Earlier this month, The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City hit a major milestone in iconic-ness. During its highly anticipated season four finale — the series’ highest-rated episode since its premiere in 2020 — fan favorite Heather Gay outed new cast member Monica Garcia as one of the users behind the Instagram troll account @realityvontease2, which had been targeting the women on the show for years.
Like a scene straight out of Big Little Lies, Gay delivered this bombshell to her fellow original castmates, Whitney Rose, Lisa Barlow, and Meredith Marks — all dressed in gowns on a windy beach in Bermuda. Later in the episode, the Bad Mormon author performed an Oscar-worthy rant that’s since been quoted by an actual Oscar winner and a member of Congress. (Gay also claimed that former castmate and convicted felon Jen Shah was responsible for her mysterious black eye last season.) Social media, increasingly accustomed to leaks and spoilers, had no idea these revelations were coming.
Overall, Garcia’s unmasking made for an excellent hour of television — and likely will be lauded as the funniest reunion the franchise has ever seen.
At the same time, RHOSLC’s finale underscored a prominent issue that looms over Bravo in the age of social media: A crucial separation between reality shows and their fan bases has been lost. Audiences have more access to their favorite — and least favorite — reality stars than ever before, through podcasts, through fan events, through a constant drip-drip-drip of leaks from tea accounts on social media. Now a stan has stirred up their own drama as a cast member of a show. What happens to reality TV as a genre when it becomes this penetrable?
The fourth wall on Bravo has been obliterated for a while now
The rise of social media has given reality TV audiences a great deal of power over the past decade. In the Bravo fandom, viewers spend an ungodly amount of time on Instagram and on X, the site formerly known as Twitter, analyzing storylines like Charlie Day in that one It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia GIF. As a result, fans have also become an integral part of the shows they fervently post about.
On the Real Housewives franchise and other flagship programs, like Vanderpump Rules, you can expect a fair amount of drama to involve the masses of (usually angry or incessantly curious) fans on the internet. As the women have become more and more famous, it’s become harder to ignore the outside noise that’s affected their lives and, occasionally, made for some irresistible drama. In fact, several storylines involving social media chatter are playing out right now.
On The Real Housewives of Potomac, Robyn Dixon is currently upset with Candiace Dillard Bassett for “weaponizing” social media against her after she hid a scandal involving her husband, Juan Dixon, during last season’s filming. Meanwhile, on the Miami franchise, viewers are being forced to watch Larsa Pippen and new beau Marcus Jordan, son of NBA legend Michael Jordan, poorly record a podcast, Separation Anxiety, in response to online criticism of their relationship. (Pippen is 16 years older than Jordan and famously the ex-wife of Michael Jordan’s teammate and former friend Scottie Pippen.)
Over on Beverly Hills, Kyle Richards seems to be getting pleasure out of indulging in TikTok theories about her romantic life — mainly speculation about whether she’s dating a queer country singer almost half her age.
With social media commentary so often proving too juicy to ignore on Bravo, it’s no wonder the internet has become a supporting character in these franchises, the way New York City is the “fifth character” on Sex and the City. Still, these storylines rarely make for a compelling narrative, simply because viewers know what to expect because they’ve witnessed it on their timelines. Plus, the execution is usually underwhelming. (Look at the past five seasons of RHOBH if you need proof.)
Bravo has found ways to use social media to its advantage, the frenzy around “Scandoval” being a primary example. Still, the outsized role of social media has made the existence of a fourth wall increasingly harder to manage.
It’s especially difficult with the media apparatus that surrounds Bravo: press, blogs, podcasts, DeuxMoi, and fan and troll accounts dedicated to dissecting every editing choice and exposing behind-the-scenes tea. If a Real Housewives or Vanderpump Rules star wants to do PR after a rough season, they’ll go to a podcast or even create their own to share the “real” side of the story.
What’s more interesting, though, is how social media users have learned to engage with Bravo because their the network has indulged their reactions. Fans aren’t just commenting on the ridiculous antics or vexing cast members they watch on a weekly basis. In many cases, it seems like they want to participate in the production of the show itself. Monica Garcia’s entry onto RHOSLC is the most extreme example of this.
While working as an assistant to Shah, Garcia began exposing the now-felon’s abusive behavior toward her employees and other cruel comments about the cast through posts on @realityvontease2, which were discussed on the show. Her reporting jumped up a level when she became a witness in the FBI case against Shah, detailing her boss’s wire fraud to the feds. Soon after, she became a cast member on the Bravo show herself.
Part of this phenomenon is Bravo’s own doing. The cable brand — delivering entertainment “for the people” — has encouraged fan involvement by featuring shady audience questions at reunions and during Watch What Happens Live, the late-night talk show where Bravo mastermind Andy Cohen and guests break down the network’s goings-on multiple nights a week. On that show, producers also poll viewers about whose side they’re on in a Housewives feud or which Summer House member they think is the hottest. And at BravoCon, the network’s annual convention, fans can speak directly to their favorite or most loathed Bravolebrities, often creating viral moments in the process.
But in recent years, Bravo lovers (and reality-TV fans in general) have also used their collective voices to challenge executive decision-making and the shows’ casts. Fans have pressured cast members to address their relationships, who they voted for in 2016, and their posts on Facebook. In the most severe cases, fan outcry has resulted in several firings (although the overlords at Bravo probably wouldn’t admit to that).
“We’ve seen a lot of successful mobilization on the internet for good and legitimate causes,” Joan Summers, gossip reporter and co-host of the Eating for Free podcast, tells me.
“I think what Bravo fans have realized with social media is that you can control the story now. You can produce from your home the show that you want to see, whether that is trying to whip up people to get cast members fired or trying to double down on stories,” she said.
To be clear, this isn’t so much an observation about “cancel culture” or a “mob mentality” that exists within the fanbase — anyone who’s been fired from Bravo for some offensive wrongdoing has typically deserved to be fired. Rather, it’s fascinating to see how fans have learned to infiltrate and alter this particular medium to their liking. Instead of sitting back and enjoying the chaos as it comes to them, viewers have come to treat reality TV as an interactive format, gamifying the nature of these network-sponsored parasocial relationships.
Monica’s fourth-wall moment made good TV, but how long can audiences stay entertained?
In the case of RHOSLC, Garcia’s social media storyline was genuinely fascinating to observe. For one, there was a refreshing element of surprise. In a rare feat, none of the cast members ran to the press beforehand. Bravo also went above and beyond to make sure the revelation didn’t leak, even axing the cast’s panel at BravoCon this year to ensure no one would spill the beans.
Kara Berry, host of the Everyone’s Business but Mine podcast, also credits Garcia for being an enthralling, complex character outside of the revelation that she was just one of the avid stan accounts we scrolled by on our feeds every day.
“Without the Reality Von Tease reveal, Monica still would have had a stand-out season,” she says. “She was bright, scrappy, willing to admit things like sleeping with her brother-in-law, and had a relationship with a mother that is Salt Lake’s answer to Mommy Dearest.”
The revelation in the finale was also a testament to good production and Gay’s oratory skills. It’s typical online hyperbole to call a Bravo monologue “award-worthy.” But Gay’s performance was so convincing that it didn’t matter whether she spent an hour in her bathroom getting the timing of “Receipts! Proof! Timeline!” just right. And once it was clear this would be an iconic moment, the rest of the women rose to the occasion.
At the reunion, it was equally amusing watching Gay and the rest of the cast’s performance be exposed as just that — a performance. In trying to condemn Garcia for her dishonesty and fakeness, the women only underscored the increasingly artificial world of reality TV they all play in. Even host Andy Cohen admitted that there was technically “nothing wrong” with Garcia plotting her way onto the show.
Yes, Garcia has proven to be untrustworthy. But over the course of four seasons, these Housewives have shown themselves to be one of the most calculated and strategic casts on Bravo, often using the gossip mill to their advantage. This was highlighted during the discussion about Gay’s black eye: Cohen gently scolded her for all the deception tactics she used — including suggesting producers harmed her — to conceal Shah as her alleged assailant. By the end of the reunion, Garcia didn’t look so terrible compared to some of her peers.
Going forward, it’s hard not to see Bravo continuing in this bizarre, meta direction. And I can’t say I won’t oblige. First and foremost, though, it has to be exciting TV.