While Oscar-bait producers and prestige TV networks have been ignoring minorities, reality TV mogul SallyAnn Salsano has been producing shows featuring people we rarely see on the small screen. Her company, 495 Productions, produced Jersey Shore—a show about working-class Italians—in 2009, during the recession. Then, SallyAnn chose five women of color to host a morning talk show called The Real,which has since become the highest rated new syndicated morning show in years.
Read More: The Undying Love of Spencer and Heidi Pratt
This week, Lifetime premieres SallyAnn's latest reality show, Mother/Daughter Experiment: Celebrity Edition. The series puts famous, young reality stars together with their middle-aged moms in a house where they must work through their personal issues. (Real Housewives of Beverly Hills' Kim Richards also appears on the show, with her teenage daughter.) Throughout the season, the young women confront their moms about notorious reality TV moments—Heidi Pratt revisits her mom criticizing her plastic surgery on Lifetime—while also revealing private moments, some for the first time. In one preview, Courtney Stodden accuses her mom (and former manager) of falling in love with her husband.
SallyAnn learned to make relatable entertainment out of real life from her years as an intern on The Howard Stern Show and The Sally Jesse Raphael Show. She worked for Raphael for five years, eventually becoming a producer. While there, SallyAnn watched guests engage with topics that were taboo for the 90s: paternity tests, divorce, and homosexuality.
Like reality TV, Sally was crass. Some feminists, though, believed the talk show served a higher purpose, noting how it highlighted groups rarely seen on TV—like homosexuals, and transgender women. In a famous 1996 essay, first published in The Nation, cultural critic Ellen Willis writes, "On talk shows, whatever their drawbacks, the proles get to talk. The rest of the time they're told in a thousand ways to shut up. By any honest reckoning, we need more noise, not less."
SallyAnn has continued Sally Jesse Raphael's tradition. Her shows depict nightclub punches, but they also explore the lives of poor party girls, middle-aged moms, and women of color from historically marginalized groups. The programs may not always show people in the best light, but SallyAnn believes they portray reality. She gets many show ideas from her own and friends' experiences. She even encourages her employees to discuss personal problems at work, because they could inspire a show.
"I grew up going to the Jersey shore," she explains. "I lived in a house full of strangers. That's how you did it back then. You weren't, like, on Facebook chat rooms picking the pretty people to be in a house with. You were like, 'I'm just going to sign up and see who's there'—and that's exactly what that show was. That's what we kind of had to do."
In anticipation of Mother/Daughter Experiment: Celebrity Edition, we caught up with SallyAnn to chat about her new show, the reasons we love the Kardashians, and why the Republican primary is the best reality show on TV.
Broadly: How did you come up with the Mother/Daughter Experiment?
SallyAnn Salsano: The mother/daughter relationship is probably one of the hardest relationships—even when it is great, it's still trying. My mom was my best friend in my life, so I [thought] I [could] never fit into this [show]. That being said, I could've totally fit onto this show. Each week there's a topic, and I think if any mother or daughter tried to sandwich themselves into a topic, they could have. Now granted, my mother didn't try to hit on my husband, like that happened on our show [with Courtney Stodden and her mom], but within that scene I definitely could have fit in a time I felt betrayed or let down.
How did you cast the celebrity season?
We've seen a lot of these dynamics in the press, like Heidi [Pratt] and her mom. We all watched that relationship on The Hills—what you don't know is actually what happened. With Courtney Stodden and her mom, [everyone wondered], What mother would let a 16-year-old marry a 50-year-old? Well, I don't know—let's find out.
I'm a lover of reality TV. I've seen all these people on other shows for sure—I read US magazine and People every week cover to cover—but watching this show every week I learned new stuff about each one of those girls. I was going, Oh my God, I had no idea. Is that how that happened? What happened after the cameras left? You actually see why people are ticking and why maybe their characters on a show are a certain way.
What was the biggest revelation while watching the celebrities interact with their moms?
Natalie and Heidi were drinking and partying, and their moms were like, "What the hell is going on?" I think watching people in an environment with their parents is nuts—completely nuts. Going on a reality show that's wired with cameras 24/7 [is] fine, but then putting your mother in that same situation is a whole other ball of wax. You don't realize how [reality TV production] affects other people. Just because you chose to do [reality TV] with your life doesn't mean it's a normal environment for other people.
Are you on set every day?
I enjoy being on shows in the field because if I get a note or something in post-[production], I actually know how to make the scene better. I feel like I can be more helpful to my staff if we have [other material]. I can be like, "No, I was there when blankety-blank said this." I have one of those memories that if I see something, I totally remember it.
What's an average workday like for you?
I start at 4:30 AM and end around 11:30 or midnight. I'm kind of crazy, but I wouldn't have it any other way. I dig it. Every once in a while, I go home—but even if I go home and have dinner with my husband, he laughs because at 2 in the morning I'm up, my laptop's on, and I'm sitting up still. It's how I do it. I almost don't know if I know how to do it any other way.
Do you study other reality shows?
Yeah, I watch other shows—I love reality TV. Last night I watched double Kardashians because I was out of town last Sunday, so I did my two hours of Kardashians when I got home on Saturday. [The next morning], I got up, I watched four episodes of Mother/Daughter, did edit notes on it, and then I watched three episodes of Newlyweds on Bravo that I'd fallen behind on. I was also three episodes behind of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.
What do you love about reality TV?
I love the truth that it tells. I think writing a story based on life is great. I watch scripted shows once in a while, where you see someone struggling with a dilemma, but [I prefer reality television]. When I was a kid I used to read Everybody Choose Your Own Adventure books, and I feel like when I watch a reality show it's more of that. You're like, What would I do? What would I do? What would I do? I feel like when you're watching a scripted show you're like, Oh, that's just what they made the character do—that was a choice that was made because it's going to play out in three episodes. In a reality show, it's more like life, where people make knee-jerk reactions and then are forced to deal with the ripple effect of [them].
Who is your favorite reality star?
I like so many people for different reasons. There are certain shows that I can't get enough of for different reasons, like the Kardashians. I swear to God, it's as if I get paid a million dollars a second to watch that show. If I even turn around and miss a [shot], I'm like, "Rewind it! I have to see it again!"
Why does America love the Kardashians?
I think you think of the Kardashians, and you go, Oh my God! They're so rich, famous, and beautiful, and in the end, they have all the same shit that we're going through. Every relationship doesn't work out. Just because you're hot, rich, and live in a nice house doesn't mean that your relationship is going to be perfect. It doesn't mean you're not going to get preeclampsia when you're pregnant just because you're famous—just think about everything that's gone on in their lives. They're just regular people, but they [just happen to be] so damn pretty.
Your work life and free time seem devoted to reality TV? Do you read or go to the movies?
Sure, I'm a good reader. I read US, OK, InTouch, People, and Star every week—that's a pretty big commitment. I love Joy, and Straight Outta Compton was my favorite movie in the last few years. A lot of my favorites are based on some kind of truth or story—I watched Creed and I loved it. (In my mind, Rocky Balboa is real, so to me, [the movie] was real.) Right now my favorite reality show is by far the elections. I could care less about politics. I know I probably shouldn't say that, but I'm not sitting around studying world events.
Is the election Trump's best reality performance?
I would say "yes."
Like Trump, New York is your home. How has Long Island influenced your work?
My dad worked at the City of New York Sanitation, and my mom was a nurse. I wasn't a silver spooner type of kid, so I think I had the same issues and struggles that everyone else had. I relate better to people that come from hard working families and won't take "no" for an answer and are determined to make things work. I feel like that's what America is kind of all about right now.
When you see a reality star get into a really messy situation on your show do you ever feel guilt?
Not really, because a lot of the times it's just stuff that happens that would happen whether we were there or not. We're not the cause of an event. A roommate [fight] or someone getting pregnant? I didn't [cause] either.
You got your start as an intern for Howard Stern and Sally Jesse Raphael. They're known for their controversial subject matter. How did they influence you?
You [learn that you] hear a story where you think it's completely unrelatable, and there's no way it's true, and then you meet 50 people that tell you, "Oh my God! When that show aired it reminded my of my relationship with my mom," or, "That happened to my sister." I don't care how rich you are, what part of the country, what race, what color, what age, what creed—I think every single person has a weird uncle, that family member that isn't working, that weird uncle that everyone knows is cheating on the wife. I feel like it's so common; it just depends on people sweeping it under the table or not.
When we were making Sally, it was one of those things that was super helpful to people at home. Sometimes you watch a show and think, Oh my God! That kind of helps me. Sometimes you see how someone handles stuff, and sometimes it shows you, Oh my God! I wish I could've handled it that well, or, Oh my God! I'm definitely not going to handle it like that. Life is hard.
Feminists have praised Sally and other 1990s talk shows for putting LGBT people on TV before mainstream television did. Do you feel like reality TV and The Real have also given people a platform who typically wouldn't be on our screens?
I do think that. You can't be mad at people for having an opinion. It is very difficult to speak your mind with the world watching. Most people are PC when people are watching and try to make it right. I think the reality characters on TV that have just been themselves—and not sugar-coated it because they were on TV—are basically the ones that have become the most successful.
When you look at Jersey Shore, those kids did what they did, and then the next day they woke up and it was a new day. If [you have] a weird one-night stand and then you wake up the next day, you're not crying about it for three weeks. You're like, "Thank God no one saw that—moving on." Sometimes I feel like people on reality TV are not given enough credit. When you're watching those shows instead of being like, "Oh my God! I can't believe she'd say that!" Say, "Oh my God! That's so honest. Would I have the guts to put myself out there in order to get help?"