She owns the hottest spots in Charleston, runs a tightknit staff of “it kids,” has a beautiful family and is now fronting her own “Southern Charm” spin-off series, “Southern Hospitality”, which has already drawn comparisons to ever-popular “Vanderpump Rules”.
And it’s the Canadian chapters of her globe-trotting youth – which saw her born in India then raised in Winnipeg and Bolivia – that Leva Bonaparte credits for much of her success.
“My glam side’s from Bolivia and also a Persian thing – I came out of the womb in heels and painted nails!” the 43-year-old entrepreneur laughs while chatting to ET Canada ahead of Monday’s “Southern Hospitality” premiere on Slice. “But my politics and social side is very Canadian. Being able to get along with all kinds of people comes from growing up with so many different cultures, religions and diversity.”
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It’s that social ease which has helped Leva and husband Lamar build a restaurant empire along Charleston’s famed King Street, where they run locations like Bourbon N’ Bubbles, Mesu and the “crown jewel of their kingdom” — Republic Garden & Lounge, which is the focus of “Southern Hospitality”.
Yet, while she may be the belle of the ball on the local nightlife scene, eating out at fancy restaurants — let alone running four — was far from Leva’s mind growing up. Instead, she was reminded daily how lucky she was to enjoy each meal in peace.
Reluctant to start a family amid political and social unrest, Leva’s parents left Iran in 1978 and welcomed her in Trivandrum, India, where they were working in social development. Deciding not to return to Iran following the Iranian Revolution, they eventually built a new life in Winnipeg.
“Everything that’s shaped my life is based on us leaving because of the Islamic regime,” says Leva, who also spent time in Bolivia for her father’s work. “Every meal I sat down to, it was like, ‘You’re lucky to be here. Your cousins are still there.’ I only met my grandparents twice and never knew what the inside of their house looked like or what they smelled like. It shaped every fiber of me, not being there, but knowing I had family there.”
“It’s been tough seeing what’s going on,” she adds about current unrest and turmoil in Iran which has seen anti-government protestors sentenced to death. “The other night, I was lying in bed crying, thinking, ‘What if I was there with my son?’ So many of us escaped and so many couldn’t. When you think about 15,000 students being up for execution or how they’re killing kids, it’s such an issue, but this has been going on for 40-plus years. And that Islamic regime is not Islam — it’s awful people hiding under the cloak of a religion.”
While Leva’s family escaped such horror, they kept their Persian culture alive. It’s those roots which ignited her passion for food and hospitality. Weekends were spent getting up at 7 a.m. to help her mom cook “beautiful dishes” for Mehmooni (a Persian gathering) and today, Leva continues speaking Farsi and celebrating Nowruz (Iranian New Year) with Lamar and their four-year-old son, Lamar Jr.
Leva admits her first visit to Charleston from “so diverse Canada” was a culture shock and she didn’t know where she fit in. She eventually met Lamar, who was working in real estate, which she wanted to learn more about, and soon they’d bought property together. Following their 2013 wedding, they opened Republic and after five years of “just hustling” and three further restaurant openings, Leva has found exactly where she fits into Charleston.
She has also learned to juggle motherhood with business. “I thought I’d get a nanny by day and a night nurse because I was such a career girl,” she says. “Then I met my kid and went, ‘Nothing else matters.’ I used to be the front of Republic and it was hard to step back and let my husband do more, but I [wanted to] hang with my kid, so for the first two years I was fully mom, then slowly came back.”
“It’s tricky with marriage, though,” she continues. “I always say, ‘Marriage, when you work together, ages in dog years.’ You have to learn boundaries and when to pick your battles.”
Ultimately, it’s the couple’s fun company which she believes has made Republic so successful and that’s reflected in the staff who fans will get to know on Southern Hospitality.
“People can party anywhere, but the reason we were successful is because I was a pretty good time, so people would come hang with me and Lamar,” Leva says. “We weren’t like cow-jumped-over-the-moon after four drinks, but we always make sure everyone’s having a good time and that’s the kind of people I hire. They’re hilarious, charming, beautiful, a little salacious and have big personalities. They’re the ‘it’ kids.’”
While such cast elements sound reminiscent of “Vanderpump Rules”, which Leva loves, she notes “Southern Hospitality” is more a real estate show (“since in this business, if you can’t sell, you can’t stay,”) crossed with “Below Deck”.
“Once we hit 10 p.m., it’s chaos,” she explains. “We’ll have 100 people outside drinking, with egos and expecting a five-star evening and meanwhile someone’s trying to hang from a chandelier. It’s like that saying about a perfect hostess — they look like a beautiful swan above water, but underneath we’re paddling like mad.”
Despite the chaos, Leva doesn’t rule out opening more restaurants, with a Canadian one high on her wish list.
“I’ve been trying to convince my husband we need a poutine spot,” she says, adding that she’d love to host Justin Trudeau at Republic. “He’s not convinced, so I’m like, ‘Fine, I’ll do it myself!’ A place with just beer and poutine would be heaven!”
“Southern Hospitality” premieres November 28 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Slice and is available to stream on STACKTV.