People Who Make NY Special

How Tonya Lewis Lee Does the Right Thing

Fresh from producing the Netflix edition of “She’s Gotta Have It” with her husband, Spike Lee, Tonya Lewis Lee shares how New York City inspires her creativity.

Tonya Lewis Lee / Photo by Keith Major

She produces must-see television (She’s Gotta Have It) and developed an award-winning documentary (I Sit Where I Want: The Legacy of Brown v. the Board of Education). She writes books for kids (Please, Baby, Please, which she coauthored with her husband, to name one) and books for grown-ups (Gotham Diaries). She’s even launched her own health and wellness company.

Clearly, Tonya Lewis Lee is more than just the wife of film director and writer Spike Lee. We talked to her about her creative process, why she loves NYC (her favorite borough may surprise you!), and if she shares her husband’s obsessive passion for the New York Knicks. 

tonya lewis lee
Photo by Keith Major

What Should We Do?!: During your childhood, your family moved around the country a bitNew York, New Jersey, Milwaukee, St. Louis. What made you want to build your life in NYC?
Tonya Lewis Lee: No matter where we lived, every summer we would come to New York City for a few days. It always felt like so much was going on. This was the place where deals were made, art was created. You could be who you were and find a spot to be accepted and thrive. I knew that New York would be where I could be me without being considered weird, and where if I worked hard, I could make my dreams come true.

WSWD: Did you ever think about moving once you had kids?
Lewis Lee: I live in New York because it allows me to work in a way that is productive, and at the same time, the city feeds my creative and business energies. I love the constant sense of hustle here. I thrive on it. I think New York is a great place to raise children, but it is not easy. We know people from all walks of life, from all parts of the world, and we get to see how they approach life and make it work for them. I think it is important to grow up around diverse experiences, and New York provides that. We had the good fortune to be able to leave the city in the summer and spend time on Martha’s Vineyard, [and] my parents lived in Connecticut, so [the kids] got a sense of country and suburban living as well. But they are city kids through and through.

WSWD: Speaking of kids, you’ve written a few books for children, and the title of one of them borrows a phrase from Spike’s famous character Mars Blackmon: Please, Baby, Please. What can the youth learn from Mars?
Lewis Lee: Mars is a great character—he has heart and he cares about his community and the people in it. Mars also talks about his dyslexia and how he has turned it into his superpower. So at the heart of it, I think Mars is a great example of someone who has turned what people have told him is a disability into a superpower, though I don’t think kids should be watching She’s Gotta Have It!

WSWD: What do you hope audiences take away from She’s Gotta Have It, the series?
Lewis Lee: I hope they enjoy the journey of a young woman and maybe find some of themselves in Nola. I also hope they just enjoy [the show].

WSWD: The show is set, largely, in Fort Greene and in some ways is a love letter to Brooklyn. You and Spike now live in Manhattan—what do you miss most about Brooklyn?
Lewis Lee: I think Fort Greene is such a great, distinct neighborhood. Spike is there every day since his office is there, and I get to visit a fair amount, so there’s not much to miss.

WSWD: You have a health and wellness company called Movita Organics. What’s your routine for staying fit and healthy in NYC?
Lewis Lee: My routine for staying healthy and fit begins with my one-a-day Movita multivitamin. It is a great way to start the day off on a good foot and feels like a reset no matter what I did the day before. I work out at least four times a week and try to eat well. I eat real food: no red meat, no poultry, no dairy, low sugar, and I have my super blueberry and spinach smoothie every morning. I also believe in getting my sleep—at least seven hours a night. And I try to manage stress, which is real. If I wake up facing a tough day, I will yell to the universe, “Today is a great day!” until I make it so.

WSWD: Describe your typical day.
Lewis Lee: It starts at 5:30 a.m., when I get up and write for a few hours. I then go to the gym to do cardio and weight-lift for an hour. From there, I head out to my office, where I work on the multiple films and TV shows I have in development or production, and I confer with my Movita Organics team to continue to expand our business. By 6 p.m., I’m heading home to meet Spike for dinner—and if it’s a really great day, we share an awesome bottle of a Brunello di Montalcino and we are in bed and asleep by 10 p.m.

WSWD: Can you give us a Brooklyn or Manhattan secret that every New Yorker should know about?
Lewis Lee: That’s a tough one. Things come and go and change so much; there is always something new. That is the beauty of NYC.

Rapid Round!
Tonya Lewis Lee’s Faves…in a NY Minute

Manhattan or Brooklyn?
Manhattan.

Uptown or downtown?
Downtown.

Nets or Knicks? (If you want to give Spike a heart attack, say Nets!)
Chicago Bulls in the ’90s.

Metropolitan Museum of Art or Metropolitan Opera?
Museum.

Cardi B or Run DMC?
Run DMC.

Favorite NYC-centric movie?
Do the Right Thing.

Favorite NYC block?
Anywhere in the West Village.

Favorite place to see live music?
Central Park.

Your kids’ favorite NYC place when they were young?
Wollman Rink.

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