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The key to the success of the Real Housewives franchise

Things get heated at a house party in the Hamptons thrown by Ramona (right), in a scene from Real Housewives of New York, as one of her guests makes a point - Credit: Bravo

Megan Nolan reviews Real Housewives of New York, a show built on an addictive desire to feel superior and perhaps even pity for America’s super-rich

This week season 13 of the reality show Real Housewives of New York began. I am badly addicted to this particular iteration of the franchise (there are Real Housewives in Atlanta, Orange County, Potomac, New Jersey and Salt Lake City to name a few).

Though I rejoiced at the prospect of its return, when I came to actually watch I was overcome by a twitchy claustrophobic sensation and had to turn it off temporarily to collect myself. I began and finished all 12 previous seasons in an astonishingly brief period of time during lockdowns, alone in my flat.

My relationship with it became so entwined with the tiny space I occupied and the vagaries of my lockdown anguish that the women who star have come to feel like I could have entirely invented them, like they could have been the result of some pandemic-induced fever dream.

I was trying at the time to cultivate some sort of fitness regime, for in my life before Covid the miles I happily tramped around south east London between pubs and friends’ houses felt entirely sufficient exercise.

Now I feared atrophied, withering limbs after months of disuse and emerging from lockdown even paler and more pallid than I had gone into it. I bought an exercise bike and to bribe myself into using it, allowed myself an episode of Real Housewives every day as I pedalled away half-heartedly. 

Before long the Real Housewives began to fill up every other corner of my day, a symphony of shrieking voices cutting over one another at terse dinners and group trips. Their incessant bickering and the high octane giggling became a white-noise soundtrack to almost anything else I was doing. 

One of the things I most appreciated about the guy I was dating at the time was that he tolerated, perhaps even enjoyed, sitting with me on hungover Saturdays while I blankly watched six hours of the stuff.

What is it that was so consuming, so all encompassing, about what I’ll admit sounds to the uninitiated like the least diverting show imaginable? We meet a gaggle of wealthy women, most married, and see them go about the business of spending, dining, drinking and when the drinking is sufficiently excessive, getting in big stinking rows with one another in horrifyingly inappropriate settings. 

Part of it is just that Andy Cohen of Bravo, the show’s creator and the maestro of modern day reality television, is an expert at producing perfect confections of the appalling and the aspirational.

The shows aren’t scripted, but producers strategise the drama and the confrontations in what I always imagine to be a comically hamfisted Iago sort of fashion, whispering in one woman’s ear that another has called her earrings cheap and then locking them all in a limo with eight bottles of tequila. 

Aside from the fact that it appeals to our baser natures to watch, aghast, as people behave badly, I find that there is something particularly edifying for the non-wealthy viewer in regarding the lack of dignity that wealth bestows on the cast.

Their money is enviable of course, the spare homes in the Hamptons and the great shoes and the constant mini-breaks, but the ostensible power of wealth often only serves to underline their vulnerability and profound oddness. They are all obsessed with going out to dinner, for instance, and so am I but when I go I like to eat the food.

For these women their bodies are constant works in progress, sites of negotiation and battle, and so they brood over vodka martinis while staring at the overflowing untouched bread basket.

Ramona, probably the show’s main character and the most genuinely eccentric, unusual person of the lot, is fixated on retaining her youth. She does so very successfully, having kept much the same wild-eyed and smooth face for the past 20 years. She works out devotedly and has regular procedures of this and that done, sucking fat out here and injecting it in there, freezing it, sticking needles in it, massaging it. 

It comes as second nature to her not to eat in a substantial way, but unfortunately for her and unlike some of the other women, she does appear to have a genuine love of food. This is revealed at times when she orders oysters – her favourite, and very low calorie of course – when she guzzles them back smacking her lips and making depraved noises of animalistic pleasure. Watching this, her momentary reprieve from all the tinkering with herself and the restrictions and controls she exerts on her natural appetites, I think to myself: are rich people okay? 

I think this, really, is what makes it so moreish and addictive, the chance to feel superior to and perhaps even pity for the rich and the quintessentially American. 

We in the West who are not Americans have a fraught two-sided relationship to them. We deride them as crass and boorish compared to Europeans, but are saturated entirely by their cultural products and their supposed world leader status. 

Anyone of my age likely spent their childhoods watching television which was almost entirely American. Girls in my small home town in Ireland developed advanced nasal twangs after watching Nickelodeon and The OC for too many years. We behave as though Americans are the real people of the world, as though that land is the location of the real action, and anywhere else can only be pale imitations. 

The truth is, to be thin, white, rich and American is a confluence of qualities proposed as the ultimate accomplishment of life. Watching in wonder as the Real Housewives manage to make those qualities seem not only difficult to maintain but actually quite pitiably pathetic at times is part of what keeps me hooked. 

Real Housewives of New York is available on Netflix and other streaming platforms

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