Producing partners Tracey Baker-Simmons and Wanda Shelley are considered the queens of urban reality television. Simmons-Shelley Entertainment includes a long list of hit shows including Keith Sweat’s “Platinum House” featuring Dru Hill, and the insanely popular “Being Bobby Brown.” Most recently, they partnered with Rainforest Films to produce the MTV2 "Sprite Step Off" docu-series, which followed six fraternities and sororities as they prepared to compete in the national Sprite Step Off.
The dynamic duo is gearing up to strike reality gold again with their new show, “Power Brokers,” which follows five powerful Black females at the top of their games, set against the competitive entertainment field in Atlanta. Read on to find out what drives these ladies’ creativity, along with their dedication to promoting positive Black images.
Being a Black female producer is not the easiest thing to do in this industry. What’s the key to your success?
Wanda: The key to our success is definitely hard work and perseverance. It’s about believing that there’s nothing that we can’t do. With any show and every show that we create, we really put a lot of our heart into it. Tracey and I are really good about not succumbing to the stigma of being Black in this business, or any other industry, for that matter. We have a name that we want to uphold, so no matter what color we are, we’re going to work hard and we believe that people will see us as the professionals that we are, and love our work as we love our work.
They often give urban reality TV a bad rap. Critics and various audiences say that many shows don’t represent African Americans well, but your shows have been very popular and positive. What are some of the ingredients to making sure that you present a positive image of African Americans?
Tracey: The key is that our shows are real. We don’t over-produce our shows. We stay true to the original idea of reality television. What you see from Simmons-Shelley is always “real,” therefore it’s positive, because it’s positively what happened. We’re not getting kids drunk or anything like that.
Atlanta is a city where reality TV has really become very popular. What do you think is so interesting about Atlanta that draws people to it?
Wanda: With Atlanta being the #2 urban market, what’s a better place to see African-American content derived? We’ve seen a lot of trends set in this city based on African Americans; whether it’s the entrepreneurial spirit, having many Black colleges, or having a plethora of people who have a college education come from this area. The music business is booming in Atlanta, along with the projects in film and TV.
We always hear that Atlanta has some of the most unique, colorful characters that television has seen. Would you agree?
Tracey: Atlanta is a melting pot and there are many different variations of African Americans. Naturally, when you have that, you’re going to have many different characters.
Tell me about your new show, “Power Brokers.”
Tracey: The series follows a diverse cast of five African-American women, along with a young lady who’s Asian. The series focuses on the power in “her.” It’s a real, positive look at women. They control the lives of mega-stars, athletes and entertainers, but they can’t control real life. You see how they balance the two and still maintain their posts they have as the executives or the owners of their own businesses, or running a large entity such as a music publishing company. We’re seeking to create something that’s a reflection of us, and a reflection of the landscape of the woman that runs Atlanta. We have a lot of African-American CEOs and VPs of large corporations. Those are the people that Wanda and I have looked up to over the years.
The “Professional Black Woman” is very prevalent in the media right now. How do you think your show will impact the headlines? Specifically, how your characters balance career and family.
Wanda: We have a few characters that have families, so you’ll definitely get to see that side. We also have characters who don’t have families, and their focus is their career. What we came to do is portray what’s real to these particular five characters. We hope that when people are viewing the show, there is something that they can relate to. Concerning the stigma that has been placed on professional Black women, it’s a growing process and it’s going to forever be a growing process. Some of us do it very well and have learned to juggle it, and some of us are still finding our way. We just have to inspire them and show them images and characters that are doing very well. I don’t think that we would eradicate that 100 percent, but I think in time, as people grow and are open to learning, we’ll have a chance to highlight those people that are juggling it well.
What is it that you both love about reality TV?
Tracey: It’s the ability to tell true stories. It’s the idea that each one of us has a story. That drew us to reality TV because we pride ourselves on being great storytellers. Ultimately, we want to get into scripted television and do features. We just thought, ‘First, let’s start from the human perspective of telling real stories.’ Then, we could culminate that into shaping the types of feature stories that we’d end up telling.
What do you think it will take to attain more Blacks in a position of power like yourselves?
Tracey: We have to have ownership. For example, Tyler Perry built a studio. African Americans run that studio. Bob Johnson built a company and a network. Basically, we have to create it. We have to create the avenues for those things to happen. In return, when you put up the numbers that Tyler Perry puts up, and you build a company like BET that can be sold for millions of dollars, you get results. We have to build it. We have to own it. We have to manage it properly. We have to employ our own. We have to support our own. In return, we’ll be in control of our image.
Wanda: A big component is that we have to support it. We can tell great stories that portray great images of us, but we have to remember as consumers, the significance of supporting it. I always think back on “Akeelah and the Bee,” which is still one of my favorite movies. I was just amazed at the lack of support that came from the African-American community. It was a great movie that told a great story. I think it was the first time that a young African-American girl was the lead in the movie of that caliber. We could have done a better job as a community to support that.
You’re doing a web series that will follow you both behind the scenes, right?
Tracey: Yes. We wanted a show that reflected women like us. We’re doing a web series called “The Power Brokers Behind ‘Power Brokers.’”
You’ll be in front of the camera for once. Are you nervous?
Wanda: Well, I’m camera shy! Tracey is great in front of the camera. Our main goal is to show other young females that you can do whatever you set out to do. Our blueprint may not be the blueprint that you should take, but you’ll be able to see that we have a rhythm to what we do. Hopefully it inspires you and it encourages you, or it helps you to get where you need to be. That would be our way of giving back. Tracey teaches at Emory University and we definitely do speaking engagements, but this particular webisode will enable us to be among many different people at one time.
Tracey: This is our way of letting people be a part of the creative process.