Southern Hospitality's Grace Lilly And Mikel Simmons On Coworkers' Judgment - Exclusive Interview

Mikel Simmons and Grace Lilly have known each other since grade school, and they're now coworkers at the luxury Charleston bar and restaurant Republic as well as co-stars on Bravo's new series, "Southern Hospitality."

Grace Lilly recently came back home to Charleston after traveling and found that the town feels smaller than ever, with plenty of judgment to go around. Life in bigger cities led to modeling success, but now, Grace Lilly has to prove herself to Republic's owner, Leva Bonaparte, vying for the coveted VIP concierge position that comes with its own drama. Mikel Simmons has also struggled with his VIP host position at Republic amid a conflict of interest and tension with the owners. Coming out as queer to those close to him and members of his church has also played a major role in Simmons' life this season.

In their exclusive interview with The List, Mikel Simmons and Grace Lilly opened up about rocky workplace relationships, criticism from coworkers, and why Bravo fans should tune into the premiere season of "Southern Hospitality."

Coming out has been an ongoing process for Mikel Simmons

My first question is a little personal, but we're going to get right into it.

Mikel Simmons: Let's dive into it.

Awesome. Mikel, you came out to a close person in your life in the season's second episode, and you've also reflected on the differences between your identity as Michael and Mikel. What has your journey been like since that episode aired?

Simmons: Very emotional. Actually, it's so funny — last week I sat down the very first day, and all my emotions hit. It was like, "You're on TV now. You came out to the whole world as gay. Your brother knows you're gay." All these things started happening, and if I was to be very straightforward and real with you, it's been very hard, because I'm having to grieve an old person and having to learn a new person. That's the part that I want all the viewers and even my family listening now to know — that I respect them grieving the old person they used to know. That comes with a lot of emotions, comes with a lot of talks and questions, so it's been interesting. I've been figuring it out.

The craziest thing [is that] I've been getting a lot of good support from the church, which has been crazy. I'm excited for Christmas services this week, so I want to go to church, and hopefully, no one stops me [and asks] thousands of questions. But my mom sent me a text today — she was like, "I'm so proud of you." I'm like, "Why are you watching the show? Don't watch the show. What are you doing?" They're like, "I love you unconditionally." I'm like, "Oh my gosh, stop watching the show. Stop watching it."

My story, my journey, is breaking this stigma of the LGBTQ community within the South. My biggest supporters are the church and the most cis white men, and it's been crazy ... I'm like, "Is this really happening to me? Am I not being attacked? What's going on?" It's been interesting, overly emotional, but a great experience.

I'm so glad to hear that you're receiving support — that's huge. Congratulations. It's great that you have such a supportive community around you as well.

Simmons: Thank you. I'm shocked.

The stars have been friends since childhood

You guys have known each other since you were in church choir?

Simmons: Middle school, so that'd probably be like 11, 12, maybe — sixth grade.

What has it been like to see each of your lives transform how they have? Have you seen each other grow in any specific ways? 

Grace Lilly: We've both definitely grown, especially Mikel overall. Out of everyone in the cast, he grew the most. I've definitely grown from this experience, and even watching it has been pretty humbling for me. It's a journey and it's fun, but it's also hard, so we all learned a lot individually.

Simmons: I've seen Grace grow in the way of learning how to express herself and how to learn to also take feedback on how she expresses herself. Watching arguments, laughing, good moments, all this stuff that's happened this season, has been watching her be like, "Okay, cool. That was not my intention and how I meant to say it. It's not how I felt, but my feelings are still there."

It's been cool to see her navigate that realm of, "Okay, I think I'm right. I feel like I know what my purpose behind it was," and I can be like, "Yeah, but you said it this way instead, so you're saying something else." [I'm] seeing that humbleness of her being like, "Well, I'm sorry. That's not what I meant." It's cool to see that growth. I've seen you.

That's beautiful. I'm glad to hear that you have both seen that in each other. You have worked at Republic the longest, but you have talked about considering yourselves outcasts. What has it been like working your way back into Leva's good graces?

Lilly: It's been a little challenging. I get the most backlash from employees and coworkers rather than Leva because Leva really does believe in me, and I'm so thankful for that. I know that I have a lot to offer within the company, so it was more about proving myself to our coworkers because it's the environment and you're working with the coworkers. You have to deal with coworkers, so with them and also proving to Leva, working on my birthday ... That was a great look on my part, and I know she appreciated that, so baby steps.

Simmons: For me, it was a struggle because I'm very much about, "If you don't sign my checks, I don't have to listen to you." I'm very adamant about that. It was a very challenging experience to try to navigate my own personal ego, my own personal pride, being like, "F you guys, I'm here. I'm back 'cause Leva wants me there," but to also understand their point of view of, "We want you to show us and prove to us." It's been a very interesting experience, but it's taught me a lot about being a team player and sometimes swallowing your pride. I'll be the first person to say I'm sorry, I messed up, even though I could think that you're totally wrong.

Coworkers have judged Grace Lilly's lifestyle

Would you say it's more difficult to keep your coworkers happy with your performance than the owners?

Simmons: Yes. The thing is, Leva brought both of us back because she knows our worth. Imagine your boss is bringing you back to your job, and you have these little minions who are trying to stop you from getting into your job. It's hard. It's like, "Why are you stopping my bag, and why are you hating on us right now? Why won't you let us do our job?"

If you think about it, if you take away all those people and all of their opinions and thoughts that matter about everything, the job would've been done an hour ago. But we're dealing with talk about your booty pics and talking about how I can work at things, all these things that people are talking about that [are] not work-related. I'm like, "I'm so glad you're not my manager 'cause you're just an employee like me."

Grace, would you agree with that?

Lilly: Absolutely. I don't see why what I do outside of work should matter to them. They were very upset with me for traveling, and I'm like, "I'm sorry, but I'm not sorry. This is my life, and I've worked with the company for three and a half years. I have every right to take time off and enjoy myself and enjoy the fruits of my labor." Just because I'm posting photos of me on vacation doesn't mean I'm trying to show off or be like, "Look at me, look what I'm doing." I'm like, "No, I'm enjoying my freedom and my youth and living my best life."

Simmons: That's the part people don't understand. It's like when we go out, I could be in Timbuktu. My problem is I'm still under the table doing social media, so it never stops. You'll see that next episode. You will see that.

Lilly: You even saw it last episode.

Is there a lot of pressure to throw the best party every night or keep the party going with you as a representative of the bar?

Simmons: No, because the biggest thing that makes so many downfalls of so many things is when you're trying to compete and trying to compare it. My biggest pressure is for me to be myself and ... the people who are supposed to be there will be there. Both of our energies are very much alike, where people gravitate toward us, so we want good energy. It's not about having the best party, but it's about having the right kind of party and the right people in the party — because you can have the biggest party in the entire world that can be the biggest crap show. All you need is the right people.

Lilly: I've been working in this industry for quite some time, so I know what to do and how to do it, so I don't feel too much pressure. But when you create an event, there is a little pressure, because you want to give it your all and have people show up. The fear of not having people show up is the anxiety that I get from events and stuff.

Friendships are on the mend

Grace, you and Maddi [Reese] have a little bit of a rivalry over the VIP concierge position at Republic, but you've been friends and traveled together in the past. Do you see a real reconciliation or truce happening in your future?

Lilly: I feel like we've already reconciled, which I'm thankful for because we were good friends. What happened between our friendship is not that big of a deal, and it feels good to move past it. We're in a way better place, and it makes me feel so much better because I really do appreciate her friendship, and there's no reason for us to compete. It's stupid.

That's great to hear. Mikel, you and Maddi also have a super sweet friendship. Is it difficult to manage the different dynamics at Republic and have your individual relationships stay?

Simmons: Not really, no. I think Maddi gets overwhelmed [and] over-pressured sometimes with things. Maddi's written me up before about stuff. Maddi's my girl. I'm a person where when we're at work, we're at work. It's like, "You're not my best friend right now, you're my boss. Between 9:00 and 2:00, you're my boss. After 2:00 a.m., you're my friend."

It's not as hard 'cause I've been in that same situation before [when] I was working for a church — I'm 21 years old having a staff of people who are my age, who also are people I do life with and stuff. It was cool we were able to juggle the balance of, "Now you're my leader, and now you're my friend." It depends on the people.

That makes sense. I loved watching you go shoe shopping — that was so cute.

Simmons: That was so much fun. She loves shoes, and I love shopping, I love to talk drama, so it was the perfect little combination of a date.

Hopefully, we'll get to see some traveling group dynamics happening. Sounds like you guys love to travel and hang out.

Simmons: We love to travel. You'll have to see.

Grace Lilly came home with goals

Grace, what's it been like coming back to Charleston and living with your mom? Has it been challenging or more grounding? 

Lilly: The most challenging thing about it is coming back to Charleston, not living with my parents. I love living with my parents. I absolutely adore my mom, I love my family, I love my animals, and I love this house. It's more coming back to Charleston, because I do have that big personality, and my personality isn't likable to some people here, so that's the hardest part for me. There's not enough outlets for modeling and fashion for me, and the style here is "eh." My style is very wow-pow, and a lot of people don't resonate with it, but I have seen a little bit of a change within the style. It's not the Lilly Pulitzer anymore. We're evolving here, thank God.  

I hope to move out of my parents' house within the next year, so that is one of my goals. I'm learning to love Charleston more because when I'm here, I have a great routine of self-care and being more grounded. When you're always traveling, catching a flight and in different cities, it can be a little wear and tear on you. It's been nice being home and enjoying the moment and being where I am right now, but I'm excited to travel next year. I'm ready.

It's great that you have social media as well, so you can do some of that modeling and keep your foot in the door.

Lilly: I hope to do more. I'm manifesting it, so fingers crossed.

Mikel, this season, you opened up about how getting the job at Republic was life-changing for you. How are you feeling now that some opportunities are available to you and some opportunities aren't? 

Simmons: That was probably the hardest couple months of my entire life financially. I went from making a lot of money, being on yachts, being on boats, going to Miami, traveling to Charlotte and doing all the things, buying designer bags, all of the things, to having to tap into my savings. My savings is completely depleted now, so I have nothing left to comfort on, but it wasn't as hard as you think 'cause I came from a background. I've not struggled per se, but I've had seasons in my life being in high school and middle school where we questioned what we were going to eat some days.

I remember there was one year that I ate Little Caesars Pizza and a $2 Coca-Cola every single day 'cause it's all my mom could afford, so I've learned how to make $20 last me for two weeks. I am very thankful for my upbringing 'cause it taught me how to survive in this world, so I know how to not spend money frivolously and drop thousands of dollars on this and that. It made me go back to being smart, where I went from eating out every night to, "I ate a ham cheese sandwich here, I'm going to get this food here, I'm going to save this food for this time here." It's good to be back making some money. I need and want some more hours, but other than that, it's good to be back making money. 

The stars are confident in who they are

Grace, you've referred to yourself as a star, and we've seen a bit of your hula-hooping talents in the show. Are there any other major talents that your fans should know about?

Lilly: I want to first say that everyone's a star — you just have to believe it. When I say that, I don't think I'm better than anyone. That's not my intention when I say that. We all have a special gift, and I want to show that. Hula hooping, modeling ... I sew; I'm working on my fashion brand right now. I'm hoping to drop my website soon. What's another? I'm great at writing. I'm a great travel expert, and I could fly anywhere and do it on my own and be fine, so I'm thankful for that. But [with] the hula hooping, the fashion, the modeling ... I feel like there's more.

I have a song out too. I have a song out that's been out for two years, and I'm working on new music as well. It's like house music, so it's like a dance party. That's one thing that people don't know. It's where Wavy Baby came from.

There's nothing wrong with acknowledging that you're talented with confidence. Grace, you had to talk with TJ [Dinch] in Episode 2, and you ended up thinking he was being a bit of a bully. Do either of you perceive your coworkers as a bit too judgmental sometimes?

Lilly: Absolutely.

Simmons: It comes from the kettle calling the pot black or something like that ... They judge us for things that they have done themselves, so it's that. That's the part where I could easily have gone toe to toe for things they have done, but I'm not that person. I can be that person if they would want me to — letting everybody know that — but I keep that Mikel hidden and locked away. I'm like, "If we're going to go, we can."

But [we're] definitely judged, and that's why I defend her so much. I know what it's like to be judged by people, especially in the climate we live in now ... [I'm] Black, I'm gay, I live in the South. There's so many things I've been judged for already that I'm like, "I don't come to work to be judged. I come to work to let my hair down if I had a wig on and breathe." If I had the wig I would let it down, but I don't have a wig.

Lilly: When I came back from Tulum [after] I was living there for eight months, people hated me. They wanted nothing to do with me. I came back [and] felt so unwelcome. People were talking so much s*** about me and bringing me down, and they all thought it was because I thought I was better than everyone because I took the opportunity to live my best life and do that. That doesn't make me better than anyone — I just took the opportunity at hand and I did it, and I'm thankful for that experience. That was one of the hardest things, coming back to Charleston and dealing with the coworkers, because they did not like me living out there for as long as I did.

The VIP Host is ready for love

Is there anything else you want to tease about this season or anything you wish we'd covered?

Simmons: Well, I am looking for love. I'm looking for love in all the wrong places, in all the right places and stuff. But I'm hoping that people tune in. This is the most emotional roller coaster experience I've ever seen in my entire life, and I'm happy that this next time I'm like, "Thank God. Let the other kids argue now. Let the other kids get through all the crap and stuff," 'cause I'm tired. I've been doing it four episodes now and I'm tired — my back's hurting right now. I'm tired, tired, tired. I am super nervous about my parents seeing me make out with a man, but I'm hoping it brings out other men to my doorway so I can make out with them as well. The lips are here for perking and kissing.

That's beautiful. We're manifesting.

Simmons: I'm manifesting love. Come on, I need a six-figure person. Six figures is all I need. Six figures, a nice body and ass, a little melanin in his body — oh Jesus, give him to me.

Lilly: I will definitely say there is a lot of drama [this season], and there are some hookups for sure. I can't give any names or anything else.

Simmons: But there are some hookups and a little cheating scandal. There's some things coming. The team is very divided. You will know sides very, very clearly.

I think I know which relationship you might be talking about.

Simmons: Oh, I don't know. I can't. I plead the fifth.

Lilly: I'm going to second that.

Catch "Southern Hospitality" at 9:00 p.m. ET on Bravo and streaming the next day on Peacock.

This interview has been edited for clarity.