April 8, 2016 — was the day Daisy Lewellyn — one of the stars of Bravo’s — Blood, Sweat & Heels — tragically passed away — at the age of 36. I remember being stunned by the news and slightly taken aback by my heightened emotional reaction to it.
The reality TV show about a group of successful Black women — who were conquering the brutally competitive media circuit while strutting their goods and services on the paved runway of NYC — only lasted two seasons (2014–2015) — and the final season showcased how Daisy gorgeously dealt with her cancer struggle.
Ever since MTV’s The Real World: New York made its debut back in 1992 — I’ve been a sucker for the deceit of how television makes anything seem “real” when the cameras are rolling — even when its obvious that we’re witnessing the best version of a soap opera that could ever be conceived.
The earlier shows from MTV’s most popular franchise were amazingly raw and still rule supreme when it comes to the realness of a White young woman from the South — butting heads with a budding activist — who also happens to be a Black guy from Jersey City — who doesn’t have the time or privilege to accommodate the blatant ignorance of his woefully sheltered housemate.
It can certainly be said — that the creators of Real World — don’t get enough credit for the way the long-running series captivatingly re-shaped the landscape of television with the participation of thrill seekers — who were often times overwhelmed by the magnitude of what they had naively signed up for — and that shock value was depicted in episodes that are still memorably genius.
But — all through the drunken fights, near-rape incidents and celebrated fuck fests — there were some disruptions that abruptly reminded viewers that life isn’t just about being sourcing your youthful appeal for adventurous orgasms.There’s also the matter of death and how it can’t be avoided — or regulated to the cutting room.
When AIDS educator Pedro Zamora — from The Real World: San Francisco — succumbed to the deadly disease back in 1994 — it was the first time I had ever watched a cast member on a show die in real life. Despite faithfully watching his slow decline — which he used as an unfiltered tool for his activism — it was still shocking to realize that he was dying and somehow the fact that he was on TV — seemed to elevate the hope that he might miraculously be granted a happy ending.
But — unfortunately reality hits too close to home when the people we’ve allowed into our homes and hearts suddenly become vulnerable to the disclaimer that comes with being born.
It happened when Jennifer Lyon from Survivor:Palau died in 2010 after a fierce battle with breast cancer. I haven’t watched the CBS staple in years — but back in 2005 — I was all in and I do remember the enviable grace and athleticism that Jennifer displayed throughout that season. Nothing prepared me for the tragic circumstances that would befall her five years later — and when her death was announced — it was another testimony of what a powerful medium television can be when you truly mourn for someone who didn’t even know you existed.
My adherence to reality TV began to wane once I became loyal to dramatic offerings as a way to escape the over-exploitation of a genre — that has evolved into an out-of-control freight train that is bounding towards a nameless destination.
But — there are times when I desperately need to lose myself in mindless fare that threaten our brain cells with just enough shit to give us that short-lived satisfaction — that matches the feeling of eating a whole donut — after almost a month away from sugary confections.
When I found Mob Wives on VH1 — it was the opening credits that swept me off my feet. I had always had a fascination with the mafia — which began after I discovered The Godfather and The Godfather Part II and not only swore allegiance to Michael Corleone — but truly believed all mobsters were hot guys with conflicted souls.
I thought all the women on the show were dynamically interesting — but there was something irresistible about Big Ang. Her physicality and boisterous nature separated her from the rest — and I loved that despite how intimidating she could be — she also possessed a maternal instinct that made her the voice of reason when it was necessary.
I followed her to Miami when her “breakout star” status allowed her to capitalize on her spin off — Big Ang — with another branch — Miami Monkey — where we watched her try to replicate the success of her popular Staten Island bar. It wasn’t the kind of show that would ordinarily hold my attention — but Big Ang was hard to resist.
When she became ill — it wasn’t that surprising since I had noted that her gravely voice had everything to do with her lifelong smoking habit. And as much as I adored her disposition — she definitely didn’t come across as someone who was in great shape — health-wise.
When Big Ang’s death was imminent after it was revealed that her previously diagnosed throat cancer had spread to lungs and brain — I was again faced with the sadness of watching a beloved TV personality grapple with the cruel task of dealing with the sheer terror of dying in full view of the public.
Her fear of leaving behind her family was evident through her tearful confessions during the final season of Mob Wives — and as her condition deteriorated it was comforting to see this vibrant, kickass woman with the larger-than-life persona — still retain her no-nonsense stance — with splashes of humor that made her the most beloved figure on the show.
Big Ang died a couple of months before Daisy Lewellyn did and the loss of both of them so close to together was a heartbreaking reminder of how death can be such senseless and pitiless rite of passage.
Like I said earlier — I was surprised at how devastated I was by Daisy’s demise — especially when I was almost certain that she would beat her disease.
I had heard about her a year prior to the premiere of Blood, Sweat & Heels. I was still living in New York City — and trying to get my writing career back on track. This meant making the effort to attend as many social events as possible to boost my networking skills and expand my list of contacts. There was a posting about a reception for a well-known style maven who was making her magnificent return to The Big Apple.
The picture of the smiling, luminous beauty with big shiny eyes — draped in theatrical pastel hues won my heart and even though I wasn’t able to attend her welcoming party — I hoped our paths would cross at some point.
That’s probably why when the cast for a new show on Bravo was announced — I was excited to see her name and couldn’t wait to watch her in her element — doing what she does best. She absolutely didn’t disappoint — as her vivacious personality was on full display. It was a joy watching her expertly demonstrate the demands of her high-powered career coupled with the longing for a healthy love life.
When the second and final season came around — things took an unexpected turn when she bravely allowed the cameras to capture her treatment process for Stage 3 — bile duct cancer. We got to witness the toll it was taking on her — physically and mentally. And we watched her interact with her parents — as we felt the love they had for their only child — and how that security gave their ailing daughter the will to live.
Daisy’s smile never cracked under the pressure and pain of cancer and her eyes never lost that sparkle — even when she accepted the reality of her condition — as she got the discouraging news on the season finale that prompted her to consider the possibility that she could lose her fight.
The “celebration of life” party she threw with her cast mates, family and friends was touching and beautiful — and definitely didn’t serve as a warning of things to come. That was due to her infectious temperament that radiated warmth and a spiritedness that transcended the unfair and crippling ways our bodies can betray us.
Her stoic perseverance and persistent zest for life — especially through her gratitude for the opportunity to to be all she could be and more for herself and those that came in contact with her — was vividly illustrated though her words and actions.
It has become her legacy — and now with the second anniversary of her death — I’m struck by how much I still mourn someone I never met — but wish I had. Hashtags like — #BlackGirlMagic, #BlackGirlExcellence, etc — seem to be prematurely assigned to those who are not deserving — based on shadiness of character — and it’s during those times that I would give just about anything to bring Daisy Lewellyn back to life.
But — she lives though the hearts of those she touched and thankfully — Blood, Sweat & Heels served as the portal that exposed the parts of her that were real — even it got “too real” towards the end.
Perhaps — that’s the essence of reality TV and why it’s appropriate and even mandatory for it to hit too close to home — without any warning. Death is the morbid character that doesn’t ask for permission to dominate the storylines that were doing just fine without its presence.
But — unfortunately we die and we can’t expect our reality to be altered by the magic of television.
That would just be too weird for comfort.