When Bravo announced that Southern Charm cast member and restaurateur Leva Bonaparte and her husband, Lamar, would be getting their own spinoff, it didn’t come as much of a surprise for long-time fans of the show.
The cast of Southern Charm had always been mostly white, until 2020 of course, when the lone Black cast member, Venita Aspen, started getting more camera time. Leva, who is Persian, joined the cast and often talked about the impact that the year was having on her family, which includes her Black husband and biracial son. That season, Leva and Venita singlehandedly confronted the racist family ancestry of their castmates.
Being vocal certainly helped Leva acquire the spinoff, but according to her, production companies had been knocking at the doors of her restaurants for quite some time.
“There are multiple production companies that have reached out to Republic, and what we are doing. It was never the right time for me,” she told TV Insider. “It wasn’t until Southern Charm that I was approached again about bringing my world to Bravo in this way. I thought it was the right time. The stars aligned.”
With several restaurants under her belt and a fairly attractive staff, she became somewhat of the Lisa Vanderpump of Charleston – that is, if we’re not paying attention to the massive discrepancy in net worth. But as I watch the show week after week, not nearly as entertained as I am with LVP’s messy, drunk staff members, the last episode I watched really swayed me into thinking that Bravo was onto something here.
I expected the spinoff, called Southern Hospitality, to be similar to what we see on Vanderpump Rules, and by all means, it is - coworkers hooking up with each other, drunken arguments and group trips. But with more diversity than we’ve ever seen on LVP’s shows, we get to hear the story about a young Black gay man named Mikel Simmons who has never come out to his Christian family and has had a hard time accepting his own sexuality.
This episode centred around Pride Week in Charleston – and Mikel and another gay staff member, TJ, came together to plan a special event at one of Leva’s restaurants. They brainstormed ideas with the rest of the staff, who are all straight, and got them to commit to doing a drag show. When they brought the idea to Leva, the three of them had a heartbreaking discussion about acceptance.
“Seeing how much our friends and peers really support us, it made me go ‘Damn, I haven’t accepted this for myself yet,’” Mikel explained. “I never really processed how I’m actually feeling about being gay in America, being a Christian who loves men. I just wanna live my truth. I love men. I’m gay.”
He repeated the last sentence a few times, looking over at TJ as the words came out of his mouth, celebrating. Then, TJ shared his own experience of his first same-sex hookup. It happened when he attended an annual celebration called Beach Week after graduating high school.
“The next morning, my mom called and she’s like, ‘How’s Beach Week? How’s everything? Any cute girls?’ And right when I got off the phone, I just lost it. It really hit me what was happening,” he said.
TJ described being grilled by his family over the years about where his girlfriend might be, saying he’s never had a formal conversation with them and that hiding such a huge part of his life may be what strained his relationship with his family.
Throughout the season, Mikel has been flexing the muscle of self-expression. He painted his nails, he came out to a close friend, and we’ve even watched as he’s flirted and made connections with a couple of guys here and there. But he was especially brave in this episode because he planned on coming out to his dad – something he was really nervous about, and for good reason.
“Coming out is hard in general. But imagine coming out in the south, to two Christian pastors?” Mikel said in a confessional. “I wanna believe that everything will still be the same, but in reality, things won’t be the same because I’m a different person now and what if they don’t like this person?”
He met up with his dad at a restaurant and as the conversation edged toward him coming out and the two of them dancing around the real reason they’re there, he didn’t even utter the words “I’m gay” before his dad said:
“I’m looking at where you are now and I’ll be honest with you, I’m not surprised. I see you finding your way. I don’t worry about you. Not as much as I used to. Life is gonna teach you some things that you probably ain’t gonna tell me about. That’s cool.”
In a confessional, Mikel relayed his understanding of the conversation, saying he knew that his dad was giving him his blessing, essentially. His dad told him that he loves and accepts him, and that he was proud of what he was doing in his career.
“It doesn’t matter where you go in life, Daddy’s always with you,” he said to his son, before the two harmonized a beautiful father and son rendition of the gospel hymn “It Is Well With My Soul”.
Currently, Family Karma is in its third season. The show centres around a few wealthy Indian-American families across three generations that all relocated to Miami. The show features two openly gay cast members, Amrit and Dillon. Amrit is in a committed relationship with a guy named Nick, who everyone knows is his partner, except Amrit’s grandmother.
"I just reached a point in my life where I just needed to be honest with her,” he told E News ahead of the last season. “It's terrifying. And no matter how many times you've come out, and no matter for how many years you've been doing it, that feeling inside of you when you're trying to explain, when you're trying to say the words, is just as terrifying as the first time you did it."
Season two of the show chronicled Amrit coming out to his grandmother. In this emotional scene, you can see him breaking down, almost pleading for his grandmother’s acceptance. Initially, she’s vocal about her dissatisfaction with his revelation, but eventually softens her tone before finally giving him a kiss. He touches her feet, a practice referred to as Charan Sparsh, a sign of respect in Indian culture.
As a straight person, I have really never fully appreciated how difficult it must be to bare this part of oneself to loved ones – especially knowing they may not accept it. It makes me realize the inherent privilege in being heterosexual, while also better appreciating what it means to come out.
Despite being moved to tears by Mikel’s beautiful interaction with his father, when I compare it to the interaction he shared with TJ, echoing the words, “I’m gay, I’m gay,” and the sheer look of acceptance, euphoria and relief on his face, I can’t help but wonder if the conversation with his dad brought him the same satisfaction and relief because he really never uttered the words.
I’ve written about the stigma still attached to the LGBTQ+ community in Black culture. And I’ve also written about the importance of couples finding what works for them in their intimate relationships. Reflecting on these scenes, though, what works for you doesn’t only mean in your intimate relationships. It means in your relationships with family members like your dad and your grandmother. If Mikel feels like he can finally breathe easier around his dad, who am I to challenge that? Sure, it would be amazing if he could just belt it out loud for the world to hear, but his dad acknowledging his son’s sexuality and expressing his love and acceptance for him still counts for something.
Currently on Family Karma, Amrit and Nick are planning a big, gay, Indian wedding. And it’s moments like these that I come to appreciate the platform reality TV has given to stories like TJ’s, Mikel’s, and Amrit’s. I think about all the families in their living rooms with LGBTQ+ family members, who might find it just a little bit easier to broach the conversation of sexuality due to shows like these. And according to this November interview with Page Six, Amrit agrees.
“It’s a huge responsibility and I take it very, very seriously. I just want viewers — especially the younger LGBTQ community — to see this wedding and think to themselves, ‘Wow, this can happen for me. I can be that person and I can have this dream wedding,’” he said.
The ultimate goal for all of these men, and all members of the LGBTQ+ community who rightfully desire acceptance within their families, is that they get it. And it doesn’t really matter how, because acceptance can look a million different ways, but the feeling is certain.
Hopefully TJ will finally have a conversation with his family. Hopefully they accept him and he feels the same sense of relief we saw on Mikel’s face in proclaiming his sexuality. Hopefully Mikel and his dad can start discussing more of the details about his personal life. And though it’s already passed, I hope Amrit and Nick’s wedding was the biggest, gayest, happiest Indian wedding there ever was.