I was not prepared to like Shallon Lester, the star of MTV’s newest reality show, “Downtown Girls.” I mean, she’s on an MTV reality show, right?! These are the people who foisted Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt upon our unsuspecting souls. I prepared myself for MTV’s latest skinny blonde offering to the couch potato gods to be predictably detestable.
Alas, Shallon is not going to be the next reality star we’ll love to hate. At least not yet, anyway.
Turns out, Shallon’s smart, funny, and so attractive you’d think she just walked off a soap opera set (Hilary Duff or Theodora Richards come to mind). “Downtown Girls,” which debuts on MTV on June 1 at 11p.m. EST, follows 27-year-old Lester — a former gossip reporter for The New York Daily News who now writes for Glamour.com and last year published a young adult novel — and four of her best friends as they navigate boys, families and careers in New York City. We’ve got Klo, the older and wiser one; Gurj, the sassy Brit who works in the music industry; Victoria, the ditz; and Nikki, the rich girl who owns her own boutique.
I talked with Shallon Lester about reality TV, sex tapes (she doesn’t have one), and her penchant for dating younger men.
So the other women on “Downtown Girls” are your real friends?
Yeah! I’m not a good actress so I can’t pretend people are my friends when they’re not. I’m not going to do a show where I fight with my actual friends.
So, news reports two years ago said you were working on a reality show, but it didn’t pan out. Is this the same show you were working on?
Two and a half years ago I was working at The Daily News [as a gossip reporter] and my bosses there, Rush & Malloy, they approached the producers about a reality show about the gossip industry. The production company passed on that, but interviewed me as part of the process. They were, like, ‘Oh, we’d rather develop a show about Shallon,’ and so we sold it to MTV.
So the reality show concept didn’t even involve your friends at the beginning?
I’d told them so much about my friends that they were, like, “We want to meet all of them!” They’re as bizarre as I am!
Did you have to sell your girlfriends on it?
I didn’t really have to sell them on it. They trusted me once they met the production company. Everyone is so cool who did the show. They were, in a way, transparent about what they wanted the show to be. It’s not an elaborate hoax on all of us — (laughs) I hope not!
The trailer for “Downtown Girls” makes the show look like it’s going to be a real-life “Sex and the City.” Was that intentional?
That’s not what we were going for — it just sort of turned out that way. People said that on the internet (mimes a disapproving face): “Sex and the City”! [However,] “Sex and the City” is fictitious. It’s like watching the evening news and saying it’s like “Law & Order.” They’re two totally different things!
Well, calling something like “Sex and the City” is not necessarily even an insult.
Some people mean it as a compliment and some people don’t (laughs). Yeah, it’s definitely a flattering comparison. I can definitely see it. We’re very distinct personalities. I’m a writer, obviously. My shoes are a lot cheaper. You will never see me blowing money on shoes like that. Never, never! And I don’t like the Upper East Side. These are the main differences. Plus, [“Downtown Girls” is] obviously not scripted like that.
Being on a reality show, did you feel compelled to give the camera some drama?
Not really. You obviously want to give the best product that you can. I think there were times I would be upset about something and my natural inclination would be [to keep it in]. ‘Keep it together, Shallon, keep it together!’ But [on the show] I’m, like, no, let it out. Give yourself to the process. Open yourself up. If you’re going to cry, cry. If you’re going to be mad, be mad. If you’re going to shamelessly flirt with a dude, do it. Which I do!
Isn’t it awkward flirting with cameras there?
I am a woman with a purpose, Jessica. I love boys. I collect them as one collects Fabergé eggs. It wasn’t hard for me! I didn’t mind the cameras. It took my friends a while to get used to it.
Yeah, but what did the guys you’re flirting with think?
I don’t care. (laughs) Yeah, some of them did [mind the cameras]. There were some who kept looking in the camera and I was, like, ‘Over here! Talk to me.’ My ex-boyfriend is in it. We started dating during the pilot, the original pitch video that never made it to TV. He’s pretty good with the whole thing.
Is there a narrative arc to the whole season, like on “The Hills“?
I narrate the whole thing so I have a pretty good idea of what happens through each episode and throughout the season. But what we look like? No, I haven’t seen it. I haven’t laid eyes on it. I hope I don’t look weird!
Are you concerned about editing? Many a reality show star before you has been upset with they way they’re edited to look on TV.
No, not really. Obviously, they’re going to have to edit to give some continuity in certain scenes. But if you don’t say stupid stuff, they’re not going to be able to edit you saying stupid stuff. And I really trust the producers that they’re not trying to make some ruinous television show that wrecks my life.
And as a journalist, you understand that the subject is the one responsible for not saying anything that makes them look bad.
Yes, exactly. It’s very easy to misconstrue things, especially in print, as I’m learning as I start to do these interviews [about “Downtown Girls”]. Seeing your words in print, they can have a very different connotation.
Well, it sounds really different from MTV’s other reality shows like “The Hills” and “Jersey Shore.” Do you think it’s going to get the same kind of ratings?
I hope so. I mean, “The Hills” girls have been around for so long. Since high school we’ve been following them, so they’ve built up a very solid fan base. To some degree, this is going to hook in girls who haven’t been given a voice on reality TV: smart, career-driven, funny, ballsy girls. We do see that a little bit on “The Hills” and “The City” but I think this will be different. We’re more grown-up and I’m thankful that we are because I don’t know how I could do this if I was, like, 21 or 22 like “The Hills” girls. I’m 27. It’s different than “The Hills” and “The City” — that, to me, is escapism. Those girls are so flawless and so pretty and they live such a glamorous life. But ours, hopefully we look good! (laughs) The things we go through, I think girls our age can identify with. We all have bad dates. I go on plenty! We have career struggles, we deal with our parents, get in fights, stuff like that.
How does your family feel about you being on a reality show?
They’re really excited for me, but nervous in a good way. My mom was so funny. When we were filming, I would call her up and she would be, like, “Are they filming me right now?” And I’d be, like, “Mom, you’re in California! How would anybody be filming you? Think about what you’re saying! Think about every word coming out of your mouth? Do you really think I would ambush my own mother?”
Was Glamour cool about you filming there?
Glamour was awesome. They’re just an awesome company.
How much of “Downtown Girls” is about working as a writer?
We each have our own career issues we’re going through. Nikki is trying to keep her store in business. She has a boutique in SoHo. Victoria is trying to become a lawyer. Klo, my best friend, she’s trying to figure out if she can have a career and balance the whole domestic thing. Gurj, I wasn’t with her when they filmed at work, obviously. She works at Atlantic Records. I think the message comes across that for us it’s career first and then boys are secondary to our own careers, which I think can be rare today!
How ready are you to be cast in the spotlight? I mean, you could suddenly become famous soon!
I think I’m ready? (shrugs) I don’t have a sex tape. I don’t have any naked pictures. I don’t have any mug shots. There’s no skeletons in my closet that were consensual. (laughs) I think I’m as ready as I’m going to get. I hope. Working in gossip, it gave me a very necessary education to what goes into tabloid journalism in that whole celebrity scene. You know, if people write something snarky about a celebrity, it’s not a personal swipe. [The gossip columnist] has to have a story and they try. I have taken quotes and tried to twist some different meaning out of them, wring some sort of scandal out of an interview, because you’re under so much pressure. And people don’t even view you, if you’re a celebrity, as a person. You’re a character. You have to separate yourself from “Shallon the character” versus “Shallon the person” — not that I’m at that stage yet.
You seem very similar in person to how you are on the show.
No, not for me it’s not. For better or for worse! I don’t know if that’s going to be my Achilles’ heel, that I’m too exposed and let it all out there. But I don’t really know how else to be.
Is there an ulterior plan? Do you have aspirations for, like, a clothing line or a talk show or something?
I will never put out a fashion line. I promise you. I also will never put out a pop album. I swear to God on that. I already have an alternate product, which is books. I’m [writing] my second book! If the show can help me advance my writing career, great. I’m developing a TV show with my friend, Nasim Pedrad. She’s on “Saturday Night Live.” We went to high school together. We’ve been writing partners for years and we wrote this script, like, a year and a half ago and now it’s finally going into development. So I could do something with that — write that [show] half the year, film [“Downtown Girls”] half the year. That would be amazing. But we’ll see, these are sort of pie-in-the-sky dreams.
So what’s the current guy situation?
I was actually texting my friend to see if he would break up with the two boys that I’m dating because they’re just stupid. It’s not great. It’s not bad. I shouldn’t say it’s not great. Together, the two of them make an entire boy. I think dating in New York is like grocery shopping: you would love to just go one place and get everything you need, but you usually have to go [to] a bunch of places and get a little bit there and a little bit there and a little bit there. Sometimes I need five boys to make an entire satisfying experience. So that’s the situation I’m in now. But I think for the first time, I don’t feel like I need a guy. Like that obsessive need for attention and distraction and titillation.
How do these guys you’re dating feel about the show coming out?
One is freaked out that I’m going to change and it’s going to portray me in a weird way. He’s only 24.
Yeah, I have read about you and your fascination with younger guys!
I love younger guys!
If you’re 27, then 24 isn’t even that young.
I’d go younger. Believe me, I’d go younger. The best boyfriend I had, I was 25 and he was 19. Best! Best boyfriend. They’re just so honest at that age. They don’t know yet that they can lie to women and f*** around and get away with it. They still feel obligated to be honest. They have better bodies by default. They’re so excited to see you naked. There’s just so many things! The other guy I’m dating, he’s older. He’s 29. He’s a little self-congratulatory. So I’m, like, all right.
Well, at least he’s happy to be with someone on a reality show, right?
He’s stoked on it. He’s very supportive. [With older guys] you don’t have to wake up with all your makeup on, like you sometimes have to do with younger guys. The flawless facade never fades! You can be a little more real when they’re older and they’ve been around the block a few times.
Cool. Is there anything else I didn’t ask?
How did I get so pretty? (laughs) J/k, j/k!
Well, you are pretty!