When Lizzo was growing up in the ’90s, she never saw anyone who looked like her on TV. “The choice of Black girls they used in media was the same kind of Black girl,” the Grammy-winning singer says, alluding to the rail-thin figures of celebrities. As a teenager, Lizzo remembers the tabloids body-shaming Jessica Simpson. The 33-year-old marvels: “Y’all want me to believe this is an overweight, obese woman and that she should be ashamed of how she feels — how the fuck was I supposed to feel?”
Has there been more body inclusivity in storytelling since then? Sure, but “it’s not happening quickly by no means,” says Lizzo. “It’s happening very slow and select, and there’s a long way to go. But I have seen it budge, and that’s better than nothing.”
Now she wants to give the movement another shove. Lizzo — whose real name is Melissa Viviane Jefferson — is moving beyond her already well-known talents as a vocalist, songwriter and virtuoso flute player. She hopes to conquer TV next as the star and executive producer of Amazon’s new reality TV series “Lizzo’s Watch Out for the Big Grrrls,” a show that was born out of professional necessity. For as long as she’s been famous, Lizzo has made a point of hiring plus-size backup dancers — whom she affectionately calls “the Big Grrrls” (they even have their own Instagram account, @thebiggrrrls) — to join her onstage. She says it’s comforting to see an extension of herself in the spotlight.
But the job searches have been challenging, since plus-size women often have a far more difficult time landing an agent. Out of this frustration came an idea for a series. After posting an open-call audition on social media, Lizzo sorted through tens of thousands of applicants before settling on the finalists for “Watch Out for the Big Grrrls,” which premieres on Prime Video on March 25.
The result plays out like a cross between “America’s Next Top Model” and “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” with 10 contenders living in a house together as they complete challenges to see whether they can shimmy with Lizzo at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival. There’s one glaring difference between “Watch Out for the Big Grrrls” and those other competition shows, however: Lizzo doesn’t harshly criticize the contestants, and she doesn’t always eliminate someone at the end of each episode. She wants “Watch Out for the Big Grrrls” to be a place of positivity — a rarity in reality TV.
“Watch Out for the Big Grrrls” is the debut project to emerge from a first-look deal that Lizzo signed with Amazon in 2020, to produce scripted and unscripted content for the studio. “She pitched us the show on the phone, along with other ideas she had,” says Jennifer Salke, the head of Amazon Studios, who loved the concept immediately. “Not only is it an entertaining unscripted show, but it’s also setting up Lizzo as this inspirational businesswoman.”
It’s all part of a grand plan to expand Lizzo’s brand — and the empire that she hopes to build beyond her chart-topping music career after 2019’s breakout album, “Cuz I Love You.” Although she’s only appeared briefly in one movie (“Hustlers,” where she played a stripper), she’s eyeing the career path of other star singers who’ve transitioned into acting.
When Lizzo talks with Variety in a lengthy Zoom conversation from her home in Los Angeles, her three Grammys visible in the background, she shares details about new music she’s recorded for an album to be released later this year. Lizzo also reveals how the reality show cameras captured an emotional breakdown she had on Instagram Live shortly after she dropped her long-anticipated single “Rumors.” Fame, she realized, doesn’t shield you from hurtful bigots.
I’ve watched the first three episodes of your new reality show.
I’m so tickled that you saw it. That gets me so fucking excited. Did you like it? Because I love it. I freaking love it.
I was wondering this morning who makes it through to the end.
[Screams] You’re invested! I love that you really care about these people. It wasn’t like I signed a first-look deal with Amazon and then was like, “I’ve got to come up with things to do.” It was the opposite, actually. I had all these stories and ideas, things I wanted to create and share with the world, and Amazon happened to come along.
I was like, “Man, I need answers.” The girls I have onstage with me are not getting representation. They are not getting agents. And I was like, “I know there is raw talent that’s untapped. If I have to start a fucking television show to get enough attention to find these girls and get them prepared to join me onstage, then so be it.” This has been a passion of mine for a long time: discovering and mentoring big-girl dancers, especially Black girls.
Why do you think it’s so much harder for them to get representation?
It’s a trickle down. Agents represent girls they feel like have value. I think bigger bodies have been devalued in the industry. We’re not getting agents because we’re not getting jobs. We’re not getting jobs because we don’t have agents. Y’all are just pingponging. A lot of girls who dance with me got agents after they started working with me because they were generating a viable stream of income. I’m grateful for that, but it’s still ridiculous. These girls should be getting representation ASAP. Hopefully this show helps that.
How did you originally envision your backup dancers?
I was always in girl groups with my best friends, sharing the stage with people. So when I was finally by myself, I had a complex about that: Nobody wants to look at just me. I don’t deserve to have space up here. Why would I be seen as a star? I started to have this anxiety about being onstage by myself. And to compensate, I have the most wonderful form of social anxiety, where the more anxious I get, the bigger I perform. If you look at old videos of me, I’m running from left to right. It’s like, “Bitch, calm down.” So I was like, “Man, I want to get dancers — I want to get girls that are big like me.” I really wanted an extension of myself. There’s a sisterhood there, having the big girls. Not to mention, they do shit that I can’t do. They can do splits.
In the first episode, you mention that it gets under your skin when fans tell you, “I get tired just looking at you perform.”
I don’t think they’re doing it maliciously. I definitely think they’re conditioned to believe that bigger bodies don’t have enough stamina to perform at the level that I do. For decades, we have been depicted on television and in movies as “lazy,” and huffing and puffing while the other thinner characters are jogging. It’s fine. It’s a stereotype. I ain’t new to stereotypes. But what I’m trying to do is dismantle every stereotype that I have the power to do. I’m destroying them by just living and being incredible all the time.
What are some examples of stereotypes that you remember watching that were harmful to you growing up?
It’s funny, because I’m the biggest Eddie Murphy fan of all time. But he definitely had a collection of fat-suit movies that people would be laughing at, but I would feel sad. Not because I felt like, “Oh, my gosh — that’s me.” But I had this empathy for Professor Klump [in “The Nutty Professor”]. Like, the scene where he opens his drawer and there are all these candies and M&Ms in his desk? I could literally cry right now thinking about it. People around me were laughing, but I hide food too. I feel him. I feel sympathy and empathy for him.
Why is it important for you to produce?
I’ve been producing for a long time, and I didn’t even know that was what it was called. I’m finally getting paid and credited doing this. I’m a very hands-on person. Anything that I’ve put out, I’ve touched so many fucking times. Thanks to Amazon and this show, I feel more like a boss.
It didn’t look like this show was cheap.
No. We got budget!
Was it easy to play yourself on TV?
To have a lot of attention on me, wearing full couture and glam? It was surprisingly easy.
I can see your Grammys in the background. Where in your house are you?
This is a foyer. My Grammys are right here. People that come over for the first time are like, “Can I touch it?” It’s not like I forget that they are there. It’s like art in your house. You see it every day, you kind of normalize it. There’s nothing normal about winning three Grammys on your first go. Sometimes I’ve got to remind myself I’m the shit.
Do you really need to remind yourself that?
Yes, I do. I forget who I am a lot. I’ll be like — wait, I’m that bitch.
How would you describe what it was like for you becoming famous?
Fame happens to you, and it’s more of an observation of you. People become famous, and it’s like — my DNA didn’t change. Nothing changed about me. My anxiety didn’t go away. My depression didn’t go away. The things that I love didn’t go away. I’m still myself. But the way y’all look at me and perceive me has changed. It’s a very weird, kind of formless thing.
I don’t want to seem ungrateful. It was sad, and I had to talk to my therapist about the loss of who I was. Most famous people have been famous just as long as they’ve been a person, so they have acclimated more to it. I was going into dive bars and getting shitfaced in 2018. And nobody knew who I was, and nobody was bothering me. By 2019, I noticed I couldn’t go to restaurants with my dancers and stuff.
I had to call security, and they had to call a car, and we had to sit and wait. And I was like, “Damn. I’m just a burden to my friends, and things are different now.” It bummed me out, because you do lose a sense of your privacy and yourself, the old self. I’m good with it now. I’m fine. I’m young. I’m talented. I deserve the attention.
You performed in Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty show in 2020. Are you two friends now?
We are friendly. The thing about Rihanna is if she fucks with you, she fucks with you. By the grace of the goddamn stars, she fucks with me. I’m so happy for her being pregnant. I’m like, “Shit. I’m about to get pregnant.”
You’re in one of my favorite movies of the last few years, “Hustlers.”
That was a great fucking movie, by the way.
Did you know it was going to be good?
No. And that’s not shade. You just never know. I did not have a script. I did not have no character synopsis. All I had was the director [Lorene Scafaria] being like, “I want you to be a part of this.” Because of my schedule, my role in it got smaller and smaller until I was like, “Goddamnit! Can we make this happen?”
I played a show in Washington, got on a jet, flew to the set. I was sick as a dog — pre-COVID. Now saying you’re sick when you go to work is a crime. But I was sick back in the day when you had to work for your sick days, honey. I was in a trailer, and I got a shot in my ass of B12. I’ve never done it before. I hate needles. It was an overnight shoot, and the next morning I had to fly back to wherever my next show was. I had no reference. All I knew was Cardi was there. J. Lo was there. Keke [Palmer] was there, and we was lit. And then I left.
Have you ever taken acting classes?
No. I was in theater in high school, but then I got kicked out — I was too much for them. And people are like, “You should act.” I’m not good at auditioning. I’m like, “Put me in the scene. Don’t ask me to audition. Just write it for me.”
What’s one thing you auditioned for that you wanted?
Everyone knows I auditioned for Ursula in [Disney’s upcoming live-action] “The Little Mermaid,” and I didn’t get it. But you know, I’m fine as hell. That has nothing to do with Ursula, but I was down to make Ursula a THOT, shaking ass.
I would want to see you playing Ursula.
You know what’s crazy? At the Adele show, I ran into Melissa McCarthy, because she [got cast as] Ursula. She was like, “Hi, I’m Melissa.” And I was like, “Hi, I’m Melissa. And I also auditioned for Ursula.” And she was like, “Well, why the hell did I get the part?,” which is a classic Melissa McCarthy thing to say. And then I was like, “Girl, because my audition was terrible.” And I say that as Tyler Perry walks by. And I was like — ruined my chances there. And then she goes, “This is my daughter Vivian.” And I’m like, “Get out of here, because my name is Melissa Viviane.” We were looking at each other like, “What the hell is going on?”
How was your audition terrible?
My audition wasn’t terrible. Sometimes I like to make jokes. My audition was good. You can ask Disney. I don’t want to talk too much about it. The singing was great. I’ll just say that.
In the third episode of “Lizzo’s Watch Out for the Big Grrrls,” we see you addressing your fans and crying on Instagram Live after a comment on social media gets to you. Was that planned as part of the show?
It was not planned. That day, “Rumors” had come out, and I saw something really awful about me. I never want to address the thing that broke me, because people will continue to use it. It had nothing to do with the song. The song was very successful. It was something about me and who I am as an artist and what I represent. And it was very fucking racist and very, very harmful.
It kind of pushed me to my limit. I went to the set, and I was pretty sad. I was sitting in glam, and I was getting my makeup done. And I was crying. I was like, “Sorry, I got to go to the bathroom.” I went on Instagram Live. I wanted to address the internet. I started talking about it — say you don’t like my music, cool. Say you don’t like my video, cool. But when you talk about me and my character and who I am, I’m coming for your ass.
I used to hold in my emotions so much it was like a ticking time bomb. I said what I had to say, and I honestly felt better. I got to walk into this room of women who looked like me and who would understand exactly what I’m going through, and I got to play the song and be in that moment with them. It genuinely moved me to tears. It was one of those things that happened in my life that was a blessing.
What can you tell us about your new album?
Broadly, I’ve been working on this album since the summer of 2018. It has evolved to a place where I’m proud. It’s one of the most musically badass, daring and sophisticated bodies of work I’ve done to date. I am not done. I’m still pushing out the hits, baby. And I hope that it is some of the most useful pieces of music to ever exist. All I want to do is help people through my music.
Will your songs continue to be autobiographical?
I think that I will never be the kind of artist that’s like this album is about a story I wrote; it’s not real. I’m always just a very personal, like I’m-talking-to-my-friend-on- the-phone-with-really-good-music-behind-me bitch. I will say this. It is a love album. I’m shocked.
Is it about falling in love?
Ooooh. You’re going to have to wait and see.
Are you currently in love?
Ooooh. We got to go! I’m just going to say — a little bit.
Are you dating someone right now?
I ain’t talking about this. We’re talking about “Big Grrrls” and how we’re changing the world, goddamnit.
Would you do a second season of “Watch Out for the Big Grrrls”?
If I ever do another season, it will not be because of the way it was received, or whether it was critically acclaimed or not. It’s going to be out of necessity. If I need more dancers, this is the only way I know how to get dancers. I’ve been watching the industry change slowly since I’ve been in the game. I’ve watched it change, which is encouraging. I see lots of size inclusion in commercials. I’ll be looking and see a big Black girl dancing in the front. Sometimes I’ll watch that shit and be like, “Did I do that?”