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Lizzo’s ‘Big Grrrls’ Asks Big Questions

Lizzo would have rather just hired her dancers through an agency. But, as she says on the first episode of her new show that premiered on Amazon Prime Video last month, “Girls who look like me just don’t get representation.”

She’s talking about “representation” in the professional sense. But broader questions of representation loom on “Lizzo’s Watch Out for the Big Grrrls.” The eight-episode show follows a group of aspiring plus-size dancers who recently competed for a chance to back up Lizzo onstage and possibly join her tour as one of her “Big Grrrl” dancers.

Lizzo tells the dancers that if they don’t rise to the occasion she’ll send them home — or she might not. A few episodes in, she tells them that they might all get to stay.

“The No. 1 thing is I didn’t want to eliminate every week,” Lizzo said in a Zoom interview.

“I’m looking for dancers, not dancer,” she said, emphasizing the plural. If she eliminated a woman every week, she said, she wouldn’t have anyone by the end.

A reality TV competition that doesn’t cut contestants may seem like a paradox. But Lizzo’s career has always featured surprising and somewhat contradictory combinations. She regularly appears nude and bristles at being called “brave” for it. She insists on the inherent value of fat bodies and has started a shapewear line. She twerks and she plays the flute.

“I don’t have to fit into the archetypes that have been created before like Tyra Banks or Puff Daddy,” Lizzo said. “They all did it their own way, and that’s what I’m doing.” Lizzo’s persona as a TV host is part demanding queen, part nurturing mentor. Several times throughout the show, she delivers imperious one-liners to the camera, holds for a few seconds and then bursts into laughter.

Lizzo’s warmer and more supportive moments are tempered by her choreographer Tanisha Scott, who brings tough love and an exacting rigor to her rehearsals.

“I’m able to speak to them from my own personal experience, to not give up and not also feel sorry for yourself in any sort of way,” Ms. Scott said in a Zoom interview. Ms. Scott started her career as an untrained dancer with a larger-than-average body and has emerged as a rare success in her industry. She said she had to work 10 times harder than other dancers to get where she is.

“So I wasn’t going to be sweet and easy and ‘this is a bunch of roses’ and ‘we all got this,’” she said. “No. You have to work for it.”

Ms. Scott credits Lizzo with opening the door for the greater commercial viability of larger dancers. “She’s making this not a trend or a novelty, she’s making this a business,” she said.

One of the unique elements of Lizzo’s show is how seriously it takes both the talents and struggles of its aspiring “Big Grrrls.” Every episode features athletic feats performed by larger-than-average bodies, including particularly jaw-dropping acrobatics by Jayla Sullivan, one of the contestants. But the show doesn’t shy away from the dancers’ injuries, insecurities and occasional food issues.

Tonally, the show lives somewhere between body positivity — a concept that has fully penetrated certain corners of marketing — and body neutrality, a newer idea that encourages people to accept and respect their bodies. The entertainment and dance industries are also in a moment of transition in their attitudes toward larger bodies.

“There’s a movement of plus-sized women coming to the forefront as leading roles, as stars,” said Nneka Onuorah, who directed the show and appears in an episode. “This show is just the tip of the iceberg on that.”

Lizzo said she has seen the change “on a commercial level, where bigger girls are being welcomed in casting rooms.” “I’ll even hear things about, ‘Oh, we need a Lizzo type,’ which is really inspiring,” she said.

Still, Lizzo said that there are still vastly fewer casting opportunities for large dancers. “I’ve seen big girls being cast in music videos almost as a joke, not as being taken seriously,” she said. “So I think it hasn’t infiltrated the actual dance industry.”

Jessica Judd, who runs an organization in the Bay Area called Big Moves that focuses on making dance accessible to people of all sizes, agrees. Her group worked closely with choreographers in the mainstream dance world for years until they grew disillusioned by a pattern of fat-phobic comments and empty words around body diversity.

“They absolutely know what to say — they absolutely know they probably shouldn’t say out loud that they only want a size 4 or below,” Ms. Judd said, “but then you look at who gets cast.”

She recalled comments people made about plus-size dancers being “brave” for getting onstage (“that’s not the compliment you think it is,” she said) and the sense that mainstream producers or choreographers were working with them to check a diversity box, then going back to their uniform casts.

“I do not want to be a perpetual prop for the mainstream dance world trying to work out their issues around fatness and bodies,” Ms. Judd said.

To Ms. Judd, Lizzo’s show is a major victory for representation, but does not necessarily portend anything for the broader dance world, where she has seen plenty of lip service paid to body positivity but little substantial change.

“At the end of the day,” she said, “not a lot of presenters, directors, producers and choreographers are necessarily invested in having fat people involved in their organization.”

Lizzo agrees that there is a long way to go for big dancers to be taken seriously and treated well in the dance industry. In the meantime, she is focused on her own work.

“I just want people to know that more than anything this is an incredible television show,” she said, rattling off a list of the crew members who she worked with.

“I’m just fat,” she added. “And I’m just making a show about what I need.”

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