‘The Real Housewives’ integrated its casts. Then racism allegations ignited a crisis
“Real Housewives” reunions are a reality TV ritual: Cast members put on gaudy evening wear, gather for hours on an elaborately decorated set and submit to probing questions from Bravo ringmaster Andy Cohen.
Petty sniping, hypocritical finger-pointing and melodramatic storm-offs are all standard — even expected.
Productive conversations about racial justice and white privilege, less so.
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Yet the first hour of this season’s “The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City” reunion, which continues Sunday, blended the usual absurdity (e.g. a heated debate over regifted golf balls) with a lengthy discussion of how the housewives had or hadn’t engaged in hurtful stereotypes and cultural appropriation.
The episode began with a disclaimer noting that it was filmed before social media posts by cast member Jennie Nguyen, who was born in Vietnam and grew up in Long Beach, became public, resulting in her departure from the series after a single season. The title card didn’t elaborate about the nature of the posts: Nguyen was fired in January after offensive memes she shared on Facebook in 2020 resurfaced online.
At one point, Cohen asked Nguyen about racially insensitive remarks directed at her by Mary Cosby, a Black cast member who had failed to show up at the reunion. “I’m a minority, she’s a minority,” said Nguyen. “We’re supposed to support each other.” To anyone aware of the backstory, the irony of Nguyen’s comment was as hard to miss as the royal blue rhinestones on her gown.
Coming on the heels of similar controversies on “New York” and “Dallas,” predominantly white shows that added women of color last year , the messiness on “Salt Lake City” points to a central crisis within the “Real Housewives” universe: Can shows predicated on entitlement and endless pot-stirring evolve into entertainment that is over-the-top and meaningfully inclusive at the same time?
This conundrum has plagued other shows at Bravo, including “Below Deck,” which follows the young, attractive crew aboard a chartered yacht (a white cast member was recently called out for using the N-word), and the “Beverly Hills” spinoff “Vanderpump Rules,” which follows the young, attractive staff at a WeHo restaurant (a number of white cast members were fired in 2020 for racist behavior).
But the problems are most acute on “Real Housewives,” both because of the franchise’s durability and the key role it has played in defining Bravo’s brand identity as TV’s foremost destination for aspirational guilty pleasures. (The network declined to comment for this story.)
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“It feels too little too late. What they’re trying to do is wedge integration into a franchise where it has not been required,” says Kristen Warner, an associate professor in the Department of Journalism and Creative Media at the University of Alabama. “It feels dishonest, it feels disingenuous and it feels like it’s set up to fail.”
With few exceptions, editions of “Real Housewives,” which first launched in 2006, have largely been segregated: “Atlanta” and “Potomac” were predominantly Black and biracial, while “Orange County,” “New York,” “New Jersey,” “Dallas” and “Beverly Hills” were overwhelmingly white, despite the diversity of the communities in which they are set.
The women of “Atlanta” and “Potomac” were often subjected to greater scrutiny for the same outrageous antics — the wine-tossing and hair-pulling — as their white counterparts, and acknowledged the burden of representation they carried because of their race.
Then Garcelle Beauvais was cast on “Beverly Hills,” making her the first Black woman to star in the series. She was joined the following season by Crystal Kung Minkoff, “Beverly Hills’” first Asian American cast member. Both women have shared uncomfortable but productive conversations about race with their white co-stars, as when Kung Minkoff explained to Sutton Stracke the problem with the old adage “I don’t see color.”
“That was a conflamma that I learned a lesson from — seriously,” Stracke told The Times last year. “As a white woman, this is how we do, and this is how we can change.” (Some viewers were more hostile, particularly to Kung Minkoff, who says she received a slew of hateful messages on social media.)
“Dallas” and “New York” have been much more turbulent. Eboni K. Williams, the first Black woman on “New York,” and Tiffany Moon, the first Asian American woman on “Dallas,” both faced ignorant, defensive and even hostile behavior from their white co-stars and say they felt forced to provide lessons in cultural sensitivity.
An accomplished anesthesiologist, the 37-year-old Moon, who immigrated to the United States from China as a child, joined the show in early 2020, eager to boost Asian representation onscreen.
Mostly, though, she hoped “The Real Housewives” would offer her a chance to let loose after years focused on family and career.
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“You’re promised red carpet events, fabulous parties, exotic vacations and new friends. I thought I was going to have fun and drink wine,” she says. “I did not think I was joining a show to be the token Asian, to be an antiracist educator to my cast members and the audience ... And we went to Oklahoma in an RV to go Bigfoot-hunting. I was sold a false bill of goods, ma’am.”
Moon was stepping into an atmosphere already rife with tension following the departure of a cast member who had called another woman a “chirpy Mexican.” Fellow housewife Brandi Redmond was also in hot water for a recently resurfaced video of her doing an offensive impression of an Asian person.
While filming her first episode, Moon says producers prompted her to confront Redmond about the video. “I didn’t want to talk to Brandi. I was dreading it,” Moon says. “But I’m a rule follower. And I was new to reality TV.”
The experience “gave me an icky feeling,” she adds.
The season’s biggest dispute arose when Moon encouraged her co-stars to try chicken feet at a dim sum brunch. Kameron Westcott, a pink-loving blonde who has been likened to Elle Woods, reacted in disgust. She brought the incident up repeatedly over the course of the season, unfavorably compared the dish to her line of dog biscuits in an Instagram post, and dismissed Moon’s insistence that Chinese people would “take offense” to such slights.
At the reunion, Westcott rehashed the subject once more. Moon grew so distressed her nose started to bleed on camera. “My blood pressure was so high, I think a blood vessel in my nose just burst,” she says.
In August, Bravo announced it was pausing production of “Dallas” indefinitely, with no plans to film in 2022. (Bravo rarely cancels “Housewives” franchises outright.) In response to a request for comment, an attorney for the Westcotts wrote to The Times claiming that “Ms. Moon has found a way to distort the facts in a way that casts her as a victim and everyone else as evil, bigoted racists... The fact that Ms. Moon has spun up a cottage industry of faux racist outrage simply because Ms. Westcott refused to eat a chicken foot is appalling.”
When producers at “The Real Housewives of New York City” came calling two years ago, Eboni K. Williams already worked as a lawyer and broadcast journalist. “What I lack in spectacle,” she says, “ I make up for in directness” — a quality that, along with her sense of humor and former-beauty-queen glamour, meant she had the makings of an excellent Bravo housewife.
She also appreciated the importance of representation across all forms of media, even on a frothy unscripted soap opera that had been on the air for more than a decade.
“It felt like an enormous opportunity to be the first Black woman on ‘The Real Housewives of New York City,’” Williams says, “and create space for Black womanhood on this platform.”
It quickly became clear that Williams, who at 38 is two decades younger than most of her co-stars, had her work cut out for her. During an early cast trip to the Hamptons, she explained to Ramona Singer, a housewife since Season 1, why referring to her household staff as “the help” was not OK. Soon after, LuAnn “The Countess” de Lesseps chided Williams — who was speaking firmly but calmly — for being “angry” and kicked her out of the house. (De Lesseps had already come under fire in 2018 for dressing up as Diana Ross, complete with an Afro wig and darkened skin, to a Halloween party, but denied it was blackface.)
The season’s nadir came at a Shabbat dinner Williams hosted with a Jewish activist to celebrate the ties between their communities. Singer acted boorishly, complaining about the Jewish students who “hated her” in college and a Black nurse who supposedly mistreated her at the hospital. (When asked for comment, Singer referred to previous remarks she made on Bravo talk show “Watch What Happens Live” expressing regret for her behavior at the dinner.)
Still, Williams felt good about the progress she made with some of her castmates, recalling how De Lesseps gave her Black Lives Matter socks as a gift — a small but meaningful gesture.
And she wasn’t surprised by the resistance she encountered integrating “New York.” She draws a comparison to James Meredith, the first Black student to enroll at the University of Mississippi in 1962. “Imagine if we got a camera on him for five months, followed him every day to see what that was like, because that’s what my experience was.”
Ratings for “New York” ebbed to an all-time low over the course of the season. Williams faced backlash from a “very loud portion of the audience” who blamed her “ruining” the show and hastening its ratings collapse — a premise she finds ridiculous. Others, like John Oliver, praised her. “I think trying to teach those particular women about the Black experience in America is a thankless task,” he told talk show host Wendy Williams.
“If I somehow single-handedly took down a 13-year iconic franchise, that would make me the single most powerful housewife in ‘Housewives’ history,” Williams says. “I think I became a very convenient punching bag.”
Off-camera, Singer was under investigation for allegedly making racist remarks on set, forcing the network to postpone the Season 13 reunion, then cancel it altogether — the first time the show would go without the perennial gathering. Bravo’s official explanation is that a long-delayed reunion of an already low-rated season would not garner enough viewers to make it worth the trouble.
Williams, for one, remains disappointed. “You have an audience that now has more questions than answers. So much of what happened with our cast is forever outstanding. It’s a huge missed opportunity,” Williams says, though she praises Bravo for being responsive to her concerns, even helping her procure a therapist.
When it premiered in 2020, “Salt Lake” was touted as having the most diverse cast in “Housewives” history, but has since repeatedly highlighted tensions between castmates of color.
Cosby has often clashed with Jen Shah, who is of Polynesian descent; this season, Cosby compared her to “a thug — you know, one of those Mexican people that make all the drugs.” Cosby also mocked Nguyen’s accent and remarked on her “slanty eyes.”
Then in January, Nguyen’s Facebook posts — which made light of killing Black Lives Matter protesters and questioned George Floyd’s cause of death — became public. Bravo fired Nguyen and vowed to “make better informed and more thoughtful casting decisions” going forward.
Following her no-show at the Season 2 reunion, Cosby will not be returning for Season 3 either, leaving Shah, who will soon go to trial on wire fraud and money laundering charges, as the lone woman of color.
Producers of “Salt Lake” erred by casting women of color who were obviously messy and easy to dismiss, says Warner: Cosby is involved with a controversial church and is married to her stepgrandfather, Shah may soon be in prison and Nguyen’s toxic social media history was readily available online. Warner urges Bravo to make good-faith casting decisions as it attempts to modernize the “Housewives” universe.
“Make sure you aren’t dropping in little tropes and stereotypes that will make for good television,” she says. “Women of color can be great characters, can be flawed and complex, without participating in illegal activities.”
Times staff writer Yvonne Villarreal contributed to this report.
The Real Housewives
‘The Real Housewives of New Jersey’
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-14-DL (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language)
‘The Real Housewives: Ultimate Girls Trip’
When: 9 p.m. Tuesday
‘The Real Housewives of Orange County’
When: 9 p.m. Wednesday
Rating: TV-14-DL (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language)
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