‘This is our Super Bowl’: At BravoCon, a reality TV empire has its moment in the sun
There’s a certain kind of celebrity capable of making a middle-aged woman lugging a tote bag climb frantically over a couch for a chance at a photo to flaunt to her friends.
No, it’s not a $20 million-a-movie megastar or the Emmy-winning headliner of the latest prestige drama. The inspiration for this Olympian-level maneuver is Brittany Cartwright, a cast member of the Bravo reality series “Vanderpump Rules.” And she was hardly the only reality TV heavyweight to incite such fervor over the weekend.
Welcome to BravoCon.
Nearly 90 Bravolebrities — a nickname introduced by the network to describe the stars of its reality TV properties — and roughly 10,000 star-struck fans descended on New York City for the three-day convention, which had devoted Bravo fans running around like wind-up toys, frigid air be damned, for an opportunity to make a cameo in the life of their favorite reality stars.
“This is our Super Bowl,” Michele Cavoli, 46, of Darien, Conn., proclaimed at the start of the festivities.
In the age of Peak TV, few networks’ programs — and the fandom they attract — warrant their own convention. But Bravo has built an empire of addictive reality soaps with a legion of devoted viewers, including Jennifer Lawrence, Elisabeth Moss, Jimmy Fallon and Rihanna. It has given rise, among others, to the multi-city “Real Housewives” franchise; its offshoot, “Vanderpump Rules,” following a young group of waitstaff working at a West Hollywood restaurant owned by former “Housewife” Lisa Vanderpump; “Southern Charm,” featuring some of Charleston, S.C.'s single social elite; and “Below Deck,” which chronicles the adventures of crews working on luxury sailing yachts.
Frances Berwick, president of NBCUniversal’s lifestyle networks, including Bravo, considers BravoCon a significant moment in the network’s evolution. Though it once spotlighted drama and independent film, Bravo rebranded itself in the early 2000s to focus on pop culture- and reality-centric programming like “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.” Since then, the network has become synonymous with its popular unscripted franchises, much like AMC with “The Walking Dead” and HBO with “Game of Thrones” — an advantage that’s hard to overstate in a landscape cluttered with platforms and programs vying for viewers’ already stretched attention.
“We’re in a moment in time when it’s really hard to get attention for shows,” Berwick said. “One of the most important things is having a strong brand and having a consistent content filter where people know what they’re going to get when they come to the network. This is about really establishing a connection with the viewer, but also really cementing the brand.”
Many compare the passion of Bravo enthusiasts to that of soap opera aficionados or rabid sports fans. But viewers say it goes deeper than that. They’ve followed the reality stars for years, in many cases, seeing them at both their best and their worst, all while hearing what they really think thanks to confessional interviews. They’ve gotten an inside look — albeit an edited one — at the feuds, divorces, jail sentences, hookups and messy departures. And they’ve empathized with them, made fun of them and turned on them as if they were living inside the TV too. It’s why the likes of Cartwright, Vicki Gunvalson (“Real Housewives of Orange County”), Shep Rose (“Southern Charm”) and Andy Cohen (“Watch What Happens Live”) are more important to BravoCon attendees than mainstream, A-list celebrities.
“I’ll be walking down the street and fans are like, ‘How’s your daughter?!’ ‘Glad you went to dinner with Mario!’ ‘How’s Coco [her dog]?’” said Ramona Singer, a veteran cast member of “The Real Housewives of New York City.” “They have a huge interest in our personal lives. It’s a rush feeling all the energy here. I feel almost like I’m a famous actress. But, look, reality stars have become pop icons. I have to embrace it.”
“We feel a kinship with them,” is how Brigid Mitchell, 35, of Massachusetts describes it. “Yes, they are celebrities, so to speak. But I’ve met movie stars, and that’s a little more of a detached experience. They don’t let us into their private lives like these individuals do. So there’s this intimacy you can’t get any other way. That is the attraction: We all feel like we have these intimate relationships with these people. We text our friends about their lives as if we know them.”
And for three days, BravoCon offered many that long-awaited introduction.
Inside the convention’s three venues — The Manhattan Center on 34th Street and, roughly half a mile away, Union West and Skylight Modern — the puffer jackets and wool coats came off and it was clear who wore their Bravo love on their sleeve: Some donned dog-patterned caftans from “Southern Charm” cast member Patricia Altschul’s line, while others had custom T-shirts with Bravo in-jokes like “It’s not about the pasta” or “Gone with the Wind Fabulous.” One guy even sported a wig in the style of Lisa Rinna’s signature shag cut. And there was an abundance of perfectly tousled hair and sequined dresses — the ultimate BravoCon cosplay.
Attendees ran up to to friends and family members in a frenzy after snapping selfies with their favorite stars and excitedly FaceTimed news of their run-ins to those unlucky enough to be stuck at home.
For those unable to land a coveted selfie, panels boasting Bravo talent past and present yielded plenty of moments that only diehards would appreciate — as when Caroline Manzo (“Real Housewives of New Jersey”) agreed to a fan’s request to hurl ham slices at his face or Cynthia Bailey (“Real Housewives of Atlanta”) twerked onstage. Visitors created their own versions of the “Housewives’” instantly recognizable opening credits, heard cocktail-making tips from “Vanderpump Rules” stars Tom Schwartz and Tom Sandoval, and sweat it out in an aerobics class led by Dorinda Medley (“Real Housewives of New York City”). For the cognoscenti, there was even a Real Housewives Museum to explore, replete with “artifacts” from the franchise: gowns from the series’ live reunions; the blue bunny that Kim Richards returned to Lisa Rinna (“Real Housewives of Beverly Hills”); the implants that Tamra Judge (“Real Housewives of Orange County”) had taken out.
“This thing [BravoCon] feels like a destination wedding where you don’t know everybody but you all have a shared interest,” said Cohen, a former Bravo programming executive who, as a ringleader of the network’s reunion specials and host of its late-night talk show, may be the biggest Bravolebrity of them all.
The cost of attending might have called to mind a destination wedding too: A one-day pass ranged from $125 to $700, while a three-day pass began at $300 and went up to $1,500 — inspiring a number of memes lamenting the price tag. (By comparison, passes to Comic-Con, which attracts roughly 130,000 visitors each year, are $69 per day and up to $304 for four days plus preview night for 2020.) And that’s before factoring in add-on experiences like a “Vanderpump Rules” after-party, a brunch with the cast of “Southern Charm” and dinners created by contestants from “Top Chef.”
But people were more than ready to pull out their credit cards — three-day passes sold out in less than a minute after they went on sale in mid-August — even without knowing what, exactly, they were paying for: Talent wasn’t announced until a little more than a week before the extravaganza.
“It could have been the Fyre Festival 2.0 but we didn’t care,” said Lauren Reyes, 30, of San Francisco. “At all points in the process I wondered that. Like, there was barely any social media posts from the Bravo people. But I still would have paid twice as much. I’m loving it.”
BravoCon’s success illustrates the network’s unrivaled success at tapping the rich vein that is reality TV.
Talks about hosting an event of this scale have been going on for years. But while network executives had noticed the demand after taking Cohen’s show, which typically has a dozen audience members, on the road to Los Angeles, it was last year’s “Night of 31 Doorbells” episode that finally convinced them.
“I’ll never forget the moment and the energy in that room at that time,” said Maria Laino Deluca, senior vice president of consumer and social marketing for Bravo and Universal Kids. “About three or four of us on the Bravo side looked at each other and it was like, we didn’t even have to say the word. We were all thinking the same thing: ‘We have to do BravoCon. It’s time.’”
All of the anticipation came to a head with the convention’s grand finale, “Real Housewives of New York City” star Luann de Lesseps’ cabaret show. It was not without its frustrations — after the festivities began an hour behind schedule, attendees jeered De Lesseps during a Q&A in the middle of the show — but in the end, the delay didn’t matter. Those who stuck around charged the stage for the night’s closing number, singing and dancing under a twirling disco ball as De Lesseps slinked across the stage in a sparkly gown.
The song? “Money Can’t Buy You Class.”
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