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'Lizzo's Watch Out For The Big Grrrls' director on how the show found its rhythm

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, Kenya Hunt mentioned that Lizzo graces the cover of the September issue of Elle U.K., but that isn't the only place you can see her. Her upcoming tour, her first in three years, is about to kick off in just a few weeks. And if you've ever seen her perform, then you already know the superstar knows how to put on a show.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LIZZO: One, two, three. (Singing) I do my hair toss, check my nails. Baby, how you feeling? Feeling good as hell.

MARTIN: And one of the key ingredients that makes her live performances stand out are the dancers on stage with her - high energy, lots of attitude, and, let's keep it real, big girls. That's because Lizzo is a big girl, and she has made it very clear that she wants to be surrounded by dancers who look like her. The search for those dancers is the subject of the reality series "Lizzo's Watch Out For The Big Grrrls."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LIZZO'S WATCH OUT FOR THE BIG GRRRLS")

LIZZO: I've narrowed it down to 13 girls. I want to bring them to LA and see if they've got what it takes to be a big girl dancer. Now, are you ready for that jiggle, that wiggle and everything in the middle? It's time to show the world how we do it. Watch out for the big girls.

(Singing) Watch out for the big girls. Watch out for the big girls. Watch out for the big girls.

MARTIN: The series follows contestants as they compete for spots on the stage of Lizzo's tour. "Watch Out For The Big Grrrls" is nominated for six Emmys, including outstanding directing for a reality program. And with the awards ceremony just a few weeks away, we thought it would be fun to ask director Nneka Onuorah to join us and tell us more about filming the series. Nneka Onuorah, congratulations. Thanks so much for joining us.

NNEKA ONUORAH: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Well, first, could you just tell us how it all came together? I mean, did Lizzo find you? Did you have to audition, or did you have the idea to make the open call a film?

ONUORAH: Actually, Lizzo and these two executive producers - who are Black women - on the show, Myiea Coy and Makiah Green, came to me. And when they came to me, I was like, well, I do documentaries. I'm a documentarian, and this is a reality series. And I was like, in order for me to bring something authentic to it, I would have to call it a docu-ality (ph). So I pitched them a docu-ality series that was very immersive, that put the girls' story first, versus, like, a format-driven show, which we often see in, you know, the reality genre. I was, like, just really excited to be a part of it.

MARTIN: I can understand why you - your skill set appeal to them, but I was wondering why this project appealed to you because, as you mentioned, you are a documentarian. I think a lot of people might know the 2015 documentary "The Same Difference." I mean, it was a huge hit on the festival circuit - and focusing on, I would describe it as, internalized homophobia...

ONUORAH: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Within the Black lesbian community, but it dealt with some kind of gritty stuff. And so I was wondering why this project appealed to you.

ONUORAH: This one appealed to me because when I think about my work, I always think about, how do we tell nuanced stories with underrepresented voices in a very big commercial way? And I felt like this was the perfect opportunity to do that. A lot of times, plus-size women haven't been in the front part of the commercial conversation when it comes to anything that has to do with entertainment. As a, you know, dancer previously, I felt like I could bring a edge to it and a realism to it. Not to mention, the girls come from all different creeds and backgrounds. We have women who are trans, women who come from, you know, Christian backgrounds, women who come from all over the globe. And I felt like it was such a diverse story to tell and that I could bring some nuance to it that the world hasn't heard yet.

MARTIN: Tell us some of the stories that they came with.

ONUORAH: Beyond being technically - you know, good technically, which was a requirement in the show, like looking at a Jayla who also is dealing with finding comfort in her body. Like, we talked about the masculinity and the femininity. For some people, Jay was too feminine, and Jayla having to find that balance and that comfortability in herself was a journey that she went through on the show. And we had sensuality classes for the girls to, like, feel into their bodies and get into their sensuality - their sexuality - to be able to fully express that.

We had women who were dealing with other things that were from eating disorders to religious issues, like, where parents don't want them to actually dance like that without, like, clothing. We had the naked episode that we got nominated for where girls had to get nude. And, you know, some of them were concerned because of religion and what that would mean, and would they really, truly be able to dance? These women are just like everything else. They have layers upon layers of things happening in their lives, and I think that's what we were able to highlight - is the nuance of these women's specific stories to make everybody relate.

MARTIN: So much of the series is about bodies - you know, what bodies can do, you know, all different types of bodies. On the other hand, the naked episode for which you were nominated, Lizzo presents this as an opportunity to really get in touch with the body you're in, in part by releasing, I would say, the shame that this society has often visited upon people of larger size that suggests that you need to be covered. You know, Lizzo likes to wear revealing clothing. But I am curious about how you feel about the ethical dilemma here of perhaps some of the young women did not wish to be naked and they - but yet they want this job. And I'm just wondering, is it really a choice if the choice only runs in one direction? And I'd like to ask your thoughts about that.

ONUORAH: Yeah, it was a choice. It was a choice for the girls because every girl didn't get completely nude. That was up to them. Some girls went nude. Some girls had a nudeish (ph), you know, top on top of themselves, but they showed their skin. And I think, you know, everybody's at different levels of vulnerability and everybody has different level of circumstances. And some girls, even like, had their hair natural. So that was, like, a part of the nakedness. And I think the nakedness is just a symbol of vulnerability and, like, stripping off the layers off of yourself.

MARTIN: So talk a little bit more, if you would, about filming the work. I mean, even, gosh, from the audition stage, it felt very different, very up close. Very - yeah, yeah. So tell me more.

ONUORAH: Yeah. Well, I came in telling them that I don't - I want to take all these cameras off of tripods. I know everybody's used to safety shots and things like that, but I need to get smaller cameras. And I need my camera people to be able to move with the girls. When they dance, I need you - the cameras handheld, and I want you to be up close. I had a camera specifically to romanticize curves and bodies. I was like, if you see a jiggle - if you see that, embrace it. Step into it. It forces even the team to embrace the girls and what's going on, and that's, like, a technique. I didn't allow zoom lenses. You can't zoom in to get close to them, you have to physically get close to them.

MARTIN: No spoilers, but - maybe it's a spoiler. Do these dancers actually get to tour with Lizzo? If you go and see her on tour, will you see some of these dancers?

ONUORAH: I don't know what Lizzo's announced about her tour, but I know in the most current performances that you can see the girls from "Watch Out For The Big Grrrls" with Lizzo, dancing with Lizzo and in her music videos currently, which I'm just so proud of the girls, to this day. They're just booked and busy. Like...

MARTIN: They're booked and busy. They're booked and busy.

ONUORAH: They're somewhere. they're booked and busy, yes.

MARTIN: That's awesome.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUICE")

LIZZO: (Singing) Mirror, mirror on the wall.

ONUORAH: That was director Nneka Onuorah. She's the director of "Lizzo's Watch Out For The Big Grrrls," which is on Amazon Prime, and she just won an Emmy for outstanding directing for a reality program.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUICE")

LIZZO: (Singing) Lit up like a crystal ball. That's cool, baby, so is you. That's how I roll. If I'm shining, everybody going to shine. I was born like this, don't even got to try. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.