How Real Housewives Inspired My Novel

If you’ve tuned into any of the Real Housewives shows in recent seasons, the interpersonal drama might feel reminiscent of another venerable reality TV franchise: Survivor.

Survivor’s famous “voted off the island” edict created a dynamic that made outlasting fellow contestants by any means necessary the ultimate goal. That kind of ethos has infiltrated the casts of the Real Housewives, making what was once must-see, escapist fare into an anxious viewing experience.

Starting in 2006 with the premiere of Orange County, Real Housewives has become an internationally beloved franchise with series currently based in ten cities. (The Real Housewives of New York City now has two versions, a “Legacy” with the original cast members currently being held up by contract negotiations, and a “Reboot” with an all-new cast.) As the franchise skyrocketed in popularity, cast members became celebrities in their own right, with access to lucrative opportunities, including one that turned into a multimillion empire.

This has made a full-time role on the show a truly high-stakes enterprise. No reality stars are more beholden to their public image for survival and continued relevance than the Real Housewives. They owe their job security to the juicy storylines they bring each season and how much they resonate with the vocal fanbase.

There’s been a palpable shift in the way that the Housewives approach their relationships with each other. Originally, cast members were either close before they appeared on the show, or became friends (or frenemies) during filming. But many of these friendships have become alliances involving the kind of strategy and manipulation usually seen on Survivor, all in service of keeping themselves in the opening credits.

the real housewives ultimate girls trip "fourth wall down" episode 104 pictured l r teresa giudice, melissa gorga, kyle richards photo by karolina wojtasikpeacocknbcu photo bank via getty images

The Real Housewives Ultimate Girls Trip stars (left to right): Teresa Giudice, Melissa Gorga, and Kyle Richards.

Peacock//Getty Images

We’ve seen team-ups in which several Housewives will make accusations against other cast members or their loved ones, or dangle rumors on camera with the goal of humiliating each other. Another favorite tactic? Icing out a Housewife by excluding them from parties and events in order to reduce their camera time. If no one will film with you, it’s nearly impossible to stay on the cast in a full-time role.

The name “Fox Force Five” best symbolizes this Survivor-like strategy. It’s what Beverly Hills stars Kyle Richards, Lisa Rinna, Dorit Kemsley, Erika Jayne, and Teddi Mellencamp began calling their friend group after filming Season 9. Fans soon began to notice the clique seemingly target fan favorites Denise Richards, Lisa Vanderpump, and Kathy Hilton, to turn viewers against them.

Hilton went so far as to call Rinna out during the most recent reunion, after Rinna accused her of having an off-camera meltdown in Aspen that eviscerated her castmates and sister Kyle. Kathy broke the fourth wall when she voiced her opinion on Rinna’s motivations during the reunion, a new development in Housewives history. “Maybe you wanted it on camera because your contract was coming up and you needed some drama because you fight with everybody,” she suggested.

Perhaps what speaks most clearly to the changing dynamic is a moment from the most recent Real Housewives of Potomac reunion. While Gizelle Bryant and Robyn Dixon made their disdain for Wendy Osefo clear in the past two seasons, it was still jolting to hear Gizelle admit she didn’t care that Mia Thornton came twice at Wendy—throwing a drink in her face, then hitting her with a purse—because she just doesn’t like her.

This confession was the sour cherry on top of an unusually dispiriting season of RHOP. Whenever Housewives combat each other with warring accusations, it can be difficult for viewers to determine what’s real and what’s a tactic to shore up their fanbase support or reduce someone else’s. The problem is that when they’re caught up in their own personal travails, the Housewives seem to forget that viewers don’t necessarily want to view the show like a football game, rooting for their favorites and booing the ones they dislike.

First and foremost, we’re seeking entertainment. I turned to the franchise especially during the pandemic, seeking something lighthearted during a harrowing time and, like many, still look to the Housewives as comfort food.

In fact, a binge-watch of RHOBH inspired my new novel, Advika and the Hollywood Wives. And in the story, there is Real Housewives-esque reality show in which my character Victoria Truong is the queen bee of her cast due to her savviness and undeniable charisma—and not through manipulation or by instigating drama.

Too much fighting can ruin a show. After The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City’s second season culminated with the shock and thrills of Jen Shah’s arrest, the following season was largely about the now-remaining core four, two sets of former BFFs who are so permanently at odds their fights have become too incoherent to follow, let alone enjoy.

What Real Housewives viewers miss is balance. We want the friendships and the friction. No Housewives fan would ever ask for the drama to subside. Without it, there would be no Teresa table flip, Scary Island, The Dinner Party from Hell, or a whole host of other iconic moments that stemmed from organic conflict between castmembers.

The recently revived Real Housewives of Miami has received praise for having the perfect mix of petty fights, fun, and glamour that we tune into the franchise for. But even star Dr. Nicole Martin is concerned that conflict will permanently affect her cast. “If you can’t sit across a dinner table without wanting to basically poke each other’s eyes out, like, how do you do a whole season?” she said in a recent interview. “I’m honestly worried that we’re teetering very close to that line, where it’s gonna be hard to recover from some of the accusations and damages.”

If even castmembers are concerned, what can be done to recapture the magic? Social media transformed the way that Housewives plays out. In an ideal world, the Housewives would not be allowed to post while filming. No group photos, no Instagram stories, not cryptic remarks left in the comments. Not just because it takes away a lot of the fun of watching the events unfold each week, but also because the cast members can use that to shape the narrative before the season even airs.

Even if a Housewife feels as if she has a target on her back, she has to be able to stand up to the scrutiny and fight back, and maybe even find common ground. This might mean that the production companies need to find women who can withstand the heat and hold their own. If they can form genuine bonds despite of, or in reaction to, being targeted by an alliance—Candiace and Wendy, RHOBH’s Garcelle and Sutton, RHOM’s Nicole and Guerdy—all the better. All the Housewives need to stop operating as contract players solely looking out for themselves, and understand they work better when they are together.

Kirthana Ramisetti Advika and the Hollywood Wives

Advika and the Hollywood Wives

Kirthana Ramisetti Advika and the Hollywood Wives

The best example of this? The longtime cast members of the original Real Housewives of New York City. Some of them have exhibited extremely problematic behavior, which is largely the reason why this cast of RHONY has not been on television in two years. They can be stubborn when it comes to letting in new people, as Eboni K. Williams can attest, but as a unit, Luann, Ramona, Sonja, and Dorinda have a surprisingly unshakeable bond. The first three women have all dated the same man, and Luann was briefly married to Sonja’s ex. They’ve also seen each other through divorces and bad business deals, rehab, and arrests. And above all, they have had some of the most explosive arguments in Housewives history. (Two words: Bluestone Manor.) Yet the friendship prevailed. And RHONY: Legacy is reportedly being rebooted into an Ultimate Girls Trip-esque series—after all they’ve been through they still wanted to film together. That doesn’t mean they wouldn’t fight and hurl nasty insults at each other. It’s that they only want to do so with one another.

That’s the unity we need to see again. No one has to get along, but they do have to want to film together and prioritize the audience over securing their own paychecks. Because if the series continues to go down a path of alliances and takedowns, there could potentially be no series at all. Ratings have been on a downward trend in the past few years. And shows have been put on pause or axed before: just ask the original cast of New York City, or the former casts of Dallas and Washington D.C. There can only ever be one winner on Survivor. But if the Housewives can remember they’re stronger as a group, than everyone wins.


Leave a Reply

Skip to toolbar