Tonya Reneé Banks – Lil Boss

Words + Interview By Tyrone Davis   

Tonya Reneé Banks is an actress and reality show star, known for Lifetime’s “Little Women: LA”.  She is also an entrepreneur who owns a clothing line for active wear and has her very own wine called, “L’Tonya Reneé”.  Her story is interesting and I learned a lot from her, including things about little people, her friendship with actor Tony Cox, doing stunts for him in the film “Bad Santa” and more.

Tell us about your wine.
The name of the wine is called, “L’Tonya Reneé” and it’s a red blend.  It’s 48% Merlot, 29% Syrah and 23% Zinfandel.  It’s real smooth and very balanced.  It’s not dry but it’s not really sweet either.  It really complements everyone’s palate and that is what I wanted to accomplish with this blend.  I have a lot of friends who like dry wine and myself and other friends like sweet wine so I tried to meet in the middle.

Explain the wine culture because I’m not a drinker at all but I know a lot of people are wine connoisseurs.
I was introduced to a man named Phil Long.  He has a black owned winery out of Livenmore, California.  I told him I wanted to do a wine that a sweet drinker and dry drinker would like.  He had me go through taste testing to see what I liked.  A lot of people have tasted it and they like it.

Ok, so this would make a great gift.
Exactly and it is interesting because when you go to my website and order the wine, the minimum order is three.  Some people only want one bottle but if they get the three, they can give two away as a gift to that friend, coworker, boss, etc. but once they taste it, they are going to want all three bottles to themselves.    

My mother is into wine and she bought me a little wine rack and a few bottles to go on it.  I eventually had to give the wine away because I’m never going to drink it but I might have to get me some “L’Tonya Reneé Wine” to add to my rack so I can tell people it’s yours, lol.  I probably won’t drink it but it’ll look good. (Note: I actually did purchase the wine.)
Lol, it’ll look good and you might have a lovely lady over or a guest or someone for the holidays and you can offer them some L’Tonya Reneé and tell them this is the new thing on the market.  It’s a hot item and it’s interesting because a lot of men like the wine.  I was shocked because I was pushing it to the women but men were like, “Ooh, I like this wine.  This is a man’s wine.”  This is an everybody wine.  This is a boss’ wine.

Lol, speaking of “boss”, you also have a clothing line?
Yes, I do.  It is called, “Lil Boss Body”.  I came up with that first because I am really into working out and taking care of myself.  I’m the oldest of the Little Women: LA cast so in order for me to keep up with those hefas, I have to stay in shape.  I had a personal trainer who would work with me and I had little sweats and kind of kiddie stuff but I wanted some active wear that fit comfortably and held stuff in when I was working out that could fit little women and average height women or women of all sizes.  When I came up with that, I created a legging like Yoga pants and sports capris.  My sizes are like 0-3XL.  Then I have the sport bras but they are not sports bras, they are sports tanks because everyone doesn’t have a six pack.  They are working towards one.  It’s a sports tank so it supports the abdomen area.

Cool. So you’re on the reality show “Little Women: LA”.  What is the premise of the show?
So Terra (Jole), who is one of the executive producers….I should have been one of the executive producers too but we aren’t going to talk about that.  Terra and I came up with the concept.  We were watching Real Housewives of Atlanta and during commercials, we’d call each other and talk about it.  Her and I were doing mini impersonators.  We were going around doing “Mini Gaga”, “Mini Beyoncé’”, I was doing Tina Turner and she was doing Brittany Spears.  When we started watching Real Housewives of Atlanta, she said, “I’m tired of impersonating people.  I want to be me.” and I was like, “Me too!”  There was a bidding war for our show and it went to Lifetime.

Being that the show is on the Lifetime network, is it being put together any differently than a show on VH1?
Um, no.  It’s a documentary series that is based on educating the world about our lifestyle from our point of view like the different struggles we face and the solutions to those struggles.  We had to adapt to the world because the world was not going to adapt to us.  We’re also educating people about our anatomy, even with pregnancy.  We wanted to answer a lot of questions that we’ve been asked.  We as little people can have average sized children and we can have little children.  This show actually educated my own family.  I’m the middle child and my sisters just knew me as their sister Tonya and that I was short.  They didn’t realize everything that I went through and after watching the show, they are coming back to me saying they didn’t know and that they treated me like everyone else.  I was like, “I know.  I know.” Lol.

Being that people are more sensitive today and are a lot more politically correct, what is your take on the word “midget”? Are you offended by it? 
Yes, because it has a negative connotation just like a white person calling me n*****.  We can call each other that.  It’s not “n***er”, it’s “n***a” but it’s just different.  Even little people will clown and they’ll be like, “It’s a room of midgets!” but I don’t even like it when they say it.  I guess they get their pass because they are little too but if a person with average height says, “Look at that midget”, it’s negative.  I’ve been asked which is worse: a person calling me n***er or a person calling me midget?  Both of them because they are both negative when they come from a person who hasn’t walked in our shoes or come from our background.  Just like the LGBTQ community.  They don’t want to be called the “F-word”.

Real quick, what’s your relationship with actor, Tony Cox?
That’s one of my closest buddies.  Lol, that’s my homeboy.

Ok, the reason I asked is because “Martin” is one of my favorite shows of all time and when your people sent your information to me, that is what I remembered you from. 
I was actually on 2 episodes but that episode I was on there with Tony and we played “The Dancing Johnsons”, Lol.

Now, I’m only 35 but one of the earliest films I remember seeing Tony in was “Penitentiary II” and I always knew him from that film. Recently, I was looking at his filmography and I noticed that they listed him as “Midget” back then in a couple of films and as time went on it started being changed to “Little”.
Yes, lol! We are people, we’re just little. If you look up the definition of a midge, it is a tiny bug. So, to put the “T” on it, it’s negative. It’s like a circus clown or Vaudeville. Just like African Americans were called “colored” at one point.

With that being said, you had mentioned being a mini impersonator and on social media, little people can have just as much exposure as normal sized people. Often, when I’m watching skits and things of that nature that involve little people, they are exploiting themselves.
We did not want to do that with Little Women: LA. I’ve been asked if I’ve felt exploited and the answer is “No” because we are the ones who came up with the idea. It wasn’t to exploit us, it was to educate people about us. I’ve been asked “So, is your whole family little? Do you live in a little house? Do you have little kids? I heard you guys lived in a neighborhood that is blocked off and only little people live there and you all only come out at night.” Well, It’s not night now and I’m out. We’d also get, “How do you have sex? How do you have kids? How do you get around? Is your house specially built?” These are the questions we wanted to answer and we wanted to use the show as a platform to share our information.

I did see a couple of clips from the show. I saw one of you guys racing. That was funny. I also saw you guys talking about wine and I saw some beefs going on as well. How does that work? Do you guys get along for the most part or are you put in situations that will kind of force you to get into it? How does that work with reality shows?
In our case, you can’t make up this stuff. There are situations that take place off camera and then they’re like, “Aw, nah we need to film that!”. It’s not scripted, but I can honestly say it’s a little guided. They’ll take us to a location, a restaurant or something and then they throw us in there and we go for what we know. Even through group text, we’ll text each other about an event or something and someone may feel left out and they are going to bring it up on the show. It’s almost like playing telephone. Once it gets to someone’s ears, it’s been exaggerated and it turns into a beef.

Do you think that going to certain extremes to keep people’s attention is absolutely necessary? It seems like these films and TV/reality shows have to keep getting crazier and crazier as they go on and it always seems like it’s a bit much. We can enjoy things without being super extra.
Right. That’s true, which we do film a lot of stuff where we aren’t fussing and arguing but when they edit and condense it to whatever is exciting and what the viewer wants to see.

Aside from reality TV, how did you get into acting itself?
There is this organization called, “Little People of America” and it was founded by Billy Barty. When I was young, I actually had an aneurism and I had to have brain surgery. The genetic department of the hospital told me what kind of dwarfism I had and they gave me a brochure with a picture of a little white girl on the front and she looked just like me, but white. They were saying this organization would help us through life like tell us where to purchase shoes, extensions for our cars so we could drive, doctors that specialized in medical issues that we have. I joined the foundation and I was going to a lot of the meetings and they were making a movie called, Under the Rainbow. The casting company went to the foundation looking for all of these little people.

When they called me, I was underage so I couldn’t do it but they kept my number on file and the following year, they called me like, “You’re over 18 now, right?” and asked me to work as a stand in for a kid on a show, which was the show Webster with Emmanuel Lewis. I was his personal stand in. Then I did some extra background work on a commercial and I met another little guy who introduced me to his agent. He said they didn’t have any black little women in their agency so I met the agent and she took me on, took my pictures and everything and one thing led to another. I’m the only black female little person in the union screen actors guild.

Oh, wow! Ok, so can you break this down for me? I read that you were doing stunts on the film “Bad Santa”.
Yes, for Tony.

Now, when you say stunts, there was a scene where he was crawling through the ducts…….
The vents, the ducts and sliding down the escalator and falling through the roof….Yep. I did those.

Lololol!  Man!
I did stunts for children too but I met Tony when I was 13. He was 18. We’ve worked together on a lot of things. He was the first person I worked with in the business. The first stand in job I did was with him where we were both stand ins for children in a TV film with O.J. Simpson called, Cocaine and Blue Eyes. That goes way back like, wow lol. He kind of lived through that story. So yea. Me and Tony actually went out on a date a couple of times too, lol.

That’s awesome because just Tony being able to get a leading role in “Bad Santa” was really cool. I’ve been seeing him since I was a kid so I think it’s great that you guys have been working together. It’s still interesting as to why they had you do the stunts instead of him doing them.
Well, he couldn’t do them. I was standing in for him during the movie. That was the best movie set to work on. On Bad Santa, we had a ball and I looked forward to going to work every day. I told the director that I did stunts and I’d love to do Tony’s stunts. He was like, “Ok” so he told the stunt coordinator that I was the stunt person for Tony and I’d be doing all of the stunts.

Ok now, I saw a clip of the show where you had a male interest and I’m sure the fans of the show would love to know if that is still a thing?
Ok, that depends on which one you’re talking about, lol.

Lol, all of them. I did see that there were 2 guys.
Lol, there were a couple of them because this is almost 7 seasons in. The one from the first season…Oh my God, I couldn’t stand him. Anyway, he is out of the picture. I don’t know if you saw the episode where he was the one that came with his mom to my house to eat dinner? (Yes) Not that one. Then, my daughter’s father proposed and we got engaged on the show. I don’t know if you’re talking about that one. Then you have Jaa. He is the one that got me to start my active wear line. I was dating Jaa before I got back with my daughter’s father but that didn’t work out and he went back to Houston. Now, I’m single but Jaa is back in the picture and we’re working together. He’s like my best friend and business partner. He helped me with my wine too. He helps with my entrepreneurial ventures.

When this is all said and done, what is something you’d like the world to know about people like yourself?
We have a heart. We’re strong. A lot of us are alpha female with real strong personalities. When Terra and I came up with the show, my biggest prayer was that when people saw me, I didn’t want them to say, “Look at that midget” or “Look at that little mommy”. I wanted to be known for my name and stared at in a positive light. I think we have accomplished that with Little Women: LA.

Follow Tonya Reneé Banks on Instagram @1lilboss7 and on Facebook: Tonya Renee’. Her website is www.tonyareneebanks.com and you can follow her wine account on Instagram @ltonyareneewines.

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