Craig Conover on How 'Southern Charm' Tackled Season 7 Changes and Faced the Reckoning on Racism (Exclusive)
By Brice Sander
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As the call for racial justice got louder and louder this summer, a whisper started making its way around the Bravo fandom: Was there still room for a show like Southern Charm in the year 2020?
The South Carolina-set series premiered in 2014, focusing on a group of Charleston men who refused to grow up, and the women who put up with them. The series largely existed in a bubble of white privilege, following an all-white cast and their relatively petty daily drama. Sure, the co-stars have dabbled in some darker fare, dealing with addiction, arrests and allegedly abusive relationships, but the show never really went "there," there being the South's history -- until now. Season 7 changes that, and in the coming weeks, fans will see that, yes, there is still room for Southern Charm in 2020.
"It's one of those things that I'm happy that our program decided to just follow what was going on," original star Craig Conover tells ET over video chat. "There were other programs that, you know, they adhere to the cancel culture."
That seems to be a not-so-subtle nod to Southern Charm's network sibling, Vanderpump Rules, which saw the dismissal of two prominent cast members, Stassi Schroeder and Kristen Doute, in June after past racially insensitive actions by both women resurfaced online amid the Black Lives Matter movement's surge.
On Southern Charm, though, the cast will face their mistakes on camera, namely Kathryn Dennis. The 29-year-old made headlines in May for sending a racially insensitive emoji, a monkey, to a Black woman she was arguing with on Instagram. Kathryn maintains she meant nothing by the emoji, that it's just an icon she uses to express feeling "awkward," but the damage was done, a lesson started. And apparently, there's more to the story to be told on season 7.
"These issues that happened early on, it was my opinion that we should just track them and follow them and address them, and I think we did that," Craig says. "I'm happy we did that instead of brushing it under the rug and acting like it’s not anything, or that it didn’t happen. We filmed it and it wasn't easy."
"You'll see a group of friends navigate those waters, 'cause you will see it's new information coming to light about someone you care about and new behaviors, and it’s stuff that a lot of us had never dealt with, and I don’t think anyone has ever filmed," he adds.
Craig admits it will be a tough season for Kathryn. As teased in the trailer, new cast member Leva Bonaparte confronts Kathryn over living in a bubble of white privilege. Cameras also follow along as the city removes a statue of Kathryn's ancestor, slavery defender John C. Calhoun. Online chatter at the time questioned the cast's intentions of being present for the removal, some calling it performative and suggesting the stars were taking advantage of the situation. But to them, this was just a real moment in their lives.
"Acting like this stuff doesn't exist isn't gonna do anyone good," Craig notes. "We're not on a set. We are filming what really happens in Charleston. Sure, we're just a small segment of the population here, but to chalk up the world as something that’s perfect is just silly and, I guess the word’s, ignorant to act like this stuff doesn’t exist. And that doesn’t do anyone good."
Southern Charm’saudience likely looks a lot like its cast, and Craig says the group's hope in sharing their journey of learning about race and the state of the country is that it will hopefully help those viewers.
"It’s a good mirror to the rest of the country," he says. "I kind of welcomed -- as uncomfortable as it was -- I was like, if we're gonna film this stuff then let’s do it."
Craig grew up farther north, in Delaware, and admits his move to Charleston for college more than a decade ago came with some culture shock. He knew racism existed, but he hadn’t seen it in action.
"It's real!" he proclaims. "I think I live my life in a very progressive, helpful way and, you know, I think that’s what you'll see on the show this year is that, even though we live in the South and Shep [Rose] is from an old, Southern family, they're not racist people. But then, Kathryn's actions came out, the texting with the monkey emoji and other stuff came out, so it made us look in the mirror."
"Even though we're not racist, there are some racially insensitive things that still happen a lot here," he continues. "You can still be racially insensitive and not be racist. You're not wishing harm on anyone, but that doesn’t mean that you're not harming them."
Viewers will see Craig and his friends succeed and fumble at figuring out how to exist as anti-racists, not just not racist, with tough conversations captured on camera.
"I'm excited and I'm nervous, but it makes me smile that we addressed it, 'cause I'm high-fiving us for doing it," he shares. "It's gonna cause a conversation, and it'll cause awareness, but if you continue to yell at someone for not having a perfect past then, s**t, everyone’s gonna be too scared to talk about it. So, maybe we're breaking the ice, or our little subsection of ice."
One of Craig’s fumbles, depending on how you look at it, might have been going live on Instagram with conservative commentator Tomi Lahren during lockdown, alongside his co-star, Austen Kroll. Many fans were not happy with the choice, with even Tomi warning the guys that they would catch flack for associating with her. For those not in the know, Tomi became a viral figure in conservative media as a vocal supporter of President Donald Trump. She’s also anti-Black Lives Matter.
"Austen had a great response to that, ‘cause Austin and I don't see eye to eye on everything, and he was like, 'We can't lose track of people being people,'" Craig says of the Instagram Live with Tomi, who is a fan of Southern Charm and requested to join the guys' already in-progress stream.
"When she requested to click on, we allowed her on and it is interesting to see how polarizing things can get and, in my personal opinion, I don’t think the radicalness of either side is helpful for anyone," Craig adds. "I don't like the rubbing it in each other’s faces, and that’s how our group of friends is: if you want to hang out with us, then come hang out. But if someone was to -- and this is tough because I feel like you should be able to tell your views -- but if someone … started to be an a**hole, or say bad stuff, then they would basically be exposed and we'd be like, 'You're an a**hole,' and that would be it."
"I don't think it really speaks to Austen and I, as long as we're treating everyone fairly," he says. "What, we're just gonna be divided forever? I think if we reach the point that you can't have a conversation with someone then, we're screwed. [Someone] that's different than us, that's different than the content of the conversation. If our conversation was inappropriate, then I would understand. But you gotta still talk to people."
As Craig said, even he and his friends disagree, especially him and Austen, at least when it comes to Austen's relationship with on-and-off girlfriend Madison LeCroy. Yes, on top of the heavier topics 2020 brought to the surface, season 7 of Southern Charm still has plenty of that previously mentioned petty drama fans have come to crave since the series' inception. In the trailer, Craig says, "When you’re in an unhealthy relationship, you start acting like a little b***h."
"I could say, just watch, but yeah, it gets worse," he teases. "I've been asked, ‘Why don't you just let it go?’ and trust me, we would love to. … You can only lead a horse to the water so much, but we were, like, holding the horse’s head underwater and he still wasn't drinking."
"We have some good conversations about it, it's just whether or not things will change," Craig adds. Complicating things for the Austen-Madison situation is newcomer John Pringle, Shep's friend who develops a crush of his own on Madison.
"Pringle is the epitome of a bull in a china shop, and I stand outside the china shop with my face pressed against the window," Craig muses. "I think Austen probably gets the horns from him the most this year. Austen probably could've done without John being there. But Pringle is -- there's a lot with him."
"The whole season while we were filming I was like, how is this going to work?" he adds of Pringle’s personality. "Usually if you have a crush on your friend’s girlfriend, you move on. But he was like, I haven't decided If I like Austen enough not to hit on his girlfriend yet. So, there is definitely some shocking things that he brings to the table."
Joining John in the newbie club is Leva, a Charleston entrepreneur who's appeared on the show in an unofficial capacity since its start. Leva, who is of Persian descent, has been friends with most of the Southern Charm crew for a decade.
"She did great," Craig gushes over Leva officially joining the cast. "No offense to the other girls in the past seasons, but I just think that we really lacked transparency from them over the last few years, from our girls, and Leva was a breath of fresh air. She came on and from the very beginning was just herself."
"She speaks her mind and doesn't shy away from saying the hard stuff," he notes. "She's what we needed in a group in Charleston. … It's not the most diverse and Leva was able to add some -- she's always been in our group of friends, but filming wise -- she brings that conversation from a person of color, and does it in an intellectual way and really challenges everyone."
Leva previously appeared on the show as Cameran Eubanks' friend, and joined the series thinking she would be getting to spend more time with her gal pal. But Cameran opted out of filming season 7 of the show after she caught wind that Kathryn was spreading rumors about Cameran's marriage to the cast, on camera.
"I'm still pretty heartbroken," Craig says of Cameran’s departure from Southern Charm. "She was my rock. Her, Shep and I have been together since the beginning and I know she loved it and loved doing it with us. … I wasn't expecting it. I wasn't prepared for it, and it kind of happened pretty quickly, so I'm bummed."
In losing Cameron, Southern Charm also lost its narrator. That job is now Craig's, as long as he doesn’t mess it up: "I guess I stepped into my big sister’s place at the microphone," he quips.
"I love them both," Craig confesses. "Chelsea, she had kind of run her course with reality TV. The only way it works is if you're transparent, and if you allow the viewers into your life, and she wasn't prepared to do that."
"And Naomie, she had her chapter here and she's got a lot of other stuff going on and she seems happy," he adds of his ex-girlfriend. "I just, you know not in a mean way, I just think they just didn't have a lot to offer the show anymore."
Craig, however, hopes he has a lot more to offer the show. Of everyone in the cast, he might be the one who has grown the most since fans first met him as a struggling law student six years ago. Now, he's the king of a pillow empire, with his Sewing Down South brand landing major deals with retailers HSN and Thomasville. He's eyeing expanding his entrepreneurial endeavors, toying with the idea of acquiring Austen’s fledgling beer company among other pursuits.
There's also his personal life, which will apparently take center stage on the show this season. The last time fans saw Craig's love life was on another network sibling show, Summer House, where he had a fling with a star of that series, Jules Daoud. Their summer romance fizzled out, leaving Craig single just in time for season 7 of Southern Charm.
"You'll get to see me dating this year a little bit, which is good," he says. "I had a year or two to focus on myself and get the business up and going [before I ventured] back into the dating world, and so you'll get to see a lot more of my personal life this year -- and it's good. It's good for viewers in a way to relate, ‘cause quarantine was something interesting for professional, personal, every part of your life, and the timing is a little off with my dating life during the season, because filming was all over the place, but you do get to see it and I think you guys will enjoy it."
"Things just keep moving forward," he adds. "As much as they seem to fall into place, someone's always there to kick the puzzle and mess it up. And I feel like you're constantly finding those puzzle pieces and every once in a while you'll find one on the floor that you lost prior. You get a little bit of everything this season, which is good."
Southern Charm airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Bravo starting Oct. 29.