An Oral History of ‘Cita’s World,’ BET’s Original Virtual Reality Host

In 1998, BET premiered its music countdown show hosted by a bodacious cyber diva—decades before the billion-dollar business of digital worlds.

Real life is complicated enough that no one would blame you if you don’t understand the metaverse. The New York Times defines it as “the convergence of two ideas that have been around for many years: virtual reality and a digital second life.” Companies like Microsoft and Facebook are investing billions of dollars in what’s considered the future of technology or even the future of work. Even VICE has Viceverse, its own digital workspace. There are places where you can shop or drop it low at a Megan Thee Stallion concert. But before the big business of the metaverse or digital influencers like Lil Miquela, there was Cita—BET’s bodacious cyber diva living in her own world. 

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“Take a break from the Y2K scare and join the virtual reality of the JamZone,” said Cita in a 1998 commercial for the 2-hour music video roundup that she would host. “I am your host, Cita, living in a virtual world and keeping you on your toes. I epitomize ghetto fabulous, giving you all the dirt and breaking down those videos.” Cita, although fictional, looked like the women in the music videos she was throwing to. Named after Cita Sideli, a D.C. illustrator who drew her, she sported a bold pixie cut, had an hourglass figure (back before asses were bought), and wore mini-skirts religiously. As an impressionable child watching this show, I felt a familiarity about Cita: She spoke the language of Black women I ear hustled in communal spaces like nail and hair salons. Black women who felt no shame about ebonics passing their lips. 

Still, it wasn’t just how she spoke, as much as it was about what she said. She encouraged women to ask their partners for oral sex on an Ask Cita segment. She wasn’t afraid to say she disliked Nelly’s nursery rhymes. JamZone was a space where Cita’s unadulterated opinion was all her own—but behind the scenes was BET’s dream team, who designed Cita from the ground up. 

JamZone was the brainchild of Curtis Gadson, who also created the BET Awards, 106 & Park, and ComicView, and his son Corey Turner. Now, the two work on their own production company, Ladder 33. “We were joking around about pop culture and entertainment news, and we thought, Wouldn’t it be cool if we could get an actor to have a show where they could say what they’re feeling? Because no one ever really says what they’re thinking,” says Turner, who directed and animated the show, using real-time motion capture with a real-time integrated set and camera tracking. “We thought if we created a character and she says something people don’t like, who is there to blame? Cita was the original social commentator.”

As a network, BET was supposed to celebrate Black achievement, but not everyone who worked there agreed on exactly what Black excellence looked or acted like. “I got into a lot of trouble for greenlighting this thing,” says Gadson. “Corey and I had conversations for over a year to figure out how to walk that fine line where we could be progressive but not offensive.” A lot of ideas we had didn’t make the air because we were extremely concerned about how Black women were perceived.” For two Black men to create a show centering on a Black woman, they did what other networks at the time weren’t doing: They hired Black women.

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Tracye Kinzer wasn’t a stranger to BET. As a student at the University of the District of Columbia, she interned for Planet Groove, a music talk show hosted by Rachel Stuart. Kinzer says other networks like MTV were more interested in having her grab food or do clerical work. “I told them, ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’ I don’t want to leave here the same way I came in.” At BET, her boss Sam Walker gave her the opportunity to write Planet Groove’s show notes, which eventually turned into producing segments of the show until the end of her internship. Other interns scrambled for employment once their tenure was up, but not Kinzer: Fielding interest from a few shows, she accepted a job as a full-blown producer on JamZone, thanks to support from an executive named Lynne Harris Taylor.

One of her first big tasks included recasting the actress who had been hired to play Cita. “I met with her quite a few times, but I couldn’t really get her to do what the show called for,” says Kinzer. “I knew they wanted it ghetto-fab, if nothing else, and she didn’t possess those skills. I remember thinking, I have the wrong person.” Suddenly, Kinzer remembered a classmate she had worked with on a couple of student film productions. The only problem was that she couldn’t get in touch with her. 

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Kali “Kittie” Troy walked into the BET offices, unaware that what she was seeking was also seeking her. “I had a stack of resumés—because that’s how we did it back then—and I was ready to shake hands and kiss babies,” says Troy. “I knew I needed to be in front of the camera. I just didn’t know how to facilitate that.” After reading her nametag, a woman at the front desk alerted Kinzer that the woman she had been calling around town about, to no avail, was standing in front of her. “That was God’s grace by a landslide,” says Troy. 

Kinzer wasted no time. She brought Troy to meet Stephen Hill, then BET’s Vice President of Music Programming, for an impromptu audition for JamZone. “He asked me to get ghetto, and I remember thinking, Is that how you get a job around here?” Troy recalls, laughing. She says Kinzer pulled her to the side, reminding her how much was on the line for them both. “Before the day was over, they called me and said, ‘Homegirl’s out. Your girl’s in,’” Kinzer remembers. 

“From the second she walked into the control room, there was no doubt that she was actually Cita,” says Turner. “She didn’t know what she couldn’t do. She didn’t have a boundary that came from other experiences that said I couldn’t do this or that—and quite frankly, neither did I. We were a group of people aspiring to do greatness but unaware of the limitations at play, so we did whatever felt good.” 

Turner, who has gone on to work on films like Transformers and The Polar Express, was the only person on the team with a background in visual effects, so airing a new episode on weekdays would be a difficult task for an inexperienced crew. It is most comparable to James Cameron’s work with Avatar—except JamZone did it an entire decade before the film hit theaters. After months of training his crew, the executives wanted to sit in on JamZone’s pilot episode. But moments before they were set to go live, Cita’s limbs flew in different directions. Turner made the call to air the first episode as a tight-cropped frame of Cita’s face until they could figure out the issue. 

At the same time the next day, she exploded again. “We had 13 magnetic sensors on Kittie’s joints, but next door to BET was the Metro’s train charging station,” says Turner. As it turns out, D.C.’s subway system charged their trains at the same time as the show was set to go live, causing an electromagnetic distortion that would neutralize the sensors. “We ended up building a platform six-feet high for Kittie so that we could shoot during our assigned time and not have the character explode.” The executives weren’t impressed with the technical difficulties, but they were impressed with Troy as Cita. 

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After a successful first year, JamZone became Cita’s World. “We did really well that first year, although nobody expected us to,” says Kinzer. “People kept telling me, ‘You know they set you up to fail.’” Under the show’s new title, Cita’s bumper music found the cyber host screaming, “‘Cause I’m a strong Black woman!” (Hill even lent the “Damn, right” vocals). In clips, Cita appeared in front of cultural iconography like the Mona Lisa, the moon, and the Statue of Liberty, making the show's direction pretty clear: Cita was inserting herself in mainstream culture—whether you liked it or not. She would also be doing it in a way that felt most natural to her. 

For those who worked on the show, it was hard to tell where the actor began and Cita ended. Troy, who grew up in D.C.’s Southeast neighborhood, brought the city’s dialect with her. Words like “very” sounded like “vury,” and mouth smacks often punctuated her thoughts. “The D.C. accent was necessary because I was living my truth,” says Troy. “I wasn’t trying to mimic a New Yorker.” Dialect aside, the writer’s room didn’t write Cita as a polished host. They knew what would appeal to a younger, hip audience because they were young and hip. “We knew the language because we had just come out of that,” Troy says. “I was barely in my 30s. We never found that being preachy or telling kids what to do was effective.” 

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Contrary to critics who focused on her ghetto fabulous delivery, Cita’s talking points had range. She could go on an impassioned rant about a child accidentally eating her birth control or ask if size mattered—but she could also talk about Dr. Frances Cress Welsings’ seminal work The Isis Papers and encouraged Black communities to vote in the 2000 election. “Tracye and I toed the line,” Troy says. “We would check in like, Are we in trouble? Are we good? Look at the numbers and put our heads back down.”

Across Cita’s World’s four-season run, the crew relocated from D.C. to New York, then Los Angeles. The writer’s room changed, too. Cliff McBean, who both Kinzer and Troy considered a pivotal member of the writing room, did not join them in California. He had been a production assistant when Kinzer gave him an opportunity similar to the one Walker had afforded her. “He wrote up something, and I was floored,” says Kinzer. “So I had him write another and another. He was able to maintain Cita’s aggressiveness but also keep her sensitive.” Once McBean didn’t return, Kinzer admits that although they hired two more women writers, the show felt different. It felt lighter. After a year in LA, Cita’s World was not renewed.  

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There was what Gadson considers a “cultural divide” within the ranks at the network. “I was getting an enormous amount of pressure from higher-ups that even though Cita was very popular, they thought it was damaging to Black women,” he says. “There was a disconnect between the higher-ups, the people on the street, and the people who actually did the job.”  

Troy says she was “totally blindsided” after visiting her attorney the day he got a fax about the cancellation from the network. No one has been able to provide a direct answer for why Cita’s World was canceled, but the crew chalks it up to a shift in power and, ultimately, a difference in opinion of Cita’s impact on the same communities she was created to represent. “First, y’all love her because she’s relatable and because she is ghetto, and now she’s too ghetto?” 

From the beginning, Troy had remade Cita in her image. I asked whether the cancellation felt like she was being condemned as a person or whether she viewed it as a simple business decision. “It felt like a little bit of both,” says Troy. “We did what you asked. We had the numbers. People are calling us iconic and saying Cita will be revered. Yet, I could not get another hosting job to save my life.” More recognizable BET hosts like 106 & Park alum AJ and Terrence J made the jump to other shows like Entertainment Tonight and E! News, but few people knew Troy was the magic behind Cita. Eventually, she found success in the voice over world playing Trixie on Disney’s American Dragon: Jake Long.

This brings us back to the present, when the tech industry is pushing hard for virtual social interaction. BET could have been at the forefront—they certainly were once. Gadson shared that, initially, his aim for creating Cita’s World was to open the network up into gaming. “I knew that was a huge industry that didn’t have any Black representation at the time,” he says. “I knew I would be preparing an African American team who understood the process behind gaming.” As the show progressed, the showrunners tried to expand Cita’s World in other ways, too. Kinzer recalls wanting to explore Cita interviewing artists at Tower Records. To show what was possible, they aired an episode where Busta Rhymes joined Cita at her studio and another where Cita left her world and interviewed Lil Kim. Still, the network placed priority on other shows, making 106 & Park the premier destination for live interviews. 

These days, BET is a shell of its former Y2K heyday. Original programming, like the shows helmed by Gadson, has been replaced by hours of reruns of 90s sitcoms like Martin and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Scripted shows created by major stars like Tyler Perry and Lena Waithe are reserved for the network’s premium streaming service. 

Last year, the network reprised Cita as an aftershow host for BET Presents: The Encore, a reality show attempting to resurrect the careers of a handful of 90s R&B singers. Although fans celebrated her return, having Cita on a show about over-the-hill celebrities inadvertently cast her in the same light. Some of the team, like Turner and Troy, worked behind-the-scenes for Cita’s return, but others, like Kinzer, did not.

“I look at Cita’s World as a legacy for me,” says Kinzer, who has gone on to produce for TVOne and WeTV. “I don’t think [Encore] lended to who Cita was, could’ve been, or would become after all these years. [I wouldn’t come back] until they bring her back in a way that is true to who Cita is—and not in that little box they put her in.” 

Kristin Corry is a Senior Staff Writer for VICE.

Tagged:

Technology, music videos, virtual reality, Oral History, BET, Metaverse, cita's world, music countdown

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