When I picked up this book, my first thought was, "Is this white woman going to understand what it's like to be a person of color in this country?"
All of my favorite comedy series have also made me cry at some point. Such was the case at two distinct points with the YouTube series Got 2 B Real, which premiered back in 2011 and just took its final bow with a triple-length episode.
I was not hip to the comedic magic of G2BR from day one, but rather a friend asked if I had seen it at some point about two years ago, and I admit I was dubious when he gushed, ”It will change your life!” I’m prone to ignore such hyperbole, especially as it relates to entertainment and comedy, worlds that mean so much to me and in which I’m fortunate to work professionally.
That might sound snobby, but really it’s the recognition that art is subjective and comedy is difficult and I often wish people could express their appreciation for these things by describing the ways in which they are moved by them without assuming or expecting that others must be too. My friend wasn’t even able to describe it succinctly, rather stringing together sentence fragments between guffaws at remembering his favorite scenes but not wanting to “spoil” them for me.
I stood stone-faced as he described a “fake reality show” with “R&B divas fighting” but it’s “sooooooooo funny”…I thought to myself, does the world really need another fake reality show or mockumentary? Still, this was a good friend and I’m not so jaded as to not give it a chance, so I checked out the first episode as soon as I got home.
And Got 2 Be Real changed my life.
The series is billed as a “Diva Variety Show,” and it consists of existing, real life footage of R&B and pop superstars, including Mariah Carey, Dionne Warwick, Beyoncé, Christina Aguilera, Toni Braxton, Rihanna, Chaka Khan, Diana Ross, Mary J. Blige, Fantasia Barrino, and others. The main stars, however, are Patti LaBelle and Aretha Franklin, whose fictional (?) feud provides the framework for the series.
Video clips are edited together to create conversations, and the dialogue is mostly fiction, recorded and dubbed onto the footage almost entirely by one woman, who uploads her videos under the pseudonym “Patti LaHelle.”
The first episode opens with Patti LaBelle, Diva Queen of the Kingdom, hosting her fellow divas at a dinner party. Aretha Franklin is present but not welcome, and when Patti tells her at the very beginning, “Aretha, just because I have on a watch, don’t assume I have time for your bullshit,” I howl. Aretha calmly replies, “You know we got beef, so let’s eat!” And it is on.
G2BR has provided me with so many laughs and potent quotables that I slid smooth into “Patti LaHelle’s” Twitter DMs to gush. She responded with a humility that I didn’t expect from someone that Entertainment Weekly, Buzzfeed, and Vibe Magazine were loudly praising, and we became Twitter buddies.
And then one day, she was gone. The fiercely anonymous “Patti LaHelle” had been politely and graciously expressing the frustration of having creative endeavors met with internet notoriety in ways that she neither anticipated nor desire, and it seemed as though that frustration had triumphed. From our very first exchanges, that is what I connected with her the most about.
I have a YouTube channel as well, and I began making videos a few years ago as a creative outlet, as well as a way to generate content that I could send to casting directors more easily than scheduling appointments.
What I wasn’t prepared for were the demands of my time and content from strangers for this thing I was doing for free, and it’s especially difficult to deal with when it’s coming from people with “good intentions.” Too many “fans” will say they “love” you and then angrily demand a new video or attempt to dictate your content. I’m fortunate to work in entertainment and aim to continue doing so, but the “fame” element is a construct that has never appealed to me, and here was a kindred spirit in that dichotomous struggle, possibly being overcome by it.
I reached out further, and I’m thrilled to say that I’m now getting to know Andrea Lee, the woman behind “Patti LaHelle,” who talked to me about her process and gave me permission to share it with you.
“G2BR was inspired by a combination of things,” says the 20-something Virginia native. “Besides me being a fan of the women portrayed, the idea came about around the time the ‘Lil Kim vs. Nicki Minaj’ wave of celebrity beef struck. It was interesting to see how fans could discredit the work of such an undeniable presence in music and, often times, create tension and drama where there truly is none. Or, in some cases, where there is not yet.”
Andrea also says she was “used to seeing that kind of exchange going on in the comment section of [YouTube] videos, and that “you sort of expect that kind of behavior from the younger generation when it comes to ‘stanning’ for their favorite artist, but I found that even fans of the old school dames could dish it in the name of their diva.”
The often anachronistic footage voiced with reads and shady comments of the highest contemporary ether is certainly part of G2BR’s magic, and Andrea’s video clip selection makes one marvel at how long it must take and where she finds these clips that seem to match her dialogue… or is it the other way around?
Andrea tells me, “The process is a madness for which I have a method, I guess. I do edit it all myself and, usually, I look for clips first. While I watch them I'm looking for two specific things, without paying attention to what is being said at present: expressions and gestures. So if they're giving me emotions and movement that I can spin my way to tell the story, then my job is made easier. The hardest part is the putting down that first clip, though. But once I can successfully open up the video by setting the tone and opening the floor for the ‘divas’ to speak, then the rest falls into place.”
Andrea is clearly a natural queen of the read, because she says that most of the dialogue she does herself is improvised. (She voices most of the characters with hilarious impressions, some utilizing technology to alter pitch.)
“There's no formal script,” Andrea says. “There might be a one-liner that pops into my head as I'm going about my day, and I may jot it down for later use, but most of the dialogue comes from running a clip over and over to dub it with no direction whatsoever. By choosing to work for the clip, and not make the clip work for me, I feel like that's what makes it feel more realistic. Sometimes I will change a line I've already thought out because it's just not in that sweet spot that comes from the voice, the expressions, and the gestures feeling in sync to me.”
A trained and skilled singer, Andrea says she had been playing around with music and video a lot before G2BR: “Piecing things together, making some sort of production, has always been something I've done to entertain myself.”
Speaking on fame, Andrea eloquently says: “I think when you work hard to give your best and be your best, then people taking notice is inevitable. What you do with that attention, however, and how much or how little you care about it defines what fame shall be for you. Personally, I can do without it. People who've followed G2BR from the beginning know I was anonymous for the entire time that I was doing the show, and that was because I just wanted what I was doing to be about the finished product and not me. I didn't feel like people had to know my name, my gender, my age, or anything like that. It was equally as enjoyable and felt equally as personal for the conversation to be about the creation and not me.”
“I never expected G2BR to get as big as did, or as big as it is. We're in this microwave era of celebrity where everyone wants to be famous for something and believes that they can be and should be, and so the rest of the world assumes that that's what you must be looking for if more than three people are paying attention to you. So I believe they had this idea that I kept going with G2BR from the first episode because after the major response I felt like, ‘Hey, I'm onto something here. Let's see how BIG I can make this!’ That wasn't it at all. Granted, it was everything to see that there were people out there who thought my humor and my way of making myself giggle was right up their alley, but I had no plan for it. And maybe it's my fault for being a perfectionist, and for making even the smallest of things I do seem like big things, but I kept with it because I was addicted to having people to laugh with. And I ended it because the voices of all those people, even though they were cheering me on, began to drown out my own.”
One of few people I’m aware of to delete a twitter account with a healthy five figures’ worth of followers, Andrea tells me that was partly a mistake, the result of a third-party app error deleting everything when she was trying to delete old tweets and start over while keeping her name. She says, “I was at a very tense, confusing, and frustrated point in my life and just opted to go away altogether.”
I’m so happy she’s back, and being creative on her own terms. Even though she prefers to “fly under the radar,” she was enthusiastic when I asked if I could tell more people about how humble and wonderful she actually is, and how not everyone is out here to get as many views and as much money as possible, but rather to make something good and share it with the world.
After years of prodding, she’s finally set up a donation link, (in the banner of her YouTube channel) and she recently moved to the big city because, she says, “I avoided risk all my life and complained about not being rewarded for a chance I didn't take.”
And about those tears I mentioned; at the very end of the first episode, Patti gets a Skype call from Whitney Houston, who appears throughout the early episodes in minimal screen time with maximum impact. When Whitney Houston died and G2BR went on, Andrea did what any brilliant writer does: she acknowledged the historic loss and kept her story going, maintaining the sidesplitting tone that she had established while gracefully paying tribute.
Since I’ve now been indoctrinated into the cult of G2BR, I won’t spoil it for you like my friend didn’t for me, but I will say that the first episode following Whitney’s passing made me tear up, and the series finale had the tears actually flowing. Tears of sadness made a brief appearance before the laughs came at a series finale done in a documentary format so sincere and well-done that its solemnity only highlights the outlandish wit of the dialogue.
For all of the insults and catfights it contains, G2BR is a loving tribute to the true divas who have made music that will endure the ages. Blu Cantrell makes an appearance as well. Andrea’s heart, her love of the music and joy in the process of making the videos (however maddening editing can be), is what makes G2BR great. Anyone can just sling insults and many people can string a few video clips together these days, but there is an overall artistry and vision present in Andrea, as well as the fact that I regularly quote her in telling someone, “It is half past give a damn so I’m off the clock for caring,” that makes me so excited for what I hope is a long and fruitful career.