There’s a lot more that goes on within the world of The Real Housewives than ladies who lunch, as author and superfan Brian Moylan explains
People watching on television has surely come full circle. With Gogglebox for example, we watch people watching TV, we comment on their comments, we react to their reactions.
But long before we avidly tuned into beautiful people getting a tan and a date (hopefully) on Love Island, long before we were glued to a programme where couples got engaged before they’d even met (thank you Love At First Sight), there were the Real Housewives.
I’ve never hidden my love for a Housewives series and have probably watched 95% of all episodes over the past 15 years. For some reason, it’s been classified with ‘guilty pleasure’ status, even though Love Island and its ilk hasn’t.
From boat rides from hell to fallouts in far flung destinations, from catwalk calamities to awkward moments when a relationship or friendship falls apart in front of your eyes, the Real Housewives have been enthralling and entertaining in their unique way since Orange County launched in March 2006. It is an institution, something that has held a mirror to society and reflected changing attitudes.
Online and on social media, it’s easy to find a like-minded Housewives fan, but closer to home, no one is as invested.
But one man for whom watching all episodes is more than just great television, it’s categorised as work is Brian Moylan. Of Irish descent — his mother’s family is from around Cork, his father’s from around Galway — Brian is known to show fans for his astute, witty post-episode recaps and now, as author of The Housewives: The Real Story Behind the Real Housewives.
“My closest friends, none of them watch Housewives, my family doesn’t watch it so it’s always been this kind of like outside thing.
“My friends always joke that I’m Housewives famous; if you watch the Housewives, people know who I am,” he says.
“In New York, if you went to a dinner party and someone asked, ‘Oh, what do you do?’ and I say, ‘I write about the Housewives,’ you had a decent shot of them saying, ‘Oh, I watch or I used to watch.’
“Over here half the time people haven’t even heard of it or they’re, ‘Oh yeah, we have Housewives of Cheshire, but I don’t really know it.’
“But then I have met people, and mostly because of what I do now and, because it’s so underground, the people that are into it are even more into it than the people in the US, and they don’t have anyone else to talk about to so they’re really keen to talk about it.
“They’re reading all the recaps and engaging with them online in a way where I think people in the US, if your friends watch it, you can talk to your friends about it, and you don’t have to do all that extracurricular activity, but here in the UK, people do a lot more work for it.”
In his book, Brian throws a spotlight on some of the questions dedicated show fans have: who pays for the luxury trips? A bit of everyone. How difficult is it to get a spot on the show? Akin to qualifying for the reality TV Olympics.
He says the reasons for watching Housewives are multi determined.
“Do you love these women, or do you hate these women? Are you embarrassed by them, or do you want to be their friends? Do you want to be like them or are you learning how to be by not wanting to be like them?
“I think it’s really kind of all of those things at once. I think that’s why it really gets its hooks into people because it’s so multifaceted, that it’s not just, ‘Oh, I like watching this because they’re idiots or people falling down is funny,’ I think it’s hitting different pleasure centres and different intellectual levels, and that keeps people interested for a really long time.”
Times have changed— in one of the first episodes of Orange County, star Vicki uses an actual camera containing actual film to take a picture — and fashions have evolved (so many of the cast now bring their glam squads when on location), but for Brian, the way the show tells stories has been codified since the early days. A lot of what we like about reality television is the ritual.
“You’re gonna see them all go to the party in these cars, you’re gonna see them at the party, you’re gonna see them in the car going home, you’re gonna see them talk about it the next day,” he says.
“There’s a rhythm to it that I think people find comforting and I think that that is part of its strength, that it’s a fairly rigid structure.
“But I think that we’re seeing recently now, especially in America, the conversation becomes so much more political, so much more divided and there’s all these conversations about race and how that’s impacting it.
“I think we’re starting to see that filtered to Housewives a little bit where viewers are a little bit more concerned with the women’s political stances.
“We’re seeing how they’re dealing with these conversations about race on some of the shows where there haven’t been cast members of colour before, but we’re also seeing on the shows like Atlanta and Potomac with [Atlanta star] Porsha [Williams] dealing with getting arrested in the wake of the Breonna Taylor protests, things like that.
“It is keeping itself topical and I think that’s what’s really important for the show to continue, to have a sense of longevity. Because if you just stay exactly the same, eventually time’s gonna pass you by. I think that it’s good that it’s starting to evolve a little bit in terms of what conversations are on the table amongst the housewives.”
Make no mistake, the Housewives we watch are smart women — ‘and very, very funny, which I think a lot of people underestimate’ says Brian.
But while watching the shows is in part about watching rich women living unattainable lives, much of what is discussed could be happening within our own homes and relationships.
“Right now, as we’re having all these conversations about politics and race and things like that, the women are too and they’re also dealing with divorces or dealing with addiction issues, they’re dealing with their kids misbehaving, they’re dealing with marital troubles,” says Brian.
“There is a relatability to them, even though they’re sort of portrayed as being above us, in a certain way at least economically, we see that, oh, you still have all the same problems that we have.
“I think that being able to identify with the women on the show is a huge driver of why people are still such fans of it.”
Reading the book enhances your viewing, especially when you realise that the stars aren’t driving the narrative to the same extent as you’d think.
“I think it must be difficult for them, waiting to see what version of their reality is going to be presented on the record as it were,” says Brian as we talk about what is aired in each episode and how vital it is for each Housewife to tune in.
“They live this, but then it’s: what exactly from this fight are you going to show? Whose side of the conversation is it going to be on? You have to watch it to know what fans are talking about as opposed to, ‘Oh, I was at this event and here’s what happened.’
“But if what the show is showing to viewers is different than your experience then you have to see the show.
“I think I would be one of those actors who was, ‘I’d never watched my film, I don’t think I would want to see myself’ but I could see how for these women they have to be checking it out every week.”
Though his knowledge of the subject matter borders on encyclopaedic, research for the book was necessary.
However, it was made all the more difficult after TV network Bravo discouraged Housewives cast and crew from being interviewed.
Brian was able to speak, anonymously, to several interviewees and said that it made for a better book than he anticipated.
“When I realised that Bravo had emailed all the housewives and all the people [working] and told them not to talk to me, I think there was a few days of mourning and the sort of vision of the book that I had where they co-operated,” he says.
“But then I think it ended up making for a better book because the people that wanted to dish, really dished, and being able to offer them sort of anonymity, they knew that Bravo wasn’t going to be listening. They really went for it.
“These are people who are behind the scenes, editors, story editors, producers. It’s a thankless job.
“They never get any gratitude for what they do, never any attention, and they really love what they do, and they love the shows and they’re very proud of them.
“I think it was good for them to be able to talk about it and you know, they’re producers on Housewives for a reason, they kind of love the drama, they love talking about it and so I think that giving people the chance to talk outside of school as it were, really gave them a chance to give me more.
“I really had to dig for it and earn it and find people. Being a journalist is hard work!” he laughs.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, Housewives has had an impact on other reality shows, both in terms of content and production style.
“People that work on Bravo shows are considered the best in the industry and so shows that are for other production companies that are going to be on other networks want people that have worked on Bravo shows,” says Brian.
“I think that you see a lot of those things going into other shows.
“I also think narratively that without the Housewives, you wouldn’t have Love & Hip Hop, you wouldn’t have Basketball Wives, any of these shows about groups of friends or groups of women hanging out together, I think that that is really what the housewives brought and almost created a genre unto itself.
“There are shows that do it differently, but you see a lot of the same strategies of Real Housewives and something like 90 Day Fiancé.
“I think that it really did create a genre unto itself, and people expect their reality shows a lot of times to be like the Real Housewives and it really set the standard for Bravo where you have shows like Summer House or Shahs of Sunset or Family Karma, and they’re really just like housewives shows but with people in different milieus. It really is a brand, in and of itself at this point.”
The Housewives: The Real Story Behind the Real Housewives by Brian Moylan, St Martin’s Press, £21.99, is available now