When Jennifer Mairo, a Nigerian living in Dallas Texas set out to produce the first reality TV series showcasing the lives of Nigerians in the United States, she did not have the experience or background to produce such a huge reality TV show, but she had passion and clarity of purpose. She wanted to tell the stories of African women in the diaspora, to help the audience connect with the African diaspora story in a new way that was uncensored and unadulterated.
Jennifer believed that this was the missing link in the Africa diaspora story which was not present in previous attempts like Coming To America and Black Panther which presented a romanticized image of the diaspora experience and she wanted to fill the gap. Production of the show started in 2015 and the first episode went live in 2016. Since then the show has gone on to win multiple awards including Best TV Series at the African Film Festival 2018 and Wazobia International awards Manchester UK. In 2019 she signed a huge deal with BEN TV London, and UK SKY Channel 175 to distribute the show across Europe and Africa.
The show which is currently in its third season is also accessible on youtube with new episodes dropping every Friday. Unlike popular reality TV series, Real Naija Ladies Of Dallas (RNLOD) does not happen in a bubble, with housemates and a “big brother” voice who gives the housemates tasks to perform. There are no evictions or voting to determine a winner. It is a true reality TV series, following the lives of real people in their natural spaces, who are not performing for the camera but are living their everyday lives. At first glance, one would think this a very challenging feat to pull off, and it is. How do you follow the lives of real people and keep the show engaging without losing the audience? We spoke to Jennifer on how she was able to pull off such a spectacular feat, and more.
LMTV: Let’s meet you.
My name is Jennifer Mairo, overt feminist and advocate, producer, writer and creator of Real Naija Ladies of Dallas, the first reality show showcasing Nigerians in the United States. I am never what people assume me to be until they meet me. I don’t know why that is. I would like to think that I’m open, relatable, and approachable but most people find me intimidating. Lololol don’t ask me why, I just am. I love to travel, read and I’m all about thinking outside the box. If everyone else is doing it then I’m probably not a fan of it. Extremely defiant, play-by-my-own-rules type of girl lol. Shockingly I am somewhat of an introvert, I enjoy my own company and don’t always have to go out somewhere to have fun. Maybe it’s because I work a lot and when I have time to relax I just want to be away from people. Maybe not!
LMTV: The very first episode of RNLOD was in January of 2016. Incidentally, we watched the recent episodes before that flagship episode and the growth is quite remarkable – better production values and a larger cast ensemble. What did you set out to achieve from the onset and would you say you have achieved your goal?
I believe that if you are doing something and it’s not growing or evolving then it’s not really a good look. You might want to reevaluate. As a series, we have to go with the times and if we want to be respected, we have to compete at the same level as our counterparts. Video quality, location, looks, and more. We also have to grow as the casts grow and as the stories developed, it was a no brainer to continue to improve. The intention of the show is ever-evolving but Real Naija Ladies of Dallas has solidified itself as the first and only consistent relentless ensemble of great millennial minds who are unapologetic and ambitious. We set out to tell an unadulterated diaspora story and yes we have been able to achieve that. We knew it was important to show the cast as relatable and accessible and as the show progressed it was clear.
LMTV: For people who do not know about Real Naija Ladies Of Dallas, how did it all begin?
Real Naija Ladies of Dallas is the only reality series in the United States that shows the lives of Nigerians. These days we incorporate people from other African countries who have strong ties with Nigerians, however, the show tells Nigerian stories from the viewpoint of diasporans. We started filming in 2015. This was a concept that came up somewhat cavalierly. Because of the rise of reality television, I mentioned to my husband my intent to create one for Africans. He thought it was a great idea. In fact, I was only supposed to produce the show and not be part of the cast. My partner advised that for people to trust the process I might have to put myself out there as well. And the rest is history. These days I’m a fan fave. Hahaha. The reality TV series follows the lives of Nigerians in the United States – friendships, relationships, careers, and more are covered on the show. As you can imagine conflict is part of life but when it’s being filmed it’s another ball game. I called a few friends who recommended other friends that they believed would be good for the concept I had, each woman had to be an entrepreneur or career person. It was important to showcase Nigerian women for the hard-workers that they are. The rest is history.
LMTV: What was the inspiration behind the project? Is it something you have always wanted to do or you just woke up one morning and said you know what, I am going to make a reality TV series?
In fact, I woke up one morning and decided to go for it. Much like with a lot of my businesses. I believe in a gut feeling more than in too many metrics. Not to say that the numbers don’t matter, they do. However, if there isn’t a passion for a venture I don’t know if it will stand the test of time. My blood and sweat are in this project. Also when I launched the Pamela Erere Foundation in 2011 people thought I was crazy, today we are changing lives, donating items to students, paying tuition, and supporting small businesses in Nigeria. If I had waited for everything to be perfect I never would have started. It’s the same with Real Naija Ladies of Dallas. I have been writing for years and everyone knows that I have a strong creative ability but television? No. I have never thought of myself as someone who would start my television career with reality television but here we are. It was definitely a quick decision that somehow evolved organically and more doors have been opened since the cameras first rolled in 2015. I think people should be more open-minded about where they want to go with their careers. Don’t box yourself in.
LMTV: RNLOD is like nothing I have seen before – an unscripted screen work that doesn’t happen inside a bubble, like a house as we have in BBN or on Stage like the talent shows. How did you come up with this format and why this format?
It hasn’t been done before for Africans in the United States but it has been done with other reality shows. The concept is not all the way mine, however, the approach and the stories we are choosing to tell, I agree those are all mine and intentional too. I believe that the only way to stand out is to be authentic and we are, with our culture. That’s one thing other shows don’t have. We speak pidgin English, we wear our African clothes, we visited Nigeria in Season 3 with our cameras rolling; that’s access we have to Africa that a lot of shows do not. The entertainment industry has also portrayed black women a certain way for too long and if I had any kind of control, then surely black women would be seen differently. This is what you will notice on RNLOD. More so, There was no way we could put everyone in one house because then what we captured wouldn’t be the real lives of the cast. Clearly there have been reality shows like this done but none with Nigerians. So the concept of having cameras follow people around was not new, but the casting, the narrative, definitely new.
LMTV: At the time you started, there was nothing like it, what gave you the confidence to go through with it?
There is still nothing like it, many have tried but have not been successful. I think it’s a gut feeling of knowing that I can do it. I have never backed down from a challenge, I am driven by the fact that a challenge seems unrealistic and undoable. That’s what sets me on fire. I had no production background but that didn’t stop me. I knew that once I had the right team (and money) hahaha, it would be done. I will admit that if I knew then what I know now I might have hesitated a bit because sometimes the only way to truly know is to get in the arena. It takes a whole lot to put a production like this together. A great team, crew, cast, financial resources. We make it look easy but it is not easy at all. God got us through.
LMTV: How did you assemble the characters and what were the criteria you employed in choosing who was going to be on the show?
Dallas has tons of successful millennials that fit the category but like I said “gut feeling” plays a role. People recommend people, some reach out to us directly, some we saw and auditioned. Primarily, each potential cast must have a career and the cast must be interconnected. This helps for the flow of conversations and more as everyone is already familiar with one another.
LMTV: What are some of the challenges you faced in the course of producing the show?
Bringing a bunch of women together and the challenges are endless. Lololol The main challenge is cost. It is very expensive to produce a show of this magnitude. Having a crew available at your beck and call doesn’t come cheap. And also having the right crew which has evolved over time. Then with ladies they are all divas, people want to film when they want and not when we want them to, people want to appear a certain way all the time, the characters want this preference and that preference and we just can’t please everyone. There is also the issue of tardiness. Half the time I want to pull my hair out. Then there are the demands by the cast while trying to manage the entire production. I am also part of the cast and also head of the production. It’s excruciating, like walking a tightrope really but we make it work. I am thankful that I know how to separate business from pleasure. When I’m in work mode everyone knows and they don’t try to get in my way, I’ve been known to bulldoze people lololol.
LMTV: The show features mini-interviews of the characters narrating events as they happen, from their own perspective. This also means being blunt about their perception of other members of the cast. I imagine this might cause some friction between the characters who later watch these interviews and see what the other person thinks about them. How do you manage this fallout?
I don’t. You have to think long and hard before you open your mouth and the cameras are right in front of you so don’t blame production for the aftermath. They signed up to be on a show and everyone is responsible for what they say or do. I also believe that everyone understands that those interview sessions are often filmed in the heat of the moment, we all just have to find a way to be mature about it and move on. People say mean things about me as well even though I own the show. Truth is when you start to overly control what people say, you lose the juice and the essence and risk compromising the entire show. As a producer, unless those comments affect the overall production, neither I nor any member of the crew gets involved in personal conflicts between the cast. Good luck to them lol
LMTV: You come across as a very energetic person. In episode 3 of RNLOD season 3, you mentioned that you are launching a shoe line. Can you tell us a bit about that?
The shoe line is already launched but the launch party was stopped due to the pandemic. I am a shoe lover but I have big feet, so I go through some trouble getting the types of shoes I like. J.Mairo Footwear caters mostly to women with big feet, size 11 and over. It’s comfy, stylish and for today’s woman especially those tired of being in heels all day. We will also make sizes for all women and maybe men, however, our main demographic is women with plus-size feet. Can be purchased on jennifermairo.com or via Instagram @j.mairofootwear.
LMTV: What’s your immigration story?
I was fortunate enough to marry a U.S citizen lololol. I did not suffer to get my documentation or anything. I had a very soft landing but it was hard being away from family who are based in Nigeria. I am blessed to have such a partner who stands with me and my decisions. I still had to learn a lot, I worked and schooled and had babies simultaneously. There was really no time to pause and chill and hang out. I hit the ground running. Overall, my immigration story is a great one.
Watch the latest episode of Real Naija Ladies Of Dallas>>