interview: indie filmmaker, model ari fitz explains why she opted to appear on a reality show

May 7, 2014

Reality shows are often deceitful, manipulative and stereotypical, and yet indie flmmaker and model Ari Fitz opted to appear on what some consider trash TV. At the beginning of The Real World: Ex-plosion, audiences witnessed what could have been yet another epic example of a black woman behaving badly on television. A cast member threw hot oil at Ari Fitz and everyone assumed she would go HAAM. What was Ari’s reaction? Pure calm. She went on to explain why throwing hot oil at someone is never okay and that was that. She went on with life as normal. No drama occurred.
There’s been a slew of hyper negative and stereotypical images of black people in the media for far too long. Distorted images that perpetuate a plethora of stereotypes: “the sassy black woman,” insert Love and Hip-Hop, Real Housewives of Atlanta and a long list of other reality shows. Yet, Ari Fitz debunks all stereotypes. She’s an educated, driven, weird [her words not mine], and well an all-around queer girl next door that Americans got to see on their television screens.

By Andrea Dwyer, AFROPUNK Contributor *

Andrea: Can you please introduce yourself to our readers?


Ari: I am Ari Fitz. I’m an Oakland based filmmaker, model, pusher, and former cast member of The Real World: Ex-plosion.


Andrea: Are you originally from Oakland?


Ari: I’m from the Bay area originally. I went to college at UC Berkeley, but I didn’t move to Oakland until six years ago.


Andrea: What do you love about Oakland?


Ari: The thing I love the most about Oakland is that, as a creative person, I’m surrounded by a lot of other creative people – from different walks of life. Oakland is an amazing city with a hugely diverse population.


What are some of your favorite places in the city?


Ari: Every first Friday there’s this art crawl. It used to be called Art Murmur but now I think it’s just called First Friday. It’s a great time. You can interact with other artists while checking out some really dope galleries. The downtown area has a really cool vibe, lots of bars, clubs, and restaurants.

Andrea: You were a cast member on the most recent Real World, Real World: Ex-Plosion. Why did you do the show?

Ari:  I had some hesitations about throwing myself into the depths of reality TV because I take issue with how it often portrays people of color and queer people.  But, I’m the kind of person that likes challenges; I throw myself into a lot of uncomfortable situations. So, perfect or not, the show would be a great platform to help spread my work and open some doors for other people who look like me who want to break into the horror genre. It was a good opportunity to tell my story and connect with other people who resonated with me.

Andrea: Reality shows have the tendency to be manipulative and tend to reinforce certain stereotypes. The producers lied to the entire cast when they brought in everyone’s exes. What was your initial reaction when that happened?


Ari: Ohh man [sigh]. You can only imagine what it was like. You’re living your life and feeling some type of way because you’re on camera, really you’re just trying to adjust to this new life. Then you realize that all the baggage you thought was left at home will now be – once again – a part of your life.  My first reaction was incredibly negative because I wanted the audience to see this cool, fun, weird, filmmaker/model and for them to really get to know me. Yet, all of a sudden it felt like it wasn’t about me, but about my relationship.


Andrea: You were refreshingly laid-back, driven, and drama free. What was it like being amongst the chaos but not actively being part of it?


Ari: Great question. Outside of the show, I’m usually incredibly focused on my work.  So, I actually came into the house having given myself a free pass to let loose and party.  But things got pretty heavy super quickly in the house.  I became the person everyone wanted to tell all ten thousand of their feelings to. Somehow everyone else’s problems became mine. I wasn’t used to having to play counselor for eleven different individuals so that got really stressful. I was the most involved in everyone else’s life but had the least drama.

Andrea: On an episode of the show, we witnessed a situation where folks on the internet speculated about your gender identity–they misidentified you as transgendered. You handled the situation quite maturely by having a dialogue with friends from the queer community along with a few of your roommates. What did you learn from that experience?


Ari: I’ve talked a lot about this.  I have to say that there was this moment of terror around seeing those things said about me on the internet and realizing that I did have to talk about it. It hit me that I knew absolutely nothing about what it means to be trans. I have friends who obviously came to the house, but I almost never really wanted to open up these conversations because it was uncomfortable for me and I didn’t want to make other people uncomfortable from my own ignorance … no one wants to be seen as the idiot on national television. There was a lot of fear about approaching the subject but whether I liked it or not I had to embark on that journey of learning. Since the show aired, I’ve had so many people who were happy I had the conversation because so many people are hesitant to approach the subject.  So, all in all, I learned just how much I more I needed to learn, but that when using the right resources, it’s super easy.


Andrea: You all talked about trans issues for some hours but only a small portion was aired. What were some things discussed that didn’t make it on television?


Ari: It was a lot of information from Kingston [Kingston Faraday]. Kingston did a lot on educating me and the roommates. He talked a lot about the bigger systemic issues that come with being trans and one of the things that hit home for me was the simple things cisgendered people and others in the queer community take for granted. He told us about an incident where his car was towed and the huge process it took to get his car back just because the documents the tow company had were not up to date; therefore misidentifying him.   The process took several weeks for him and was such a hassle.   And that was just one of the smaller issues I’d never thought about.  Overall, everyone was impacted and free to dialogue that night. Still, it was an especially important moment for me in particular as a queer cisgender woman of color in the house.

Andrea: In what ways since that interaction have you changed your approach to our transgender brothers and sisters?


Ari: I do a lot of checking. I’m standing as a queer woman of color from Oakland who isn’t trans, even so let’s still talk about trans issues.  Sometimes this requires checking yourself and the kind of person you and the kind of privilege you carry when approaching someone in conversation. I also check myself in my work now. As a queer woman of color making films, what do my artistic choices mean?  What is their impact? Before, I tried not to talk about this issue but now I’ve tried to make myself vulnerable and approachable. Until that conversation I had no idea what it meant to be trans, but when we speak openly we can get rid of the stereotypes and prejudices we have.

Andrea: Now that the show has aired, are you content with the way you were portrayed?


Ari: That question makes me smile because it looks like I was best friends with the producers. I went into the show thinking that I was going to be in some way this stereotype [the sassy black girl] and that wasn’t me. You watch the show, everything that I do–from me being stupid drunk (I can’t hold my liquor) was definitely true to who I am. I wasn’t shown as much compared to some of the other roommates because I was out working on my film projects and modeling. The Real World has been known as a coming of age show; it’s taken a lot of twists and turns since season 1, but I love that in its roots, The Real World is about young people being who they are and chasing after their dreams. I came on the show to let people see my process as I was starting out in filmmaking.  That’s the one thing I wished they showed more of, but everything you saw on the show was me. I’m weird, I have a lot of fun, and I’m incredibly focused on my work.


Andrea: You’re a model and filmmaker. How did you get into both fields?


Ari: They are completely different from what I went to school for. I went the Tech route and thought I was going to be the next Zuckerberg. I did that for a while but in early 2013 I realized my life was going in a direction that I didn’t like.  I quit everything and moved back to Oakland. During that time I stumbled upon an opportunity with a modeling agency. I was approached by a photographer who asked if I thought about being a model. You know that classic scenario. I brushed him off, but he ended up being really legit and got me into the agency I’m with now. Surprisingly, I took off. I guess San Francisco needed someone with a big smile and natural hair.



As for filmmaking, I’ve always been a storyteller. I’ve always been fascinated by scary movies. In horror movies, you have an opportunity to really do anything as opposed to other genres where there’s an expectation from the audience. In a scary movie, you get the freedom to do whatever you want and shock people. There’s a much needed space for someone like me, a black queer woman, to do what I’m doing. There aren’t many queer women, black women, well just women, in general in the genre of horror films. I really believe that the work I’m doing will create more opportunities for others.


Andrea: Where does your love of that particular genre come from?


Ari: It started early from watching especially those 70’s horror films. I remember watching with my mom and being completely terrified, sweating and not being able to fall asleep at night. I would spend all night thinking about the movie and loving that feeling of being scared. When I got to college I just remember loving the ability to shock people. I’m a prankster so being able to do that in film is just the cherry on top of the icing for me. I enjoy taking something that we consider to be the most comfortable thing, like love, and change the idea of it in my films by showing that it can be something else.


Andrea: You recently did a film screening at Pixar. Can you talk about the project you screened?


Ari: The film is called “Open Call.” It’s about an audition that takes some really strange turns. We had an opportunity to do a small screening at Pixar.  It was probably one of the biggest moments of my life.  I’m incredibly blessed because I don’t know many other filmmakers just starting out and within eight months they’re screening at Pixar. It really made me feel pretty good about myself. The reception has been really good and we’re shopping it around at a variety of film festivals.


Andrea: Do you have any advice for filmmakers out there?


Ari: Have confidence in your work. I find that a lot of my male colleagues are really confident about their work and I realized that, at times, I was finding myself unsure about my own.  I’m realizing now that you have to be a champion for your work first. Also, get your work out on the festival circuit; get your work shown as much as possible.

Andrea: You’re very open about your sexuality. When did you come out and what was the coming out process like for you?


Ari: There was never any real hesitation for me in coming out. I dated men and then I discovered this woman and she wouldn’t give me the time of day, which drove me completely crazy. In that process of falling for this woman and this woman falling for me, I never bothered to think how am I going to identify myself? It happened and it felt right. I think I’m very lucky to have lived in the Bay area and to be raised in the way that I was.   There wasn’t this harsh contrast of being gay as opposed to straight. I was the golden girl of my family and really close with my mom so when I first told her, I did see disappointment in her face. When I introduced her to my first girlfriend, she was like o.k. There was something about introducing my girlfriend to my mom that made the situation o.k. I’m really lucky that my experience was a lot better than a lot of my friends. My mom and my girlfriend are really close; I sometimes think they’re conspiring against me [just kidding].

Andrea: I’ve dated women of varying racial backgrounds over the years and have gotten flack for it. You seem to get this question quite a bit. I’m curious to hear why you think in this day and age [2014] people still have an issue with interracial dating?


Ari: Ohh man, I made a YouTube video about this specific thing where I kinda make fun of people. The thing is I’ve dated all across the board, so many different types of women … I also feel like because there are so many other different battles we are fighting just with being accepted as queer people, paying attention to what divides two people can sometimes be less useful than what unites us; and that’s love.


Andrea: I think we’re taught to stick to “our kind” and when folks deviate from that people question why.

Ari: Yes. To play devil’s advocate I grew up with my mom, a strong beautiful black woman. She was always a champion for wanting chocolate grandbabies and that’s how I was raised. To this day, I want my son to be a beautiful black baby and I’ll figure that out when the time comes. I understand that there’s a component as a black woman that people question well “is there self-hatred there?” or “do you not consider the women that look like you attractive”? And for me the answer is FUCK NO! I love black women, before I dated my girlfriend, Ashley, I was only attracted to black women. Yes we all have these types and certain preferences but at the end of the day you have to be open to love. Love can just hit you on the ass on a Tuesday and hey you can’t fight it. It’s hard finding that person who you truly connect with so when you do hold on to it.


Andrea: Lastly, I’m obsessed with books. What are you reading right now?


Ari: I went through a process in college where I read a lot of business books because it helped me with where I wanted to go but this is super dorky but I’m re-reading The Four Hour Work Week again–I love it. I’m really into planning and strategy and my team and I are currently planning something really big so the book is helping me in that process. I love The Bell Jar, I love the parallels of Sylvia Plath’s storytelling to her life… There are so many more I could name.

You can follow Ari at:

* Andrea Dwyer is a freelance writer based in Atlanta. She’s a writer at Superselected and you can follow her on Twitter @musingandrea.