Few things in modern digital media inspire as much instant recognition as The Shade Room. With more than 14.4 million Instagram followers, or "Roommates," (and millions more on Facebook and visiting the website), The Shade Room (TSR) has quickly become synonymous with trending, exciting and oftentimes scandalous news. In just three years, founder Angie Nwandu turned a personal fascination with celebrity news into a blossoming empire with a digital footprint many legacy media companies would kill for.
But beyond being known for breaking celebrity news — aided by hundreds, if not thousands of tipsters and celebrities themselves engaging with the page in the comments section (aka, "stepping into The Shade Room"), TSR has positioned itself as an indispensable facet of Black culture, and by natural extension, pop culture. When something big happens on social media, fans flock to the site to flood the comments with observations, questions, exclamations and of course, jokes.
Related | Break the Internet: Amanda Bynes
So how did Nwandu build such strong community through a platform regularly maligned for its splintering qualities? We talked to the 27-year-old businesswoman to learn more about the mechanics behind the machine:
How do you feel like your competition in the landscape has changed? You were really one of the first Instagram accounts to do what you did on such a big scale.
When I first came into the celebrity media news industry, the headlines were a lot more salacious. Like: "Oh, her feet!" It was just a whole different type of vibe. It's changed now in the sense that it's starting to become not just centered on celebrity news or the gossip. People are including the positives and all types of other things that we report on now.The content has changed a little bit to be more soft. And then also, it's shifted. People get their news from social media. More brands are shifting their focus to social media because that's where people get their news.
Gossip sites 5-10 years ago were much cattier. Why do you think that we've softened up in the way that we talk about celebrities and public figures?
I don't want to take the full credit for the softening. I mean, we're The Shade Room, right? So you would think that we're the shadiest of all. But we don't really have an opinion, we let the people have the opinion, and so we basically just present the news how it is, in the most unbiased way. The people that come to The Shade Room adjusted to a different type of news and how they receive their news. To go back now and see an article now that calls a celebrity a "B" in the headline, or calls them ugly or fat or whatever, is offensive. We've included positive images and celebrities doing good in the community, too. Or being parents with 'Daddy Duties' and 'Mommy Duties.' I've seen other blogs be impacted by that influence. It just changes the whole energy. I think people now would be offended by the same headlines that they saw back then. They're used to something a little bit lighter.
In digital media so often we talk about wanting to report on positive things with the knowledge that often the drama performs better traffic wise. Have you found that as well?
You know what, I can't say that the drama is always what performs better. I mean, well mostly it does perform better, but I would say the good news or the positive news is shared more on social media. When you look on Facebook, people want to share the positive news more than they want to share the gossip, because it's their Facebook page. Then on Instagram, sometimes people comment on the salacious news but sometimes it's too salacious that they won't comment on it because it will notify everybody on their friends' list what they commented on. Then, on The Shade Room, we have a lot of positive news that does really, really well. Like, somebody proposed their future wife, 6LACK's concert, and that got 2.5 million views and over 200,000 comments. I can't say that the salacious news always gets the most attention, but it's just the way that you report on the good news. If it's interesting, if you make it exciting enough, people will comment on that too.
People are literally associating their own personal brands with the news that they're commenting on, and so there's a behavior change there.
What was it like for you when celebrities themselves started commenting and engaging with TSR?
It was definitely a big turning point because it was very different. We were getting non-traditional exclusives, basically. Even now, more recently, we reported something that Tyson Beckford would say about Kim K. This is one of the biggest like, 'steps into The Shade Room' that we've had. And then Kim Kardashian stepped into The Shade Room and then came at Tyson Beckford, and that literally went to every website around the world.
"It's a meeting place for the Black diaspora."
It definitely helps us because it created something that was very unique. Our voice was kind of unbiased, so people didn't hate it. There are some celebrities that hate The Shade Room, I won't lie, but mostly they just understand that people are in the comments and they have an opinion. Once they realized that they could sway peoples' opinions by coming into the comments section, they could speak and they could say what they wanted to say and have an impact on peoples' opinions directly. Roommates [Shade Room readers] love to see them come in because now they feel like they have a direct line and access to the celebrities that they're talking about. It just created this community where the people and the celebrities kind of clash and meet in the middle.
Do you get get pushback from celebrities?
Yeah, all the time. It's because The Shade Room is loud. Depending on what it is, we take it into consideration. Certain things we will take off, but certain things we won't. It just depends on what it is.
It seems like you guys have eyes everywhere.
That's just people sending! There was one time, when Amber Rose was dating Wiz Khalifa. They had just broken up, and one of our Roommates was just walking her dog and she happened to be right in front of Wiz Khalifa's house as he was letting some girl in. So he's hugging the girl and she's about to come into the house, and our Roommate just snaps a picture and she's like, "Oh my god! Wiz Khalifa!" [Laughs] I can't tell you how many paparazzi pictures, Tamar Braxton, when she got a divorce from Vince, or she was dealing with the divorce, and then she had a new man and they were eating at a restaurant outside in Beverly Hills somewhere, and one of our Roommates was like, "Oh my god, I was in the car driving..." These messages. So, they are paparazzi for real, and they're everywhere. They will see celebrities in restaurants, in Atlanta, they'll see people walking up and down the street in New York. They're everywhere; they are the paparazzi for The Shade Room.
Do you get celebrities sending you tips and things?
Uh, yes. Anonymously.
What's your relationship like with other media companies, especially more traditional ones?
I think in the beginning we didn't get much credit, but over time we've gotten huge support from mainstream platforms. They'll credit us, and more and more, as the bigger we get, I think they realize that people know we're where that story originated from. When you're growing and you're a little bit smaller, people usually will just take the credit, but once you get bigger and people know, it's obvious where it came from. I feel like it never was a fight to get credit. I never got into that. All the sites credit us at this point.
At one point your Facebook got deleted. What reason did they give you for that?
So, this is what happened. We all of a sudden got deleted, right? I still don't know the reason why the Facebook or the Instagram got deleted, but I'm assuming it might've been some type of copyright situation. It might not even be paparazzi photos. It may have been just other peoples' videos, because at that time I don't think we had our system down pat. We would get permission to post these videos and then these companies — I don't know if you've heard of them, but like Jukin Media and all these others which buy peoples' content afterwards and then charge you for it. So it had to have been something like that. When they took us down, all the websites were coming at them like, "Why did you delete The Shade Room? What was the reason?" So they were like, "Listen, it was a mistake. Here's all your Instagrams back, go away! Don't ever bother us again!" [Laughs]
When we got deleted, it was during a time when other media companies were starting to be worried. You know BuzzFeed started on social media, too. So then you have all this digital that had a heavy presence on social media, and people were nervous. They were saying, "Hey, if they would delete The Shade Room..." If they were a bigger media company, they were like, "We can't trust Facebook and Instagram." So that's why a lot of people were reaching out to them and doing stories on it, because they were like, "Well, what should publishers do? You could just get deleted and whatever, you know!" So I think that was the situation, but it helped us.
"If I wanted to say what the real pulse of the whole brand is, it's even beyond any platform. It's the community."
Which aspect of The Shade Room is the most valuable to you? Where do you feel like the heart of the brand lies?
The heart of the brand lies on Instagram, but we do have a very strong website. Our website is actually, we're bigger than BET.com. We are one of the biggest websites. We're one of, if not the biggest Black website out there that does celebrity news except for, I would say Worldstar. If you want to count that as that. So all of our platforms are doing really well, but Instagram is definitely the pulse. It's where it started, and it's where people are most used to consuming news, but if I wanted to say what the real pulse of the whole brand is, it's even beyond any platform. It's the community. That's the real pulse. I was just talking about it the other day with my staff. There was an article that we posted and it got over 90,000 comments, right? And we were trying to see the impact of The Shade Room and understand what our role is in culture right now. And we were like, "Where else can you see 90,000 comments on a news company, in media?" Like, where else will you find 90,000 comments? You will be hard pressed to find something like that, if it exists. I felt like it showed the power of the community, which is our main asset.
How do you build that sense of community?
I think it's a combination of the Roommates feeling like they have direct access to the celebrities and the celebrities feeling like they have direct access to the Roommates. It creates this unique vibe, and then Instagram only adds to that with the blue checks, you know what I mean? It's a meeting place for the Black diaspora. It's Black people all over the world — and there's a lot of people who are not Black that are The Shade Room! But it's a meeting place for Black culture. Like okay, this is where we check on the news, trending news, politics — everything that is happening that affects us and is important to us. That's why I think the community is so strong.
Why did you decide to add politics into the mix?
That's what actually elevated the brand because people are like, "We can go to The Shade Room for anything that's trending, if Facebook shut down, we can go to The Shade Room." Whatever is happening, even something with Trump, people know that they can find it on The Shade Room. Now it's a source for all news, and not just gossip.
What are your plans for the future?
You know, you asked me that question at an interesting time because I literally just changed the plans for the future. I was sold on doing production and getting into programming like everybody else. I saw that a lot of the media companies like BuzzFeed and VICE are moving towards programming on both the Internet and traditional TV, because they feel like it's more lucrative. I was thinking about doing that. I'm not saying that I'm completely not going to do it, but I felt that it was almost counterintuitive, right? To take a media company that is... Okay, this is going to be a long story. I'm going to tell you, I'm going to shrink this story.
No let's hear it!
I went to Coachella — and nobody knows who I am, and I love it. I love the fact that I'm a nobody. It feels so good and I never want to lose that, but so I went to Coachella and everywhere I went I was just listening, and people were talking about The Shade Room, but they would be talking about it for news. They'd be like, "Oh, we missed Destiny's Child onstage, oh well, we'll find it on The Shade Room," or they're on the shuttle, and they're like, "Oh, did you see this on The Shade Room?" And it was so odd how many times I heard 'The Shade Room,' and everybody was saying it because they wanted to get news from us. So I realized that, here I am trying to create a production company when really I should be focusing on going harder in news, going further in news, giving them more and more news, more and more exclusives, and more and more direct access to information on stories. So our goal is to just take news to the next level, and that's what we're trying to do: create an even more impactful and authentic platform, but still be funny. Just go into news a little bit more.
Do you mean focusing even more on things like politics and stuff like that, or literally just more content?
It's not even just more content. If there's a case going on, then we could actually send our Roommates and use some of them as reporters, like the ones that we've vetted, you know what I mean? We already have paparazzi out there! [Laughs] So let's put some strength and some wind behind that. Let's investigate the cases that we really want to know about and go out there and get video content and things of that nature, but all of it has to do with news, whether it's celebrity news, politics, or a death that happened that the community wants answers for.
Being the eyes and the ears on the ground.
Photo courtesy of Angie Nwandu