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THE MONITOR

'Basketball Wives' and 'What Chilli Wants': Women on the rebound

The first of two new VH1 reality series follows the former spouses or girlfriends of NBA stars; the second tracks the comeback efforts of Rozonda 'Chilli' Thomas, formerly of the R & B group TLC.

April 09, 2010|By Jon Caramanica

It's 2010, and women scorned have resources, outlets and marketing plans. Used to be that if you were a high-powered man, you were a target, but now the man is no longer the end; he's just the stepping stone to a multimedia career, mere collateral damage.

Not that the women of "Basketball Wives" (VH1, 10 p.m. Sundays) haven't paid a steep price for their ascendant fame. Most of the show's main figures have been cheated on and watched their relationships disintegrate in highly visible fashion. But heavily primped and coiffed, they're prepared to move on.

Shaunie O'Neal, in the process of divorcing Shaquille O'Neal, is the ringleader, a stern woman with a keen desire for social engineering. She's a dull narrator and awkward den mother of this patched-together coterie of plus-ones, half of whom appear uninterested in being seen with the others.

That's because in this world, status varies. Shaunie is one of the longtime companions, along with Evelyn, formerly fiancée of Antoine Walker, and Suzie, the ex-girlfriend of Michael Olowokandi. They regard the younger, less-experienced women with skepticism and derision. Shaunie does her best to get along with Gloria, one of the younger wives, despite rumors that Gloria's sister is one of Shaq's mistresses.

The easiest target is Royce, a dancer for local NBA teams who, despite rumored dalliances with star players, hasn't been promoted beyond groupie. In a scene from the premiere episode, she dances flexibly and enthusiastically at a Miami pool party while the others look on, eyebrows arched. Video of that event landed on websites such as worldstarhiphop.com, the MTV-meets-TMZ of urban celebrity, its viral spread the trigger for Royce's attempted reeducation at the hands of the older women.

For all her wide-eyed cluelessness, Royce understands the pecking order just fine. "They're in the $3,000 shoes and the $2,000 outfit that you only can wear once," she says of the rest of the group. "They just wanna constantly see negative stuff, and you don't matter 'cause you're just the dancer. Nobody really cares about your voice."

The women hold Royce at bay lest she stain them with her naivete and damaged reputation. They know perfectly well, though, that Royce is perhaps only one successful date, or one gullible athlete, away from being a full-fledged member of their clique.

These women are inheritors of the "Real Housewives of Atlanta" torch, with a splash of "Gotti's Way," the VH1 reality show in part about the crumbled marriage of hip-hop impresario Irv Gotti and his fierce wife, Deb. Collectively, these shows have introduced new archetypes: the social-climber wife or girlfriend, beginning her own life on the back of a failed relationship with a celebrity, and the African American athlete or musician with reputation besmirched at the hands of a significant other on reality television. These ex-husbands and ex-boyfriends, often with ongoing careers to protect, generally keep their mouths shut. Reality TV is the new alimony.

Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas came by her celebrity the old-fashioned way: She was a member of the multimillion-selling R&B group TLC. And yet, still: man trouble. "What Chilli Wants" (VH1, 10:30 p.m. Sundays) is deeply cynical, a show about returning to the dating scene that mainly serves to reignite interest in Chilli's career (like recent R&B reality shows starring Keyshia Cole, Monica and Kandi Burruss from Xscape).

She's paired with friend-and-counselor-for-hire Tionna Smalls, a former Gawker advice columnist who appears in a rotating cast of hats dispensing mediocre advice. But what can Smalls tell Chilli anyway, when the star is already doing most of the pre-selection herself, thanks to a ludicrously (and self-defeatingly) long list of must-have attributes for her future mate: no drinking, no smoking, no pork-eating, a washboard stomach, a large penis, and so on.

A pair of men catch her eye in the premiere episode: one, an engineering firm executive, is handsome, witty and happy to play the game in which he courts a famous woman. He's a pork eater, though. He will also be upset to watch this episode and see that the other man is undefeated boxing champion Floyd Mayweather Jr., who has won six world boxing championships in five weight classes. He also brings his own gold flatware to a dinner-date with Chilli.

Chilli has a history with high-profile men: She has a son with the music producer Dallas Austin, whom she dated for several years, and she dated Usher for a long stretch until his infidelities became public, both in the gossip world and on his multi-platinum album "Confessions."

Strange, then, in all the various recountings of Chilli's must-have list, fidelity was never once mentioned -- in which case there are a few basketball players with wandering eyes about to be back on the market, perhaps looking for someone who already has her own TV show.

calendar@latimes.com

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