How ‘Real Housewives’ Became the New ‘Hunger Games’
“What are you bringing to this trip that none of the other ladies have?” asks a producer on Real Housewives: Ultimate Girls Trip. Porsha Williams sits in the confessional chair of the Peacock show, which brings together cast members from Bravo’s Real Housewives franchise on an all-star vacation. It’s the type of question producers often use to prompt the women to say something shady.
Her response? “I have survived the Real Housewives of Atlanta.”
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Williams starred on RHOA – which, as she infers, is known to be one of the most brutal Housewives shows, where nothing is off-limits – for nine seasons, from 2012 to 2020. Arriving in Phuket, Thailand, with Housewives stars from Potomac, New York, Miami and Salt Lake City, she became the unofficial narrator of UGT’s third season. With more years of Housewives under her belt than her travel companions, Williams has something they desperately want: longevity.
When The Real Housewives of Orange County premiered on Bravo in 2006, the show sought to give viewers a glimpse into the “real” lives of women in California’s most exclusive gated communities. Capitalizing off the popularity of scripted dramas like Desperate Housewives and The O.C., most of the friendships existed before the show and the cast didn’t know what they were getting themselves into. These days, the franchise is very different: it’s no longer a fly-on-the-wall view of the lives of elite women, but a conflict-packed spectacle and a route to celebrity.
Now, the Real Housewives franchise has become a survivor show in all but name. Across these shows, making it from one season to the next is the primary goal of the cast, which can influence their behavior and create a power imbalance between longer-serving cast members and newer faces. Peacock’s Ultimate Girls Trip is a microcosm of these tensions, with the relatively new format adding another level to the Survivor-style contest.
The pursuit of survival and reverence for longevity have been key themes of the Ultimate Girls Trip’s third season so far. While packing for the trip, Salt Lake City’s Whitney Rose and Heather Gay – who star in the most recent U.S.-based Housewives show – expressed nerves at being in “the big leagues” with the stars of longer-running shows. And sure enough, it seems that other Housewives thought of them as newbies too. When quizzed on some alleged beef with Rose, RHOP’s resident pot-stirrer Gizelle Bryant quickly dismissed her, saying, “Whitney, you’ve only been a Housewife for two seasons.” Ouch! Gay was visibly star-struck by Williams who, at the first group dinner, referred to her as “a fan.” Double ouch!
With the fourth wall completely down on Ultimate Girls Trip, the conversations often revolve around the main thing the group has in common: the highs and lows of being a reality star. In this context, a show being on hiatus can make the women appear vulnerable. An exasperated Leah McSweeney threw her hands in the air as she told the group she didn’t know whether RHONY was coming back amid cancellation rumors. “Are you still a Housewife?” asked Bryant, to which McSweeney responded: “I have no idea!” On the flip side was RHOM’s Alexia Nepola. “We made history!” she proclaimed, speaking about the show’s revival after an eight-year hiatus as if it were the civil rights movement.
Original and long-serving cast members have a special status in the Housewives world. In 2021, I asked a selection of these Housewives who their “ultimate” Real Housewife was, and pretty much all of them picked original cast members like Kyle Richards and Nene Leakes, or women like Sonja Morgan who have been on TV so long they feel like OGs. (Former) Countess Luann De Lesseps picked RHOBH’s Lisa Rinna. “When you’re a Real Housewife, one season you could have a great season, and the next season somehow everyone hates you,” she said. “The ‘ultimate’ Housewife can endure whatever comes her way, dust off her knees, stand up, and keep on moving.” To De Lesseps, Rinna’s ability to navigate multiple scandals and bad seasons has made her a figure of admiration. In other words: she is a survivor.
Now, though, Rinna is no longer on RHOBH. After getting on the wrong side of a feud with Kathy Hilton, Rinna was booed at BravoCon and, in January, it was announced she was departing the show after an eight-season run. And De Lesseps isn’t on RHONY anymore, either: last year, it was announced that the scandal-plagued show was to be entirely re-cast. Negotiations for a “legacy” show, featuring De Lesseps alongside Housewives from the earlier seasons, like Jill Zarin and Dorinda Medley, have reportedly stalled.
With Bravo wielding the ax on some of its longest-serving talent, the surviving “OG” Housewives are even more precious to fans. This has created a disparity where newer ‘wives know their status on the show is precarious, while others know that they are practically unfireable. It’s unlikely that RHOBH’s Kyle Richards or RHONJ’s Teresa Giudice, for example, would ever be let go without a major scandal. In Giudice’s own words, she is a survivor: she has gotten married, divorced, been to prison, and buried her parents on the show over 13 years. Others, like her co-star Jackie Goldschneider – who was demoted from Housewife to “friend of” this season – know their status on the show is less secure. Anyone who goes up against a figure like Giudice – even her co-star and sister-in-law Melissa Gorga – runs the risk of being fired if Bravo is pressured to choose between them. And across the board, newer ‘wives are more vulnerable to short-term fan backlash.
The need to survive can mean that, sometimes, Housewives stars care more about staying on TV than making good TV. When contracts are renewed, it’s common to see reports that some of the cast have been told by producers to “bring it” or else they’ll end up on the chopping block. I’ve previously written about the “authenticity crisis” that has gripped some of the Housewives shows, which is partly driven by the cast feeling pressured to deliver dramatic storylines, or end-of-season cliffhangers, to incentivize Bravo to keep them around. But often these storylines – like Heather Gay’s bizarre black eye in Salt Lake City – end up flopping and leaving viewers frustrated.
Ultimate Girls Trip shows us that the suspicion that some Housewives are storylining for survival purposes isn’t just a fan conspiracy theory. In the first episode, Gay accused Rose of “sacrificing their relationship for a TV moment” to secure her place on the show. Gay said that Rose’s husband lost his job, making her the breadwinner of her family, which she claims made Rose’s continued employment by Bravo a matter of “survival.” It’s an allegation that is pretty dark, particularly considering the pair are cousins. But whether or not it’s true, most Housewives shows now feature feuds that have an undercurrent of: “She’s only doing this to stay on the show!”
The survival-style nature of Housewives can impact on quality, but it’s also what some people like about it. As the franchise has aged, I’ve often wondered whether these women surviving to fight another day on Bravo is partly what drives the gay Housewives fandom. Queer cultural history points to a distinctly gay adoration for women who have survived decades in the spotlight and overcome struggles, like Liza Minnelli and Cher. (Two women who, not uncoincidentally, would have made amazing Real Housewives in another life).
Bravo’s notoriously fickle social media fandom has helped transform the franchise into a blockbuster-style spectacle. RHONY legend Bethenny Frankel has previously described the Housewives experience as “survival of the fittest” and, posing alongside Jennifer Lawrence, compared it to The Hunger Games. On Twitter and Instagram, the most devoted stans campaign to keep their favorite Housewives on TV, fighting it out with their rivals. Just this week, RHOBH fan accounts celebrated when Camille Grammar, Denise Richards, and Kim Richards were all seen filming guest appearances, like Marvel superheroes returning to battle.
There is the sense in the Bravo fandom that, if Housewives fans post enough, they can influence the casting on these shows. And they might not be entirely wrong: according to Brian Moylan, author of The Housewives: The Real Story Behind the Real Housewives, Bravo is increasingly influenced by fan opinion. Housewives executive producer and reunion host Andy Cohen has said he suggested reviving The Real Housewives of Miami on Peacock after seeing how vocal its fans were on social media.
With the power of fan approval at stake, Ultimate Girls Trip now has a pivotal role in the Housewives “survival” canon. The “Ex ‘Wives Club” iterations, which feature former Housewives, have been proven to be a vehicle for redemption and re-employment: Tamra Judge and Taylor Armstrong were reintroduced back into The Real Housewives of Orange County following their participation. And the format with current Housewives is an opportunity for the women to solidify themselves as an asset to Bravo, or show a different side to themselves.
As the only former Housewife on the third UGT season, perhaps Porsha Williams’s most enviable quality is that she is no longer at the mercy of Bravo from one year to the next. The appeal of longevity is obvious: the longer these women are on the show, the more they get paid. But the show also gives them a platform to promote podcasts, businesses and other projects, plus some things that are priceless: fame and cultural relevance.
Williams making a fleeting return to the Housewives franchise suggests she still benefits from the platform. But crucially, she doesn’t feel dependent on it. Whether or not she is considering making a full-time return, she seems relatively unaffected by the pressure to deliver mega-drama that is clearly stalking her co-stars around their palatial Thai villa. As Williams said herself, she has already survived the Housewives Hunger Games. Bravo’s flagship franchise is now a survival game – and she is one of the winners.
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