The culture was introduced to Angela Simmons in 2005 on her father Rev Run’s MTV series Run’s House. It was the advent of seminal reality TV before the unscripted series would later dominate water-cooler chatter and Black Twitter. There was The Osbournes, another MTV series anchored by rock icon Ozzy Osborne and his quirky, dark-humored British family. There was The Newly Weds: Nick & Jessica starring then-husband and wife Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson. In the canon of celebrity family-driven reality series, there were virtually no Black families until one of the founding fathers of hip-hop changed that. Run’s House allowed America into the New Jersey estate of one-half of Run-DMC. We met Run’s wife Justine, eldest Vanessa, JoJo, Russy, Diggy, little Miley, and a 17-year-old Angela.
Angela starred in Run’s House for four seasons, and later in Daddy’s Girls, another unscripted series with her sister Vanessa where the sisters launched their Pastry sneaker line. It was here Angela arguably helped write the playbook on monetizing reality TV that clans like the Kardashians/Jenners undoubtedly reference and vastly benefit from. Nearly two decades later, Angela, 34, still holds court on the frontlines of American culture, and her entrepreneurial efforts haven’t stopped. Angela is the star and an executive producer of the WE TV series Growing Up in Hip Hop now entering its sixth season. Just Angela, her solo series on Aspire TV, treats viewers to a day in the life of the business-savvy personality. From her vegan lifestyle to much more personal topics like her healing journey after experiencing domestic violence.
Talley it all with a laundry list of business conquests from Angela’s fitness brand Built Not Brought to her skincare line Simmons Beauty. It all comes naturally to the hip-hop scion, businesswoman, and now single mother who not only chose this lifestyle, she grew up in it.
In 2019, Angela’s ex-fiance Sutton Tennyson was fatally shot 13 times. Angela and the late Sutton share a son Sutton Joseph Tennyson. On the devastating experience, Angela shares, “It’s a wound you nurse.” In a conversation that spans the range of her healing journey after a tragic loss, her staying power in reality TV—unproblematically I might add—and various businesses all grounded in her brand values: health, wellness, and beauty compounded by an imminent pivot into scripted acting, writing and producing. We chat about it all with a powerhouse we’ve watched become a self-actualized woman and survivor, who after all she’s accomplished—if you can believe it—is just getting started.
Many of us were introduced to you, really at the advent of reality TV, right? Run’s House, and later a spin-off with your sister and you’re still at it. Tell me about your journey. How would you put that into words?
Angela Simmons: Well, you know, I started on TV young. I was like 17 when it all started. And pretty much grew up in front of the world, right? So I graduated from high school on the first episode of Run’s House, who would have known I would have been on TV all my life after that. I grew a business on there. And then from there, I moved to LA from New York and started my show. I’m a producer and creative on Growing Up Hip Hop, which is on its sixth season on WE TV. I’m on my show, Just Angela — I’m just growing honestly when it comes to television and film. I’m working on a couple of projects I’m personally producing, that’s in the scripted realm. Doing a lot behind the scenes in film and in front of the camera as well working on a couple of projects when it comes to acting.
On your journey as a businesswoman and a business leader, you started off enterprising very young. You were 17 when we were first introduced to you. But shortly after you, you and your sister launched Pastry, right?
AS: Yes. That happened pretty simultaneously.
I feel like it’s safe to say when we think about how reality stars have used the platform to launch businesses, you helped to shape the blueprint. Would you agree?
AS: Yeah, I mean, starting on reality television, there weren’t that many shows when we first launched as you remember it, it was like The Osborne’s. Then we came after that. So we kind of started within the reality [TV] world even when there were no interviews, you remember? We didn’t have interview-style television shows. But yeah, that kind of came naturally. I’ve always been into fashion. And so my sister and I just kind of dived right in. Luckily, we’re blessed our family comes from that background but we really worked as teenagers all the way through and learned a lot early.
I think about everything the Kardashians are doing or even franchises like Housewives. You and your sister and your entire family laid the groundwork on how this is done and how to be successful at it. I don’t know that people posit you in that narrative and you deserve to hold court in that narrative, right?
AS: I do appreciate you saying that. I don’t think people may notice that or recognize that. We were some of the first to ever do it for sure. But yeah, I appreciate you saying that.
Where are you now with your businesses?
AS: Right now I have my skincare line Simmons Beauty. I’m in the middle of revamping and growing that line out. I do a lot in the fitness space as well because that’s just a part of my day-to-day anyway. I came with the name Built Not Bought, which is my baby. I feel like you build your mind, body, and soul. Everyone is always like, ‘Oh, are you telling people don’t get surgery?’ No, that’s not exactly what I’m saying. I’m really just referring to building up who you want to be. Before you go under a knife, before you do any of that, make sure you love yourself because you can keep going and keep going and keep going and still not be happy. It’s about loving yourself where you’re at and then making the changes and being positive about it. I’m about positivity when it comes to that. So the fitness space, I’m doing a lot of other stuff that I’m doing behind the scenes. My heart is in helping other women and young women and using my platform for them. I have a nonprofit Angela’s Angels. So I’ve done a lot in that area already with my program Pressure Makes Diamonds underneath that—just really being an anchor for Black women and women of color women in general. It’s a really important time, especially now to be able to lean on one another.
I want to step back and talk a bit more about your fitness journey. So many of us look at you as a cultural icon for like you said, natural bodies, body positivity. Back in The YBF days, we couldn’t go on the site without seeing a bikini shot of you in Miami. Just you, living your life. Those were paparazzi shots. I felt like for me as a Black woman looking at you, you have such a great body but it was 100% natural. You were young, wild, and free. But it was also incredibly cool to see you be in that space. Now you’re enterprising around your fitness lifestyle but you’ve always naturally been that girl. How do you see yourself in this cultural context right now, where we’re seeing women get radical surgery done to their bodies? I’m not surgery shaming at all. But there are extremes. We see women go through deformities and all kinds of health crises because they’re trying to fit an image. How do you see yourself countering that narrative?
AS: I don’t even know if I look at it as an alternative but it’s just who I am. I’ve kind of always walked to my path which was: loving yourself where you’re at. I think sometimes people put a lot on themselves when it comes to having a perfect body. But women, we go through changes hormonally, we go through having children, we go through birth control. There’s so many things that affect our bodies and where we’re at that moment but I’ve just learned to kind of roll with it. When it comes to body positivity, it starts mentally and that’s where I got everything for my Built Not Bought brand. It’s important to start mentally, and then fall in love with yourself during the process and know that you’re gonna go through changes. I’ve learned how to love myself throughout, whatever that looks like.
This radiates off of you so viscerally as I think about your journey over the years from when you were first introduced to us on Run’s House, to where you are now. It’s very evident when I see you. Now, let’s talk a little bit about motherhood. I hear you talking to your son in the background. How has the journey been? Tell me what it’s like to be a single, working mom.
AS: It can be beautiful. I always think of motherhood as mother hood but at the same time, it has its moments, especially as a single mother. I salute single mothers out there because it’s a different type of journey and I think even as a mother, when you have a significant other to raise your child with, even that has its challenges but doing it alone, it’s something more special. It takes a lot of strength. It takes a lot of discipline to be able to go out and work, grind, and come back in the house and still be a mommy. I feel that’s another area that women need to come together more and have conversations around that and being each other’s backbone on that and creating communities because we can all use the help and support of one another. But I love it. I do love it. Do I think about having more kids back and forth in my head sometimes? I say yes. Sometimes I say no. It depends on my child’s behavior for the day. *laughs*
Yeah, I can see that. You experienced a devastating loss with your child’s father. I can relate to loss. My mother suddenly passed November 2019 right before the pandemic. Grief is a tricky thing. I can recognize now that healing is a journey, not a destination. What has healing looked like for you?
AS: I think it’s a wound that you nurse. You let it start to heal but it never goes away. You just learn how to deal with it. I do feel like that’s what it is. I’m looking at my son who carries his name and asks for him. That’s something you can’t ever prepare for. I mean, everything else in life can be devastating but nothing is more devastating than telling a child their parent is not coming home or they’re never going to get to see and be around them. Especially if he last met you at two years old. And now you’re five and you need him. I think it’s a tough thing. I learned to make sure I have the key instruments around when it comes to mental health because if you don’t, you can crumble. You’ve got to have therapy. You’ve got to have a strong team of individuals around you who help uplift you, who are checking in to see how you’re doing with this because it’s just not easy. I do it with a smile on my face. But there are days where I’m just like, geez, I don’t want to do this. Yeah, it’s a lot, you know? And yeah, my kid asks for his father. So I think that’s another thing, too.
Yes, and I want to extend my thoughts and prayers to you as you continue to push through what you experienced and for your son. Your father, the hip-hop icon Rev Run, how has he stepped up? We’ve seen the iconography of him as a father from the show, and him being such a positive, stabilizing force in the world of hip-hop. But I can only imagine how he’s stepped up for you and your son. What was that like? And also your brothers, too.
AS: Yeah, most definitely. They’re all around and key figures in his life. My father is personally one of my favorite people in my life. Being able to see that dynamic relationship blossom is great as well. My son’s middle name is my father’s name, which I think is great.
I love that legacy. I know that healing and experiencing a tragedy with the one you love is hard. But life also goes on, right. Are you dating now? Do you have someone in your life?
AS: Not right now, honestly. I think dating is an interesting subject.
You can say that again!
AS: You see it, you see, right? *laughs* But not right now. It’s not that I’m not open. It just has to be right. It has to make sense.
There’s a lot of beauty in being single and focusing on yourself. It’s something to be said about the freedom and the clarity you receive when you can just be on your own, right? But when you do decide to get back out there, what values are you looking for from a man?
AS: There’s so many values. I’ll be looking for a family man and father figure. Someone who’s deeply rooted in spirituality and successful. Someone that is ready to be in a relationship, a real relationship. I want to be married so I’m not looking for someone just to be my boyfriend.
I love it. Now let’s kind of circle back to the show. It’s going into its sixth season. You have been doing reality TV all of your adult life. There’s so many highs and lows and it’s such an incredible platform. And if you’re smart about it—and you have been incredibly brilliant at it. But I know that it’s also hard, right? It’s emotional dealing with producers and editors and dealing with other cast members, and you’re a vet at it. In Growing Up Hip Hop, the cast is an ensemble. Talk about some of the ups and downs. How have you sustained in the reality TV game?
AS: My biggest thing is not getting wrapped up in any drama because everyone’s got their own drama. I just don’t want to be a part of drama because that’s just not who I am as a person. So when it comes to that, if it’s not going to be positive and what I want, I don’t like to be involved with that part. But just staying true to yourself whatever that looks like. I always go back to that— it’s really who I am. As I’ve been catching the right light, those are the questions you kind of have to ask yourself when it comes to reality. And it’s got to be what you want to do. Exposing yourself to the world and giving so much insight is not an easy thing, especially for someone like me. I’ve been doing it so long. When I said yes to reality when I was 17, I said yes to exposing my private life. You keep some to yourself but there’s not much as you truly get to keep.
Now, you’re also an executive producer on this show as well. What does that look like for you and what do you anticipate as the EP beyond being the talent?
AS: At the beginning, I helped bring the ideas together. I have a team that helps now. So it’s overseeing it all and seeing where it’s going, knowing where it’s going. Growing Up Hip Hop has grown a lot. The views are doing well, and they’re up. I feel like being a part of something that I built from the beginning to now is pretty awesome. You know, there are not many shows you can say that started and are still around.
Yeah, now that we are going into acting, I presume, scripted acting — is that a film? Is that a TV show? What can you tell us about you going into that?
AS: I am working on being a part of a couple of projects. And I’m writing and producing some of my stuff. I’m sure you’ll hear about it, but I’m definitely doing some things behind the scenes when it comes to that as well.
Is there a specific role like a biopic or something? Would there be someone in history that you would want to play or is there like would you want to be like your action role on and doing martial arts?
AS: All day. Some superhero stuff.
I love that. We have to make that happen. You have Built Not Bought but you also launched Simmons Beauty. We’re in a time when a lot of celebrities are enterprising with skincare. Lori Harvey dropped her line and also Alicia Keys. What is the unique perspective Simmons Beauty is coming from?
AS: I actually dropped mine during the pandemic which was before all of them came out. I’ve always been into skincare regimens. I’m constantly getting my makeup done, so people always ask, ‘What are you using your skin?’ I think now is the right time to be able to give people that insight. It goes hand in hand with what I do, which is health, wellness, and beauty. When I let people inside of my life, I let you inside of what I do on a day-to-day basis. It’s a lifestyle more than anything.
Where the beauty industry is going, it’s becoming institutionalized meaning it’s becoming more personality-driven. People want to connect with women like you. So it makes so much sense for you to take this pivot into skincare. It’s so timely, right?
AS: I use it every day. It’s not like something I just want to do with my name. I do use it.
So Angela’s Angels… What can you tell me about what you have going on in that area of grassroots community work and philanthropy?
AS: I have a partner and she has a foundation. And I actually work hand in hand with her. I did some cool stuff, and we put together a four-month program that aims to cultivate positive self-image and self-esteem for girls from five to 12. We recently launched the program in the Bronx. I’m excited the program is currently going on as we speak. I try to do things that can impact girls in a large way. I remember being young. I remember how you’re impacted by so much. And these girls that we go and we speak to, you know, they just have been through so much. I see myself in these young girls, and I know at those ages, what they’re thinking. I just always feel the need to want to help in any way I possibly can. I also created a program Pressure Makes Diamonds. I thought about how beautiful a diamond is but no one knowing the pressure a diamond goes through. You’re not necessarily what you go through but what you come out of it at the end. I was running into young women that were going through domestic violence and mental abuse and it just went beyond that. I wanted to be able to create a safe space where we can all have these conversations and be honest but also create a space where we can give them a place for help. Where should I go to know who can I talk to? How do I find a support system? These are the things that matter to me.
The advocacy and the on-the-ground, grassroots level support for Black women is so critical. I salute you for supporting this effort.
AS: These are the things I’m always thinking of. I just wanted to be able to help women—especially young women—while we can and help them grow and create a community.
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