity why she decided to join LHHATL, she said that in a world where women are struggling to love themselves, her presence means something. “I'm cool with myself. I'm fine with the skin I'm in and the world needs to see that. The world doesn’t get to see people on TV who they can identify with, people who look like them. They don't get to see people who look like they mamas.” She’s right. Vanity looks more like me than anyone I’ve ever seen on VH1.