The forward-thinking instinct has been with Leigh Davenport, Interactive One’s vp of programming, women and lifestyle, and HB Studios, since at least her college days. “I had interned at magazines and really that was the dream, to be a magazine editor,” she told FishbowlNY. But when it was time for Davenport to graduate, the scene had changed. “Magazines were folding left and right, and I thought to myself this might not be a great way to a future, so perhaps I should look at other mediums of storytelling.” That search for alternate forms of storytelling led her initially to television, where she worked her way to VH1 and BET. By 2009, the TV world’s increasing focus on reality programming, a form Davenport didn’t enjoy, would lead to a switch to digital programming.
For the past four years, Davenport has overseen editorial content and strategy for the women-of-color-focused HelloBeautiful.com, as the site reported year-over-year audience gains. Davenport also harnessed her television roots as she oversaw the creation of HB Studios, Interactive One’s digital video production studio targeted to women of color.
If the story behind HB Studios’ inaugural release, Women on Top, is any indication, Davenport’s leadership will lead to a spirit of experimentation when it comes to developing work. What was meant as a single interview with broadcast journalist Soledad O’Brien turned into an exploration of universal questions with 10 women at different places in their lives. “[O’Brien] was such a powerful interview that I was like, ‘We should ask more women these questions.’”
We talked with Davenport about the initial reception to HB Studios, narrative depictions of black women in media and the downside of making work-life balance a primary goal.
FBNY: Between your duties as editorial director and working on the launch of HB Studios, you have a lot on your plate. How do you prioritize while trying to maintain balance between your work and personal life?
Davenport: I think women, thanks to all of the ‘lean in’ conversations, have gotten really captivated by this work-life balance thing, and I don’t know that that’s even real. You spend the majority of your time at work, so it’s not balanced to start. But if you love what you’re doing, then work can sometimes feel less like work. You should have a healthy balance of work and self-care and play, but sometimes working is my play. The reality is I don’t have a balanced life right now, but I’m having a really fun time.
And in terms of prioritization, I make a list every morning of the must-dos and then I put the if-I-can-dos underneath. You can’t do everything in a day, but you prioritize things that are going to be most impactful.
FBNY: Looking at HelloBeautiful.com, you see a mix of news, beauty, celebrity and career content. What is behind the decision for all these different types of content to live in the same space?
Davenport: When I first got to the site, [it] was almost exclusively entertainment with a little bit of beauty. That was our bread and butter. Looking at the landscape, I thought, OK, well, there are a million entertainment blogs, and even the news blogs talk about entertainment at this point. So what do we have to offer? What’s our value proposition to our audience? And so we systematically started adding on content areas.
We wanted to embrace the fact that women are very versatile and dynamic. Part of our mission statement is we serve our audience shamelessly. We don’t feel like one thing is more important than the other — your passion for beauty or passion for your job, the fact that you want to be current on news and events, and that you watch The Real Housewives. That’s why we made a conscious decision to make sure we have those things live in the same environment.
FBNY: In the press release for HB Studios, you said that images of black women in media are focused on creating one specific narrative. What is that narrative and what are the narratives you’re hoping to counter with?
Davenport: I don’t want to demonize all narratives of black women, but I personally feel you see either this kind of hyper-materialistic, mean-spirited, catty woman or you’re seeing the workaholic, non-balanced, can’t-get-a-man and so-sad woman. There are maybe these three or four archetypes for black women we’ve seen reinforced visually over and over again, and it gets to the point where you’re starting to feel like there’s no nuance in this person. She’s either strong to the point of detrimental or she’s silly and shallow to the point of kind of being an idiot, and you’re kind of like, this isn’t my reality; this isn’t who my friends are.
One of the things I really take issue with in terms of the current narrative is the lack of sisterhood and the lack of support within black women, and that’s just not been my personal reality whatsoever. What we’re looking to do is just expand who this woman is. You know, she can be educated and a mom, and very sweet, and very good at what she does. Or she can be a superstar, maven person, but be super into community service and giving back and women’s empowerment. And even in a more basic way, just allowing black women to be vulnerable on screen without being weak and without needing to be saved or rescued is something we’re just not seeing enough of. So I really hope that’s something we can explore in an impactful way.
FBNY: You mentioned as well how your inaugural doc, Women on Top, is a manifesto of what you believe your brand represents. Is this also the direction you would like HelloBeautiful to move toward as well?
Davenport: I think HelloBeautiful and HB Studios get to serve different lanes. It all ladders up to our overall voice, but HB Studios and Women on Top as [its] launch product, to me, is like a speaking piece of work that explains the way we at HelloBeautiful discuss womanhood all the time.
Women on Top has older women, younger women, women who’ve done amazing things in their career, women that are still aspiring to reach their level, and they’re still tied together by this common narrative of what it means to embrace their womanhood and their femininity. You’ll have Soledad O’Brien, who has a very, very different perspective at her age and level of accomplishment than a Chrisette Michele, who’s still barely 30 years old and trying to figure it out. And that’s what HelloBeautiful does represent, that there’s a lot of diversity in the experience and that all of those voices are connected, but one isn’t more superior to the other.
FBNY: What have you learned so far from the creation of and the reception to Women on Top and the future of HB Studios?
Davenport: It’s been kind of overwhelming. When we put it together and watched it, we thought it was awesome. But we think it’s awesome because we know these women — you know, it could be very specific. [But] we’ve gotten more shares of the content than likes. They say on Facebook people tend to take one action, and we’re very proud that the action they’re taking is to share it. We’ve gotten comments like, ‘Every woman should see this. I know this is women of color, but every woman should watch this. This is so powerful. It moved me. I feel better today than I did yesterday,’ those kinds of things.
What it’s told us is our consumer insights that women want more than what we’ve been given is accurate. It gives us the confidence to go into our next creative endeavors and say empowerment and truth speaking and diversity of voice is something that can be well received. That doesn’t mean it has to be boring. It doesn’t have to hit you over the head every time, but there is something people are craving and people are looking for.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.