‘Shahs of Sunset’ stirs concerns among Iranian Americans
Golnesa Gharachedaghi talks like a real soon-to-be housewife of Beverly Hills.
The 30-year-old self-proclaimed Persian princess, who doesn’t shy away from confrontation or dropping expletives, explains her simple tastes. “There are two things I don’t like. I don’t like ants, and I don’t like ugly people.”
Another time, the young woman who says she is eager to settle down offers a guiding principle of her active night life: “Looking good, and not repeating outfits, is imperative.”
At a time when U.S. and Iran are heading for a showdown over a suspected nuclear weapons program, Bravo and Ryan Seacrest are introducing America to a Southern Californian slice of Persian culture in its “Shahs of Sunset,” which begins a six-episode run Sunday. Set in “Tehrangeles,” as the Westside enclave of Persian Americans is known, the reality show is centered on Gharachedaghi and five other Persian Americans who are shown tottering on red-soled Louboutins, wheeling Chihuahuas in a baby stroller to a doggie day-care spa and sweeping through Beverly Hills finest boutiques with abandon and delight.
These days there may be nothing more American than starring in a reality program, where outrageous and eccentric behaviors are played up for maximum ratings potential. But some Persian Americans are worried the program may promote an unwelcome image at a particularly tense historical moment.
“My reaction?” said Firoozeh Dumas, author of “Funny in Farsi.” “Dear God, Noooo! I never thought Iranian Americans could get any press worse than what is on the news every night. But now, Americans have a chance to see a slice of materialistic, shallow and downright embarrassing Iranian culture. I just want to shout, ‘We are not all like that!’”
With previews available on Bravo’s website, the series is already being called the West Coast version of “Jersey Shore,” MTV’s ribald hit reality series about a group of hard-partying young Italian Americans that drew complaints from the ethnic community. There are an estimated 463,000 Persian Americans in the United States, just under half of whom live in California, and many of whom still have deep ties to their mother country.
Some Persian Americans, like Jimmy Delshad, who twice served as mayor of Beverly Hills, fear “Shahs of Sunset” will give a poor first impression of his community, which has worked hard to build a professional class of doctors, lawyers and business executives in America. The technology entrepreneur said he received death threats when he first ran for Beverly Hills City Council in 2003.
Delshad added he’s “afraid this program will … take us back and make us look like undesirable people.”
If the reality show is poorly received, it could be a step backward culturally just as wider recognition in the United States was finally being achieved by the community. Last month, the acclaimed Iranian film “A Separation” won an Academy Award for foreign-language film. On its surface, the drama is about a divorcing couple, but many saw it as an allegory for Iranian politics and society.
But Seacrest, the producer of the blockbuster Kardashian family reality-show franchise, and executives at Bravo, which airs “The Real Housewives” series, contend such fears are grossly overblown. One of Hollywood’s busier personalities, the morning radio and TV host of “American Idol” dismissed the notion the series would cast the community in a bad light.
“This is meant to be entertaining and fun,” said Seacrest. “It’s escapism.”
Reza Aslan, the Iranian-born author of “No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam,” agreed: “It’s a silly reality show.... Only the most moronic viewers would watch ‘Shahs of Sunset’ and extract an opinion about Iranians and Iran.”
The first episode introduces the cast, most of whom went to Beverly Hills High School, and their flashy cars, trendy wardrobes and oversize Gucci, Prada and Tom Ford sunglasses. Four sell real estate; one is an artist-musician. Two have been best buddies for years.
“I gave her her first Chanel bag,” Reza Farahan said of his friend Mercedes “MJ” Javid.
The six cast members include Muslims and Jews, some practicing, some not. As with other reality shows, the tone is decidedly over the top, with abundant brashness and bling, vulgarity and vanity.
“We don’t work in buildings,” said Mike Shouhed, a chiseled commercial real estate agent who returned to L.A. after losing his shirt in Las Vegas. “We own them.”
All say they value friends and family, especially parents and grandparents who in many cases sacrificed everything to come to America. Typically, their family or individual wealth comes from retailing or real estate.
On a recent real-world shopping excursion in West Hollywood, cast members revealed a more reflective side. They say they appreciate America’s tolerance and diversity.
“I’m Muslim by the laws,” said Gharachedaghi who was raised by a Muslim family but attended Jewish day care, Catholic preschool and Loyola Marymount University. “But my religion is life.”
Farahan’s Jewish father and Muslim mother “had to cross mountains to marry,” he said. When he told his mother that he was gay, he said, “for two minutes she was hysterical.” Then she said she would stand beside him until the day she died.
“My mom offered me 500 grand to get married,” added Tehran-born Farahan, one of the Persian community’s few openly gay men. Back in the “old country,” as he calls Iran, the government is thought to have executed many homosexuals.
He proudly described his ensemble: new Gucci loafers, pink Ralph Lauren socks, Gucci belt and Zegna pants and pink shirt, along with gold Rolex watch, Allah necklace and Cartier gold-and-diamond ring — and he professed to be “in heaven” while checking out the dazzling gems at Neil Lane Jewelry on La Cienega Boulevard.
Frances Berwick, president of Bravo and Style Media, said the cast members represent what Bravo deems “affluencers” — 30-something, upscale, highly educated and influential. “They lead a very aspirational lifestyle,” she said. “They are high achievers, with layers that are complex and interesting, and we love the dynamics with their families.”
Being overly concerned with the reaction of the Persian American community to the program may miss a larger point, said Mitra Ahouraian, an entertainment attorney who knows some of the cast.
“I have very mixed feelings about the show,” she said. “On the one hand, the trailer is scary. On the other, you know you’ve arrived as a minority community when there’s a reality show about you. We’re now recognized enough to be made fun of.”
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