The Omnivore April 2013

The Housewife-Industrial Complex

How a TV franchise mutated into a demented hybrid of gossip generator and infomercial
David Wilson

From a puckered and glossy orifice in deep, deep space, it pours at an inhuman rate: gossip. Whispers, scurrilities, babble, flak. It jibber-jabbers across the galaxies, starting wars, hurtling toward us. It loops Earth in a chattering coil—once, twice—pauses, and then splatters itself technologically across the mental environment: slanderous or homicidal tweets, Entertainment Tonight, the magazine headline that you read while standing mule-like in the line at CVS, nodding and chewing. “KRIS CRIES FRAUD: I WILL MAKE KIM PAY.”

It enters our hearts, spills from our mouths. We love it. In the days before texting, when everyone just blared raggedly into their cellphones, 87 percent of overheard phone chats (according to my own research) involved the slagging or professional denigration of some third party (“And she’s making more money than me, too!”). We all do it, so the question becomes: Can you get paid to do it? And the answer, of course, is oh my God yes. You can write for Us Weekly or In Touch Weekly. You can traffic in the brimstone gossip of TMZ. Keep your camera phone primed for the flash of bootleg celeb flesh: nip slip, sideboob, upskirt (good name for a fictional law firm). Or—and this is the jackpot—you can get on TV as a real housewife.


When Bravo’s Real Housewives franchise began, way back in the time of legend—2006—its intentions were pure. Pure‑ish. A kind of reality-show decoction/rip-off of ABC’s god-awful drama Desperate Housewives, it sought simply to entertain. The first episodes of Real Housewives of Orange County even had a tenderly sociological feel to them: “7 million families live in gated communities,” a caption informed us, as the camera panned across sun-dazed forecourts and peered into porno swimming grottoes. “Behind the gates … ,” “through the gates … ,” here were the pampered ladies, released by affluence into a layer of rare and life-threatening triviality. Sure, there were jobs, even “careers,” but always in the service of some huger, more immobilizing luxury. Gilded cages, sprinkled lawns, flaming or frozen marital beds. And gossip, hissing jets of gossip—gossip among women, or among women and men, or to the camera, or launched at the heavens like a Shakespearean monologue.

Orange County was eventually followed by Real Housewives of New York City, Real Housewives of Atlanta, Real Housewives of New Jersey, Real Housewives of D.C. (canceled after one season due to a transcontinental snoring sound), Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, and Real Housewives of Miami. And there have been spin‑offs of the spin‑offs, too, as the most hardheaded and fit-for-reality participants have landed their own sub-shows: New York City’s famished-looking Bethenny Frankel, for instance, was awarded Bethenny Ever After, and Lisa Vanderpump, the raspingly conspiratorial doyenne of Beverly Hills, enjoys further airtime in Vanderpump Rules.

Frankel and Vanderpump—I love typing that: Vanderpump, Vanderpump—are of the newer breed of real housewife: the prowling entrepreneuse, with whose help Real Housewives has mutated into a previously unthinkable hybrid of gossip generator and demented infomercial. Frankel has her Skinnygirl Cocktails and Vitamin Power Packets and shapewear; Vanderpump runs Sur, “L.A.’s sexiest restaurant.” Other real housewives, in other cities, have made (or pondered) branded runs at the wine business, the wig business, the skin-care business, the bedroom-toy business. Down in Atlanta, as I write, real housewives are tussling over the highly vendible concept of “Donkey Booty.” Phaedra Parks and her husband, Apollo, came up with it: a workout DVD designed to “curve that booty and make it more voluptuous.” You know, like a donkey’s. They called upon the industry savvy of real housewife Kenya, a former Miss USA, and the Donkey Booty project moved forward. Phaedra envisioned her cast: “An array of ladies. Flat heinies, tutti-fruttis, juicy booties …” But then—with Phaedra’s lawyer eavesdropping like Polonius—the deal falls apart. Phaedra won’t pay Kenya her 10 percent. Kenya takes umbrage, strikes back with her own horse’s-ass fitness concept: “Stallion Booty.” Ladies, please, can’t we think outside the box? Ferret Booty, Subaru Booty, Cormac McCarthy Booty …

To be a real housewife is to be in a cage match with middle age. Existence is weightless but, oh, gravity—it drags at the sagging epidermis.

But the branding, and the products—none of it makes sense without the gossip. Gossip keeps the matrix humming. On a recent episode of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, Brandi—youngest, tallest, and most destructively beautiful of the Beverly Hills crew, whose husband ran off with LeAnn Rimes and who plays the crucial mythic role of instigator/nut job—uttered something so ghastly, so Munch’s-Scream scandalizing, about fellow Real Housewife Adrienne that we weren’t even allowed to hear it (the sound dropped out for a second), only to observe the violence of its effects in housewife world: gasps and widening eyes, a threatened lawsuit, and Adrienne’s snouty plastic-surgeon husband getting in Brandi’s face and calling her a “piece of shit.” Wow. Super-high-frequency gossip, too evilly shrill to be audible—except perhaps to gossip canines.

Presented by

James Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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