She’s been called TV’s savior. She once described herself as a titan. Her production company is an entire land, graced by her name.
It would all seem a little exaggerated, if it were not true.
Shonda Rhimes is a force in Hollywood. She’s created not one but multiple money-making, trailblazing TV shows that double as cultural phenomenons.
Her imagination has given birth to some of the strongest and most colorful characters in television history, in turn, gifting actors roles of a lifetime. Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope in “Scandal.” Viola Davis as Annalise Keating in “How to Get Away with Murder.” Ellen Pompeo as Meredith Grey and Patrick Dempsey as McDreamy in “Grey’s Anatomy.”
How did this titan capture her kingdom? Follow the footsteps of her hero’s journey.
Shonda Rhimes didn’t set out to create salacious and scandalous TV shows. She wanted to be a serious novelist.
It wasn’t quite working out as she’d hoped.
She was a struggling writer, living in her sister’s basement, when she gave herself a challenge: get accepted into the extremely competitive film school at University of Southern California.
She did — and she graduated at the top of her class.
While at USC, she put her dreams of becoming Toni Morrison to bed, and woke up to a newfound passion for television writing.
Rhimes struggled after film school, working random writing and producing jobs with a measure of success. She didn’t hit any home runs.
She made a short film with Jada Pinkett Smith, and wrote “The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement“ and “Crossroads,” which starred Britney Spears.
When she pitched her first show to Disney about a group of female war correspondents, she got a swift rejection. Executives didn’t want to do the show while American troops were fighting in Afghanistan.
She didn’t quit. And her next pitch would make her career.
Rhimes, a self-described homebody introvert, recalls mumbling into her papers while pitching the show that would be “Grey’s Anatomy.”
At the time, she had yet to conquer her fear of speaking in public. She made up for her lack of bravado with a script full of sizzle.
Building a universe within Seattle Grace Hospital, Rhimes said her intention was to create complex, strong female characters who were every bit as competitive and passionate as their male counterparts.
ABC gave her pilot a green light in 2005.
When “Scandal” wraps its final season this year, it will do so having left behind a bright, blazing trail.
Kerry Washington, playing Olivia Pope, was the first African American female to lead a prime time drama in 40 years. After seven salacious seasons and more than 120 episodes, her white hat, her giant glass of wine and her Pope-isms are now entrenched in pop culture.
The show about a Washington, D.C. fixer and her team of enforcers was also one of the first to truly capitalize on social media to bring its stories and characters to life. From viral memes to #gladiator threads on Twitter, Scandal’s plotlines have been diligently dissected and parodied by a committed group of fans who kept the show going well beyond the small screen.
If a bossgirl was ever at a loss for words to express how she’s handling a project, she just had to Google an Olivia Pope meme to get her point across: It’s handled.
Whether it’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal” or “How To Get Away with Murder,” fans aren’t satisfied just watching their favorite Rhimes shows. They hunger to discuss, dissect and mock every aspect of it on social media.
Her shows combined have millions of Twitter followers, not to mention unofficial fan-created accounts.
There’s a reason media executives hailed Rhimes as television’s savior.
Before her shows, the great era of sitcoms was coming to an end with the finales of “Friends” and “Seinfeld” — with nothing in sight to replace them.
In a TED talk, Rhimes estimated that, at her peak at ABC, she was running four television programs, 70 hours of content and 3-4 productions at a time with a total budget of $350 million dollars. She is one of the few showrunners to have created three shows that topped 100 episodes each.
Rhimes was also the first African American to do it, and the first female showrunner to have three shows running on network TV at the same time.
In her book “The Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand in the Sun and Be Your Own Person,” Rhimes describes turning soup cans into a parade of personalities dancing in an epic tale concocted by her youthful imagination.
It’s not exactly the kind of thing that would make you popular. But, decades later, it has paid off.
Her shows aren’t just juggernauts in America. They’ve aired in 256 territories in 67 different languages for an audience of millions around the world.
Not bad for a shy kid with an odd hobby.
Rhimes founded her production company, Shondaland, in 2005, with “Grey’s Anatomy” as its first offering. She has since produced or created — sometimes both — eight more shows for ABC.
Shondaland is also a lifestyle website with the tagline: “You are never alone in Shondaland. It’s where all the badasses live.”
To no one’s surprise, Shondaland is steeped in its founder’s values and philosophy, famously among them, a “no assholes” policy.
Rhimes has been known to fire anyone who causes trouble in her shows, including a well-known beef with actress Katherine Heigl who was killed off in “Grey’s Anatomy.”
When Hollywood’s most powerful women got behind the #MeToo movement, they created Time’s Up, with a mission to fight systemic sexual harassment in Hollywood and in workplaces nationwide.
Joining women like Ava DuVernay, Meryl Streep and Reese Witherspoon, Rhimes and others have raised millions of dollars for a legal defense fund.
Recently, Rhimes was part of a committee for women of color within the organization that called for a boycott of musician R. Kelly. The R&B singer has been the subject of consistent and multiple allegations of sexual harassment.
It’s no surprise that the creator of shows that mimic real-life political drama would be involved in politics herself.
She was behind a short film that introduced Hillary Clinton at the 2016 Democratic National Convention convention. She has also donated $1 million dollars to the Obama Foundation.
In 2016, she established the Rhimes Family Foundation. It supports arts, education and activism, with a focus on fighting inequality and creating cultural inclusion. The foundation has also donated millions to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
In 2016, Rhimes’s book “The Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand in the Sun and Be Your Own Person” became a New York Times bestseller.
Part-memoir, part-inspirational book, Rhimes details her process to fight her introvert tendencies by saying “yes” to everything for an entire year.
Page after page reveals deeply personal revelations. Rhimes talks about her decision to say yes to herself by saying no to marriage, her weight loss journey and her search for balance in life. In between confessions, she also reveals her intense ambitions and gruelling work ethic.
“I am not lucky,” she writes. “You know what I am? I am smart, I am talented, I take advantage of the opportunities that come my way and I work really, really hard. Don’t call me lucky. Call me a badass.”
A true bossgirl book, if ever there was one.
Rhimes has described her writing flow as an addictive hum that happens in her brain when she’s hitting her groove. The hum propelled one hit episode after another.
But, one day, the hum disappeared. In the midst of doing her dream job, it became all job.
She credits her children for getting her out of her rut. As part of her say “yes” challenge, she said she began to play with her children more, instead of scurrying to the next work obligation. In doing so, she learned to play again and find joy in the simple things.
Slowly, the hum returned.