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As is the case with most reboots, remakes and revivals (all the ‘r’s), the new iteration of Gossip Girl was met with polarising reviews when it landed on HBO Max earlier this year. Despite its mixed response, primarily from the ‘Is Hollywood out of original ideas?’ crowd, the salacious teen drama succeeded expectations when it became the streamer’s most-watched original series in its debut weekend. The continuation, which sees the return of Kristen Bell as the title schemer, also earned 15 billion impressions (and counting) on TikTok. So, when Gossip Girl (2021) was renewed for a second season before the first half of season one came to an end, it didn’t come as much of a shock. “I think the modern changes are very on point,” says star Savannah Lee Smith. “They do a very good job of showing how teenagers actually are and they touch on a lot of things that they deal with in real life, like infidelity, and sex and drama!”

Although the original – which starred Leighton Meester and Blake Lively – received critical acclaim throughout its run, it has been criticised in retrospective reviews for its lack of racial diversity and representation of the LGBTQ+ community. A large part of the reboot’s success has been credited to the fact it more accurately reflects New York, as well as the world we live in today, with prominent queer characters such as pansexual bad boy Max Wolfe (Thomas Doherty), transgender stylist Luna La (Zion Moreno) and innocent bisexual Aki Menzies (Evan Mock). Smith’s character, the unfiltered and ruthless Monet de Haan who rules Constance Billard with an iron fist, is also a lesbian. The beauty of the series is how there’s no elements of homophobia in the storyline, and all the aforementioned teens are accepted without question. Whether you wanted the reboot or not, Gossip Girl – the 2021 edition – is the inclusive teen drama we originally deserved.

“It is just what it is, no one even bats an eye. That’s what I think real diversity is, honestly. The representation is amazing but it’s how you represent them in this world. It’s how you illustrate their sexuality,” Smith tells us over Zoom. “There’s a minimal amount of media where there are gay characters and it’s not surrounded around the fact that they’re gay or plastered on their forehead. Like, we get it! You don’t need to tell us, it can just be. I don’t go around telling strangers I’m bi.” 

Ahead of the premiere for the first season’s second half, which arrives 25 November, Savannah Lee Smith caught up with GAY TIMES to discuss the groundbreaking representation in Gossip Girl, the real life mean girl Monet is based on, and all of the ‘drama and sex’ we can expect in the future.

Congratulations on the renewal of Gossip Girl! Why do you think the series has resonated so well with viewers?
I think the modern changes are very on point. They do a very good job of showing how teenagers actually are and they touch on a lot of things that they deal with in real life, like infidelity, and sex and drama! I think they do a good job of finding a balance between the heightened reality fiction of it but also making it feel like these are real people dealing with real things. 

It’s very refreshing how this reboot actually reflects the world we live in. I did love the original series, but it wasn’t as diverse and inclusive as it could’ve been.
Yeah. I love that when Josh [Safran] called me and was like, ‘Hey, so I think Monet is gay’ and I was like ‘I support that!’ he said, ‘I knew you would but I don’t think we talk about it.’ And I was like, ‘Even better, I love that!’ There’s a minimal amount of media where there are gay characters and it’s not surrounded around the fact that they’re gay or plastered on their forehead. Like, we get it! You don’t need to tell us, it can just be. I don’t go around telling strangers I’m bi. 

Monet casually kissing another woman in the club was one of my favourite moments from the first half, because it wasn’t made to be a big deal.
Yes! It is just what it is, no one even bats an eye. That’s what I think real diversity is, honestly. The representation is amazing but it’s how you represent them in this world. It’s how you illustrate their sexuality. Like with Max, it’s not a thing with him and the whole Audrey and Aki thing, it’s more so dealing with ‘Do we want to be in a relationship? Do we want to be a thruple? How do we want to go about this? It’s not about that we all like each other, we all like each other and that’s just what it is.’ So yeah, it’s great.

No elements of homophobia in the storyline is what we want to see.
It’s brilliant. I mean, if you want to make a show about teenagers and their lives and how they think then that’s the way to do it. I went to a high school in LA, which is similar to New York in the fact that it’s a city and we’re liberal and casual and used to it, and no one talked about it. It wasn’t a thing. The only reason it was a thing at my high school was because it was a Catholic high school. But it was never really talked about, so I think they’re doing it in a really authentic way which is really refreshing to see. 

Did your experience at a Catholic school prepare you for the salacious world of Constance Billard?
Yes! Yes, it really did! I feel like I would’ve had to do a lot more work to prepare for this role if I hadn’t had that experience. I feel like I’m kind of reclaiming my power because my inspiration for Monet was my bullies. So, it’s kind of like a ‘fuck you’. There were a lot of girls at my high school who echo the Constance Billard world.

Did you base Monet on one girl in particular?
Yep! Not naming names, but yes. There’s one or two names who helped me cultivate Monet. But I feel like I’m also elevating it, like she’s not just a mean girl. You can see that there’s something underneath her, living in the underbelly and I’m just so excited for you guys to see the second half! She really opens up as a person, and in the last episode, there’s a really big moment that catapults the whole storyline for Monet in season two. I’’m really excited for you guys to see it.

In the first half of the season, Monet is a… character, to say the least. She is cut-throat. She is the HBIC. Why do you think she has such an antagonistic nature?
I think it’s because she’s guarded. I think she’s protective of herself and I think that maybe some things haven’t come easy to her in her life. I don’t know what that is or where it comes from yet but I’m excited to get into that. Josh and I have already started talking about it. Why is she this way? Why is Monet this way? There has to be a reason. I think the more we find out about her family and the relationship with her parents and what that is… She says, “I can’t work with my mom, I can’t do what my mom does.” Where does that come from? Maybe there’s a relationship with her mom there. So, I’m really excited to get into that and find out. I’m not quite sure yet though, but that’s what is fun about it. I feel like Monet exists and existed before I got this role. I feel like I’m meeting her, so I’m constantly finding out more about her. 

How would you describe Monet’s journey in the second half of the season?
I would say she’s still a villain but now it kind of just lives inside her. She’s kind of a villain in secret now because I feel like Julien has proven herself to be like, ‘I might not listen to you all the time.’ In the first half that drives Monet insane and she tries to put her foot down but in the second half Monet is more, ‘Okay, I see where you’re coming from. We’ll see how that works for you.’ So, she puts on a little front and might hold back a little bit. She still feels just as frustrated but it kind of lives inside of her, like something’s brewing, and by the end of it you can see that the wheels are turning and something needs to change.

We love the ringleader, mean girl trope that’s always been there in the teen genre. Who would you say is your ultimate fave?
Ooh! Regina George! Obviously, I’m obsessed with that character and the way [Rachel McAdams] played it. I think that Monet and Regina George are different because… Well, there’s two mean girl tropes right? There’s the one that’s insecure and there’s the one that’s confident – I think Monet is the confident one and Regina George is a little insecure. That’s why I’m excited to get into Monet because I feel like all of this lives inside of one person. You can be insecure and confident and be mean and kind. What are those moments that break Monet’s exterior down? There has to be something! Maybe someone, I don’t know what it is yet but I’m excited to see her break down that front.

As is the case with any beloved TV show or film that’s remade, there’s been mixed reactions to the Gossip Girl reboot. How has it been for you, being catapulted to fame and navigating all of this on social media?
Honestly, I’ve been trying to just do it the way I’ve been doing it in my real life. I surround myself with people who support me, I surround myself with people that are positive about me and what I’m doing. So I don’t look at it, I don’t pay attention to it. It’s easy to though, because it’s the whole thing where you have 100 amazing comments but the one bad one you can’t stop thinking about. I always talk to the girls about that. Zion and I are always texting each other like, ‘Oh my god someone said this!’ and I’m like “Bestie don’t even worry about it, it’s the same for me!” It’s nice to have people who are going through the same things as you. But also, they’ve done this before. I’m the baby in the cast so I feel protected. Thomas [Doherty], one time, saw me scrolling through comments and he slapped my phone out of my hand and was like ‘Let’s go get coffee!’ and I was like ‘I know, right, sorry!’ It’s nice and I feel supported. I feel like I’m navigating it well, I’m just trying to pay attention to the good stuff, because ultimately it’s always going to happen. People are going to have different opinions.

Speaking of Zion, that duo is one of my favourite aspects of the show. What is it like to share a majority of your scenes with her and go through this journey together?
I love to hear that! I feel like I got so lucky being cast with her. Obviously there’s a bunch of amazing actors out there that could kill the role, but the way that she does it is so perfect and it works so well in contrast with Monet. I like to say that Luna is kind of the lightness and Monet is the darkness and somehow they work together. But yeah, she’s literally my best friend, I feel like she’s a sister to me and she’s an amazing artist. When I get to pull from her and work with her we kind of riff off each other, we improv and we’re really starting to find our groove and our comedic timing. Everything is just perfect working with Zion.

I’ve seen some fans shipping your characters online…
I know! People are obsessed! They want us to be together so bad. I’m like, ‘You guys, it’s not gonna happen!’

Personally, this is the power couple I want too. One of the comments you saw shipping Monet and Luna might have been from me.
I mean, hey! I’m in support of it too! I’ll do whatever the writers want, if they want us to be together that would be powerful. That would be a power couple! But I don’t know, I think what we have right now is working. Who knows what will happen?

Finally, what can we expect from the second half of this first season?
Well, I’ll start with Monet. You will start to see her in different relationships. You can see new cast members, specifically in relation to Monet, which is really exciting. It’s the first time Monet starts to brew a plan without Julien and Luna. She’s kind of taking agency back. She’s taking control back saying, ‘Wait a minute, maybe I should just try to figure this out in private first, test the waters.’ But… more drama. Obviously, more sex, more everything that we love about Gossip Girl! Also you can see Zoya and Julien’s relationship, as it always does, go through ups and downs. I honestly think it just gets better. It just keeps getting better because these characters start to really become well rounded. 

Stream series one part one of Gossip Girl on BBC iPlayer now – part two coming soon.