MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now we want to tell you about a new TV program that's hoping to bring new relevance to TV talk. The show is called "Exhale," it's on the ASPiRE network. That's a television network created by NBA legend Magic Johnson, to serve primarily African-American viewers. On the show, a panel of accomplished women talk about everything from health and fitness to sex and relationships.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "EXHALE")
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER #1: In this show, African-American women can see somebody they identify with.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER #2: If you're looking for a typical talk...
MALINDA WILLIAMS: ...We are going to break it down.
MARTIN: Actress Malinda Williams is one of those who's going to break it down. You probably know her from her work in the television series "Soul Food," and she is with us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.
WILLIAMS: Thank you, Michel, for having me.
MARTIN: What attracted you to this project?
WILLIAMS: I actually befriended a young woman on Twitter. And one day, she sent me a text and she said she's working with a woman who is booking talent for a new talk series and they're looking for an actress, and would it be OK if she gave them my name. You know, when she told me the idea and the concept, I just was like, really, five African-American women who kind of sit around and chitchat. I was like, I do that every day in my off time, so of course I'm down.
MARTIN: Yeah, there are big personalities on the show and it's interesting, people have - they are kind of related in the sense that everybody's connected to entertainment in some way - broadcasting, kind of being public in some way. There's Angela Burt-Murray, the former editor-in-chief of Essence magazine, Erin Jackson the comedian, Rene Syler the reporter and commentator, former "Morning Show" host for CBS, Issa Rae the creator of "The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl," that's gotten a lot of attention. It's a series - a web-based series. But the chemistry would have to matter, wouldn't it? I mean, the women, friends, girlfriends you hang around with are friends you chose, right?
WILLIAMS: That's right.
MARTIN: So these are friends you didn't necessarily choose. Any concerns that it could come off as weird...
MARTIN: ...Weird, trashy or even hostile because as we know, there are a number of reality shows featuring African-American women and people have a lot of feelings about the way they portray African-American women right now. Any concerns there?
WILLIAMS: I think we all recognize that this project is bigger than, you know, any differences we might have. I think it's OK for us, and we all agree that it's OK for us, to disagree. But I think what we're showing here is that we can disagree in healthy ways. We can disagree in productive ways and that's not necessarily what we've been seeing portrayed by and to African-American women.
MARTIN: There is some data, that you may have been aware of, that suggests that young people - particularly those who watch a lot of these programs - are absorbing this information and modeling behavior on it. Some of the professors at some of the HBCUs have seen some of the girls behaving in a way that they think they're imitating some of the women that they see on these reality - so-called reality shows because everybody knows how fake that is. Except that they - you know what I mean? That the kind of the hair pulling.
WILLIAMS: But you know what, Michel? I think...
MARTIN: So, like, really? Yeah.
MARTIN: You say that everybody knows how fake that is, but I don't know that everybody knows how fake that is. I really, truly believe that many people believe what they see on TV. If someone is saying it - or what they read on blogs - if someone is saying it, it must be true. And I think, you know, I run into people all the time and I hear it said and I've read it, that people don't feel like - you know, I don't represent the entire African-American race and, yeah, I guess that's true, you don't.
But, you know, there is a certain amount of responsibility, if you're going to be in the public eye, impressing millions of people with your image. You do, on some level, represent me. And I do, on some level, represent you. You know, maybe it's not for everybody to feel and, you know, approach their careers in that way, and I get it, but I really do feel like people are missing the mark when they think that it's just entertainment. It's entertainment but, you know, if you really break down the word entertain, it's, like, it's entering your mind, your mental.
MARTIN: What are you going for with the show, apart from not wanting to be a show where people are pulling on each other's hair and slapping each other?
WILLIAMS: You know, it's interesting - and I do this everyday. I've been doing this for the last - my goodness - 25, 30 years. I grew up with sisters. And so I've always recognized the value in being able to share something with someone I have things in common with. I think what we hope to achieve is - we understand that there are issues that are specific to women, much in the same way there are issues that are specific to African-American women.
We know that, historically in our community, there are things that have been taboo that we weren't able to talk about, that I think we feel now is OK for us to discuss. For instance, we have health issues. I remember having a health issue that I nearly died from a few years back, and you know, it was something that I just almost was ashamed to talk about. And it really turned out to be something that was very common in the African-American community. But I felt sort of ashamed because it was something that had to do with my body and, you know, typically we don't discuss issues that are related to our body and particularly, our female parts.
So as it turns out, I had - literally, was sort of bleeding to death from these fibroids that I had that weren't necessarily on my physician's radar. I opened up to one woman, one friend of mine, and she then, in turn, threw it back at me and said, oh, I have a friend who was going through something similar. Here's what I think it is. And it wound up being something that made me recognize - it helped me recognize that, you know what, if we don't start discussing some of these issues - I mean, we think we're dying from things like - and we are - from heart disease and from kidney failure, and those things can really be prevented.
We are actually suffering from things that are preventable, but we're not talking about them. So I think, in doing this show, what me and my producers and the director and, you know, everyone involved in the show hope to achieve is that we will start opening up more and, you know, discussing things that will benefit us.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we are speaking with Malinda Williams. She's one of the co-hosts of a new talk show on the ASPiRE network, it's called "Exhale." It features a group of high-powered, African-American women talking about issues of the day. I just want to play a clip to the point that you're talking about, 'cause a lot of the issues that I've seen on the show so far are issues that have been discussed in other venues, but you all take it in a slightly different direction. I just want to play a short clip from an episode of the show where you all were talking about health and wellness. And in this clip, you're talking about the pressure you felt growing up to have a certain body type. You know, here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "EXHALE")
WILLIAMS: We felt pressure as black women that we were too - like, we actually used to get teased - skinny, bean pole - you know, on the opposite end of the spectrum, which was hurtful for us 'cause we wanted to, you know, we wanted to look like our sisters, our cousins.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER #3: Juicy.
WILLIAMS: We wanted to be juicy, right.
MARTIN: Well, here's what I noticed about that conversation. You not only talked about this part of it, which I think people might have heard, you know, other people talk about the pressure to conform to a certain standard. A number of women also talked about not having health insurance.
WILLIAMS: That's right.
MARTIN: And they talked about ideal weight in a way that was not judgmental, but wasn't just accepting of anything either. Really kind of different from a lot of what you would have heard. I mean, I'm sure that there are white actresses in Hollywood who've gone periods where they didn't have health insurance either, but I confess to you, I have never heard one of them ever talk about that.
So I can see where you're going when you say you want to have a level of honesty about these conversations. The question I have for you is, do you think people want that? Or do they just want an escape? Do they just want to talk about the clothes and the hair and fabulous parties? I mean, do people really want to hear, you know, truth?
WILLIAMS: You know, my answer to that is I guess there's got to be something for everyone. Me, personally, when I was going through, say, the health issue I spoke about earlier, or when I was going through a divorce or any type of adversity, I was always looking for someone's story that I could relate to.
And I understand that, you know, the ladies and I sit around and we talk very candidly, and there's going to be someone who's going to relate to our story. There's going to be someone who's going to be helped or someone who's eyes are going to be opened and I think those are the people we're playing to.
MARTIN: I do have to ask you one thing, though. The fashion is so fierce on that show.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, thank you.
MARTIN: The fashion is so fierce.
WILLIAMS: Thank you.
MARTIN: Are you wearing your own stuff or do they style you?
WILLIAMS: Well, we are wearing - it's pretty much our own, for the most part. I mean, we all have our individual resources. I actually work with a stylist. But again, we weren't trying to necessarily dress the thing up, so much as we were trying to really - and I think that's also part of what the producer was going for. She really wanted us to be in our - be comfortable in what we were wearing. We weren't dressed up, so we didn't have to feel like we were in somebody else's clothes and, you know, had on someone else's look. And so then we had to sort of give this someone else-edness.
MARTIN: I'd wear someone else's clothes if they were those clothes. I'm sorry. They are great.
WILLIAMS: I mean, you know.
MARTIN: Well, is it fun? Are you having fun?
WILLIAMS: First of all, let me tell you something. I've been doing this for a very long time, since I was a little girl. I said that to let you know that I really enjoy working in this industry and all the different things that I've done - film and television and, you know, voiceovers. Whatever it is, I've pretty much done it all.
And this, I really want to say, was the most fun I've ever had on a project. And again, it was because I just really got to be myself. I got to be honest. I got to speak my mind. I didn't have to say lines or, you know, speak someone else's words or present someone else's vision. It was everything that was coming from, you know, my heart and my head. And so that is just - it felt like freedom. It felt fun.
MARTIN: Malinda Williams is an actress and one of the co-hosts of "Exhale." That's a new show on the ASPiRE network. You can catch it on Wednesdays at 8 p.m. She was kind enough to join us at our studios at NPR West in Culver City, California. Malinda Williams, good luck. Thank you so much for joining us.
WILLIAMS: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.