I used to be cynical about watching The Real Housewives until I unexpectedly found myself inside New York’s Sonja Morgan’s hotel room for her Halloween party at the Kimpton in 2018. Her hairstylist invited me, as Morgan embraced a more-the-merrier mentality for gays.
I was shirtless, and Morgan quipped about my nipples, managing to partake in several conversations simultaneously. Production made every extraneous person sign a release waiver before a crew member yelled, “Action!” Countess Luan de Lesseps stormed in from the balcony like God rolled out a holier-than-thou red carpet. The co-stars effortlessly entertained the room, but it all confirmed my suspicions about the fictitious nature of reality TV.
Still, as the party commenced with the rest of the cast downstairs, I realized the show was staged but unpredictable. My friend pressured me to try to dance with Tinsley Mortimer, and she let me for a few seconds before politely having enough. The women were ready for whatever was thrown at them while unapologetically staying in charge.
Bethenny Frankel was the first to dip in an Uber like a hostage set free as soon as filming wrapped. Today, she is the failed poster face for “Reality Reckoning,” an attempt to expose the toxicity and abuse of Bravo, backed by a lukewarm Vanity Fair feature and an ABC Nightline documentary on Hulu. She struggled to provide any new information that was groundbreaking and might’ve purposefully left out that she had pitched three shows rejected by Bravo months earlier.
More importantly, for me, the fandom – and most of the Housewives – it’s too late to quit. The Housewives franchise is not exactly a cult, but if Bravo started one, where is the signup sheet?
Coming face to face with the unrivaled genius of these bold, boozy women in action made me binge the series and the rest of the cities. Like millions of others, I was quickly enamored with the franchise. Bravo has a mystical knack for materializing groups of friends filled with unhinged personalities, sharing equally captivating pasts and futures. We’ll never get enough of Housewives, and most of them don’t seem to tire of the pedestal that cameras put their lives on.
So how has an unscripted franchise about affluent middle-aged women managed to stack up more seasons than the most celebrated television shows in history? Why is there no end in sight for the appeal of the Housewives?
Abby Steffens and Vanessa Rizi, creators of Real Moms of Bravo, told Observer that they have watched the show as they respectively had gotten married, had kids, and raised families. What keeps them going is the fact that Housewives rarely back down from opening the curtains into their lives. Steffens and Rizzi built their white picket fences while peaking inside the drama-filled golden gates of fellow mothers who shared as many wholesome similarities as otherworldly differences.
“I do not want them as my friends. I don’t want to sit down and have a drink with them. I’m terrified of them! But that’s what makes them great TV,” joked Steffens. What she loves most about the franchise is seeing the ladies, who she considers mostly good people, having fun and not taking themselves too seriously. She emphasized how intriguing it is that the most unlikeable Housewife can still make a great mother.
Rizi said they always remind listeners on their podcast about the palpable duality entwined in the show. “Erika Jayne [of Beverly Hills] is probably my favorite villain right now. Is she a great person? I don’t know. But I love her. And tomorrow, like, changed my mind. That’s also the Bravo sphere; we’re hypocritical.”
Steffens and Rizi might be put off by a Housewife one day and have her on their podcast the next. Fans celebrate the ludicrous or comical or the delusional or the absolutely petty guilt-free. Allegiance is tied to a moment, a catchphrase, a meme. If anyone flip-flops more than the cast, it’s the viewers. But it empowers every season as a blank slate riddled with history, enabling the women to grow and evolve – to fall and rise or vice versa.
The franchise doesn’t just liberate the Housewives from the rules of society; fans are freed from the projections of good and evil in entertainment. We dance in the eternal gray of human nature with them and analyze the layers of their actions like literature. After all, despite the arguments and drama, the ratings benefit one team, which we’re all in.
Isabel Greenberg, co-creator of Comments by Celebs, told Observer she started watching the franchise in middle school. “It has been over a decade, so it’s a different animal than when it began. We were naive. There wasn’t the glam or the idea that being a housewife would become a business. But you can have all the money in the world and still struggle with health or infidelity or death or kids – nobody’s immune to it. I feel like that’s what keeps us around for the long haul. You can’t help but feel like they’re your friends.”
Greenberg’s Instagram account chronicles celebrity interactions, and she emphasized Housewives is no longer a guilty pleasure of the masses. She referenced celebrity royalty Rihanna publicly involving herself in a dispute between New York’s Leah McSweeny and Ramona Singer in 2021 with a post on Instagram. Advertisers can’t even land on the singer’s feed for millions, and other Housewives have spoken about Rihana sliding into their DMs.
Reality TV was once considered for those who couldn’t make it in Hollywood, yet The Housewives made itself entertainment for the world’s biggest stars. Watch What Happens Live! is a revolving door of A-list fans. Bravo created more than a golden goose – a realm akin to the Marvel or Disney universes.
Schadenfreude could be argued as an underlying theme of the show; as we watch castmates jumping at each other’s turmoil like bedazzled hyenas their pain provides some sense of joy and relief. Greenberg, though, doesn’t believe the appeal is in watching affluent women suffer, but being on the rollercoaster with them.
“As juicy and salacious as it is to watch scandals go down, I do feel like there’s a communal sense of uplifting and support when they go through real-life shit,” said Greenberg. “We want the happy ending and root for friendships that have been around for a long time. People can sniff out when someone is a studied housewife coming on the show trying to fit into this mold versus just being authentically themselves.”
Queen, the pseudonymous creator of Queens of Bravo, said the heart of the everlasting appeal of the franchise is that reality always comes crashing down. The women can choose whatever storylines and vendettas they want to carry in their designer bags, but life tends to have other plans. “But that’s when the show is just magical. When they’re willing to give themselves to the audience, we want to be there for them.”
Outsiders might dismiss the drama as table-flipping, drink-throwing drunken antics, but you would have to be living under a rock.
We’ve seen New Jersey’s Theresa Guidice receive a 39-count indictment with her ex-husband for tax evasion, report to prison for 11 months, and never miss a season. Homeland Security rained down on the Salt Lake City ladies to arrest Jennifer Shah for running a national telemarketing scheme, while Mary Cosby was accused of running a church cult in the same season. Dorit Kemsley was robbed at gunpoint in Beverly Hills, which wasn’t enough to take the spotlight off Erika Jayne, whose husband was convicted of embezzling millions from the families of airline crash victims to fund their lifestyle.
Just to name a few, not including the deaths, divorces, ailments, and spectrum of joy, heartbreak, and petty in between. Most recently, Salt Lake City’s Heather Gay exposed newcomer Monica Garcia as an internet troll who was harassing them for years. The season finale lit the internet on fire and was literally quoted in Congress.
The rug seems to be pulled from under the women in unimaginable ways, yet the cameras never stop rolling, and they roll with the punches from production, viewers, and real life. Bravo took a category of women historically belittled and caged to their husband’s credit card and turned it into an all-encompassing phoenix. They’re as unhinged as fabulous, as messy as classy, and as fearless as desperate for attention. But always more loving than shady.
Queen agrees with all the parties above that the show’s foundation is in the lighthearted humor that can make you laugh on the darkest days. They said one of their favorite scenes was from Atlanta when an unimpressed Nene Leakes received a Rolex from a millionaire suitor, John Kolaj, in season 4. The scene was less than a minute, but Leake’s reaction produced a handful of viral memes.
Kolaj unironically told Leakes: “A Rolex is timeless; if you let it and you rewind it and you work it, it can last forever.”
Also, unironically, one can’t help but embrace the Housewives franchise under the same lens.
Queen said there’s no such thing as permanent favorites regarding cities. “Tamra [Judge of Orange County] had a perfect line. She always says, ‘You’re only as good as your latest episode.’ So I like to live in the moment.”
Still, a pandemic saw many of us return to rewatching old seasons like a hug that could last for hours.
The Housewives taught me the presence of a dove doesn’t negate a raven. It’s easy to simplify Andy Cohen and the Bravo Network as Rumpelstiltskin-like figures that will discard these women when their tears stop turning to gold. But if you look up high enough in any enterprise, most executives making decisions only count viewership and dollars.
And the stars have evolved with the machine. Many have unplugged the Marquee that has become their bodies, instead bringing their own products to sell with their dreams. The women go on the show to depict their wealthy lifestyles but end up dependent on their newfound fame and fortune, not to mention outearning or dumping their husbands.
Capitalism doesn’t make sports fans cheer less loudly, as the connection is between the fans and players. Bravo’s fandom doesn’t care about the suits calling the shots behind the scenes. Social media allows us to follow these women directly. The Housewives might not control the game’s rules, but they deserve the credit for every home run. We’ll keep watching for as long as they’re eager and willing to play.