Prizm News / January 1, 2018 / By Kayla Beard
While growing up in Dayton, Leah Byrd didn’t see many characters like herself on screen. So she created one.
By Kayla Beard
Leah Byrd knows from personal experience the impact media can have on young viewers. Like other LGBT women of color, she rarely saw anyone like herself on TV or on screen.
The 22-year-old writer, director and star of the comedic web series, “Hot & Bothered,” hopes to change that. The few characters she could identify with in any way, she says, helped her accept herself.
“Since I lived that, I see it’s important to tell that story,” says Byrd, a Dayton native and 2017 graduate of Wright State University. “Because I’m sure there are still people who feel that way.”
“People creating content and posting it on YouTube—the LGBT content and stuff—that was like my community. That was like my safe space.”
Writer and Director,
“Hot & Bothered”
“Hot & Bothered” has rapidly become popular, not just in Dayton, where the story takes place, but online and within the film industry. The first two episodes opened for the Emmy-nominated web series, “Brown Girls,” at the Citizen Jane Film Festival in Columbia, Mo., last year. Byrd spoke on a panel there with other web series creators.
Her show also was a finalist in 2016 for the Sundance/YouTube New Voices Lab and a nominee for Best Youth Film at the BlackStar Film Festival in Philadelphia this past summer. Byrd also was awarded a micro-grant from Cee Smith Media Group, which invests in queer-led startups, films and creative projects.
“Hot & Bothered” is a satirical comedy that follows two 20-year-olds—Liz, a biracial lesbian (played by Byrd), and Stan, a white straight dude—as they create a dating app for lesbians. The show highlights and pokes fun at stereotypes regarding race, gender and sexuality while showcasing the intersectional experiences of a character who must confront them all.
As someone who spent 13 years in Catholic school while growing up in a Christian household in Dayton, Byrd says she never felt like there was a space for her at school or at home. Seeing stories with LGBT characters, though, “really helped me realize that I’m normal because for years when I was growing up, I felt awful and depressed.”
Byrd was drawn to online spaces while she was growing up. “People creating content and posting it on YouTube—the LGBT content and stuff—that was like my community. That was like my safe space,” she says.
“I always wanted to create something to give back to that, because I know it helped me so much growing up, and I figured if I make something and put it out there, it could help somebody who’s young now.”
The attention has been surreal, Byrd says. The first two episodes of “Hot & Bothered” were filmed as a project for a screenwriting class during her junior year at Wright State. Although she’d had plans to create the series for a while, she was pleasantly surprised when her teacher liked and approved her script for the assignment.
The next major decision was determining whether to play the lead.
“I never thought I’d be in things,” she says. “I never did any acting before this.” That is, besides her small role in a middle-school Christmas program. “After that…I auditioned for the school play when I was in 8th grade and I didn’t get in,” she says with a laugh.
Byrd has a giggle that will make anyone smile, and she’s been known by friends and family for her sense of humor, she says. Still, the writer-director says she doesn’t see herself as an actor. And apparently others felt the same way. When her teacher posed the question to the rest of her classmates, nearly everyone advised her not to be in the show. “I think they thought I wouldn’t be able to perform it well,” Byrd says. “I always remember that moment.”
Despite the discouragement, Byrd says she needed to star in the show. That’s partly because the character is an extension of herself, she says, but also because fans don’t often remember the names of the people behind the camera for web content.
“I was talking to my best friend and we were like…we don’t know the name of the person who directed that web series; we know the people who are in it,” Byrd says. “That’s why I was just like, ‘Yeah, I really need to be in this. Otherwise, I’m not really going to have anything come of it.’”
Film school had been a goal since childhood, Byrd says, and she stepped on to her first film set at Wright State the summer before her senior year of high school. She got her first camera as a Christmas gift when she was 13 and has been filming and creating ever since.
“I use the same tripod—even in most of film school—that I bought when I was in 8th grade,” she says. “It’s kinda just been a passion now for so long.”
Online content has always intrigued Byrd because it’s so accessible. “Since I was in middle school, I was obsessed with YouTube,” she says. “I thought it was so cool how anybody could just create something and upload it.”
“A huge part of what led me to do this was the free, accessible content that could potentially help queer youth,” Byrd says.
Meeting so many young people at film festivals over the summer—particularly other queer women of color—made her realize just how large of an impact she and her show could have. “Talking to them…kind of made me realize like, ‘Oh man, these people are looking up to me.’”
Although she’s still learning, Byrd says she’s happy to inspire others along the way. She specifically had a moment with a college student at the Citizen Jane festival last summer.
“We’re both shorter, we’re both mixed and had about the same skin tone and our haircut was like the same, so naturally we just became friends,” Byrd says. “She was saying it’s cool to see somebody doing it. … It’s cool for other queer black women to see someone young like me doing this now.
“From your own world, you’re like, ‘Ah, everything’s a mess! I’m just tryna get by!’ Then you hear comments like that and you’re like, ‘Oh my,’” Byrd says. “It kind of has you take a step back and realize the influence that you are about to have.”