MOMMA DEE’S GAME OF T-H-R-O-N-E-S
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Interview by Christopher Glazek.
In or around 37 CE, the Roman lady Agrippina the Younger paid a visit to a group of astrologers to inquire about the fate of her newborn son. The astrologers told her the birth would have two important consequences: first, her son would grow up to become the emperor Nero; second, Nero would end up killing her. Agrippina brushed off the warning and replied, “Let my son kill me—provided he becomes emperor!” In the years that followed, she made it her life’s work to install Nero on the throne, a goal that required poisoning or ordering the execution of nearly a dozen rivals, including her second husband, the emperor Claudius.
Momma Dee, self-proclaimed Queen of the South and undisputed break-out star of “Love & Hip-Hop: Atlanta,” has not birthed an emperor, but she has emerged from humble beginnings as a nurse and female pimp to obtain a throne in Atlanta’s reality hip-hop game. Over three seasons of “Love & Hip-Hop,” she has maneuvered ferociously on behalf of her son, the affable rapper Lil Scrappy, and along the way has crafted a fascinating royal language with an obsessive fanbase. While the dramas that propel “Love & Hip-Hop: Atlanta” do not always match the intensity of Julio-Claudian Rome, Momma Dee raises the stakes by treating her son as a prince and herself as a queen regent, jealously guarding their family’s “palace” and vetting Scrappy’s love interests with a militancy suggestive of Nero’s mother. But while Agrippina was ultimately rewarded by her son with assassination—the pair fell out over Nero’s love for a scheming slave-girl—the bond between Scrappy and Momma Dee shows little sign of fraying.
For some, Momma Dee’s assumption of the role of royal puppet-master may seem mock-heroic; for the discerning viewer, it is equal parts savvy burlesque, delusional power trip, and mirthless realpolitik. Momma Dee is a top-shelf reality star because the intrigues that engulf her are actually real. As in imperial Rome, “Love & Hip-Hop: Atlanta” documents a world where courtesans and pimps wield enormous power; where romance, politics, and business all draw from the same poisonous well; and where family melodramas end in suicide or murder. As television, the show is priceless; for the players, Momma Dee confides, it can feel like “going through hell.” I recently spoke with Momma Dee over the phone to ask about her rise and rise:
You’ve become one of the country’s premier wordsmiths. Where did you get your language?
I was treated like Cinderella when I was a little girl—I was physically abused by my step father and my mom allowed it. Still, I knew I was destined to become a queen: In 1963 a baby is born, and on day three she gets spinal meningitis; I was in the hospital from day three to six months—I learned to crawl in there; in ‘96 I got in a head-on collision and couldn’t walk for three years—I have an artificial hip and knee; a couple years back I had an aneurism. So I’ve always been fighting for my life, but I’ve always known I was a queen. Language gives me my palace.
What’s the significance of your most widely admired phrase, when you call someone a “B-I-C-T-H, and in that order”?
It’s the queen’s order, not the world’s order. You need order to give shape and structure to the world, and this is my order. It’s the sign that I set my own justice. It’s not because you’re actually of blue blood, but if you don’t control your palace, if you don’t get some type of order in your life—without order there’s no balance, and without balance there’s no structure. And without all of the above, then what are you going to do?
Tell me about the memoir you’re writing.
“The Making of A Queen: And In That Order” goes from my birth up until where I am right now. Back in the day—I’m 50 years old—we were told: what goes on in the house don’t go outside the house. I found an old picture of me, I think I was about 8 years old, and my tennis shoes had the toes cut out because my mother wouldn’t buy me any more shoes. When she died two years ago, she disowned me and wrote me out of the will. She wrote me a letter and it said, ‘you told people lies,’ but what really actually happened was I was speaking the truth.
Now, out of the dust, I have arrived. This book details everything. I used to be a Madame back in the ‘90s. This book tells about the Fortune 500 Company men that paid me to sleep with my girls—the senators and congressmen, oh baby! It tells when I had Scrappy, you know I married his father a week before he was born because his dad’s mom wouldn’t allow a baby born out of wedlock in her house.
It also tells all the things that Scrappy has endured—meeting Erica1, and I kind of liked her at first but then she started with “Scrappy calls his mom once or twice a day” and she felt like she had to destroy that because her mama was on crack cocaine for 13 years. People probably think it’s because of the show that me and Erica don’t get along, that all that stuff is fake: no. We didn’t get along after she got pregnant with my granddaughter. She wanted to break up me and Scrappy, and she felt that if she had a child he would stop loving me and love his child. Well of course Scrappy loves his daughter but he won’t ever leave his mama! It just goes on. Oh baby.
What is the biggest misconception about Momma Dee?
That I have nothing else to do but run behind Scrappy and that’s a D-A-M lie. I love, I date—not often—but because of who I am, I have to watch what type men I date. My son does love me. I remember when he was 13, 14 this guy walked up like he was going to attack me and Scrappy stabbed him in the head seven times2. Oh baby!
I heard you say in an interview that you’ve never truly been in love.
I’ve been in love, but has a man really loved me? No. The only male that has ever really loved me is my deceased grandfather—God rest his soul—and also my son and my grandson. Those are the only males that I can raise my hand in the court of law and say, ‘I know they really, truly love me.” That’s real love. That’s unconditional love.
I hear you’re releasing a clothing line?
I’m coming out with Momma Dee’s Queen Collection. I’m bringing the grown-up sexy back, because a lot of these women got it twisted. They think they have to show their butt cheeks or show everything to be sexy. No. I’ll show you sexy. You won’t see nothing but my neck, my hands, and my ankles, and I will be the baddest bitch standing in the room. Bringing back some of that Jackie Kennedy Onassis with those A-line dresses! I’m going to have some plus sizes for the big girls, and I’m going to have some ballroom gowns that are becoming of a lady, because these girls done lost it.
Honestly, other than my grandmother, my gay friend Jimmy taught me more how to be a woman than any woman. He died of AIDS a few years back and I miss him terribly. Some people judge and it saddens my soul because people think gay is just something you wake up and say, ‘I’m born a man and wanna act like a female,’ but see—I have to shave up on my chin, you know why? Because I have some of my father’s chromosomes. So when someone is born male and his soul is of a female, he has a majority of his mother’s chromosomes. Her traits have taken over even though he’s born of a male gender. That’s his soul. It happens in the womb.
Who are your style icons? You mentioned Jacqueline Kennedy.
Of course I watch the Royal Family of England and I notice that even Kate [Middleton]—as young as she is—dresses older because that’s the “Queen look.” It’s very conservative, it’s very delicate, it’s very diddy-diddish.
So you think Kate is killing it.
Honey–Kate done threw the ball in the basket and wandahh!
When you were working as a madame did you regulate your girls’ fashion?
Yes. My girls looked sexy, but not ho-ish. They used to go out in the streets and wear the same colors so that when they [the clients] got out of the cars they was like, ‘this is one of Momma Dee’s girls, they all got white on tonight, they all got red on.”
Sir Charles in Atlanta was the one who taught me the pimping game. I learned how manipulative a man can be. And I also learned the art of when you get inside a person’s head. When you get the head, the tail will follow. It’s an old cliché, and nothing against Martin Luther King, but Martin Luther King wrote ‘I Have a Dream.” I say, how about Momma Dee sells you that dream?
Sounds a little dark. How do you get in a girl’s head?
I look at them, I tell them I’m going to take care of them, and that they need to take care of me; these are the criteria of things they need to do. You talk to them; you find holes. You find weakness and then you go in. That’s all the men pimps were doing—finding the female weakness. Psychology 101. I took that course.
Do you use that on the show?
Of course. You can’t tell?
I can tell.
First season I came out with “And in that order”; second season, “Off with them bitches heads!”, “Guards, guards,” and a few other things. This season, the eggs3. A few other other things are coming out. Let’s just say K Michelle isn’t the only one who can blow4.
I especially liked a couple of weeks ago when you told Erica Pinkett and Bambi Johnson5 that they needed to “hashtag” their “bullshit,” by which you seemed to mean “you need to come to an understanding.”
I stay in people’s heads. People are laughing at my sayings but they don’t understand the leadership that I have. What I say, they gon’ bite it. People got enough with life’s toils and snares. If somebody like me can say something crazy, off-the-wall, just uplifting enough to make them smile—don’t you know the world needs that?
How has being on the show changed your life?
I love a little attention, but not too much. When you go out to eat and people walk up to you, or come too close—I don’t like people who touch me. I don’t like to give hugs. I got two pink eyes and a cold from giving hugs. I don’t want to come across like I’m better, but I have to protect myself because I have to pay insurance premiums and they’re not going to pay it. So when I see them trying to come and grab me or come too close I extend my hand to welcome them. I don’t do hugs.
What about Twitter?
I live for Twitter. I go and I answer people. Everyday I send out words of wisdom.
When you throw stones at the palace oh well the queen will have the guards to throw big city breaks at you so please don’t come for me
— Momma Dee (@ThaRealMommaDee) June 4, 2014
Have you ever been in a Twitter war?
Oh baby, I goes in. I slay some dra-GONS! They come out of their cages and try to blow fire at the Queen! And I REFUSE to sit on my throne and let them throw stones! Guess what? My castle was built with big city bricks—how would they like one? My Twitter, my Facebook, my Instagram—it belongs to me. When you come into my Twitter you’re coming into my palace, and I OWN IT. So when you come in and you’re disrespectful–you know, my manager gets at me all the time and says, ‘Momma Dee, a Queen don’t have to sit on a throne and stoop to a peasant,’ but sometimes when they come they say very mean things—like I’m sleeping with my son6. Scrappy jumped on my Twitter the other day and jumped in on one of my verbal fights. We’ll play tag team; we got police reports that’ll show you. I like to have the last word and then block them. The point is, the gates of hell can’t prevail against my love for Scrappy. If somebody bother with my son, I would walk up to Jesus and push my arm out and say, ‘Excuse me Lord, step over here fast. I’m trying to get to somebody messing with my child.’
Can we play a game of word association? I’ll say one word and you say the first thing that comes into your head. The first word is “real”:
The Queen of the South is in the house.
My cup runneth over.
Make sure you don’t put all your eggs in one basket. You know why? Because they get a chance to meet each other, and it can be life-threatening.
Queen Momma Dee.
The Making of a Queen: And In That Order.
The structure of me.
The first love of my life.
The Dirty South, where players play, all day every day.
1 Erica Dixon, the mother of Scrappy’s child and his one-time fiancé
2 Scrappy has said in interviews that the man spent four days in a coma but fled when he woke up in order to escape outstanding warrants; charges against Scrappy were dropped.
3 In the season 3 premiere, Momma Dee informed Scrappy’s girlfriend, Bambi Johnson, that Scrappy had “more than one egg in his basket,” instigating one of the season’s most contentious plotlines
4 Blow = sing
5 Rivals for Scrappy’s affection
6 As was alleged of Agrippina and Nero
Christopher Glazek is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and the founder of the Yale AIDS Memorial Project. His work has appeared in n+1, ArtForum, Out, New York Magazine, and on newyorker.com.