Based on creator Crystal Moselle’s 2018 Sundance hit Skate Kitchen, Betty—inspired by the experiences of a diverse group of young women navigating the male-dominated world of skateboarding in New York City—returns to HBO for a second season this Friday June 11th at 11pm ET/PT, and also streams on HBO Max. Set and filmed during 2020 pandemic-era New York, the second season follows the five protagonists, who in real life formed the girls skating collective Skate Kitchen, as they navigate skating in masks, their new and evolving romantic relationships, and most importantly finding a new place to skate.
Ahead of the season two premiere, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with the lead cast, Nina Moran, Dede Lovelace, Moonbear, Rachelle Vinberg, and Ajani Russell about how they first got into skating, the increase they’ve witnessed in girls skating in the city, how close they are to their characters, their admiration for the way that the show handles sensitive topics, and the importance of including the falls and fails, as well as the successes in their skating videos.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: How did each of you initially get into skateboarding and what does skating mean to you in your lives?
Rachelle Vinberg: “It’s funny because I think skateboarding finds people at the right time in their lives. Every time you ask someone when they found it it’s always perfect timing. I found it myself when I was 12 and going into middle school when I’d just moved to a new town. It was always this thing that I had and it’s been the one thing that has stayed the same over the past ten years, so it makes me feel both nostalgic and grounded.”
Ajani Russell: “Skateboarding is really therapeutic, it allows me to clear my mind when I’m going through a lot. Also, the skateboarding community and the connections I’ve built through skateboarding are so precious to me. Actually, Nina gave me the first board that really marked the beginning of me recognizing myself as a skater.”
Nina Moran: “I first got into it because there was a skate park behind my middle school and all these boys did it and I wanted to do it too, so I just did it! They were mean to me, but I didn’t care, and look at me now! Basically, skateboarding has given me so much strength. No one messes with me anymore, especially in the skate park! I get respect now, instead of being bullied like when I was little. Skateboarding feels like a part of me that protects me.”
Moonbear: “I also started skateboarding in middle school. I saw Tony Hawk doing it on TV and I wanted to be pro like him, but then I decided that was too much so I was just cruising around for a bit. I would go to skate parks and go to skate day in New York, then somehow I met some other women that skated, and then I met Nina and Dede. Since I’ve been doing it for so long now it just feels like a part of me.”
Dede Lovelace: “I got introduced to skateboarding in middle school too. We had a recess area and after school at 3pm all these boys would go there and skate and I thought it was really cool. Skating gives me confidence. It gives me something to look forward to because I have fun skateboarding and it’s always really exciting when I learn a new trick.”
I found the end of season one very moving when all the girls were together in the skate park and I wondered whether you had noticed an increase in girls skating both out in the real world and in online videos, and whether girls have been reaching out to you to thank you for inspiring them to get into it?
Rachelle: “Both! There’s a golden age happening right now with girls skateboarding and it’s super diverse in the type of skateboarding. You’ve got girls who are going the Olympic route where they’re going hard and then there are girls who are dressed up feminine, and then girls who do both. It’s so cool! There are more girls coming out every single day. Ajani was just saying that she’ll go to a skate park now and she won’t recognize some girls. Before you’d go into a park and recognize every single girl, but now there are girls who we don’t know out there, which is amazing.”
Ajani: “When I first started, the only girls that I knew who skateboarded were the girls that are now part of Skate Kitchen and maybe four or five other girls who I would always see at the park that we’re all friends with because it was so rare. I’d see a girl skating and be like, ‘Oh my God, let’s be friends!’ Even just being on the train and seeing girls with skateboards I’m always like, ‘It’s so cool that you carry it with you and you take it places and you’re not afraid to just be skating and be seen!'”
Dede: “It definitely has made a big impact. I don’t think any of us when we first came together and formed Skate Kitchen understood how big it was actually going to be or how important this was going to be for other young girls and other people in skateboarding in terms of representation until it happened, which took maybe about a couple of years. Now we’re all really grateful to be a part of this movement and a part of this journey.”
Nina: “Every day in my Instagram I get DMs from girls saying, ‘Hey, I watch Betty and I just got a board for the first time. I see girls at the skate park and they recognize me and we start skating together. It definitely has made a big impact, especially in New York City.”
How close would you say each of you are to your characters in Betty and what particularly resonates with you about them?
Rachelle: “Do you feel like we used to be closer to our characters?”
Ajani: “Yeah, absolutely.”
Rachelle: “I think we used to be closer to the characters making Skate Kitchen, but we’re all still close to them because a lot of the stuff that happens to them has actually happened either to us or to our friends. Sometimes we’ll reverse things, and what happened to me in real life might happen to another girl in the show.”
Are you all still as involved in the script writing and improv stage, dropping in ideas, as you were on the first season?
Rachelle: “Definitely, we’re heavily involved and say things like, ‘This would never happen’, or ‘We need to change this part.'”
Ajani: “Rachelle co-wrote episode four! But we’re all involved. In rehearsal we go through the script and we all make suggestions and change things. We’ll improv the scene, not too much till we kill it, but we have to rework it to fit with us or otherwise it wouldn’t work. It’s things like, ‘This line would be better here’, or ‘This line doesn’t really portray this character’, which is important because at the end of the day it’s ourselves we’re playing.”
Moonbear: “We talked about my relationship aspects and what I’ve dealt with in my own life and we used that for some of the relationship stuff in season two with Honeybear and her girlfriend Ash. The improv scene was fun to do because it explored how Honeybear communicates and so I had to improv as the character instead of being myself, which was cool.”
Season two is set during 2020, so we see a lot of Black Lives Matter posters on the sets and it feels like it’s very much incorporated into the show even though it’s not addressed explicitly. In the first season, racism in the police and white privilege were subtly included in the narrative too. What do you think about that being a part of the world of Betty?
Ajani: “The show grows with us and moves with our world and that authentic representation is very important to us, not just in the content, but in the small details, like you were saying the BLM posters. We’re not screaming at you with a message with these things, but there are subtle nuances that touch upon these topics.”
Rachelle: “The cool thing about Betty is that while we are filming it and everything’s going on around us, Crystal is really open to adding things. If something happened two days before she’ll go, ‘Let’s add that in there right now, since it’s what’s happening in the world’. So a lot of the things in there were really happening as we were filming.”
Dede: “It definitely hit the points that we were all going through, all of the things that we experienced.”
Something else that is dealt with sensitivity and with a lot of nuance, is sexual assault and consent, particularly with your character Dede. What did you make of the way that that was handled?
Dede: “It’s just such a hard thing to talk about and it’s such a hard thing to come to terms with. For Betty to be able to touch on that in season one I think was really important because it’s so real. I think one in three women have stories of assault, which is super unfortunate. Nobody wants to be in that position. What I love about Betty is the perspective that it gives, it’s not just about women in a male-dominated scene, but it also touches on very sensitive topics like that. I’m really grateful that Betty is able to do that, especially amongst our age group.”
I love the way that the queer characters are depicted because it’s just very casual, we don’t witness any homophobia from their group or outside it. Nina, what do you think of how your character’s sexuality is portrayed in the series?
Nina: “I think it’s great. It’s very similar to how being gay is accepted in New York City in real life, it’s the same thing in the show. People are really cool out here. You go to different places, they’re not as cool, but it’s really accepted here and I believe that that’s why it’s so casual in the show.”
Moonbear, with your character in the first season she backs away from her relationship with Ash at one point doesn’t she? It seems to be related to her not being out at home.
Moonbear: “Well, I think with Honeybear, a lot of people will be able to relate to that if they have religious parents, but they also have friends that are very chill. So it’s like you have to deal with two worlds. We’re gonna see what happens in the next season because I don’t think you can keep getting away with not having your family deal with it. You’re going to get older and have to kind of settle down at some point, so if you don’t deal with it it’s going to be an issue later on with your partner.”
This season Honeybear and Ash are experimenting with polyamory in their relationship; what did you find interesting about exploring and representing that experience through your character?
Moonbear: “That was really good to have in the show because now that kind of dynamic is going to be on mainstream TV and I don’t know if there are any other HBO shows that have that in it. It’s bringing something else to the forefront and maybe it’ll help people feel more comfortable with being in those circumstances in their own lives. I think it shows what people in that situation have to deal with, or what they don’t deal with when they should in order for everyone to be on the same page.”
Nina, what did you enjoy about Kirt having a new relationship this season, one that’s a little complicated?
Nina: “In the first season Kirt was with a girl but it wasn’t anything really emotional, but this season—with the girl that she’s not supposed to be talking to—it feels real this time. You see a very vulnerable part of Kirt that has actually not been shown before when she’s getting intimate with this girl. It’s actually really cool because you never normally see that side of her.”
When you all post skating videos of yourselves online how important is it for each of you to include some of the falls and fails as well as the moments of when you really nail a trick?
Nina: “You’ve got to show the process, and you’ve got to show that even if you’re already advanced in skating you’re still going to fall all the time, that never stops! It just shows that everybody falls, but then after you fall, once you get the trick, it shows that even if you did fall it doesn’t matter, because you can still get it anyway.”
Dede: “Especially because of the times that we live in with social media and how things can appear online I think it’s important to show that process, because you’ve got to understand that everybody goes through those bad days, those moments where they fail and you want to see how people come back from that.”
Rachelle: “I just think it’s fun to do that, but also back in classic skateboarding videos in the 90s it was always a thing to include falls and to include some lifestyle stuff as well. Instagram these days is the same way but on a smaller scale, it’s easier to digest.”
Ajani: “It really shows the risks you take when you’re skateboarding. It’s cool to see those skateboarders who have perfect technique and can land every trick, but that’s not interesting. You want to see the journey and you want to see the identity of the skateboarders. I’s not just about the skateboarding itself, it’s the skateboarders themselves who make skateboarding cool, it’s the personality, and the uniqueness of the person.”
Rachelle: “It also makes falling less intimidating when people see it, because it’s funny. When you’re skating with people and someone falls everybody laughs, ‘Oh you just got smoked!'”
Ajani: “Yeah, unless they’re seriously hurt, then it’s like, ‘Oh, call an ambulance!'”
Rachelle: “Yeah, then it’s like, ‘Are you OK?!’ But usually it’s just about laughing it off.”
Ajani: “Yeah, you’ve gotta laugh off the pain!”
So the laughter is good for the person that’s fallen as well as it being funny for the people watching?!
Rachelle: “Yeah, but when you fall when you’re skating alone with no one else around it’s very different.”
Ajani: “It’s so bad!”
Rachelle: “It’s just humiliating and you get angry!”
Ajani: “I get sad.”
Rachelle: “Yeah, I cry sometimes.”
Ajani: “Me too. I’m like, I hurt myself and now I don’t have anybody to give me a hug!”
One of the really refreshing things about the show is how female-driven it is. How empowering and exciting is that aspect of Betty for you as a cast?
Rachelle: “We’re girls, so it’s cool! I mean, whenever I watch shows I always relate to the girls because it’s who I am. I think it’s cool that we have such a diverse cast, not even just the way that we look, but our personalities are just so all over the place that someone’s going to find someone to relate to when they’re watching the show.”
By James Kleinmann