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‘SMILF’ Creator Frankie Shaw on Breaking Through After ‘the Doors Were Closed’ to Her

BE Conference 2019: Former CBS diversity executive Whitney Davis also spoke about representation

At TheWrap’s mentorship BE Conference Thursday, “SMILF” creator Frankie Shaw talked about how she went from being a broke single mom, couch surfing at her friends’ apartments, to developing a multi-million dollar pilot.

“The doors were closed to me as I was auditioning to be an actress,” Shaw told TheWrap’s CEO and editor and chief Sharon Waxman at the conference, which took place on Thursday at the Annenberg Community Beach House in Santa Monica, Calif. “I was piecing together survival and trying to get enough income sometimes for me and my small child through guest spots. It was nine years of having the pavement as an auditioner — I can’t even say I was an actress. I was a professional auditioner!”

She added, “I had a one-year-old and I was living in a tiny little apartment and was subletting and couch-hopping with my one-year-old and it was unmanageable, so I wrote a script. I thought, if I could just get a staff writing job… I was a tutor, I was an assistant — all of these things piecing together.”

Ultimately, though, Shaw wanted to be a director, but she didn’t see any role models she could look up to that looked like her.

“I wanted to be a director but I didn’t know how,” she explained. “I wanted to be an actress so I pursued that. You can’t be what you can’t see, and I couldn’t see a woman director.”

But that’s when, on a plane in 2010, she randomly met “Twilight” director Catherine Hardwicke, who promised Shaw that if she ever had a role for her, she would let her audition. And she did — and Shaw made an effort to make herself stand out.

“In that audition, I made a suggestion for the script — it was risky because it could piss her off,” said Shaw. “She said, ‘that’s interesting, can you come back and give me more notes on the script?’ So I did.”

A year and a half later, she sent her first draft of the network-y pilot she had been working on to Hardwicke. She attached a producer, who told her the script wasn’t any good, and that they wanted to see her writing about the things she had experienced. And “SMILF” was born.

Shaw also spoke about staying true to her story and staying authentic when many working with her on the show told her to take a certain direction with her story.

“I then sat down with somebody, and said, I can’t keep writing your version of my story,” she said. “I was so nervous, so afraid, but they were like, ‘thank you for saying this, let’s give it another go.’ When it became authentic, it began to work. It was pivotal.”

Last year, Shaw had to address accusations of inappropriate conduct after Samara Weaving, a series regular on “SMILF,” filed a complaint with producers and the network about the way the show handled the filming of a sex scene; Shaw quit soon after.

After conducting a human resources investigation with Shaw’s cooperation, ABC Studios said in December that it found no evidence of misconduct. However, in March “SMILF” was cancelled, and a spokesperson for ABC Studios said that the overall deal it struck with Shaw last July “has been suspended without pay while we review our options.” The studio did not say why the deal was suspended.

Former CBS diversity executive Whitney Davis took the stage at the BE Conference two days after she called out the company over its lack of diversity.

“I think we have to demand the change… Start with the board and work your way down,” Davis said Thursday. “If you’re not seeing that representation throughout, then I think we need to start pushing these companies to say, ‘look we’re not waiting for these dinosaurs to die off, if you’re not going to hire people in power and people in charge that look like the direction that we need to be moving in, then I don’t want to work at this place.'”

“Pretty Little Liars” star Sydney Park was also on the panel with Davis, and agreed with the exec: “It really starts with the heads of studios, the heads of corporate America. It has to start with the higher-ups, because that’s unfortunately – it’s a hierarchy. That’s how it works.”

BE Conference benefits from the WrapWomen Foundation, a non-profit committed to empowering women to achieve leadership positions, promote gender equality and combat sexual harassment in the workplace.

BE Conference brings together 200 ambitious millennials and Gen-Zs to be mentored by the most influential women in entertainment and media, curated by the leading organization for female leadership in the entertainment industry, WrapWomen.

WrapWomen aims to leverage the power of media and entertainment to empower the next generation of women leaders.