I am browsing the numerous awards on display in Tracey Edmonds’ expansive office when she enters through a private door, brightening up the already sun-drenched room with a radiance no cosmetic company could possibly take credit for. To call her beautiful is an understatement—she’s absolutely stunning. A statuesque former model with a dazzling smile, she wears low-rise denim jeans and a casual sweater that stops just at her navel, revealing a trim waist and flat abs that look as if no babies could have ever kicked and tumbled beneath them. It is difficult at first to believe that this vibrant young mother of two (who could easily be mistaken for a college coed) is the owner, president and CEO of Edmonds Entertainment, a multi-million dollar conglomerate whose five subsidiary companies produce award-winning music, film and television programs enjoyed by millions of Americans of every age and ethnicity.
Along with her husband and business partner, Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, Tracey has led Edmonds Entertainment to the forefront of the urban entertainment industry by developing and producing numerous commercially successful projects. One of her most lucrative triumphs was Soul Food, a film which earned five 1997 NAACP Image Awards, grossed over $43 million at the box office, and inspired a Showtime television series that ran for five successful seasons. The Soul Food soundtrack, which she executive produced, achieved multi-platinum status and the Showtime series garnered both NAACP and Emmy nominations. Her film production credits also include, Hav Plenty (released by Miramax in 1997), Light It Up (20th Century Fox, 1999), Josie and the Pussycats (Universal, 2001) and Punks (Urbanworld Films, 2000). Currently, Edmonds is working on feature film projects with Disney, Fox Searchlight, MGM and Universal.
Edmonds managed to accomplish all this and much more in an industry where black producers find barriers to success at every turn. “Hollywood is still dominated by studio heads and network heads that are white,” she says. “As a producer of color, when you present ideas to Hollywood, it’s a challenge getting anything accomplished that is urban or has leads of color. You learn to face a lot of rejection. I look forward to the day when people of color are green-lighting movies and television shows.” Despite the challenges, Edmonds remains confident that she will continue to grow as a producer and she remains committed to providing quality entertainment for a diverse audience. “My goal,” she asserts confidently, “is to keep breaking down those barriers and breaking down those doors.”
One of the few black female producers in Hollywood, Edmonds has heard whispers that her accomplishments are mostly attributable to her famous husband, a charge she calmly rebuffs. With a graceful blend of humility, keen intellect, authority and down-to-earthiness Edmonds acknowledges and appreciates the many blessings she’s received in her life, but she also makes it clear that the foundation of her success is her willingness to work hard. “My philosophy is nothing is too big or too small for me to personally do. I have no problem coming in on the weekends, taking my shoes off [and] sitting with the editors.” Edmonds hires a number of interns every year and provides countless opportunities for people of color to get a leg up in the industry, but she doesn’t just sit back and watch others work—she’s a hands-on executive. “You can’t take the attitude ‘Oh I’m just going to delegate everything,’ you’ve got to be in the trenches in order to deliver something you can be proud of,” she contends.
Anyone who has worked with Edmonds knows she’s brilliant and driven, but what many don’t know about her is that her journey to the top of her game began when she was a sixteen-year-old freshman at Stanford University, where she earned her psychology/neurobiology degree before her 21st birthday.
At a costly private university like Stanford, where few students were black and most were financially well-off, Edmonds was an oddity. “I was definitely a minority at Stanford,” she recalls. “In addition to being one of a small number of black women on campus, I was one of the more economically disadvantaged students who had to work two jobs to pay bills and buy textbooks.”
Edmond’s college experiences led her to wonder what campus life might be like at a Historically Black College or University (HBCU), and in 2004, she turned that question into America’s first black reality television series, College Hill, a voyeuristic look into the daily lives of HBCU students. Filmed at Louisiana’s Southern University, College Hill’s first season featured a cast of characters that included a computer nerd, a sexy vixen, a football star and a pregnant sophomore. “I so enjoyed producing and being involved with College Hill,” she explains, “because it gave me a chance to see what HBCUs are like. To be at universities where people of color are dominant is really refreshing in itself.”
While interviewing potential cast members, Edmonds was impressed that so many of the students had struggled against seemingly impossible odds to make their way to college. “Many of these kids have lived through crime, have fought themselves in and out of gangs, and have pulled through a lot of struggles to get a college degree.”
When College Hill debuted on January 28, 2004 the show was an instant hit, and it stands as BET’s highest rated series premiere in their 24-year history of programming. Edmonds says she’s received mostly positive responses to the series, though there has been some criticism. “It’s a controversial show…it’s a reality show, so we let students be themselves,” explains Edmonds. “There may be older viewers who may cringe at the edginess. But with younger BET viewers, we’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback.”
Edmonds is most proud of the response from urban teens who watched the show and were inspired to want to go to college. “A lot of times kids coming from disadvantaged neighborhoods think the only way out is to play ball, or rap, or act, or commit a crime. It’s important for them to see students they can relate to [who say], ‘I’m going to go to school to better myself and prepare for the future. I still have flavor and personality and I’m coming from the streets, but I’m here now in college and I’m going to make my way through.” Recognizing the need for young people to first see themselves as “college material” before they can begin to strive for higher education, Edmonds adds, “It is good for kids that are struggling through life to see kids they can relate to actually in college.”
College Hill fans will be happy to know that Edmonds is promising an even better show in 2005, and she has made some significant production changes to achieve that goal. One huge transformation will be purely cosmetic. Edmonds knows most viewers are comparing College Hill to other reality television shows with budgets ten times bigger than hers, and it is definitely a concern. “As a producer you want to try getting the best look possible and being as creative as possible,” Tracey says. In the first season, she was challenged with what she describes as “a tiny budget,” which meant smaller crews, limited technology and restricted post-production time—all of which had a huge impact on the overall look of the show. “BET increased the budget this year, so we got better quality cameras and the film stock is better,” says Edmonds. Helicopter aerial shots, production design of the house’s interior, and trips with the cast into the city are all new this year as well.
Another major change in the show is a move from Southern University to Langston University, an HBCU in rural Oklahoma, where the cast will not be living on campus. “This season we’re taking the students off campus and we’re housing them in a big ranch setting, [so] we don’t have to adhere to all the university restrictions and curfews we had to deal with before,” Edmonds explains. When the show was filmed in Southern’s dorms, the school’s administration retained the right to censor episode content and there was a lot of footage she was not able to use. She laments, “We had some amazing stuff going on and we’d get feedback from the university, ‘you have to take this out; you have to take that out. This has gotta go; that’s gotta go.’” There’s no such restriction this year. Edmonds says of the change, “The great thing is that we’re able to deliver the content we want. Things are going to jump off this season.”
The second season of College Hill debuted at the end of January, log onto www.BET.com for broadcast time.