Is The Shade Room Too Toxic To Function?

The Instagram account quickly became one of the most prominent platforms in the celebrity gossip arena, but it has attracted criticism for the way it covers LGBTQ celebrities.

When YouTuber Jeffree Star posted a cryptic photo of himself wrapped in the arms of an unknown man back in August, the Shade Room was the first gossip site to identify Star’s new boyfriend. When the rapper Diddy broke up with his long time girlfriend Cassie back in 2018, the Shade Room was first to break the news. And though it wasn’t the first to disclose news of Wendy Williams’ split from her husband Kevin Hunter, knowing its readers would be thirsty for updates from the talk show host now that she was newly single, the Shade Room snagged an impromptu interview with Williams, who seemed to tease that she had a new beau.

Since Angelica “Angie” Nwandu, 30, founded the Shade Room — first on Instagram, with a traditional dot-com created afterward — back in 2014, the site has quickly become the premier destination for Black celebrity gossip. As of September 2020, the Shade Room has more than 20 million followers, or “roommates” — and the platform, which has become a hub for Black celebrity gossip and entertainment, is showing no signs of slowing down, welcoming hundreds, if not thousands, of new digital tenants each day.

The site relies on a staff of seven people who are responsible for curating content for their audience. Need the latest on NeNe Leakes’ departure from the Real Housewives franchise? TSR has got you covered. Somehow missed the touching way one of Kobe Bryant’s former teammates honored his legacy? TSR will update you. Wondering where André 3000 will pop up next? You can find it all on the Shade Room, where the staff posts dozens of times a day, delivering news, entertainment, and even a bit of morning inspiration.

The Shade Room’s influence has become so undeniable that even Barack Obama is aware of its stature. “Yes, coming to you from the Shade Room,” he says in a video posted on the blog’s Instagram account in late September, urging people to vote.

When I interviewed Nwandu in early March, before COVID-19 would upend daily life, her concerns for the brand seemed par for the course. “The hardest part would be to constantly [having to] reinvent the wheel,” she told me over the phone.

She listed the importance of being up to date on the latest internet speak, as well as the obligation of conjuring up unique ways to keep readers sufficiently satiated. “It’s been the hardest challenge, but it’s been the best experience,” Nwandu said.

The space Nwandu has created for herself is remarkable, especially considering how quickly it happened. Of course, the Shade Room has competitors — the headline-making geniuses at Bossip, who get more traction on Twitter than Instagram, where they have 530,000 followers, and to a lesser extent Baller Alert, which has nearly 6 million Instagram followers — but neither would be considered equal to the Shade Room as far as audience and reach are concerned.

But being the number one source of Black entertainment and gossip comes with unforeseen challenges. Back in 2015, the New York Times’ Jenna Wortham dubbed the Shade Room “Instagram’s TMZ.” It’s an apt comparison, though Nwandu feels there’s a definite distinction, as the Shade Room “operate[s] under different standards. Being a Black founder of a Black company that services Black media and the Black community is already putting me in a whole nother category of what I can do and what I can't do.” Both TMZ and the Shade Room have broken major news. But both have been mired in controversy for posting stories in poor taste. The Shade Room’s coverage of LGBTQ figures, in particular, has been criticized for inciting vicious comments from the blog’s followers. Last month, the Shade Room posted a photo of Lil Nas X, with a caption from the reality TV star Bobby Lytes superimposed on top of it: “My baby is so cute,” read the caption. “WHY TF YALL TRYNA FORCE THIS BS ON US??? make a fruity shaderoom account and leave us alone,” one commenter said. This is a common occurrence on the platform: Anti-LGBTQ rhetoric is given free rein without much, or often any, pushback from the Shade Room’s moderators.

"I always say the Shade Room is like going to your auntie’s house on the holidays and the whole family’s there."

Another example of this kind of baiting happened last October. The Shade Room reposted a message from Love & Hip-Hop’s Masika Kalysha in which she wrote, “This is for the fools that thinks it's 'progressive' when Disney has a gay couple kissing next to Nemo...NO.” Kalysha went on to say that her daughter wouldn’t be allowed to watch “Adam and Eve in sexual situations the hell u think I'm supposed to let her watch Adam and Steve lip lockin' for,” as if merely the act of highlighting queer characters onscreen is taboo when it’s really a matter of inclusivity. The Shade Room’s caption on the post simply read, “#MasikaKalysha has a message 👀,” seemingly goading people to weigh in.

“I always say the Shade Room is like going to your auntie’s house on the holidays and the whole family’s there,” Nwandu said in response to my questions about the Shade Room’s reputation. “Some people are going to talk about who's pregnant, who's getting married, who got a divorce … Everything is exposed. Everything is on the table and everybody’s got an opinion.” But while everyone is invited to share their opinion, some commenters believe that the Shade Room purposefully stokes conflict by how it words its captions. (Nwandu declined to participate in a follow-up interview this month.)

The allegations of toxicity of the platform are harder to call out because the Shade Room can, and has claimed, that it is only posting what celebrities themselves have already shared. But that excuse seems slightly duplicitous considering that the platform can decide whether or not to amplify messages that might be harmful to more marginalized identities. And then there are the blowups that stem from the very subjects the site covers, like beefs with Cardi B and Lakeith Stanfield. Though the Shade Room has been criticized for its editorial choices, Nwandu wonders why she’s subject to criticism that, say, TMZ’s Harvey Levin, who also seems to get his hands dirty in the business of celebrity gossip, doesn’t appear to receive.

Prior to the Shade Room’s launch in 2014, the landscape of the gossip industry was vastly different. In the early aughts, there were sites like Perez Hilton, Michael K’s Dlisted, and Just Jared. The men who ran these namesake sites were huge figures in the gossip industry, but like many traditional media platforms, these blogs primarily covered white celebrities like Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and Britney Spears. In response to this dearth of coverage of Black celebrities, Black bloggers began to spring up, creating their own various domains to cater to this need. And considering how Black culture often runs pop culture, many of them hit a gold mine in the process of catering to a long-neglected audience.

Now-defunct websites like Necole Bitchie and Concrete Loop were once titans in this section of the internet, and though there are a handful of such blogs still in operation — the Young, Black, and Fabulous, Media Take Out, Sandra Rose, That Grape Juice, and Straight From the A, to name a few — they no longer seem to wield the same power they once did.

"They were churning out news at a faster rate because they didn't have to license the images or check all the facts and things."

Each of the major Black blogs had its own personality. The YBF was where you went for the latest on who wore what on the red carpet, photos of Black stars captured by the paparazzi, and the occasional “Foolywang Material.” That Grape Juice was where you went for stan-like commentary on various music artists, and Sandra Rose was the go-to for biting criticism, like when she wrote about Chris Brown’s 2009 song “I Can Transform Ya,” calling it “hot garbage” in the headline. The Shade Room quickly stood out as a one-stop shop because it provided all those qualities in a single place.

“They were churning out news at a faster rate because they didn't have to license the images or check all the facts and things,” said Necole Kane, the founder of the now-shuttered site Necole Bitchie, about blogs like the Shade Room and Baller Alert’s nascent days. Kane’s site became one of the premier Black gossip blogs because it was consistently reliable in delivering news. But it was no match for the Shade Room. Ultimately Kane believes she left the gossip sphere at the right moment. Kane operated her site for seven years before making the decision to shutter it in 2015, mostly for her own mental well-being, but also because she felt that she could no longer keep up. “I was like, There's no way we could keep up with this pace,” she said. Kane added that the evolution of technology like Snapchat and later Instagram stories, introduced in 2016, created additional ways for people to “spy on celebrities.” Already burned out and exhausted by the work she’d been doing, Kane said, “At that point, I was like, you know, I wouldn't have a life, my writers wouldn't have lives, if we had to really chase celebrities down on all these different platforms.”

And not only were the avenues in which celebrity content could be found, mined, and posted for even more content expanding, but music labels and PR firms — businesses that often provided exclusives to blogs for promotion — were beginning to oversaturate the Black gossip world.

“It got to the point where it felt like nothing was exclusive anymore,” said Brian Patrick Davis, who was once a music contributor for Concrete Loop, one of the leading Black entertainment blogs, which was founded by Angel Laws in 2005 and stopped operating in 2014. “Everybody was getting the same information, and it just started to not be fun.” And that’s the thing about many blogs during this time: Though several of the original ones on the scene had become bona fide businesses — garnering millions of unique visitors each month from people with buying power — many of these sites started as a hobby.

That feeling of fun began to wane in the latter years, with publicists and other representatives for celebrities asking bloggers to post certain things — which Davis said was a way of them trying to “leverage” how the websites got their information — instead of the bloggers naturally finding and writing up stories that were of interest to their specific audience. According to Davis, this was one of the reasons “we were cool with kind of phasing things out.” In an email, Laws declined a request to be interviewed, but wrote that the bygone era of blogging “was a great time in the history of the internet; never to be duplicated again.”

The vacuum left from veteran bloggers shutting down their sites created an auspicious moment for the Shade Room to stake its claim in the world of celebrity gossip. And it used a platform that got news to readers instantly: Instagram. Since the beginning, the Instagram community has been incredibly important to the Shade Room’s success, which has a sort of symbiotic relationship with the site’s moderators.

“The majority of our content comes from the roommates,” Nwandu told me. The more than 20 million “reckless roommates,” per the brand’s Instagram bio, in a way, run the show. Since the early days, a big reason the site (which also has a traditional dot-com domain, though the Instagram page is what most people know and flock to) was able to stay ahead of other bloggers was because the roommates would often see news on their various Instagram timelines and would send it in to moderators for them to vet and post. This tactic was spearheaded by the Shade Room years before similar brands, like the popular Comments by Celebs account, began popping up and doing the same.

Nwandu said she likes to think of the Shade Room as a “community thread,” adding that the site’s seven moderators “don’t really get into the mix,” she said, as far as adding their own opinions to posts. “All we do is provide an environment that makes it comfortable for them to comment — and that means that we're going to give them all of the news that they wanted,” she added.

But while it’s true that the moderators post things that will engage users, the Shade Room has been accused of using its platform to bring out the worst in people. Culture critic Kimberly Foster, in a since-deleted tweet back in early February, summed up the issue many folks have with the site: “I want to support The Shaderoom because I respect the founder's hustle,” Foster wrote. “If it was just an aggregator of celebrity mess, it would be fine. But the platform monetizes misogynoir, homophobia, transphobia, classism on purpose. They know exactly what they're doing.”

Take for example how the blog has posted about Magic Johnson’s son EJ, who was outed as gay by TMZ in 2013. “#EJJohnson done switched it up on us y'all!! Are we feeling it?!” read one caption on the Shade Room from 2018, showing the socialite flaunting long blonde hair, a departure from his signature bald look. The comments on that post were terrible, ranging from ones where people tried to defend their anti-gay prejudice, saying, “A ‘phobia’ is an extreme or irrational fear of something. Just because people don't agree with this doesn't mean we are homophobias,” to others insinuating that Johnson’s father must have “done somethin real bad in his past to have a son like that.” This happens a lot. Whenever gender nonconforming or queer celebs are posted on the Shade Room Instagram, even if the caption is benign, the comments section becomes quickly riddled with anti-LGBTQ remarks. This sort of treatment happens to celebrities who aren’t nearly as well known, like Kylie Jenner’s makeup artist Ariel Tejada. A photo of him wearing a matching crop top and pants set with a pink thong peeking out was posted on the site this February with the caption: “Okayy! #KylieJenner's makeup artist #Ariel slaying for the 'gram!” The comments were atrocious. Nwandu said Tejada's picture wasn't posted to get people to chime in about his sexuality, but because it seems that "everybody around Kylie now has her body."

“The Shade Room is filth,” writer Wanna Thompson said of the platform in a tweet earlier this April, which incidentally was in response to an interview Nwandu did with Kane’s publication xoNecole, adding that the brand “is the very definition of toxic waste.” And tweets like Thompson’s are not uncommon — if you do a quick search on Twitter, you’ll see people echoing her sentiments. “Block me if you follow or engage with the shade room,” another tweet read.

“Our audience is primarily Black, and I think that in the Black community, homophobia is actually prevalent,” said Nwandu when I brought up how The Shade Room words its captions for LGBTQ people. This assessment is true, though it should be noted that Black people are not more anti-gay than other races. Nwandu said there have been internal conversations about whether they should refrain from posting Johnson and other figures in the queer community. “But why should we stop talking about the LGBTQ community simply because our audience is homophobic?” she said. “Don't they deserve to be represented in the media?” Nwandu later brought up an example of tremendous pushback the Shade Room got from some commenters about how it covered Zaya Wade, the trans daughter of basketball star Dwyane Wade and stepchild of Gabrielle Union.

The Shade Room posted a video of rapper Boosie Badazz in February — with another caption meant to drum of conversation, which read, in part, “#Boosie has a few things to say.” In the video, Boosie makes heinous remarks about Wade’s support for his daughter, conflating sexuality and gender, all while focusing — creepily — on aspects of the young child’s genitalia. “If he gonna be gay, let him be gay. But don't cut his dick off, bruh. Like, don't address him as a woman, dog,” Boosie said. The comments on the post were also blatantly anti-trans.

“But why should we stop talking about the LGBTQ community simply because our audience is homophobic?”

To some, it seemed negligent on the part of the Shade Room to post the video considering the violence enacted against trans women but especially Black trans women in this country. When I spoke to her in March, Nwandu clung to a specific view of bothsidesism, saying that if someone like Union comes out in support of their transitioning stepchild, “We can't not discuss that there's still people in the community who feel the opposite way toward it. So let's put that on the page and let's talk about it in the community.” Nwandu said this specific instance led to a helpful discussion, as people in the comments pointed out that Boosie isn’t a shining example of parenting since he allowed an adult woman to perform oral sex on his underage son. “These are the things that we need to talk about and we don't want to hide it,” said Nwandu. “We reflect the Black community as it is and we're just a platform for conversation, and those homophobic conversations are still conversations that we need to have in order to get to a better place in my opinion.”

Nwandu added that she is beholden to the constraints of the platform in terms of moderation, though she admitted it would be great if the roommates were more gracious. “If the community were a little bit nicer, it would help us. But it's almost impossible for us to [manage]. We post 40 to 70 times a day, [and] we blocked out certain words that you can say. It's just hard for us to control the audience,” she said. “I think that many media companies have that issue, like Reddit and all of these other companies just trying to control the hate.” Still, Nwandu believes people should be wary of attributing the “way that the world is” to the Shade Room but said she is committed to shifting the brand in a kinder direction.

Nwandu catches her fair share of heat from all sides, including the very people who her site covers, which is to be somewhat expected, given the fact that it’s a gossip blog. Still, some celebrities have been quite virulent about their dissatisfaction with the Shade Room. Last November, Lakeith Stanfield called the Shade Room, along with other Black media, including The Breakfast Club and WorldStarHipHop, “anti-black” in a now-deleted Instagram post. Stanfield said the platforms “tend to be feeding grounds for negative reinforcement toward BLACK ‘nonconformists’. They bolster faux vanity and hold a white supremacists scope over black men and women often highlighting negative attributes and downplaying mind-expanding ones.”

Another of the Shade Room’s most fervent critics also happens to be one of the biggest stars on the planet: Cardi B. The star has, in the past, resorted to name-calling at Nwandu’s expense because she feels the site is biased against her and against her relationship with Offset, who makes up one-third of the group Migos. (Cardi has since filed for divorce from the rapper.)

Cardi’s irritation with the blog reached new heights when former Shade Room staffer Kyle Anfernee, 26, became personally involved in the drama with the rapper, who accused him of harassment. According to Cardi, Anfernee used his position as a staffer to like comments via the Shade Room’s account that were disparaging toward the star. She also accused him of being behind the Instagram account @thatssobeyonce (Anfernee has denied having any association with the account) which would notoriously insult Cardi. Anfernee is a fan of Nicki Minaj — who has long had a tumultuous relationship with Cardi — and once appeared on Minaj’s Queen Radio.

On Out Loud with Claudia Jordan last December, Anfernee admitted to angling certain posts in a way that favored Minaj but said he’d learned from his mistakes. “I did learn my lesson to just stay the hell out of stuff like that,” he said on the show. The Cardi drama was happening simultaneously as Anfernee, who started at the Shade Room as an intern in 2015 before being brought on as a full-time employee, was going through strife on the job. Anfernee said he was fired from the Shade Room at the end of 2018, and though he said the Cardi B fiasco wasn’t the reason he was terminated, he thinks it became a problem once he began to respond directly to the rapper’s claims. “Nobody ever stood up for me in that situation,” he said. “I did it on my own because I just felt like [they] were leaving me out there to hang and dry.”

Anfernee said that Nwandu DM'd Cardi from the Shade Room’s Instagram account and told her that Anfernee hadn't done some of the things the rapper claimed, but he feels that the Shade Room should have made a public statement in his defense, especially since Cardi’s social media platform is so much larger than his and he began to receive hateful messages from her fans. Anfernee has since launched his own gossip and entertainment blog — the Neighborhood Talk — and said there are “no hard feelings” toward his former employer. Nwandu echoed that sentiment, saying that the issues Anfernee faced with Cardi B weren’t a factor in her decision to let him go, but that she wished him well.

In general, Nwandu believes that she gets more flack than her white peers. “I would not only be a hypocrite but delusional if I wanted everyone to agree with what I'm doing. What we do is loud. Some may call it polarizing … [but] I do want to see is a little bit of respect for Black female founders,” she said. Nwandu pointed out that it’s not often that you’ll see someone post a photo of TMZ’s Harvey Levin and proceed to levy ad hominem attacks at him, but it’s something that frequently happens to her, she said, typically by Black artists and talent. There appears to be a double standard, according to Nwandu, especially when it comes to how her brand is perceived in comparison to TMZ, which she considers to be the Shade Room’s biggest competitor.

"What we do is loud. Some may call it polarizing … [but] I do want to see is a little bit of respect for Black female founders."

Nwandu insists that she doesn’t have a personal issue with Levin, but has noticed that Black celebrities will often provide exclusives to his site. On the flip side, when it comes to Black media, Nwandu said they’re held to a higher standard, and without support from the very artists she covers. “Harvey is not going to post when your album comes out. They're going to post the scandals and the breaking news on you … A lot of those same artists are speaking out against Black media, talking down on Black media, and walking past us on the carpet.”

The Shade Room disrupted the gossip landscape in a major way and has maintained its position as a leader in the industry. In the future, Nwandu said she wants to venture into programming and find ways to “activate the roommates outside of social media.” Despite the negative tweets about the brand’s toxicity, with some calling for people to unfollow the page for its messiness, the behemoth that is the Shade Room keeps growing.

In March, when I spoke with Nwandu, the Instagram account had 17 million followers. Soon, it will have 21 million. It’s hard to tell if it’s trending in a more positive direction, as Nwandu said she would try to do. Right now, Nwandu said there are “certain words” that are forbidden from being used in the comments section, and the blog regularly sanitizes posts that have profanity and slurs. One post in particular seems to have been quietly adjusted. In April, the Shade Room reposted a video of a noticeably thinner Chadwick Boseman. On the message board Lipstick Alley, commenters said “The Shade Room is about to eat him up.” There were also several tweets alleging the blog only posted the video of Boseman, who appeared to have lost weight, so that readers would attack. Boseman died in August from colon cancer and notably, comments from that April post were disabled at some point. It remains to be seen if the Shade Room will make any other changes to squash the toxicity of some of their “roommates.”

One thing remains true, though: Nwandu has more than proven that she has the tough skin to continue building her media empire within such a fickle industry, even if she makes enemies along the way. “You can't be the founder and owner of one of the most loud media companies and think that everything is going to be gravy and everybody's gonna love you,” she said with a laugh. “It's not realistic.” ●

Correction: Angie Nwandu is 30 years old. An earlier version of this post misstated her age.

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