Leva Bonaparte on Holding Kathryn Dennis Accountable and Not Holding Back on 'Southern Charm' (Exclusive)
By Brice Sander
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Southern Charm has a new spitfire: Leva Bonaparte. The Charleston, South Carolina, entrepreneur joined the cast of the Bravo hit for season 7 to shake things up. A longtime friend of most of the cast, Leva was ready to bring a little reality check to the reality show.
"I have what is atypical in Southern culture, I'm not always just, 'Bless your heart…' and, you know, 'Pass the wine…' and, 'The decor is beautiful…' I want a real conversation," Leva tells ET over video chat. "I want to get into it. … And I think the biggest thing for me is that I don't always say it right, but I mean well."
Leva should be familiar to longtime Southern Charm viewers, as she frequently appeared on the show’s first six seasons as a friend of Cameran Eubanks. In fact, Leva was under the impression that she would be joining the show to spend more time with Cameran, but Cameran opted out of filming season 7 after co-star Kathryn Dennis started spreading rumors about Cameran's husband being unfaithful, on camera. Cameran denies the allegation, and the cast largely believes Cameran.
"Cameran and I have been friends for over a decade. I know her very well, and for me as a friend, I was like, 'C'mon, march your butt out here and handle this business!'" Leva says of wanting Cameran to stand up to Kathryn. "She didn't want to deal with it, and that's her personality. She's not a confrontational girl."
Leva, on the other hand, doesn't mind a little confrontation and takes up for her bestie starting in episode 2, confronting Kathryn over the rumors. It's the start of a pattern viewers will see this season, Leva holding Kathryn and other castmates accountable for their actions.
"I definitely think I'm built differently," she muses, speaking about the South in general -- not just the Southern Charm group. "The way I navigate, it's not for everyone. I'm gonna shoot it to you direct, and I expect it direct back. I have a bit of a temper -- I mean, I've tempered my temper, but it’s still there -- and I think that I can sometimes say things that people don't want to hear. I think it's good."
"If you're looking at the trailer, it looks like I'm just jumping out here and being like, 'You shut up! You're white privilege! You're this…' I just come in with guns, and it really isn't that way," she adds. "I've known these people for so many years -- and they're all a lot younger than me, too, let's not forget that."
"I genuinely care about these people, and I think they're all good-hearted people," she continues. "None of us are perfect, by far."
Leva is an equal opportunity challenger, teasing she wasn’t afraid to go head to head with the boys, too.
"I think I make them a little uncomfortable," she quips, "but I think at the end, it's a good way to move through life. I mean, keep it real."
Leva is Southern Charm's first full-time cast member of color (she's Persian), but that's not something that even crossed her mind when she signed on the dotted line.
"I just signed up as Leva," she says. "I'm always the ‘other’ person, be it the way I think or the way that I look, or whatever it is. So, that didn't cross my mind at all. It was just like, I'm friends with these people and, OK, let's do this thing."
When Leva's casting news broke, she quickly posted to social media to let viewers know it was not OK to call her the "token" addition to the show.
"Even saying that word gets me heated," she admits. "I think it's disgusting to use that word. I'm just another human being that's living life in a certain way, I'm nobody’s token."
Leva's casting came before the country shifted its focus to the racial injustices facing the nation. The Black Lives Matter movement surged in the middle of filming season 7, changing the tone of the show and elevating Leva's position on it from friend to resource. On top of being a minority herself, Leva's husband, Lamar, is Black and together they're raising a biracial son.
"It wasn't really a shift for me, it was just what was happening in the world was bleeding into our friend group, as it did in friend groups across America," she says. "To continue your friendships and to ignore a lot of things that are going on would be really tone deaf and inauthentic and weird and not reality."
Leva seemingly became the group’s go-to for gut checks and conversations around race, something she didn’t necessarily expect to take on, but did anyway.
"It's just at the end of the day, do you have the bandwidth for it or not?" she offers. "Of course my husband is African American and his history and his is generational trauma and all that stuff is very different than mine. … I think that I have a larger bandwidth for addressing topics like that because I don't have the generational trauma, you know? So, I could sit through and be like, ‘This particular thing you did…’ I can speak about it with you calmly, but somebody else, it's like you are literally pouring salt on their wound."
"We are in the South and I do find it difficult sometimes when you're around these old Southern families, and there's a tremendous amount of affluence, but there's no acknowledgement that this affluence was built on the atrocities committed toward another group of people," Leva admits. "Nobody is responsible for their history, but they are responsible to be aware and to be cognizant of the way that they walk through their life. So I think that being flippant about your affluence is gross."
"Everybody says, 'Don't erase history,'" she notes. "OK. Well, let's not erase history. Let's remember all of it."
In the trailer, Leva tells Kathryn, "You’ve spent your entire life living in a bubble of white privilege." The season will also see cameras follow Leva to the removal of a statue of Kathryn’s ancestor, John C. Calhoun, in Charleston, a proud enslaver.
"I reminded her that, like, are you aware of your history? Do you really know your history?" Leva says. "Of all people, do you know that just your name triggers people? Just your name can make people feel physically different. You can't walk through life not realizing that."
"It's the cross that you bear, that you will have to overcompensate and you can be a rising phoenix for that name and do so much and change all of it, so that the next generation of people's hearts just open when they hear that name," she adds. "But right now, there's a lot of trauma behind that name. That's where that conversation was coming from."
When news got out that Southern Charm filmed at the removal of the Calhoun statue, there was a slight uproar online, with digital pundits questioning the cast's choice to be there, some alleging exploitation of a historic moment.
"I don't expect everybody to know the history of Charleston, but that statue has stood there for… however many years, but it's predominantly that, that statue's on the same street as the massacre of the Emanuel nine, the nine people that were killed in the church -- it’s steps away," Leva explains. In 2015, white supremacist Dylann Roof committed a mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
"It's such a trigger, and it's not just that. The statue was built as an overseer to slaves," she continues. "That statue is built so high, and it looks down on what used to be called Boundary Street. It was a street where, if you cross our street, we can do whatever we want to you. So, for that to still stand there on a street where nine people were massacred and really, essentially, someone was trying to start a race war, and Charleston was big-hearted enough to not do that, let's honor and get rid of this thing. Let's move this away."
Leva says the mayor and his wife invited her to the planning meetings around the statue's removal, as well as the removal itself; it was something she would've been a part of with or without Southern Charm cameras following her.
"We own many restaurants and clubs and I'm not marching the streets, I’m no activist, but things are important to me and I put my mouth, my money, my decisions behind things that I think will make my city better, in all areas," she says. "I was scheduled to film and ... I want to be authentic about my life and it’s not easy. It's not easy to bring those parts of your life into the cameras, because there's a lot of scrutiny from every direction."
"Not easy" might be the theme of season 7, as fans will also see Leva discuss allegations of racism against Kathryn that surface, with Kathryn. Over the summer, Kathryn made headlines for using a monkey emoji in a heated DM argument with a Black blogger over Instagram. Kathryn maintains that she meant nothing by the use of the emoji, but the historical use of monkey imagery to demean Black people is a hard fact to ignore.
"I know she has a Black boyfriend now, but at the time I think I'm the only person that she knew, maybe, that was not white," Leva says of the conversation, which was apparently initiated by Kathryn. Per Leva, Kathryn candidly asks, "Do you think I’m racist?"
"I've never heard her say anything I found horrendous and inexcusable, but I was shell-shocked, and I think she felt she knew she had to address it with me," she shares. "And on top of that, I think I might have been the one friend that had the bandwidth for it."
"I've always been really gracious with Kathryn," Leva notes. "I have attempted to sort of be more of a big sister, mom place, where I'm like, 'Listen…' like, smack on the hand, 'Not OK. Don't do that again.'"
Leva says she hopes Kathryn came out of season 7 with more understanding of her history and her place in the world, but cautions that she hasn't seen much tangible action from her co-star.
"The only way to change is action," she says. "The action I wanted from her was not banging a Black guy, but maybe that's where that rests, or maybe she's doing some more reading or getting more involved, but I don't know. I don't know. I just know, right now, I stand where I stand which is sort of, like, over here and I'm trying to figure out what's next for Kathryn. I’m weary."
Looking back at her first Southern Charm season, Leva calls it a "net positive." There was good, there was bad, but in the end the good outweighed the bad… at least so far. She still has to endure the experience of the episodes airing and the audience weighing in on the group's every on-screen move.
"I'm dreading to relive all of it, because it's -- somewhere I swore I was gonna keep my composure and somehow, something just…, yeah, I'm probably dreading all of it," she confesses. "But at the end of the day, it's all real. It's all me. It's imperfect, and I just hope that at the end of the day, I think the thing I'm most excited for people to see is that we can disagree, and we can have really uncomfortable conversations, and we can say hard things to each other, and it’s going to be OK."