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How ‘Real Housewives’ followers upended Bravo’s largest franchise

Date:

For 48 hours, the “Real Housewives” fandom was buzzing.

Maggie Kelley, the creator and operator of @BestOfBravo, was waking up from a nap at her house in Nashville earlier this month when she reached for her telephone and took within the information by means of a flurry of group chat messages: cleaning soap star-turned-reality TV MVP Lisa Rinna was departing “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” after eight years. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God,’ and immediately I started composing a post,” mentioned Kelley, referring to her Instagram fan account, which pumps out memes and information bites to the glee of 226,000 followers. “That’s just my first reaction — to get the news out there for my followers.”

Roughly 2,000 miles away, in Southern California, the proprietor of @QueensofBravo, who requested anonymity with a purpose to proceed making “Housewives” content material in peace, was working their administrative job when the information hit.

“To quote Lisa Barlow [of ‘The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City’], I was shaking. I was physically shaking,” they mentioned. “I couldn’t even say words because I was trying to post as quickly as possible. I peaced out of my job for a solid 15 minutes — I was like, ‘I’m taking my break,’ and I just started posting. The news was not a surprise to me, as I had been hearing this since October from people fairly close to production. But it was shocking that it came at that point in time.”

@QueensofBravo’s proprietor knew, like anybody who counts Housewives similar to Kyle Richards and Teresa Giudice as fundamental characters of their group chat, that the next day was already slated to be a headline-maker: “The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City” solid member Jen Shah was scheduled to be sentenced for her position in a telemarketing scheme concentrating on senior residents.

“We’re well past 10 years of this franchise being on the air, and it’s still making national headlines,” Kelley mentioned. “I muted my work call to listen to Jen Shah’s sentencing, and I know I’m not the only one doing that.”

“Real Housewives” isn’t only a actuality TV saga. The Bravo mainstay can be an addictively messy and scandal-plagued fantasy epic, one which has obsessed followers all through its practically 17 years on air. And as with “Star Wars,” “The Lord of the Rings” or “Game of Thrones,” its admirers aren’t passive viewers; they’ve turn into a significant a part of the “Housewives” ecosystem.

In truth, they’ve turn into fundamental characters in their very own proper.

Jen Shah in “The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City.”

(Randy Shropshire/Bravo)

Thanks to real-life controversies — together with Shah’s 6 1/2-year sentence and the authorized proceedings involving “Beverly Hills’” Erika Girardi, aka Erika Jayne, stemming from alleged monetary crimes by her estranged husband Tom Girardi — followers are now not happy ready for a brand new season to unfold. And a cottage business of chatty podcasts, metacriticism and spoof accounts has sprung as much as serve them: Followers can discover help and updates on Instagram, TikTook, Reddit and different platforms, the place a group of “Housewives” obsessives collect at handles like @BestofBravo, @QueensOfBravo, @RealMomsofBravo and @BravoandCocktails_.

From “Housewives” GIFs to Brad Goreski’s meticulous and comical reenactment movies, the franchise’s fandom has created an web subgenre in its personal proper. And whereas its depth and dedication is simple to dismiss or trivialize, its rise has reshaped how we view — and, by extension, the facility of — a TV style that’s usually not taken severely.

“It’s close to its own little religion,” mentioned Kristen Warner, an affiliate professor within the division of journalism and inventive media on the University of Alabama. “The ‘Housewives’ folks are committed, and very loyal, and have lots of opinions.”

Vanessa Rizi and Abby Steffens, each 37, started the “Real Moms of Bravo” podcast in November 2018 as working mothers attempting to foster a inventive outlet all their very own. For the buddies, who met as college students on the University of Missouri, the “Real Housewives” has lengthy been a topic that recurrently sparks vigorous exchanges.

“At first, we were like, ‘Do we do this? There’s other podcasts out there,’” Rizi mentioned. “But I talked to Abby and I was like, ‘You know what, there’s a million true-crime podcasts and no one’s complaining about the number of true-crime podcasts. So why not do one with a motherhood angle?”

Rizi, who lives in Kansas City and works in account administration, is a mom of two ladies; Steffens, who lives in St. Louis and works in gross sales, is a mom of three boys. In the recap podcast, which now boasts greater than 180 episodes, they usually key in on subjects just like the relatability of “The Real Housewives of Potomac” star Candiace Dillard-Bassett’s in vitro fertilization journey. And whereas the podcast started as their main focus, its accompanying Instagram account supplied extra fast perception into the next they have been constructing.

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“We got really competitive and into it,” mentioned Rizi of the account, which now boasts 91,000 followers. “And we just kind of threw ourselves into this world of Bravo and this bubble of meme accounts and things that I never thought I would be into. But here I am.”

For a few of these “Housewives” pundits, enthusiasm for the franchise (and Bravo programming extra broadly) spilled into social media and different platforms as they sought to increase the escapism of one thing they loved. The handler of @QueensofBravo, whose indoctrination into the “Housewives”-verse began with “Beverly Hills,” launched their account during the pandemic; it now has nearly 140,000 followers on Twitter and 161,000 followers on Instagram — actor Sharon Stone among them.

“I didn’t go all-in until the pandemic,” they said. “I was still working, but working from home, so not doing the commute as much. I just had so much more free time on my hands. And like everybody else, you were just on social media and you’re talking about these shows, or looking around [for information on them]. There was something that was missing and I wanted to put my voice in there as well. I don’t think I always have the most popular opinion out there.”

The woman who runs the Bravo and Cocktails website and social accounts, and asked to be identified only as B in order to speak candidly about the work, found the distraction a form of therapy when she launched her page in 2019.

“My mom was sick,” she said. “I was a full-time working mom of two kids sitting in a hospital waiting room for hours. And I always had my Instagram and I was looking at other fan accounts. I remember calling my sister-in-law being like, ‘What do you think about me starting an Instagram [fan] account?’ As things got bad with my mom, it just became an outlet for me to zone out from the serious and heavy stuff that was going on. I just started making memes. I’m not a techie at all — my degrees are in psychology. I remember asking younger people like, ‘Which app do you use? And how do you do it?’ And so my memes were always very basic, but I thought they were funny.”

Memes are still a mainstay on the grid, but the focus has increasingly shifted to posts with updates about the goings-on of Housewives and other Bravo stars. Reporters at some outlets sometimes tip off the fan accounts about news that will drop to help boost clicks. In addition to monitoring and sharing news gathered by other outlets or fan pages, most accounts steadily build their own roster of insiders who disclose bits of gossip.

“Does talent contact me? Absolutely,” said B of Bravo and Cocktails, who also co-hosts a podcast called “Cocktails and Gossip.” “It’s sort of like a broker system. Stuff comes to me and maybe I’ll message somebody and say, ‘Hey, listen, I got this. I don’t really want to post it …’ And they’ll give me something so I don’t. It’s not necessarily what people assume, like, it’s directly from a Housewife. Often, it’s their agents, their PR people. I don’t work in this world at all. But I have a lot of different sources.”

The admin of @QueensofBravo takes this outlook: “Look at the DC or Marvel universe — people want to know everything about what’s going on, what’s coming up in the next year, who is joining the cast … In this ‘everybody is Gossip Girl’ world of social media, you’re getting content that you wouldn’t get in other publications. They want it now, in real time. It takes like eight months for [new seasons of] these shows to come out.”

The online discourse can lead to anticipation — and also disappointment. In July, Shah pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud as part of a plea deal in her federal case, and viewers eagerly awaited the current season of “Salt Lake City,” which premiered in late September, to see how it would handle the lead-up to that development. Whispers on Bravo blogs and fan pages about Kathy Hilton‘s alleged meltdown on a group trip to Aspen during the most recent season of “Beverly Hills” left fans disgruntled when it turned out that much of what was alleged happened off screen and addressed only in confessional interviews.

“The Bravo accounts used to mostly just be memes and pictures,” said @BravoandCocktails_’ B. “But some accounts started posting more tea; people like that, so other accounts felt that they needed to get into that. And I think that the more accounts there were, the bigger we got, the more the network bought into it, the more that the PR people and the ladies themselves bought into it — it’s marketing. It costs nothing for Dorinda [Medley] to send me a bottle of bourbon; she knows I’m going to post it, and now my 100,000 followers are going to be like, ‘Did you like it?’ And if I say yes, they buy it. It’s changed the landscape completely.”

Women in evening gowns gather in a living room

Lisa Rinna, left, Garcelle Beauvais, Sheree Zampino, Crystal Minkoff, Kyle Richards and Dorit Kemsley in “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.”

(Casey Durkin/Bravo)

The undeniable force of the fan base that surrounds “Housewives,” as well as the network’s other addictive programming, is partly what prompted Bravo to launch its own convention, BravoCon, in 2019. It’s since become practically a pilgrimage site for the network’s most ardent fans, who enthusiastically pay good money to see Tamra Judge’s breast implant in a museum display box or the chance to snap a photo with former cast members like Dorinda Medley (“The Real Housewives of New York City”) and Phaedra Parks (“The Real Housewives of Atlanta”).

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“I kind of went into it as a journalist in a way,” is how @QueensofBravo’s owner described their role at last year’s event, held in New York City. “I would post polls, ‘Who’s going to BravoCon?’ and it was basically like 5% of people going. A lot of the people couldn’t attend. I felt like it was my duty to be the boots on the ground for the people that couldn’t be there. So I was looking for tea and moments. I was literally making memes and posting stories while there like I would if I was watching the show at home.”

And the reach of these fan accounts has also made them a desirable marketing tool for Bravo itself, which provided complimentary or discounted passes to a select number of accounts.

“The Bravo fandom is unmatched in their loyalty, passion and dedication. They are a critical part of our brand DNA and we value them tremendously for their opinions,“ says Ellen Stone, executive vice president, Entertainment Consumer Engagement and Brand Strategy, NBCUniversal Television and Streaming. “Listening to their feedback is extremely important to us, and we love engaging with them on a personal level across various platforms each week, or in-person at events like BravoCon.”

The biggest fan accounts generate enough chatter to engage “Housewives” themselves, past and present, who are prone to liking, sharing and commenting on posts — or occasionally blocking the accounts altogether. Kelley, who began her account in July 2018, took the opportunity to playfully confront Rinna last fall at BravoCon, as the polarizing, pillowy-lipped star was greeting fans at a merchandise van hawking products from Rinna’s beauty line.

“She was like, ‘Oh, you’re one of the only ones [fan accounts] I like’” Kelley recalled. “And I go, ‘Well, you blocked me. Why did you block me?’ She was like, ‘I didn’t block you, did I?’ I said, ‘Yes you did. And then you unblocked me.’ And she said, ‘Oh, yeah. Well, I was blocking everybody.’

Sometimes, the drama stoked by gossip websites and fan accounts spills again into the present, fueling solid members’ on-camera arguments.

A video of a shirtless Luis “Louie” Ruelas, the beau of unique solid member Teresa Giudice, was an enormous speaking level of “The Real Housewives of New Jersey” Season 12 — and finally led to a screenshot of @BravoandCocktails_, the primary to leak the video, being featured in an episode. (“I got 30,000 followers overnight,” B mentioned.) The account was additionally later name-checked by “RHONJ” solid member Margaret Josephs throughout an look on “Watch What Happens Live.”

And a screenshot of a tweet posted by @QueensofBravo that includes a grid of photographs of Jayne snapping at fellow solid member Sutton Stracke with the caption, “And not once was she called a bully by anyone,” was proven in the course of the reunion for Season 11 of “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.” (As identified within the reunion, solid member Garcelle Beauvais had engaged with it on-line.)

“That was fairly special,” the @QueensOfBravo account holder mentioned. “Queens of Bravo will always be part of Bravo forever — forever. People all over the world are going to be able to see — and it had my logo on there too.”

But changing into one of many actual pot-stirrers of the “Real Housewives” universe is demanding work, particularly because the proliferation of fan accounts results in fiercer competitors. Ex-Housewives themselves have even jumped into the fray: Former solid members Tamra Judge of “Orange County” and Teddi Mellencamp of “Beverly Hills” have their very own podcast dedicated to breaking down the motion, “Two Ts in a Pod.”

On a typical day, B of Bravo and Cocktails wakes up early and spends about two hours centered on the account and making ready her posts earlier than shifting consideration to her day job. After work, she goes by means of the web site’s inbox to scan for any suggestions or leads. And there are spurts of consideration too: After making her daughter a snack, B will squeeze in 10 minutes to give attention to the account; when her daughter is at soccer observe, B watches her from the automotive whereas additionally monitoring for information with posting potential. The shift to working from house in the course of the pandemic has supplied extra flexibility.

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The recognition of those social media profiles might be profitable, resulting in subscription-based offshoots of their content material or partnerships with manufacturers.

“I started to get opportunities for ads and Amazon and things like that,” mentioned Kelley, who works in healthcare IT recruiting. “Before that, it was nothing. And I’m putting like 40 hours a week into this. And I was fine, that was never my intention whatsoever. But at the end of the day, it’s extra money, why would I not take it?”

To perceive the depth of the “Housewives” fandom, Racquel Gates, affiliate professor of media and cinema research on the CUNY College of Staten Island and an avid “Housewives” viewer, mentioned it’s necessary to acknowledge the franchise’s roots in cleaning soap operas.

“The thing that reality television has going for it, in terms of audience engagement, is that you get to build relationships with the cast members, especially if you have cast members who’ve been on for 10-plus years,” Gates says. “We’ve seen people get married, we’ve seen people have their kids on camera, we’ve seen those kids grow up. … We’re invested in their lives.”

Two women arguing at a restaurant table

Teresa Giudice, left, and Margaret Josephs in “The Real Housewives of New Jersey.”

(Danielle Del Valle/Bravo)

It’s the identical hyperlink B, of Bravo and Cocktails, cited to explain the maintain the franchise has on her.

“My mom and her friends would get Soap Opera Digest, and they would talk about the cast, they would call each other up and talk about what happened in whatever episode of ‘Days of Our Lives,’” she says. “So for me, it was a very familiar thing. Once I was in my older teens, early 20s, when ‘Housewives’ came out, this was more relatable than the fantasy of soap operas and still addicting. I think people my age, we’re kind of doing what our moms did with soap operas. When you work full time and you have kids and you’re married, it becomes a thing where your time is limited. I just got to a point where I was basically exclusively watching Bravo.”

Added Steffens: “Some people might say — and typically it’s men — ‘Oh, it’s just some silly show about women fighting,’ but it’s so much more than that. If it was just that, it wouldn’t have the fan base that it does.”

If creating content material in response to popular culture is a typical characteristic of fandom, what’s distinctive to the “Housewives” contingent, in keeping with media research scholar Warner, is that such output usually revolves round fictional characters.

“The way that we talk about these people is as if they were fictional characters,” Warner mentioned. “So when I’m watching clips out of BravoCon, and there’s a fan saying, ‘Here’s another thing I don’t like about so and so’ — it’s like having an argument with a character in a show that you love. It’s that kind of energy that is so different and it’s what Bravo has brought, and wrought, in this weird way, because we’re doing this with reality television.”

That blurring of the road between fiction and actuality has penalties: Cast members could have signed up for the highlight, however they aren’t resistant to criticism, which may usually be mean-spirited. And essentially the most highly effective fan accounts could make or break a Housewife, whose run on the sequence depends upon their skill to gin up drama with out showing to be disingenuous — and thereby alienating viewers.

“I think it’s gotten to a crazy level, much like the politics in the country right now,” Rinna advised The Times in a 2019 interview. “I don’t think it’s great. I think they’ve lost [sight of] the fact that it’s a TV show, it’s fun. They’ve taken it very seriously. I mean, I’ve had death threats.”

The majority of followers preserve a more healthy relationship with the sequence, although — one Steffens in comparison with her husband watching “college football all day Saturday, [NFL] all day Sunday, Monday Night Football, Thursday Night Football, because it’s just a break from your everyday life.” As her “Real Moms of Bravo” associate Rizi put it, the franchise is “the best form of escapism.”

“These women have let us into their lives, and you still feel the need to keep up whether you want to or not,” she mentioned. “As a community, we all thrive on the big moments and ‘Housewives’ gives us so many — either big blowout fights or funny moments. And I think we collectively like to be in on the joke. I really just enjoy petty drama sometimes when it’s not my own.”

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