Charm to Share: Behind the Scenes of the Charm School Reunion

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I spent an entire day with the girls of Charm School. No one spit at me. No one cursed me out. And even though I was in and out of dressing rooms, I didn’t even catch a nip slip. These girls have really come so far!

Put on your big girl boots and follow my journey, after the jump…

"The girls’ arrivals are staggered," a manger from the Charm School production company 51 Minds told me. "That way, they don’t all arrive at once. That way, we can handle them." Makes sense – you can take the girl out of Flavor of Love, you can attempt to teach her charm, but good luck ironing out the resentment or, more literally, ironing out her bound-to-be popping and swaying neck. Even Saaphyri, the girl who’s supposedly the most refined, had plenty of smack to talk about her fellow students after the show wrapped (watch the video of a beef-heavy promo shoot here if you missed it when it was posted last week). These girls bicker and resent like doctors operate and cure. You could even say that they are charming not despite these qualities, but because of them. At least, I think so.

It was, then, to my delight that Brooke had an earful about her time on Charm School that she unleashed practically before I’d let go of her hand that I shook in greeting her. I met her in her dressing room – before filming, I like to hit as many dressing rooms as possible because once the girls are called to the set, they’re pretty much fastened there and can’t do much talking. "I could really give a s*** if I’m here or not," she told me, revealing months of resentment for Mo’Nique and for being dubbed the "whore of Charm School." "The only reason I came here was to say what I had to say. If [Mo'Nique] wants to play like she never said the word ‘f***,’ that’s her business. Maybe she didn’t like me because I’m skinny?" While Brooke is indeed skinny (and looked better at the reunion than I’ve ever seen her look), I pointed out that plenty of the girls are skinny, as well. "I really think she hates me. She never said one good thing about me ever," Brooke continued. "It’s not like I took [my prom 'date'] home and sucked him off and f***ed him. I’m a party girl." I’ll say! Brooke added that the bright side to being dubbed the "whore of Charm School," is that her club-hosting gigs are numerous. "They want flirts for their clubs!" Of course they do. I want a flirt on my couch. She also called out "stupid-ass gay Keith," but ultimately said that she wasn’t portrayed wrong. I reasoned that she can’t take the "whore" label too seriously: if you aren’t charging, you aren’t a whore, no matter what you’re doing. "Exactly!" During this time, Brooke’s dressing room-mate Courtney was trying on different outfits with the help of her own stylist (fancy!). She did, however, take out some time to pose with Brooke for a few shots.

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The next room over contained Schatar and Becky. I’m not one to typically become starstruck or fawn over anyone on TV, but I could not wait to meet Schatar. I think Becky put it best in the promo-shoot video linked to above: "I wanna see if she exists in real life." Upon approaching the dressing-room door, I prayed: "Please let her have brought Cash. Please let her have brought Cash." Cash is Schatar’s dog, a papered Pekinese, whom, as she told me in my interview with her, is part Persian cat. I always wanted to meet a cat dog. We opened the door and, behold: Cash was waddling around on the floor. I said hi to everyone quickly and then went straight for the dog. "He’ll probably smell your cat. Well, he usually smells other dogs," Schatar told me. O…K? Cash seemed a little skittish so I refrained from doing what I wanted to do (scooping him up and blowing raspberries on his belly while telling him how special he was). Instead I just took a picture.

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I talked briefly to Schatar and Becky as they were preparing themselves, and then all of a sudden, inches away from my eyes a woman wearing a shiny kimono standing is directly in front of me, facing the opposite direction and pulling up her hair to reveal a vertical scar running down the length of her neck. I had no idea what the hell was going on, who this person was or how to react. Do I say, "Pretty!"? Or maybe, "Hello person I haven’t been introduced to yet. That unique mark suggests you’re an alien, which brings the number of mythical creatures up to three, counting cat-dog Cash and the unique personality that is Schatar."? After a few mind-boggling seconds, all was explained: this was Schatar’s mom, and she was showing me the scar to prove that Schatar’s sob story as related to Andrew Firestone about her mom being confined to a wheelchair was actually true.

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"I’ve been rear-ended 5 times," the self-described "walking miracle" Cynthia White, M.D. told me. She’d been in a wheelchair for three and a half years, but now she can walk again. "I fight every step of the way to stay upright, to keep my head up," she said. The same could be said for a lot of the girls in the building, and only slightly less literally. Fascinating as Cynthia White, M.D., was, I did have girls to tend to, so I got pictures with Becky (who’s a huge supporter of the blog – she gives me feedback and is virtually in constant communication. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to really chat with her, but it’s cool because she’s always seriously a text message away) and Schatar, whom I have to emphasize, it was a pleasure to meet. If I look particularly shiny in the picture with Schatar, it’s obviously because of the starpower that was just radiating from her.

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(You’ve figured out by now that you can click on most of these pictures for larger versions of them, right?)

Before the next room, I ran into Darra, rocking a shorter, flattering do:

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Then, I checked in with Shay, who had a room all to herself.

She told me that she just filmed a spot in Deelishis’ forthcoming "Rumpshaker" video. "Is Wendy Williams gonna be here?" she asked me. I had no idea, but I doubted it. Shay looked disappointed and explained that she’s been on Wendy’s show a few times. I mentioned that I liked when she was on The Wendy Williams Experience, flirting with Charlemagne. She said she knew he was excited, "when I came in looking all cute and stuff." Adorable. Shay had gone to the BET Awards the night before – after informing me of that, she added that Larissa had to sneak in because she couldn’t score an invite. Shay also mentioned the story that ran on MediaTakeOut.com last month, claiming that Larissa and Shay got into a knock-down, drag-out brawl at a club. "They’re such liars! That story was totally false. I mean, I’m glad they said I won, but…" She was equally mystified by the rumor that circulated suggesting she was dating Andre 3000. "I mean, I would…"

Just outside Shay’s door, I ran into Cristal, looking phenomenal, actually.

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Nearby was Saaphyri. At the Flavor of Love 2 reunion, Saaphyri was the source of all sorts of humor – she kicked things off (from my perspective) when I caught her smoking and drinking outside, way before the taping. "Let me put my vices away," she told me. "No, don’t!" I said, and the result was this picture. She remembered that, and said this time, "You always catch me with vices!" "You always have them!" She didn’t emphasize her vice in the first shot…

…But in this second one with Shay, you can see that her drink was totally on display.

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I love Saaphyri’s slightly devilish expression, as if to say that this drink was insurance for a good show. And so it would be. Sapphyri soon encountered someone who referred to her only as "Lip Chap! Lip Chap!" I would imagine that she gets that a lot. They should have burned that name in the fire. Although, I guess it doesn’t represent something ugly – just something dry and flaky.

Downstairs, the girls were mic’ed…

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And then they lined up to make their way to the stage.

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The audience was already in its place (behind and to the right of where the girls would sit) and some of the girls were already out there. I talked to the ones preparing to hit the stage and eavesdropped on their conversations. Becky told me that she doesn’t eat seafood because fish pee in the ocean. Interesting. "Is Krazy here?" Saaphyri asked. "No," said Becky who really knows all things about all people – she’s nothing if not lucid about this entire experience and universe. She’s the one you call when you need someone’s address while you’re filling out your Christmas cards or, I don’t know, funeral invitations. "Krazy’s not here? That’s crazy!" said Saaphyri, her goofiness busting out of her upgraded façade, much like her breasts were busting out of that corset. "So, what’s up with your porno career?" Saaphyri asked Jen who’d just joined the group, as casually as if she were talking about Jen’s outfit. Jen explained to Saaphyri that she doesn’t have a "career" per se and that the video that made the most recent controversy, Toastee Exposed, was a sex tape belonging to her former boyfriend that was being released without her permission. "Whatever, if he wants to show his little d*** to the world, he can," said Jen. That’s the spirit!

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Things weren’t as light when it came to Thela, who, as you can see in this picture might as well have a storm cloud hanging over her like a villain from the Care Bears or Rainbow Brite or something:

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I asked her how she felt about being there and she let out a disgusted sigh as if I’d asked her for a kidney and handed her a scalpel. "Why? What are you going to do? Write it down?" Well, I’d surely write that down. "Maybe!" I told her. "It depends how interesting it is." "I feel like I wanna go home and I want my check," she told me. Fair enough! Cristal seemed just as put out but wasn’t going to take it out on me. "I am an exaggerated audience member to all the bulls*** that’s about to occur," she told me. "I am an egotistical a**hole," she added, lampooning the commonly held conception of her. I thought she was sweet and, yes, charming. "You have nice teeth. I like teeth," she told me. "Write that down." Duh. I wanted to tattoo it on my head, as it came from the most aesthetically focused girl in the bunch. It’s not everyday that you get a compliment from a working model. Cristal has officially signed her name across my heart.

Otherwise, smiles abounded backstage:

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And on the stage, too. I snapped a bunch of these during downtime.

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You can see that the proximity to the audience meant that the girls had plenty of strangers to talk to. I love the T-shirt that says, "YOUR A WHORE. PEACE." That’s how I’m going to start signing all my email, sic and all.

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As I was trying to shoot the weird way that Cristal is sitting on Brooke’s chair (I thought it was funny that the so-called "whore of Charm School" was so friendly with her space)…

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…you can see that Shay is totally smiling at my camera in the picture below on the left. She’s hilarious. Equally hilarious is Schatar’s mugging in the picture on the right. These girls are always on – visiting their world is like stepping into a 24/7 Techinicolor Oz and they’re certainly among the personalities who make it infinitely brighter.

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After going backstage, I saw La La. I gushed – I really think she’s awesome at hosting these things. She has the perfect balance of respect and sternness to deal with this pack of, newfound charm or not, reliably unruly girls. When she threw down and put Becky in her place after the shoe-throwing incident during the Flavor of Love 2 reunion, La La had my respect for good. I told her how awesome I thought she was and she was appreciative and nice. I asked her if she was excited for the reunion and she said with an air of resign, "I’m used to it." Don’t let on that you’re out for that much of a good time, La La! She also made me show her the picture I took of her. Quality control, I suppose. Whatever: she looked great (and better-rested than during the I Love New York reunion, when she had just given birth to her baby).

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With all the girls except for crazy Krazy and Larissa (more on her later, obviously) on the stage, Mo’Nique made her way down with a huge entourage. A big queen needs a big court, I suppose.

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I approached her, introduced myself and told her that I interviewed her via phone just before Charm School started. There was no real indication that she knew who I was, as I’m one of many who have interviewed Mo, until I said, "You called me king!" (I had specifically asked her to call me "king," after asking a question about her dubbing the girls "queen" as she tends to do on the show. I just wanted to feel special!) "Oh yeah, Rich!" Haha, I’m totally Mo’Nique’s king and you’re not. Mo’Nique seemed pleased with the show – she said that people all the time approach her and tell her how they tuned in to laugh and ended up moved. "I think that’s because this is the most real reality that TV’s ever seen," she explained. "People say to me, ‘I didn’t know it was going to be deep.’" I asked if she was excited to be at the reunion, as she really did seem to be in a wonderfully pleasant mood (honestly: I was expecting at least slightly more divatude). "I can’t wait to see what the ladies have done," she said. Meanwhile, I couldn’t wait to see what they’d do. I said my goodbyes since I didn’t want to take up too much of her time and she told me, "Thank you, brotha." Again, I must gloat: haha, I’m Mo’Nique’s brother and you’re not (and I’m not even, you know, a brother).

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And then it was time for the show taping, which I watched backstage via monitors (like this). Schatar was the first called up, strutting and mugging every step of her short walk to the stage. "Go on, get your 15 minutes," said Mo. Soon after they started talking, something had to be reshot, forcing Schatar to reenter. "You guys are going to get to see the difference between the real Schatar and the actress Hottie," she told the audience as she scurried back to her seat. Luckily for all of us, both are descendants of royalty. Of course, as you saw on the show, Mo went onto berate Schatar and her flaky behavior. My favorite moment, maybe of the entire reunion, is when Mo unleashed a multi-minute tirade to which Schatar responded, "I thank you for your kind words." You didn’t even need a sound effects guy to hear ringing after that one.

A few girls chimed in from their seats from their peanut gallery. As you saw on the reunion special, once Cristal started cursing repeatedly, Mo interrupted her. "We gon’ get through this as respectable women!" she said, verbalizing wishful thinking. At least she would. Case and point: Mo’s patience in the face of the perpetually ranting and raving Thela. Thela started screaming from the audience, "Everything we were told was a lie!" regarding the show and its premise. She’s complained about this a lot (there’s VSPOT footage of her saying much the same thing), but I’ve never heard her actually explain what she’s talking about. No matter: Mo called her onstage for an impromptu, whispered therapy session. It lasted 10 minutes. At this point, I was impressed with Mo’s dedication to and interest in smoothing things out with the girls. My admiration would only grow as the day moved on.

Mo’s chat with Thela prompted another lecture, this time to all of the girls. "By no means do I want you to walk away from this thinking that I did it for numbers and for my career," she said. "Put on your big girl boots because you played a big girl game! If any of you need to throw down and fight, let’s go backstage because I will not be a part of the exploitation of my sisters."

That calmed things down for real. The filming went much the way you saw it on TV, just a bit longer. A few highlights: Mo’s further vilification of dark liquor (I’ve seen people on vodka act just as whorey, girl), Brooke’s coinage of the phrase "naked-ass body," Cristal’s tossed off, "F*** Charm School…I mean, ‘Eff Charm School,’" and Saaphyri’s open laughter when La La suggested that winning Charm School wasn’t all about the money.

While the girls were shooting sass on stage, there was a sass machine backstage. Larissa had been sequestered from the rest of the girls all day – her dressing room wasn’t even in the same building. She wasn’t backstage for most of the show, but she did watch some of it in a room reserved for producers and guests just one room over from the main stage.

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Not far from there, she filmed her first spot (the split screen with Shay).

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People backstage were sort of jarred by her presence, sort of looking at me weird and whispering, "Did you talk to her?" I hadn’t, but I figured I should. The first thing I did was take this picture:

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Even though my opinion of Larissa dropped considerably when she wouldn’t even so much as return my call for an interview, I can’t deny that she really looked amazing. "I’m disappointed that I didn’t get to interview you," I said. She dropped her Cheshire grin and said, "Oh, well that’s [a behind-the-scenes staff member's] fault." She had beef with someone over interviews and, because I work for VH1, didn’t want to participate in an official VH1 interview. Practically speaking, however, it was no one’s fault but her own for not picking up her damn phone. I really, really, really wanted to retort something very close to this. Unlike a lot of people, I’m not scared of Larissa – I figure that if she goes off, she can only give you a story to tell and if she actually touches you, you could sue her (I mean, did you see her house?). But I thought better of riling up the talent before she had to go on – messing around with the on-air universe could be as detrimental as Marty McFly seeing his fellow time-traveling self in 1955. I didn’t want to rip a hole through time or anything.

Meanwhile, between segments, the girls would hit up the craft services table. I was really happy to see Cristal voraciously eating. I know that she cares about her figure, but thank god she isn’t starving herself to live up to society’s expectations. She looks great, regardless. She looks even better when posing with a buffalo wing and some blue cheese dressing.

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I commented that I thought it was great that she’s such a healthy eater. "Oh, I’m a total pig," she said. Brooke, who was standing next to her, piped up: "You are not a pig!" Immediately, in the sepia-toned flashback of my memory, I saw Dean Keith’s spiel about putting lipstick on a pig that was aimed at Brooke, and wondered if she was protesting because by calling herself a pig, Cristal was sort of stealing Brooke’s title. Could you imagine the size of the loogie that would have risen from Brooke’s lungs had someone called themselves a whore? Saaphyri came close: I saw her standing near the craft services table and say, "I’m trying to get at least one piece of meat." Aren’t we all, Saaphyri? Aren’t we all?

Oh, and here’s something random:

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Flav popped in! For, like, no good reason, he was backstage during the taping. Just briefly, though – I don’t believe that any of the girls got to see him. I’m laughing hard in that picture, btw, because of the ridiculous configuration he thought our hands should be in. I thought we were going to bust out into "Miss Mary Mack" any second.

Anyway, it was time for Shay and Larissa’s segment to tape, which was about 5,000 times more chaotic to watch in person than what aired on the reunion special. As they two had their split-screen showdown, there was barely a pause from either side. It was a constant stream of sound coming from both of them – it was sort of shocking that they heard each other at all since they were both talking so damn much. In my estimation, Shay acted out but it was to merely stand her ground. Larissa seemed far more hostile and baiting. At one point, she told Shay that she looked like a monkey (I don’t believe that this made it to air, but I know that Mo’Nique later referenced it). Shay’s response? "Kill yourself." To give credit where it’s due: Larissa did say that she regretted the picture incident and that it never would have happened if she knew that Leilene’s mother (who was in the picture) was dead. Darra and Schatar both piped up, with the former handling herself with the class that she generally does (basically: she doesn’t hold a grudge for getting kicked off as a result of the picture incident) and the latter using any opportunity to talk about herself. While Schatar was clearing the air about not being a gold digger (again), Larissa called her a "motherf***er." That set Schatar running backstage. "No one calls me an MF!" she fumed. Seconds later, a talent manager told her to go back out to her seat and she obliged. So much for standing your ground. Thela also flew backstage in a rage – she’d do so at least one more time, complaining that she had somewhere to be. The aforementioned talent manager, quite awesomely, told her in response: "So do I. Now get back out there!" I didn’t see Thela again until it was time to go.

Larissa was eventually brought to the stage, and, as you can see, she was surrounded by security:

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She continued her squabble with Shay face-to-face. And then Mo’Nique took the stage and "walked up on" Larissa. The first thing Mo said was, "This will never make it to air." I like Mo and all, but COME ON. It’s nice seeing the ladies evolved, but this is what we were waiting for (a point underlined by the fact that this scene is what led the previews for the reunion special). Mo again broached the subject of black women representing themselves in an uncivilized manner. In response, Larissa’s mother sprung up out of her seat, ranting that Mo could have "changed how this was depicted." I think she meant the series as a whole and I’m certain that she meant Larissa’s behavior, but again I say: COME ON. It was amazing that she somehow believed that Larissa needed any help coming from editing when it came to looking bad. Did she not just watch her daughter, minutes earlier, rant, rave and call Shay a monkey, live and in person? The sense of entitlement radiating from Larissa’s mother and, I suppose, Larissa by extension. was nothing short of unreal. I’ve never seen such a stunning lack of self-awareness and I’ve studied Ted Haggard pretty closely.

When Larissa’s mother approached the stage, it was suddenly filled with people standing up, a la Jerry Springer. It looked like pandemonium for a while. Mo preached the whole time, for about 20 minutes. When things settled down and a chair was pulled up for Larissa’s mother, things appeared more like an episode of Oprah. It went on and on and on like this for at least 40 minutes. Mo began to lose her voice. People got antsy. Saaphyri went outside for a cigarette.

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As Mo tried and tried and tried to get through, people lost their patience. You couldn’t really blame them with this kind of exchange:

Larissa: I know who I am.
Mo: Who are you?
Larissa: I know who I am.
Mo: Who are you?
Larissa: I’m a wonderful person.
Mo: What makes you wonderful?
Larissa: What makes you wonderful?

And on and on. A few producers detected what could have been finishing points, parts of Mo’s sermon that seemed particularly underlined and definitive and so they tried to lead the audience in applause, to help wrap things up. The taping began at 4 and it was, at this point, 8:30. But nothing worked. Mo, who by now was absolutely hoarse, finally had to be interrupted so that La La could wrap things up. Mo was gracious about it – I think she understood that things had gone on for too long. But she also understood that in order for things to change, they’d have to go on even longer. The audience filed out, the stage lights were turned down, and no one moved: Mo, Larissa, Larissa’s mom and Shay all remained on stage, as you can see in these fairly blurry pictures.

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Check back tomorrow because I’m going to post an interview with Shay — she let me know what went down during these moments that the camera wasn’t rolling. After watching them for a few minutes, I had even more respect for Mo. Even viewers craving drama ended up without the patience for Larissa (I’d say at least 80 percent of comments regarding her on this blog are negative), but there was Mo, talking to Larissa even without an audience present to appreciate her effort. Mo likes to call the girls "queen" and carries herself with something of a regal air, as well. But here, she was virtually at the service of Larissa and her mother. It’s a humbling position for a star to take, but I doubt she thought anything of it. The most bizarre thing is that the absence of cameras made the scene that much more fantastic. To borrow a phrase Mo used earlier in the day, "the most real reality," was the perfect way to put it.