Rewatch the very first episode of The Real Housewives of Orange County (RHOC) and you’ll notice a few things. Like Vicki Gunvalson taking pictures before her daughter’s prom on a camera with actual film. What will really stick with you, though, are the Sky Tops.
Manufactured in LA and designed by a husband-and-wife team, these were tank top or halter top blouses cut to accentuate the ample chests of the “85% of women who have fake boobs” in the area, as a quote running over the RHOC opening credits informs us. They were always embellished with sequins, rhinestones, or even giant medallions around the wearer’s silicone-enhanced décolletage. Vicki wears several in the first episode, including a canary-yellow number with ruching just below the boobs that flares out toward the waistband of her low-rise denim. She looks like she’s dressed as Britney Spears while chaperoning her kids to the pop star’s concert. Later, she rocks a baby-pink top where the straps are chains of sequins that travel along the neckline to meet in the middle as if kissing her breasts good night.
In the artwork used to promote the show’s premiere—March 21, 2006, on Bravo—all five cast members are wearing Sky Tops. Vicki wears her most spectacular version of all, a champagne-colored satin halter with a keyhole cut out near the neckline and a print of a vase with flowers exploding across her chest.
Looking back on this episode as a snapshot of the George W. Bush administration with America on the precipice of a financial crash, it’s easy to look at this like a relic, like some sort of cave painting depicting the fall before a terrifying future. We should think of it more like the mosquito frozen in amber in Jurassic Park, because this strange little episode, barely watched in its premiere, contained all the DNA—women baring it all, a look inside an affluent lifestyle, a bit of interpersonal conflict—to create a menagerie of monsters who would take over the world.
For me, it didn’t start with Sky Tops but a topless man. I was sitting on the floor of my sparse apartment when the lithe, sculpted body of eighteen-year-old baseball player Shane Keough appeared on my combination TV/VCR. Shane was square jawed with at least as many visible abs as the leanest Hemsworth brother, and just the kind of guy who would have been an asshole to me in high school. Exactly my type. My, my, what is this? I thought, suddenly paying attention to the screen. Turns out it was The Real Housewives of Orange County, and it would change my life.
My love for the Real Housewives wasn’t immediate. When I started watching the show in 2006, it was simply because Bravo was my go-to channel. Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and Project Runway had debuted three and two years earlier, respectively, starting Bravo’s golden age along with shows like Top Chef, Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List, Flipping Out, Being Bobby Brown, and Blow Out.
Real Housewives of Orange County wasn’t “appointment television,” as we would call it at the time. I would catch it during weekend marathons, while putzing about the apartment, folding the laundry, or just lounging on my twin mattress on the floor, chain-smoking Marlboro Menthol Lights.
The show grew on me, little by little, until it was an all-consuming passion. It was a perfect trap for me at the time, toiling away as I was at two low-paying jobs in Washington, D.C. Instead of focusing on making ends meet, I could watch Vicki and her crew prowl their sprawling, antiseptic homes, shouting at their children, their spouses, each other.
It wasn’t that I wanted to live like these middle-aged women across the country, so much as I felt a certain kinship with them. There couldn’t have been a more opposite lifestyle from mine—and yet. They traveled in a pack, fighting and gossiping among themselves, just like I did with my crew. As mothers of a certain age before MILF was the most popular Pornhub search term, they were also marginalized from society in a similar way that gay men were. If they were not aware of giving a camp performance of American affluence, they were still giving it to us with both manicured fists.
My career as a professional Real Housewives chronicler started shortly after I started at the gossip blog Gawker (RIP) in 2009. I filled in for my colleague Richard Lawson when he couldn’t do the recaps and then took over entirely once he left the site. In 2013, my recaps landed at Vulture, New York magazine’s pop culture website, and have been there ever since. As the president and founder of the (entirely fictional) Real Housewives Institute, I’ve written about the franchise for The New York Times, The Guardian, and other publications I was surprised were interested.
When I started recapping, I thought people just wanted to have their opinions confirmed. I imagined my readers wanted an “expert” to tell them that, yes, this season Jill Zarin was behaving like a crazy person, or maybe we shouldn’t make too much fun of Gia Giudice’s songwriting ability because she’s only a minor. (Though her birthday song for her sister is an all-time classic.)
But the more I interacted with fans in the comments sections, on social media, and for hours cornered by gays in bars, the more I learned that they didn’t want to agree; they didn’t want to be told. People just wanted to talk about the Housewives. These women were like the popular girls in high school that everyone hated and were jealous of at the same time. We all wanted their version of privilege, and we all wanted to grind it under the boots of our Doc Martens. (I obviously went to high school in the ’90s.)
I like to call the Housewives, even those I don’t particularly care for, my “TV friends.” I’ll never meet most of them in real life, but I talk about their latest tantrums, dating habits, business failures, and outfit choices at brunch as if each is a part of my extended circle. We all know when Luann filed for divorce from Tom or when she headed into rehab—both times. It’s not just passing the news along; it’s sharing concern, or joy, for the experiences the rest of us are living vicariously.
There is no one with whom I talk more Real Housewives than my partner, Christian. We met at a Gawker party back when I worked on the site. Christian, newly single, was a friend of a friend and liked my recaps enough that he decided to introduce himself. He started by telling me about some project he was working on that, honestly, sounded like a huge bore. I was about to exit the conversation politely when he said, “But I really love the Housewives.” He didn’t have me at hello, but he did have me at “Sonja Morgan is my favorite.”
In all our time together, the Real Housewives are a constant source of conversation. Christian loves to watch along with me, making jokes and keen observations that he hopes I’ll repurpose for the recap. Without credit, of course.
I decided to write this book mostly for selfish reasons, to answer all the questions that keep me awake at night. How does casting work? How does the show get made? Does Andy Cohen really have as much power as we think he does? Who on earth actually pays for these trips? I wanted to call up insiders for some other reason than being a nosy reality fan.
I also knew that if I had these questions, other fans did, too. Bravo will let a certain amount of behind-the-scenes info out into the world, but they always control the message. I wanted to know—and report—answers without filter. The result is in these very pages, where you’ll find answers to all the questions I had going in, and more.
As I dug deeper into the making of the franchise, I started to wonder about us fans, too. Who are we, and how have these shows become so important to so many of us? What does that say about us and our TV friends both? I spent over two years trying to figure all of this out so no one will have to lose sleep over the Housewives again. (I’m sure we will, but we don’t have to.)
I talked to Real Housewives, some on the record and some off. I tracked down former Bravo executives and current employees. And I spoke to dozens of the real soldiers on the ground—the producers, editors, sound technicians, and production assistants that really get things done. I found these people, often more than the Housewives themselves, truly insightful about how the show gets made and why we love it. Almost everyone who worked on the show, past or present, requested that their names not be used for fear of retribution from Bravo, which can ruin a career faster than Ramona Singer can order a pinot grigio.
My Housewives journey might have started with Shane Keough as a piece of meat somewhere in the background, but it has become entirely immersive. I literally owe everything to this franchise: my career, my partner, and having the phrase Make it nice to throw out willy-nilly even when people don’t entirely understand the implications. Maybe not every fan has been so richly rewarded, but I think there’s something in The Real Housewives for everyone. And for anyone who thinks that’s not worth writing a book about, well, I probably don’t want to know you anyway.
Excerpted from THE HOUSEWIVES Copyright © 2021 by Brian Moylan. Reprinted with permission from Flatiron Books. All rights reserved.
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