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VH1 changes tone of its reality shows

Rozonda Thomas — Chilli from the music group TLC — has her own reality show, “What Chilli Wants,’’ on VH1. Rozonda Thomas — Chilli from the music group TLC — has her own reality show, “What Chilli Wants,’’ on VH1. (VH1 via AP)
By Derrik J. Lang
Associated Press / April 8, 2010

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LOS ANGELES — On her new VH1 reality dating show, Rozonda Thomas — better known as Chilli from the groundbreaking hip-hop group TLC — doesn’t lounge in bubble baths or hand out fake bling to her suitors. Instead, the 39-year-old singer and mother meets bachelors at black-tie affairs and confers with a dating expert, as well as her 12-year-old son.

The cable network synonymous with “Flavor of Love’’ and its sleazy spinoffs is trading trampiness for fabulousness with a new slate of series starring seemingly well-adjusted rich and famous black Americans. VH1 executive vice president Jeff Olde admits that the shift from oh-no-they-didn’t fare to more mature material is totally intentional.

“We constantly have to evolve and tell our audience different stories,’’ he says. “I love that we’ve been able to get more diverse with our audience by — in large part — attracting African-American women to the network. We got them in the door with some shows, and now I’m excited about where we’re going and how we’re telling them different kinds of stories.’’

Debuting Sunday, “What Chilli Wants’’ will be partnered with “Brandy & Ray J: A Family Business,’’ focusing on sibling R&B singers Brandy and Ray J Norwood as they attempt to relaunch their music careers, and “Basketball Wives,’’ starring Shaquille O’Neal’s ex-wife, Shaunie O’Neal, and five other women with romantic links to basketball players.

For the notoriously trashy VH1, it’s not reality as usual. While catfights will flare up with “Basketball Wives’’ and Chilli promises a tiff with her sassy matchmaker on “What Chilli Wants,’’ these new shows certainly aren’t selling buzzworthy moments akin to “Flavor of Love’’ contestants spitting on each other.

“I watched ‘Flavor of Love’ myself,’’ attests Chilli. “It was definitely one of the shows I thought was interesting, but it made sense for Flav to do it just that way. For me, I wanted to do my show in a way that I would be comfortable with, and I was very happy that VH1 was on the same page with me. They did have a formula that has been working for them.’’

Premieres this year of “Fantasia for Real’’ and “Let’s Talk About Pep’’ topped that same week’s third season debut of “Celebrity Rehab’’ and episodes of the seedy dating shows “For the Love of Ray J’’ and “Frank the Entertainer in a Basement Affair,’’ which starred “I Love New York’’ reject Frank Maresca.

“The new VH1 shows offer a different take on the black reality TV star,’’ says Imani Perry, a professor at Princeton University’s Center for African American Studies. “These are images of wealthy black families. These shows may potentially be less stereotypic because they present a different, higher status black image.’’