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.

There are universalities to real housewife–hood: the wincing air kisses with which they greet one another, and the cries of “You look hot!” or “You’re so skinny!”; the shifting alliances and behind-the-back bitcheries; the viperous lunch parties, with their protestations of friendship. But there are differences, too, city to real-housewife city. Atlanta has the most businesslike businesswomen; New Jersey is the most tribal, the families moving in large, noisy packs; Miami’s real housewives throw petals into the sea to rid themselves of negativity; in Beverly Hills they have psychics flush their houses. In Beverly Hills and Miami, too, the plastic surgeon plies most visibly his sinister trade: here we see the stretched eyes and the rubberized smiles, the reaction shots that show no reaction. 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. What are you going to do? “Kill the triceps, beautiful, good, great range of motion, good symmetry,” murmurs a personal trainer, devotionally, as Real Housewife Yolanda puffs away on her Californian carpet.

Real Housewives of New Jersey is my favorite. The women are gum-chewing and beach-tawny, with torrents of expensive hair. They make clashing sounds in their enormous kitchens while thick-limbed husbands lumber about in the background. This is the empire of Teresa Giudice, she of the extraordinary hazel eyes and hairline pulled down like a hat on a windy day. Teresa is New Jersey’s instigator/nut job—“You’re crazy!” “No, you’re crazy!”—and what a job she does, not only undermining the other real housewives with the usual death-rattle tittle-tattle, but regularly smearing them on the cover of In Touch, with which she has a gossip-industrial relationship. “TERESA TELLS ALL: Jacqueline Skips Reunion After a ‘Mental Breakdown.’ ” And yet you can’t help feeling for her. Joe Giudice, her husband, is brutal. He moves across the screen like a clot of testosterone, occasionally fondling a dumbbell. He might be about to go to prison—“go away,” as they say in New Jersey—for allegedly forging his driver’s license. “I support you in everything,” says Teresa pitifully, “and, you know, I love you, and …” Grunts Joe: “I mean, whaddaya gonna do?”

And by the mad science of Real Housewives, the products keep coming—actual things that exist in the world, that you can buy. Moisturizers, nutrition bars, Donkey Booty workout DVDs, cookbooks by Teresa Giudice. Brandi Glanville—Beverly Hills Brandi—just published a memoir about the collapse of her marriage: Drinking & Tweeting and Other Brandi Blunders. Those of us who have been watching Real Housewives of Beverly Hills know that this was not the book’s planned title—Brandi wanted it to be It’s A Breakup, Not Cancer: How I Got the Fuck Over It. (“Well, you can’t put fuck in the title,” said her agent with quiet finality.) Sample confession: “White wine became my constant shoulder to lean on.” Anybody else got a book deal? In need of a ghostwriter, perhaps? Because I know a bright young fellow. His rates are very reasonable. Come on, real housewives. Let me help.