Seventeen years ago—during reality TV's infancy—Tami was on The Real World L.A. We talked to her about her history-making abortion, having her jaw wired shut, and returning to the genre she helped pioneer, on VH1's Basketball Wives.
As a cast member on the second season of The Real World in 1993, Tami opened up her life to cameras as she tried to make it in the music industry with her band Reality ("Imma slave, Imma slave, Imma slave to your lovin'"); cheated on the dating show Studs; had her blanket ripped off her by her roommate ("It wasn't not funny!"); had her jaw wired shut; and being the first woman to openly discuss and feature her abortion on television. Now she's joined the cast of Basketball Wives (being retired star Kenny Anderson's ex-wife), premiering December 12. She's still keeping it real in front of cameras, featuring the animus relationship with her ex, his strained relationship with his children, and an admission that she had to go on food stamps after her divorce. She clashes with some of her other cast mates in some elevated drama, proving she still knows how to make good TV.
Having been a 14-year-old girl—who, at the time, thought that getting one's jaw wired shut was a viable and ingenious diet plan—when The Real World L.A. aired, I'd be remiss if I didn't stress how much that show, and particularly Tami, had an impact on my life. (Hell, I still know the words to one of Reality's songs.) That impact was dichotomous: It certainly normalized crash-dieting for me, as mentioned above, but it also really influenced my pro-choice stance. Above all, it solidified my love for reality television. I was beyond excited to have the chance to discuss all of this with Tami on the phone.
What's it like returning to reality TV as a veteran of its first wave?
When we did [The Real World L.A.] all those years ago no one knew that reality TV would turn into what it has. The biggest difference is the social media aspect. Back when we did The Real World we didn't have Facebook and Twitter and blogs and all this stuff so whatever you did on the show you didn't hear comments about it right away. And now, as soon as something airs, you've got over 20,000 people commenting on it.
So is that kind of feedback a good or bad thing? Does it make the experience more difficult?
Well, it's gonna take some getting used to because I tend to take things to heart. When I'm involved in any capacity [with a show] I want it to be of value. I want things to matter to people. I want somebody to watch my story and take something away. So when I read a comment and someone has something negative to say about my life, you know, it affects me greatly.
Speaking of having the audience take something away from your story, I want to talk about when you had an abortion on The Real World. You don't really see that kind of "realness" on reality TV anymore. It was monumental in that you were the first woman to ever opened her life up in that way on a television show. How do you feel about that story being out there, 17 years later?
That was the whole point of doing it. At the time I was young and I made a foolish decision to have unprotected sex. It was really ridiculous because I was working at an HIV health care center at the time. I felt it was necessary to put it out there because I wanted people to see that when you are irresponsible and make poor choices, it only creates more difficult choices that you'll have to make. I don't mind that it's out there. You're always gonna have people that debate or negate something that you say or do so I'm up for that challenge.
Do your daughters watch The Real World now?
They don't watch The Real World so much. I would have to say that it has changed so much over the years since i was on it. But they've seen my season through tapes. They enjoyed it. They didn't have anything negative to say about it. They commended me for having opened myself up and showing as many different facets of my life and personality as I could. Or at least, as much as you could in a 22-minute episode.
Well another thing that happened during your season that particularly stuck with me, being a 14-year-old watching it, was when you had your jaw wired shut. It seemed like such a drastic measure that I wondered if it wasn't just a crash diet, but rather if it stemmed from a deeper discomfort with your own body image.
Yes, I actually suffered from eating disorders from the age of nine, so I did a lot of unhealthy things. I went from throwing up to laxative addiction to appetite-suppression addiction to just not eating. It was planted in my subconscious from an aspect in my past. I wanted to model and I went into an agency and they told me I needed to lose somewhere between 5 and 10 lbs. Now, ever since I was 13 years old, I stood 5'9 and half and at the time that I went into the agency I may have been 110 lbs soaking wet. That kind of stayed in my mind, the idea that I wasn't skinny enough. That stuck with me through most of my childhood and part of my adult life
How did your daughters—who are 14 and 16—respond to that when they saw that episode?
Well, it wasn't until my [older] daughter decided she wanted to model that I came to terms with how I view myself, and what caused me to have this downward spiral in my self-image. Now, through my experiences, I'm able to counsel her and make sure that she understands that if an agency doesn't want you, that's just their opinion. There's nothing wrong with you, you're fantastic the way you are. I have to really keep embedding that in both of my daughters' minds because I don't ever want them to feel like how I felt about myself.
You get into it a little bit with the other women on Basketball Wives this season. When you were on The Real World, a lot of the fights between cast members were based on cultural differences and politics but that's not the case on Basketball Wives. Why do you think that is? Does it have something to do with it being an all-female cast, or just the change in or cultural climate?
Anytime you put two people with differing opinions in a room together there's going to be some element of drama, there's going to be some disagreement, and particularly with women you have so many other factors you have to deal with. But I think that a lot of the disagreements that happened on Basketball Wives are because I'm 40. I'm probably the oldest person in the cast and I've been through so much in my life: Ups, downs, rich, poor, homeless, on food stamps, not on food stamps…I just feel like I have earned the right to be respected. Whenever you speak to me or approach me improperly, I'm gonna let you know that you need to respect me. We can disagree all day long—we don't have to agree—but we do have to respect each other. That's what I came up against with some of the women on this show. They're used to a certain lifestyle. They're used to people bowing down to them because of their money or because of their social status and they're used to speaking to people a certain way. I have to make it very clear that I'm not one of those people. So that's where a lot of those altercations came from.
So has returning to reality TV been a positive experience for you?
My main reason for going on Basketball Wives was to bring up the issue about my ex-husband [Kenny Anderson] and my children. My husband and I got divorced and that's fine. We're not talking about that. But we have two children and we didn't handle that situation properly. I basically said, "Me and Kenny don't get along so if he wants to see his kids, he has to do it my way." And his standpoint was, "Me and Tami don't get along, so if I want to see my kids, she's gotta do it my way." And that ended up resulting in my kids not having a relationship with their dad. We made decisions based on how we felt about each other and we didn't take our children into consideration.
Being on the show allowed us to talk out our differences work out our agreements and start rebuilding our family. My daughters are rebuilding a relationship with their father. I'm rebuilding a communication channel with him. So was it positive for me? Yes, because my intention for being on the show was to be able to work through those differences.
So it was cathartic?
Yes, because before this, Kenny and I couldn't sit in a room together. We couldn't have two minutes worth of conversation without yelling, screaming, or cursing each other out. We really couldn't get anything accomplished. So with the cameras and our children witnessing our conversations, we were forced to alter that and listen for the benefit of our children.