What’s the most iconic way to bounce back from a heartbreak? A spin-off.
After two seasons of Flavor of Love, Tiffany ‘New York’ Pollard, turned her pain into reality pop stardom, emerging as the indisputable H.B.I.C. with her Flavor of Love offshoot, I Love New York. Although she failed to win over rapper Flavor Flav’s heart twice, in true Black woman fashion, she turned lemons into lemonade, and jump-started her independent reality career. The show followed Pollard on her quest for a mate through two seasons of contestants fighting for her heart. It premiered on VH1 in 2007, debuting the same year as E!’s Keeping Up With the Kardashians. The premiere episode of I Love New York was seen by 4.4 million viewers. (Kardashians had 1.3 million in its first month.) At the time, ILNY was the “most-watched show in all of cable television.” According to The New York Times, ILNY even surpassed that week’s opening episode of The Sopranos.
The magic of that show was Pollard: her charisma was undeniable. Her average background (she was from a town named Utica in upstate New York), brazen behavior and unfiltered honesty had viewers hooked. “For two years, a regular-shmegular black woman was adored for being shamelessly herself without caveats or compromises,” Shamira Ibrahim said in an article for The Cut.
Eventually, Pollard would cycle through 30 reality shows and appear in a Fenty Beauty tutorial. Today, she is still widely celebrated through memes and gifs which express a range of emotion when there are no words. And the way she says “Beyonceé” will stick with you just as much as the way Kim Kardashian says “Kanye.” As Doreen St. Felix put it, the reality star “has been infinitely preserved.”
Yet it stands to question why Tiffany Pollard, who came to public consciousness around the same time as Kardashian West has not equaled her success. How is it that their reality TV careers launched close in proximity, but that their career trajectories could end up them in such different directions? Why is it that Kim used reality TV to somehow transcend the small screen, while Tiffany's experience in reality TV grounded her in TV and gifs only?
“For two years, a regular-shmegular black woman was adored for being shamelessly herself without caveats or compromises,”
Pollard was well aware of how beneficial reality TV could be for her career.
“The reality TV game is big business” she told VLAD TV in 2016. “It can be very lucrative, I see a lot of people cashing in, which is great… The sky's the limit. People are doing so much just by being seen on reality television, and they’re morphing into moguls.”
But did something keep her from cashing in as big as Kardashian West?
According to Mariah Smith, writer and self-proclaimed expert on all things Kardashian, the answer is complicated.
“There are two factors,” Smith says. “Tiffany’s [show] was very niche, very dating show-esque… Because [the Kardashians] had a reality show not based on a game show tactic, no matter how contrived it was, it was just about this family...It was a very straightforward reality show that we didn’t see often."
Smith continues, “The other reason... there are five girls who are super famous, and there’s Kris [Jenner] who’s super famous. There are more of them than there are of New York. That type of exposure definitely plays a part in it.”
In its first month on air, Keeping Up With The Kardashians ratings were miles behind the premiere episode of I Love New York. As a spinoff, Pollard’s show enjoyed the benefit of having transferable viewership. However, Kardashian West (then just Kardashian) and her family’s show format had more flexibility. If KUWTK tanked in Season 1, it would've been a blip in the reality TV space. But the Kardashians had a lot more wiggle room for growth, while New York was stuck in a game show box, Smith explains.
"You know about me, you know about the show, and you know that any opportunity that we get as African Americans is a plus."
While MTV laid the framework of reality TV shows that focused on families such as The Osbournes and Run’s House (the network also helped establish reality as a pop cultural genre with juggernauts like The Real World and Road Rules), those shows gave a peek inside the home life of a famous talent who established a career outside of television. When KUWTK first aired, America didn’t know Kim the way they knew Ozzy Osbourne or Rev. Run. However, the family did have pre-established infamy: The family patriarch, now known as Caitlyn Jenner, was a globally-known Olympic gold medalist; the Kardashian girls’ late father was a friend and attorney for O.J. Simpson; and, of course, Kim herself broke through via a sex tape. The family also benefited from having a mastermind manager in Kris Jenner, who was willing to do whatever it took to make her daughters famous.
Pollard’s success also faced the cultural criticism of how Black women are portrayed on television in a similar way that other shows with primarily Black casts like The Real Housewives of Atlanta have. When Flavor of Love was at its height, viewers questioned whether or not New York’s character was helping push a stereotypical narrative. Reviews of I Love New York even painted the contestants as thugs and Pollard as a young woman looking for love in all the wrong places.
“Flamboyance rules with New York, and the truth is that men hardly register with her unless they talk crudely, laugh loudly, make bold gestures, and get drunk,” Virginia Heffernan wrote in a 2007 review of the show.
“Honestly, when I would read what some critics would say, that I was bringing the Black race down and being a disservice to my own race, I wanted to tell them, ‘Shut the fuck up, because you’re sitting there watching me,’” she said. "You know about me, you know about the show, and you know that any opportunity that we get as African Americans is a plus."
“The people who were leading the conversation at the time were largely Gen X’ers, and they’re more beholden to respectability politics than the generations that came after them,” Jamilah Lemieux, writer, speaker and cultural critic, tells Refinery29. “They operate from a place where you have to present yourself as ‘respectable’, and that any visibility means that you're representing your people, and the worst thing you can do is embarrass us in front of white people.”
Because Flavor of Love “was a competition, we weren’t really seeing the fullness of their lives in the way that we now experience most of these people,” Lemieux says. “They were left to these one-dimensional characters. We didn’t get to see their heartbreaks or a lot of their back story…”
The fact that many people still label reality television a guilty pleasure indicates the shame the show’s stars are supposed to feel for even being talent. And as a Black woman, Pollard certainly wasn’t immune to that judgement. But how are her actions on FOL different than a contestant trying to stand out on The Bachelor or Kim Kardashian West posting naked photos on the internet?
Even as Tiffany attempted to briefly move on from reality TV and live life after I Love New York 3 was shelved, her fans continued to beg her for more reality.
“It seemed like no matter what I did, whatever project I was working on, none of my fans gave a damn. They just wanted more reality. That’s what they knew and loved me for in the beginning, and that’s what they wanted,” she told VladTV. “So it felt like I had no choice in the matter, which I didn’t mind because reality television is one of the best genres of entertainment...I enjoy doing it, and as far as I hear I’m really good at it too.”
For Kim Kardashian West, reality TV was a tool that solidified her fame. In its later seasons, the show has become supplementary to the Kardashian-Jenner clan’s overall media presence. While ratings have fluctuated, the Kardashians remained on the air, using reality TV to their advantage. In contrast, when Black women use reality TV for their gain, they are accused of perpetuating stereotypes or disregarded all together. (Cardi B has been able to slightly break this mold with her segue from Love & Hip Hop: New York, to a Grammy award-winning rap album, but she too has been accused of perpetuating negative stereotypes.) The prevailing backlash against KUWTK hasn’t kept the show from getting renewed season after season, wedding after wedding, and appropriation after appropriation.
And while the Kardashians capitalized on selling their luxury lifestyle— Kylie Jenner’s Lip Kit business is primed to make her a billionaire any day now —Pollard made space for regular girls everywhere.
“She’s aspirational to lots of people,” Lemieux says. “Tiffany is an around-the-way girl, and Black women will look at her and say ‘I can do that. I can flip my circumstances into something positive, something lucrative.’ Kim is thought of as more than a reality star, but she’s had so much handed to her, you can’t really aspire to be Kim Kardashian. It’s impossible, yet so many people want to.”
As a Black woman in reality television, Tiffany Pollard deserves acknowledgment for her contribution to the genre beyond memes and gifs. That’s not to say she doesn’t appreciate the wave of attention she’s receiving from her meme fame.
“It floats me around to a new generation,” Pollard told BuzzFeed. “They keep me kinda popular.”
While she wasn’t afforded the opportunity of reality fame during the social media era, she should be regarded for her longevity and contributions to popular culture. After all, there are so many things you can just say with a New York meme.