Betrayals, Bravo and broads behind bars: How the Real Housewives came crashing down to earth

The US reality franchise became a television institution with tales of scandal, opulence and psychic premonitions, but it’s recently been dented by racism and alleged criminality. As ‘Beverly Hills’ continues to dissect the mysteries of star Erika Jayne, Patrick Sproull asks: where does the series go from here?

Wednesday 20 October 2021 09:18
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<p>Last supper for the ‘Housewives’?: Kyle Richards, Andy Cohen, Lisa Rinna, Erika Jayne, Dorit Kemsley, Sutton Stracke and Kathy Hilton</p>

Last supper for the ‘Housewives’?: Kyle Richards, Andy Cohen, Lisa Rinna, Erika Jayne, Dorit Kemsley, Sutton Stracke and Kathy Hilton

Erika Jayne and Kyle Richards, two faces on the Mount Rushmore of US reality TV that is The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, lounge on a sofa together. They’ve peeled off from their co-stars so Jayne can privately extol the dramas of her bitter split from husband Tom Girardi, a California legal magnate. She seems nervous. Then, breathlessly, she unloads. “Tom’s house was broken into and he confronted the burglar and then had to go have eye surgery and then my son had to go help, and my son… he rolled his car five times on the way home.” The ever-expressive Richards, a former child actor, gapes. “Yeah, I’m under a lot of stress,” says an exasperated Jayne.

It’s an oft-cited scene in the most recent season of the long-running reality show – currently in its 11th year on the US TV channel Bravo, and Hayu in the UK – memorable thanks to Jayne’s amusingly blasé demeanour, rapid-fire delivery and the utter farcicality of her story. Scenes like this have become par for the course by Housewives standards, ever since Jayne and Girardi were accused in December 2020 – a month after the former filed for divorce – of embezzling millions of dollars earmarked for the families of plane crash victims. A lawsuit alleged that the money was used to “project a public image of obscene wealth at all times, and whatever the cost”. Through it all, Jayne has continued filming The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, while fielding her co-stars’ litany of queries about her potential involvement in the crime. Allegations have swirled that Girardi and Jayne’s divorce is a “sham” to conceal assets. Jayne, meanwhile, has used her screen time to allude to any number of far-fetched marital woes, from tales of Girardi’s alleged mistress, to his ill health, to his predisposition for unexplainable car accidents. There’s been a lot to process.

Jayne’s legal turmoil isn’t the only headline-grabbing scandal to rock Bravo’s empire of lush suburbs and designer labels. In Utah, The Real Housewife of Salt Lake City’s Jen Shah has been accused of defrauding elderly people via a telemarketing scheme, while the franchise’s belated decision to cast more Housewives of colour has exposed the racism of their white co-stars. Reunion episodes – typically a dramatic face-to-face post mortem of the season’s drama – have been cancelled, while other iterations of the franchise have been put on indefinite hiatus. But while all publicity is good publicity for a franchise fuelled by self-promotion, the sheer density of controversy could easily imperil its future.

The Real Housewives franchise started life in 2006 as an attempt to translate the suburban soap Desperate Housewives into the real world. Bravo and the TV super-producer Andy Cohen, who also serves as the series’ suave host, were intent on milking the one-upmanship, power plays and compulsive gossiping of rich white elites. The show’s first iteration, The Real Housewives of Orange County, was an imperfect beast – more a restrained docuseries capturing the women’s day-to-day lives than a soapy vehicle for squabbling – but the series quickly refined the formula, before outsourcing it. Initially Bravo stuck to urban hubs – New York, Atlanta, New Jersey – but the format has proved such a winner that the newest edition, The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City, has managed to spin subzero Mormon straw into reality TV gold. There’s now 15 international versions, from Slovenia and Nigeria to even the UK. The Real Housewives of Jersey, this country’s latest iteration, is particularly camp – there is something inherently entertaining about watching women attempting to evoke a high-glam lifestyle on one of the Channel Islands.

Successive iterations of the US show began the trend of casting women adjacent to fame – the wife of Kelsey Grammer; the wife of Boy George’s manager; the wife of the French aristocrat whose family constructed the Suez Canal – before graduating to Housewives with more direct claims to celebrity, such as Bond girl Denise Richards, actor Garcelle Beauvais and sitcom star Kim Fields. It’s become the easiest money-maker for those who already have enough money, creating names out of its larger-than-life personalities. The show’s long-standing gay fanbase has also turned certain Housewives into cult icons, among them the kooky Kathy Hilton, mother of Paris; Nene Leakes, who went from The Real Housewives of Atlanta to Glee; and British restaurateur Lisa Vanderpump, who snapped up her own spin-off, Vanderpump Rules. Those skilled enough to key into the arch pettiness that defines the series can secure themselves more than just 15 minutes of fame.

Critics of The Real Housewives – and there are many – have long lambasted its artificiality, and see little value in the sparring of people with too much money. Gloria Steinem once condemned the series for presenting women as “rich, pampered, dependent and hateful towards each other”. Yet that supposed hatefulness is now extremely valuable TV currency. One of this year’s scripted hits was The White Lotus, a series that gleefully thrived on the misfortune of monied holidaymakers and their contempt for both each other and the minimum-wage workers waiting on them. The duplicitous Roy family that anchors Succession, which just returned for its third season, put a fictional and satirical spin on the real world’s greatest embodiment of elite sparring – the Murdochs.

The Real Housewives, meanwhile, mastered the art of filthy-rich infighting long before it became fashionable. And while detractors may believe the franchise uncritically exalts the behaviour of its stars, it has always acknowledged the fundamental obscenity at its heart. If anything, it’s less a reality show than a documentary, ripe with the same parodically egregious flaunting of wealth and status.

“The love for The White Lotus was not a surprise to anybody who’s a long-time viewer of The Real Housewives,” says Brian Moylan, critic and author of The Housewives: The Real Story Behind the Real Housewives, as well as co-author of Jayne’s memoir, Pretty Mess. “I think a lot of it has to do with the gendered nature of how people perceive reality television, and how they perceive ‘prestige’ television like The White Lotus as a masculine art form. The Real Housewives is television about women that is mainly for an audience of women, so they see it as less than. There are very few places on television, scripted or otherwise, where you see groups of women in their forties, fifties and sixties interacting with each other. And, for better or worse, The Real Housewives is what we have.”

Yet as those purely fictional series soar, The Real Housewives is facing a moral and existential reckoning. The franchise has been forced to contend with the real-world consequences of its stars’ artificial lives. The missteps of the rich and famous have also become increasingly harder to overlook in a pandemic that has clearly divided the haves and the have-nots.

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In a more practical sense, Covid threw a titanic spanner in the works of each and every iteration of the show. Where most reality series can divide cast members with Plexiglass screens and social distancing, The Real Housewives thrives on busy galas, chaotic parties and women coming to blows in densely packed restaurants. Even private dinner parties become miniature military operations, requiring dozens of chefs, waiting staff and entertainment – not to mention the show’s camera crew. Without that insight into the women’s busy lives, the show has clearly suffered, having been robbed of the necessary contrast between the Housewives’ inner world and the normal people around them.

It’s become almost dystopian television. Bravo declined to film a wedding on The Real Housewives of Atlanta after one of its stars changed her 250-guest outdoor nuptials to an indoors affair at the last minute. Handheld footage of the event – showcasing an inconsistent amount of PPE worn by guests – was shown instead. Meanwhile, a traditional “cast getaway” episode of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills saw the show’s stars relaxing in a San Diego hotel devoid of other guests and waited on by domestic workers in face coverings. What was intended to convey escapist luxury only seemed to reinforce how the pandemic has had a minimal impact on those with the money to escape its harshest effects.

‘Salt Lake City’ Housewife Jen Shah raises her middle finger mid-argument

Concurrent to the pandemic, other seismic problems emerged. Attempts to fix the franchise’s historic racial uniformity – Black women make up the near-entirety of the casts of Atlanta and Potomoc, but have until recently been absent from much of the rest of the franchise – have consistently gone awry. During the most recent season of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, a white cast member equated anti-Black stereotypes with seeing “dumbass rednecks on TV”, and claimed that, as a “southern white girl”, her opinion was being delegitimised. On The Real Housewives of New York City, a Black friend of the show’s first Black housewife was accused by a white cast member of “segregating” the women by race while discussing her experiences of medical racism. “Am I supposed to apologise for being white?” asked long-time cast member Ramona Singer.

A handful of these incidents have led to about-turns from some of the shows’ white Housewives, but most have been left painfully unresolved. Among the overwhelming plurality of white Housewives, a total lack of nuance or understanding around race has increasingly reared its head. “Bravo has brought in cast members of colour without really thinking of the bigger picture in how to support them and what to do with the existing Housewives,” says journalist Louis Peitzman, who has written extensively on the franchise. “Many of [them] have clearly never interacted with a person of colour before.”

Controversies like these didn’t used to be a problem. Over its 15-year history, The Real Housewives has borne witness to a unique circus of insanity. We’ve seen prosthetic legs being thrown across dinner tables, couples staging their own funerals as a form of therapy, a Wiccan Housewife having to deny hexing her co-stars, and a psychic who once predicted the exact time of a Housewife’s death. There was also genuine horror. In the early years of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, a major storyline involved the domestic violence experienced by former cast member Taylor Armstrong and, nauseatingly, the question of whether she was telling the truth about it. Armstrong’s husband later died by suicide. It remains the show’s darkest chapter, and the consistent lack of empathy for Armstrong from her co-stars makes it borderline unwatchable just a decade later.

Today, boundaries between the show and its stars are more clearly delineated, with certain areas of the women’s worlds closed off. “We support each other [now],” Beverly Hills Housewife Kyle Richards recently said. “It wasn’t like that in the early years. There was a lot of backstabbing and people pretending they cared about you. Now we all want to try to succeed.” Such a shift has also allowed the Housewives to craft exaggerated narratives about themselves: Jayne, the most aesthetically rich Housewife in the Beverly Hills chapter, quickly mastered the hagiographic nature of reality TV. She often references her rags-to-riches background – which she describes as a “fantasy” – and meeting Girardi, then a 60-year-old millionaire, when she was a 28-year-old waitress. She now moonlights as a Broadway actor and glammed-up pop star, with a hit single titled “XXPEN$IVE”.

As the franchise has grown, it has been forced to lean into such fiction, having learned that manufacturing and steering the narrative can prove more fascinating than a comparatively authentic approach. The curtain has gradually been pulled back on the show’s behind-the-scenes machinations, with producers interjecting on-screen and Housewives visibly interacting with the camera crew. “In the beginning they would not acknowledge producers or even that these women were on a reality show,” Moylan says. But an important balance has to be struck. While, for instance, Richards has long presented a more organic image on Beverly Hills – her by-and-large conventional family has always been a part of her on-screen persona – Jayne herself has consistently sequestered her interior life. By presenting a gaudy fantasy that is simply too good to be true, she has backed herself into a corner. Her fall from grace has made for riveting yet uneasy viewing.

Bravo was once capable of merely dramatising any bit of real-world controversy, but the past year’s scandals have – ironically – been a reality check. Housewives could formerly tangle with alleged criminality without blowback from the show or its fans – New Jersey Housewife Teresa Giudice was jailed in 2015 for fraud before merrily returning to the show after her sentence – but modern online discourse has become more punitive. Figures like Jayne and Shah have come under far greater scrutiny as a result. “This is a show that started off being a docuseries about rich white women,” says Peitzman. “And I think that the cultural appetite for rich white women has ebbed and flowed over the past decade plus.”

The future of the Real Housewives franchise isn’t in doubt – season 12 of Beverly Hills has already been fast-tracked – but the reality of the show’s un-reality has been laid bare. Jayne’s downfall has epitomised how easily the Housewives’ concocted narratives about themselves can collapse, while the show’s attempts to grapple with race, class and Covid have proved half-hearted. The bubble of untouchable luxury has well and truly burst.

All episodes of the Real Housewives franchise are available in the UK on hayu

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