As it does in many places, money runs uphill in the tony New York suburb of Montclair, New Jersey. And as our car ascends the mountain that inspired the town’s name, the houses and yards get bigger, the streets more tree-lined, until we’re deposited in front of an imposing beige mansion.
On the sprawling front patio, “Love & Hip Hop” star Joe Budden — clad in ripped gray pants, a tank top and a black-velvet bathrobe emblazoned with Versace logos — is smoking a cigarette, accompanied by several dudes from his management team and a big bullmastiff named Brooklyn. We walk up to introduce ourselves, and within seconds Brooklyn has responded by sinking his teeth into the arm of this suddenly less-intrepid reporter.
“Oh, s—!” Budden exclaims, grabbing the dog by the collar and pinning its head between his thighs. “Brooklyn, get over here! I’m really sorry about that, man.”
Despite this all-too-real introduction to reality TV, Brooklyn didn’t even break skin, so we’re quickly ushered inside. It’s no ordinary house — an 11,000-square-foot 1907 Classic Revival, to be precise, valued by Zillow at $3.13 million, with 10 bedrooms, nine fireplaces, a wood-paneled library, an elevator, a gym, a pool, a carriage house, a gardener’s cottage and a kitchen the size of a nice one-bedroom Manhattan apartment. Fresh flowers are in nearly every room; on dark-wood shelves, Budden’s album covers and Vibe Award sit incongruously alongside vintage leather-bound encyclopedias. Piled in corners are boxes of diapers whose ultimate destination is the bottom of Lexington, Budden’s 9-month-old son with partner, longtime friend and co-star Cyn Santana. In a characteristic “Love & Hip Hop” twist, the two both appeared on the franchise’s fourth season in 2014, but not as a couple — in fact, during that season Budden proposed unsuccessfully to another woman and Santana endured a fiery breakup with her own girlfriend, video vixen Erica Mena, but we digress.
In every way, the setting is a perfect one for the ninth season of VH1’s “Love & Hip Hop: New York,” which launched the sprawling franchise in 2011. It has since spread to three other cities and featured more than 200 cast members — including Cardi B, Soulja Boy, Remy Ma, Keyshia Cole, Stevie J and many more — several of whom got their own spinoff series. More than most reality series, for both its cast and its viewers, the show exists in a netherworld somewhere between entertainment and therapy, fantasy and reality. As executive producer and Monami Entertainment CEO Mona Scott-Young says, “There’s a tendency to think that people who have some measure of celebrity live a completely different life and it’s all glitz and glamour, and there’s something self-affirming and unifying in the idea that, wow, they go through the same things that we do.”
Over the next hour, 30-odd people and caravans of equipment tramp into the building. Cameras are set up; cables are taped to walls and floors and ceilings; crew members bustle in and out and up and around as the house becomes a set. Santana has her makeup and hair done at the big dining room table while she discusses the day’s scene with staffers; Budden is out front smoking again when a black SUV pulls up with Scott-Young inside. “No cigarettes in the shot!” she yells, but she’s laughing. Clad in a long coat and a stunning pair of spike-heeled boots, she surveys the scene with a boss’s air, consulting with Budden, Santana, co-executive producer Michael Carrozza and others before shooting begins.
How real is reality TV? On the basis of this scene, it’s more real than you might think. For the next half hour, we hide out of sight in the library while the scene is shot in one long, semi-improvised take, with the crew silently following Budden and Santana from one room to another and back as they have a serious talk that often verges into a tearful argument. It centers on a common dilemma: Santana, suffering from postpartum depression, feels Budden is working too much and isn’t sufficiently present when he is home. Despite the opulent surroundings, it’s a fairly garden-variety domestic squabble that countless couples throughout the ages — present company included — have had in their lives, if not that very week.
“It’s funny you’d say that,” Budden says later. “Throughout that day, my business partner, my intern, a bunch of people told me that they’ve been having that same conversation in their house.”
The portraits that follow come from the approximately four-hour stretch between most of the crew members’ arrival and departure. We were among the last ones out the door, leaving Budden, Santana and Lex sitting on the front steps of their home that doubles as a reality-TV set (or vice versa), snuggled together in a scene of domestic bliss, without a camera in sight.
Baby on Board
In a show that’s had no shortage of head-snapping double takes, the sight of Budden and Santana — they not only had different love interests in Season 4; their paths didn’t even cross — as a happy (if contentious) domestic couple may represent a new peak. “If you had told me five years ago, ‘When you’re 25 you’re gonna have a baby and be damn near married to Joe Budden,’ I would have been like ‘What?! You’re f—in’ crazy,’” Santana cackles. “I never, ever knew for all those years my soul mate was right there, dating other women in front of me.”
He wasn’t the only one. “Cyn’s lesbian relationship with Erica Mena [in Season 4] was a big first for all of us — two women falling in love and navigating their careers in hip-hop when they both had previously been in relationships with men,” says Nina L. Diaz, president of programming and development for MTV, VH1 and Logo. “Back in the day, we never saw Cyn and Joe coming together, but they’re a pretty amazing dynamic duo.”
Asked whether growing up on a reality show might affect 9-month-old Lex’s view of the world — potentially leading to play dates where he’d ask a young friend, “Where are your cameras?” — Santana pauses and says, “I don’t think I’ve ever really thought of that, but I will definitely make sure to instill humbleness in him, because that’s how my mother raised me. I thank God that we were able to give my son this life.”
Despite the countless risks involved in living out a highly dramatized version of one’s life, Budden says it’s brought him nothing but good. “Some people are watching purely for entertainment, but that’s not really my angle,” he says. “All of this has been vital to so many things in my life. My previous experience on ‘Love & Hip Hop’ was very helpful to me — it led me to therapy that was pivotal in my relationship with my oldest son. So I’m very thankful. I guess that’s the reality part of reality TV that’s probably not highlighted the way it should be.”
Santana is on the same page, although a bit more combative. “A lot of people said, ‘Don’t do reality TV; it’s gonna ruin your relationship,’” she says. “But to be honest it’s helped. We were friends for eight years before being involved on a romantic level, and our foundation is so solid that I don’t care what anybody has to say — it could be three people or 4 million people. It is annoying sometimes when people give their f—in’ two cents and nobody f—in’ asked,” she allows, “but that comes with the territory. So whenever I see some bulls—, I’ll report it as spam or put my phone down and keep it moving, because if I let it get to me and then I’m not good, nothing else is gonna be good.”
The show’s production and talent teams might be behind the cameras, but their influence on the action on-screen reaches far below the surface. “The bonding process between the talent and the talent team is very important, because they’ve gotta trust these guys in order to open up to them,” says Scott-Young, pictured below with Carrozza and fellow executive producer Stephanie Gayle. “Every once in a while we get stuck, and I might have to come in and have a heart-to-heart and say, ‘OK, guys, what’s happening here? Something about what we’re capturing doesn’t feel real.’ And sometimes you find that they’re being protective for the cameras in a way that’s counterproductive to getting the real story, and that’s when we have to get out of that rut.”
Santana says the producers are very helpful. “If after a scene I’m too emotional and it becomes overwhelming, like I was in this one,” she says, “the producers pulled me aside and were like, ‘Are you good? Do you wanna say more?’”
Putting it All Together
Asked whether she has a background in psychology, Scott-Young laughs and says no, but credits her long career as an artist manager (she still handles Missy Elliott) with the diplomatic skills that she uses in orchestrating a scene like the one shot on this day. “This scene started out when I realized there were things they weren’t saying to each other,” Scott-Young says. “So how can we set the stage for that conversation? When people hear something they don’t want to hear, a lot of the time they’ll get up and walk out. But I can tell Cyn, ‘This is your time to express to him the things you haven’t been able to say, and because we have to function within the constructs of this production, he’s going to have to sit here and listen for the duration of the scene.’ The cameras actually can help.”
Notes Budden: “The camera crews are only invasive when they don’t put things back in their proper place.”