The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills
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I have an inconsistent friendship with reality television. It’s the kind of friendship where I forget just how much fun I have with someone until we’re reunited at long last. Time absolutely flies, we’re both laughing and I think to myself: wow, this is so easy and light. And this person lives close! Why don’t I see them more often? I don’t need to wait for an excuse when they’re right there… But no, the issue is all with me. I seem to only ever seek out the glossy products of reality TV when I am in a mood. Not the mood, a mood; a deep and cloudy sadness. So, it’s like a transactional relationship with a pretty, social friend who I forget exists until I’m sad again. Unfortunately or maybe fortunately, the two of us have been hanging out lately because the doom is in me. I’ve just watched the entirety of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills over the last month and a half. I am up to date now and hating it because it means I’ve ran out of track. I wait patiently for Thursday mornings when Hayu squeezes a droplet of another sunny episode into my bloodshot eyes. I need more. My mood’s not over yet. I will have to watch it forever or until this mood is done.
This isn’t the first time I’ve used reality TV as a salve. Years ago, depression made the bed a magnet for my body and I marathoned Keeping Up With The Kardashians after never having seen an episode. It wasn’t so much a marathon. My viewership was weak and passive, like I had tied myself to the back of the show so that it could drag me through the long hours of a day and the long days of a month. It was great. Every season was cushioned with the cool, white noise of drawn-out vowels and vocal fry. I can't remember a single thing that happened but the content of the episodes wasn’t really the point. The handling of a rich people atmosphere in editing and production made the show adjacent to something like slow TV, and it did the job of disappearing time which is exactly what I needed to heal.
I was looking for the same affect when I rolled over to the Housewives franchise but not because of depression. I have just entered month 8 of Long Covid and recently my symptoms have gotten comically worse. It’s bad and surreal and just so fucking long. Fatigue feels like gravity is conspiring against me. It’s like the air has been replaced with water and I’m wearing one of those old diving suits with the metal-fronted helmets; I wake up under the pressure of the invisible water in my bedroom, unable to move at will. And underwater, it’s hard to think or speak. On the worst days, I slur my words or forget them completely. It makes me avoid speaking and I hide around the house like a sad ghost, stuck resting until my words come un-stuck. Long Covid, long sadness. Any physical or mental exertion riles my symptoms, and so I’ve learnt that all I can really do in this state is rest.
I starfish on the bed, I go mad; I visualise the ocean pinning me flat against the bed and I hope that if I stay still for long enough, my body will come back into itself in a slow, magic spell. While I wait to see what I become, what can I do that counts as doing nothing, as thinking nothing, and therefore as resting? I needed another friend to come and sit with me in the dark like KUWTK offered to all those years ago. I hitched myself to the back of The Real Housewives to see if the women of California could do the job once again, and I’m happy to report the show has kept my head above the water. I’m very tired but I think I am still sane.
The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills is the sixth show in the Housewives franchise, first premiering back in 2010. It is currently in its 11th season with 232 episodes to date. Over the years, it has followed the lives of 20 different women, as well as their friends and family. Usually there are 5-6 main housewives per season. They include actresses, child movie stars, retired models, socialites, television personalities, and the spouses of famous men who have made their wives famous by proxy (some women who have then made a name and a pay-check for themselves through this very show).
Yeah. I don’t know what it is. I like watching rich people exist on another plain. Out of reach, above the clouds, they lounge together in the intense, soulful comfort of an editorial life. I am very jealous. Healthy, protected, mythically rich — I am not sure any of them really exist. In the story of Beverly Hills, on the fictional Beverly Beach, the Housewives are princesses inside huge Barbie Dreamhouses. Except, I don’t have to use metaphors because their reality is unreal enough. They live in symmetrical glass castles, wear gold leaf in their hair, and hang jewellery on themselves like living Christmas trees. They are always being attended to. Housekeeper, nanny, private chef, personal assistant, personal trainer, driver, and party planner too. Everybody is a part of the operation, coming in and out of headquarters with fresh flowers in hand. Lisa Vanderpump lives in a mansion bordered by a moat full of swans. In the first two seasons, Camille Grammar takes guests around her estate on a golf-cart, it’s that big. Her, Kyle Richards and Kathy Hilton all play on the tennis courts in their own gardens. And up until the divorce, Erika Jayne was flying around the world in a private jet with her glam squad so that she could keep up mood board-designed appearances wherever she went. Red latex sex doll with a tight posture for Berlin, and blonde victory rolls, pink silk and gold details for the girls trip to Hong Kong.
My laptop screen blossomed with good weather colours and tinted my pale hermit face. I totally came to the show for that specific palm tree, spin class, green drink lightness. But I ended up staying for something else, and I’m writing about that something else here. Bravo claims their hit franchise gives viewers special access into the lives of America’s elite Housewives and that would have been enough for me to watch. But it’s not as though they sheepishly follow along after the ladies in a documentary-style portrait. This isn’t anything like a polite visit from Architectural Digest; nothing as controlled as Vogue’s 70 pre-agreed upon questions either. It’s not even as consensual as KUTWK where the stars are involved in the presentation of their own boring family. It isn’t as clean as any of that. Bravo only seems to use the attributes of richness as mood-lighting for the fiery, unscripted drama it actually aims to produce.
The Real Housewives format takes a group of strangers who have in common only their gender, wealth and situation in life (and until the latest few series of the Beverly Hills instalment, their whiteness too). Then, over 20 odd episodes, it essentially sends them off on work-mandated team-bonding exercises. It isn’t explicit, it isn’t caricatured, and still, the feeling of forced socialisation on the job is palpable. Situations the women are thrown into include the typical brunches, lunches, dinners, and charity galas; or all of the above with the added variables of being away from family and on holiday together. There are parties, pool parties, fashion shows, wine-tastings, store openings, escape rooms, and the occasional horse-related events. Now, I expected things would go smoothly across these settings given the fact these are fancy ladies with social graces and reputations to uphold… but that simply isn’t the case. Every season, everything quickly comes undone.
I don’t know why I assumed they would just get on. Friendship is a mystical alignment that can’t ever be forced, guaranteed or produced by a show/workplace; and these are rich women neurotic enough to want to be eternally perceived in the global imaginary. Plus, it’s not just one or two of them, it’s five or six or more, putting multipliers on the chance of a scrap — the anticipation of which becomes mesmerising. When the Housewives are presented in a pack together, my mind goes to that sorority house recruitment video, you know, the one that did the internet rounds because of the overwhelming, curious performance of whiteness and woman-ness en masse. An unhinged spiral of little Karens screaming in a chorus. I assumed that even if the Housewives didn’t get on, they would grin and bear it for the camera. But the producers are like kids playing with dolls, batting the women together over and over again, trying to make them hug and kiss; sometimes it’s just going to hurt.
When things go well, there is laughter, solidarity, admiration and fun. I follow many of the Housewives on Instagram now and there is real joy there on and off-screen between some of them. When they fight though, it’s rough. Screaming, crying, mic-drop accusations. ‘You’re the Queen of England and we’re all trailer park compared to you. At least I don’t do crystal meth in the bathroom all night long, bitch.’ Brandi Glanville and Kyle Richards grab at each others limbs and throw pizza on the floor. Taylor Armstrong drinks herself into the meme hall of fame as Woman Yelling at a Cat, but it’s not a cat, it’s another drunk woman across the room. And most famously, in S5E16, Lisa Rinna throws a wine glass across the table at Kim Richards in an up-market restaurant in Amsterdam. The rest of the table rises to meet their drama and the scene looks like a violent Baroque painting with the added vision of being filmed from ten different angles.
The chaos of the Real Housewives follows almost the exact same pattern every season. A problem will arise in the first or second episode between two of them. They will then spend the rest of the season pretending it’s not a problem until they explode; or they’ll wring it out obsessively until they are two husks screeching at one another trying to win points for most words spoken and highest volume reached. Between the first episode and the final showdown, there will be multiple mini burst-ups. And either side of those, snide comments, skipped invitations, returned presents, and stories sold to the press. It is packed with she-saids and mis-remembered incidents, and outside of the two main opponents, the other Housewives eventually pick their sides in the fight.
It’s funny — or it’s not funny, I can’t tell anymore — but I thought I would find some odd kind of comfort in the company of rich people doing rich things, and instead I found my comfort in the well-paced cycle of drama they perform on a loop. I don’t understand my own enjoyment to be honest. With the one long dominating argument every season, as a viewer, it’s like watching somebody’s dress get caught on a nail and just wincing as they walk forward, not noticing the rip cut deeper and deeper until the dress is pulled apart and the person underneath has nowhere left to hide. Can’t look away, don’t want to see, don’t feel right seeing, but I’m looking nonetheless. What is that about? Why do I keep watching a show about women who should not be friends? Pandemic isolation has sucked all of the gossip out of my world so maybe I like that RHOBH is keeping me fed. I wonder if it’s because my life has been so wrecked by illness that spending time with other people’s issues is a relief. Like, I hate talking about Long Covid because I hate admitting it even exists inside my stupid, brittle cells. I hate that in order to contextualise how I feel about some random TV show, I have to give you this spiel. It is so rude that it has taken over my life for 8 months and counting. So, watching a whole show about other people’s problems feels great. It’s like whenever I have an injection, I squeeze my nails into my palm so my head’s thinking about that pain and not the new pain I’m about to feel. Whether it is a big serious dilemma or a season-long argument because Dorit’s ugly pink husband accidentally saw up Erika’s dress when she wasn’t wearing knickers, it is working its magic and I’m grateful (even if it isn’t fair for me to be grateful that other people on the telly are crying about having a bad time. I guess they are so rich it becomes fair game).
It is also very satisfying to watch the arc of a disagreement from beginning to end, from collision to resolution. I am a fan of Esther Perel’s podcasts for the same reason, in that I like watching arguments play out at arm’s length because it’s something I’ve never been very good at. On the spot, in the heat of the moment, I struggle to find the words that accurately represent what I’m feeling and I end up frustrated with myself for not getting them right. Add to that the Long Covid frustrations from not being able to think as quickly anymore and the difficulties I’ve been having with my speech and my voice. Whilst The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills might be a team-bonding exercise for the cast, it’s been like a training exercise for me in how to have it out with someone. They really labour over their differences, coming at the other person from all angles, all tones; trying to find a middle-ground; and bringing in back-up sometimes as they claw their way to a solution. Listening to them do this emotional work over 200+ episodes while I lie in bed and endlessly rest has given me the kind of conditioning I think people hope for when they listen to educational tapes while they sleep. I genuinely believe I am better prepared now to have an argument with someone when the time comes — and there were even points during watching when I wanted a spat to test out my new skills (and then it so happened I discovered someone in my life was an anti-vaxxer and I was actually able to enjoy the sticky conversation we had thanks to my new Housewives qualifications).
Before I end this text: I’m so glad I watched it and grateful there are still new episodes to enjoy every week. I’m obsessed with Lisa Rinna’s big eyes and her spiky hair, and I want to be Harry Hamlin’s wife. I fully believe Erika Jayne didn’t know what Tom was doing fucking all those people over — her tears are too makeup-ruining to just be acting. Plus, I love when the other women order white wine and she drinks a whole bottle of coke. I hope she makes more music. She has the best dog.
Next, I despise Lisa Vanderpump. She’s like that evil headmistress in Harry Potter who wears lots of pink and is in love with animals, it’s such a boring personality. LVP also seems like she is 100 years old compared to the others. She somehow embodies the entire history of Great Britain in her stubborn, wrinkly expat body, while the Californians waltz around looking carefree and tanned. I do wish the monotone Jennifer Coolidge knock-off Adrienne Maloof had been in it longer: she washed a chicken with soap before she attempted to cook for the first time and it is still my favourite moment out of the entire series. My 2nd favourite moment might be when Brandi threw a drink at Eileen. Peak awkward, but all these people have gone now. I wish Yolanda was still in it. I felt for her when a fuss was made about whether or not she was lying about being sick for attention. Such a shitty line of thinking because who the fuck wants to lie in bed for months on end? No one, trust me.
Dorit pulls off the best looks and I am amazed that I’ve gotten used to her accent. Love that Kathy Hilton is in it nowadays, and how weird she is, and that she wakes up late just like me. Loved Denise Richards until the cheating scandal and then I just felt scared of her, but maybe not in the way I was afraid of the skinny woman who lived in that bad goth house. Crystal and Garcelle intrigue me but I hope they get more involved soon. And I know the internet is not on my side, but I like Kyle. I’m sorry. The fact that she runs away crying during the Amsterdam incident is just so funny to me. She seems the most emotionally inarticulate which is maybe why I feel a kinship. I also like when she lies on the floors with all her dogs.
Final shoutout to the fact they all have pale hands that don’t match up with their foundation faces, it just peels at the edge of the fantasy and eases me back to reality every time. I appreciate it.
I don’t know if this text is evidence I’ve lost the plot. I know I don’t need to justify my enjoyment of the show or of the reality genre as a whole. And still, I like writing around these things in order to figure out why I chose this specific piece of culture over anything else in the world at this very weird time in my life. I think understand it better now. I needed the Housewives’ problems to distract me from my own; and I needed the rich backdrop behind that to alleviate my sick reality. Stuck in a shady bedroom, I could imagine living life in one of their palace homes instead. Guilty about how my boyfriend is sacrificing so much of his time to look after me, I could imagine having staff to relieve him. A girl can dream. One day, I might recover and maybe I won’t need this show anymore but until I do, there’s plenty left to consume. There are 10 more series of The Real Housewives based in America alone, and 15 international instalments including The Real Housewives of Cheshire which is an hour’s drive away from me. Long Covid is long but I don’t think it’s as long as all of these shows combined. I’ll just carry on watching until I get better, or until my mood is done.