While Southern Charm has largely been about a group of white, privileged men (lovable ones though, for the most part) in Charleston, South Carolina, suffering from severe cases of Peter Pan syndrome, this season, they are in for a necessary awakening, which is in part delivered by new castmember, Leva Bonaparte. Longtime fans of the Bravo series, now beginning its seventh season, will recognize Leva as one of Cameran Eubanks’ best friends. She’s made sporadic appearances on the show throughout its run, but this year signed on as a full-time cast member and much-needed voice of reason.
Leva joined the show thinking it would be an opportunity to spend more time with her friends, but soon learned many of the women would not be returning, as Cameran, Naomie Olindo, and Chelsea Meissner all announced this past spring that they wouldn’t be back. “I was super excited to be on with Cameran,” Leva told me recently over Zoom, perched in front of her Insta-ready leafy green wall. “I actually was texting her and Naomie, like, ‘Oh my god! We get to see even more of each other!’ And of course, I think every year, it’s a debate for everybody. I think that this year just didn’t end up serving them. Sad story for me, but as long as they’re happy, I’m happy.”
Not that Leva didn’t have the same debate with herself when the opportunity came up. “It’s definitely not in my wheelhouse,” she said of opening her whole life up to invasive cameras and criticism from the public. “I’ve made appearances in the past, but there were certain anxieties. I’ve been friends with these people for so many years. I’m already at the parties. I’ve been toying with the idea for several years, but I was really hyper-focused and having difficulty getting pregnant. Now I have my beautiful two-year-old son. I think when you’re about to embark on something like this, you just have to be able to be in a space in your life where you’re ready to really be your authentic self. In order to do it justice, you have to be able to be adult enough to be honest and accountable and have difficult conversations. Take a Tums if you need to — just handle your shit.”
And this is a woman who has been handling her shit her whole life — and in many corners of the world, at that. Leva’s bravotv.com bio reads, “She is Persian and was born in India, but spent her years growing up in Canada and Bolivia.” Her family’s business brought her to Charleston 18 years ago, where she now lives with her husband Lamar and their adorable two-year-old son who Leva confirms we will be seeing on this season of the show. “My husband’s a super private guy. He doesn’t even like taking pictures,” she said. “It definitely is far from his wheelhouse of comfort. But he’s excited for me, and he knows that I was having a great time and that I enjoyed it. It was sort of a no-brainer for me: it was like the universe was handing it to me, and I was like, ‘Okay. Time to put your big girl pants on and do this thing.’ So he’s very supportive.”
And there will be much to be supportive of, which becomes evident as Leva reflects on 2020. Southern Charm began filming in February, paused in March when the pandemic began, and pivoted to having the cast members film themselves at home, before resuming in May, just as the Black Lives Matter movement was building. “Between COVID and everything, it was a lot. It was a trying year, but I feel like I grew a lot. It was good for me. I knew that I would be resentful if I embarked on a project like this and I wasn’t capable enough to always keep my voice. I think everybody knows it’s not easy to do that and be able to take all the criticism as well. At the end of the day, go to bed and be like, ‘It’s me.'”
Oh, and it’s very her. And while the responsibility of bringing awareness to this group seems to fall squarely on her shoulders this season (because who else in this bunch is going to face reality on their own?), it’s a task she can handle because of her own self-awareness. “I’ve known through life that I’m not for everybody. I have two t-shirts that say that: I’m not for everybody.” She’s even included that at the top of her Instagram bio, to really drive the point home. “I’m for the people that get me,” she continued. “At the end of the day, I may not always please everyone, I’m far from perfect, but I just try to be honest. I try to be the friend that maybe everybody doesn’t want all the time, but I think that they need. And I expect that back. I don’t want to be 80 and be an asshole because I’m surrounded by these ‘Yes!’ friends, that are just like, ‘You’re so great. It’s okay.’ No, it’s not okay! I’ve always been that way. My husband and I both have really strong personalities, so I think that knife is so sharpened at home. I come from a family of strong personalities. I might shock people. But I think, at the end of the day, people know I have a good heart.”
“Things just couldn’t be swept under the rug anymore,” she says of the drama we’ll see on the show this season, from small-town rumors to nationwide movements. “I think that we really kept it real. I don’t see a lot of TV where people are [having] really uncomfortable conversations. I think it’s important for America and friendships and groups of people to start learning and navigating saying the wrong thing; learning how to correct it, and do better.”
When I asked who needed and benefitted the most from her honesty and real talk this season, Leva pointed to both Kathryn Dennis and Austen Kroll, saying, “We both had some tough conversations. I would hope that they benefit from that.” Of course, we as viewers benefit from it as it is delivered in exciting installments as this season unravels, but a pretty big screaming match between Leva and Austen is previewed in this season’s trailer. “Austen, I think he just likes to butt his nose into things. What people don’t know is these boys are such little gossips. And I say ‘Shut the fuck up’ so many times, because I just don’t have the bandwidth for bullshit. For me, if you want to understand what we’re speaking on, or truly participate — please come forward. I would love it. But for you to just jump in? This is not a little school playground. I’m in my 40s, I don’t always act like it. I definitely had so-called ‘lost my shit’ on Austen. But I think at that point, I had just been so exhausted by attempting to have certain conversations. I stand with what I said. I just wish my delivery had been a little more tactful. But I have a temper. It’s complicated! But we have these true relationships.”
And these relationships aren’t just friendships and hookups: they are now business partnerships, as Craig Conover is now a minor investor in the four trendy bars and restaurants that Leva owns with her husband Lamar, including Mesu, Republic, Bourbon N’ Bubbles, and the newly-opened 1st Place. “I’m glad it’s now, and wasn’t five years ago,” Leva said of bringing Craig on board. “He’s been growing up a lot. Craig should run for politics or something. He’s such a people person. Restaurants are run on key personalities. They have the old school Maître D kind of guy that would walk around and check on everybody. In the South, you need that. With Craig, he’s got that sparkling personality. Craig’s a young guy. He likes to be out. That part of it works for us. As for knowing anything about the restaurant business? Craig doesn’t know anything. I didn’t bring him on for operations. I brought him on for his smile. That’s been good for us.”
Perhaps one of the best parts about Leva’s presence this season is how completely natural it feels. There are no awkward introductions, everyone already knows her, she knows everyone, and with that, especially in this town, comes the gossip. While Leva was bracing herself for the gossip to be about her, she is instead surprised when it’s her friend’s marriage that is whispered about. “It’s an accurate representation of Charleston. I was not shocked by that,” she said of the “country club gossip.”
The rumor originates from Kathryn, who Leva says she had previously been friendly with, but that “We wouldn’t go to coffee or talk about our problems or anything like that.” When asked about why she’s even presenting rumors, Leva offered, “I think Kathryn likes to talk. I think sometimes, Kathryn might not be in the best space in her life. Maybe misery loves [company]. I think for Kathryn, she was so nonchalant about it. Because I think she’s dealt with so much of it, I don’t think she understood the level of damage that can cause somebody. Her and Thomas have been wrung through the mud so much that talk like that just seems normal to her. [For] other people, you get gobsmacked. So I think it’s a little with age, her environment, and her history. All of it. I think my reaction was very visceral. I probably will regret a lot of the things I said. But whatcha gonna do?”
Well, What Leva is gonna do is watch, although maybe with her hands covering her eyes — and ears. “I don’t want to watch, but I will watch. I hate the sound of my voice. I’m like, ‘Ugh.’ It’s funny, because my son’s first word was, ‘Ugh.’ I was like, ‘Where did he get that from?'” she laughed.
But we should all be watching, with open eyes and open hearts, when it comes to the show’s depiction of the Black Lives Matter movement later this season. “I’ve always said that a lot of the racial pain that exists in America, that wound is in the South. Until we heal it in the South, it’s not going to be healed anywhere else,” Leva said. “I think that all of America, we’re so rich with culture and diversity. America’s an extremely generous country, and an extremely inclusive country. But I think somewhere along the lines, we’re starting to forget that. That means we’ve got to change some things too. I was happy to see the movement. I’m proud to see the change. I’m proud to see all the people who aren’t African American who are standing up, who are doing better, who are learning better. Learning more. Educating themselves. I think it’s a growing pain. It’s not perfect, the way it’s happening. But it’s something we’ve got to go through.” She points to Danni Baird as someone who really had her eyes opened this year. “Danni wasn’t aware of even some of the historical stuff, with the statue and everything. She was so eager to know, and then so horrified.”
“It wasn’t easy, and we’ll probably get a lot of pushback,” Leva said. “We didn’t do everything perfectly. But we genuinely tried to be real and do our best to navigate what was happening in the world that was spilling over into our friendships. We’re just a tiny group of people in America, in this tiny city with its own culture and history. Instead of sweeping it under the rug, we moved through it. And I’m proud of that.”
And she’s not the only new face we’ll see this season as Shep Rose’s college pal John Pringle also joins the group. “Initially, I thought he was very charming,” Leva said. “He was so humble and kind, I met him at Shep’s party for the first time. Really nice guy.” Then she didn’t see him for a while due to the lockdown, and said, “The rest of the times I saw him, he was having a good time. Great for him. But there wasn’t a ton of deep conversations, which is what I think ended up happening with the boys.” She added that, “John and Shep are very political guys. They’re aware. They’re human in their politics. I don’t think that they’re tone-deaf, but I just think that when it bled into friendship, they were like, ‘Let’s get wasted!’”
Ultimately, what Leva hopes viewers take away from this season of the show is that, “Not everybody in Charleston looks like what you think they look like. It’s not a picture book. Certainly, the city is a picture book. It’s probably, in my opinion, the prettiest city in America. And it’s a fucking cool city. I truly love it here. But there is some tricky stuff to navigate, and I’m trying to navigate it the best I can. I was just genuinely opening up pockets of my life and friendships to everybody. Not without error and mistake. But I just tried to be as authentic and real as I could. I hope that some of the conversations that required a lot of Tums for me can be beneficial for the rest of us — be it for laughing, or for marinating on, or for the Zoom office cooler.”
Southern Charm airs Thursday at 9pm ET/PT on Bravo.
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