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The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills at BravoCon.
Charles Sykes/Bravo/NBCU/Getty Images

How the Real Housewives built cable TV’s biggest fandom

The Bravo network’s interconnected universe of beautiful rich people has won over millions of fans. Now they have their own convention.

Six former Real Housewives are sitting onstage in a packed ballroom in Manhattan when an audience member, during a question and answer portion, politely asks if Caroline Manzo would be willing to throw a slice of ham at him. Like, at his face. Caroline, the redheaded ex-matriarch of the Real Housewives of New Jersey with infinite quotable insults (“you hang out with trash, you start to smell like garbage”) and possible mafia ties, of course, says yes. So the guy gets on stage, ham in hand, and Caroline flogs him with lunch meat.

The request is a reference to a scene from season two, way back in 2010, when Manzo’s three adult children are making sandwiches and suddenly start throwing ham at each other. It’s also indicative of a certain kind of rhetoric common in online fandoms, wherein the fan expresses their adoration by asking the celebrity to run them over or fling them from a building. That to be in the presence of the object of their admiration is worth being humiliated, or murdered.

We are at the first-ever BravoCon, a three-day event where 10,000 people have paid between $125 for a one-day general admission pass and $1,500 for a three-day super VIP package to get close to to their favorite stars. Attendees, most of them women in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, look not unlike “Bravolebrities” themselves: They have perfect TV blowouts and wear leopard print and are drinking wine before noon; in an alternate timeline they could have been the ones onstage throwing ham at people. They are here alongside the stars of reality shows like Southern Charm, Million Dollar Listing, Below Deck, and the network’s crown jewel, the Real Housewives franchise, for panel discussions and photo ops devoted to the celebration of what can only be described as the Bravo Extended Universe.

That universe, which began in 2006 with the Real Housewives of Orange County, is wide-reaching, ever-growing, and comfortingly cohesive — at BravoCon, executive producer Andy Cohen announced the addition of the Real Housewives of Salt Lake City, where fans will watch the same slice of wealthy socialites they’ve come to expect — except this time, with Mormons. Spinoffs are frequent: The biggest stars sometimes get miniseries in the lead-up to a big life event, like a wedding; one former Atlanta housewife has carried her own show since 2012; and one of the network’s most successful shows, Vanderpump Rules, began as a spinoff of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. Every weeknight, stars from the Bravo universe congregate on Cohen’s talk show, Watch What Happens Live, to gossip and share news from their corners of the galaxy.

Kim Zolciak-Biermann performs at the BravoCon taping of Watch What Happens Live.
Charles Sykes/Bravo/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Over the past decade and change, this web of television shows has amassed a cultish, millions-strong following of superfans who pour over the details of reality stars’ lives and now, have traveled to New York City to pose for pictures with them. Though I am here as a journalist, I also count myself among them: people who have spent countless hours watching the network’s shows, following Bravo gossip Instagram accounts, listening to more than one Bravo podcast, and breathlessly discussing news in Housewives Facebook groups and Slack rooms. That BravoCon — an intricately orchestrated production that involved three locations, a pop-up museum, a 2,000-audience-member episode of Watch What Happens Live, and the handling of dozens of professionally high-maintenance celebrities — can even exist and succeed is a testament to fans’ unwavering loyalty to watching other people’s lives.

“Housewives fans are like sports fans,” remarked Kyle Richards, a Beverly Hills housewife, during the WWHL taping. That’s not actually true, though — they’re way more into it.

How Bravo built an empire out of a single reality show

Bravo used to be fancy. At its founding in 1980, there were no commercials, and programming included classic films, ballets, and operas. Then in 2002, NBC bought Bravo and shortly thereafter pivoted to the then-buzzy genre of reality television, beginning with Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and eventually Project Runway, Top Chef, and the Real Housewives of Orange County.

The latter was meant to act more like an anthropological nature documentary than the wine-slinging, wig-pulling reputation it earned in later years. Riding off the success of ABC’s Desperate Housewives and Fox’s The O.C., the show fixated on five women living in a gated community in Coto de Caza, and only occasionally showed them interacting with each other, much less actually fighting.

The original cast of the Real Housewives of Orange County, which first aired in March 2006.
NBCUniversal via Getty Images

“I thought I was just helping out a friend,” says Jeana Keough, one of the original cast members when I meet her in the BravoCon press room. “[Executive producer] Scott Dunlap was my neighbor, and for years he’d say, ‘I want to do a Curb Your Enthusiasm show about your family.’”

She gives partial credit to the 2007 Writers’ Guild of America strike for the early success of the show — it was one of the few that didn’t have much use for writers, after all. But it’s what Bravo ended up doing with that success — replicating the formula seamlessly into nine more cities and endless spinoffs — that created a single, shiny universe where all the Bravo stars seemed to reside, launching businesses and shilling products so that even viewers could buy their way into it.

BravoCon attendees I spoke to recalled getting hooked on a single show — The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills or Million Dollar Listing, before eventually watching enough Bravo shows that they’re now fully invested in whether one employee of an ex-Housewife Photoshopped text messages to claim that she slept with a different former employee. Bravo has become a cultural behemoth, one that has been discussed and debated for more than 10 years — whether it is good or bad, real or fake, trash TV or high camp.

Yes, the stereotype of the Real Housewives being about a bunch of wealthy middle-aged women screaming at each other has some basis in truth. While the early episodes of Orange County were relatively light on interpersonal drama, by the time New York and Atlanta debuted in 2008, the Housewives formula had been tweaked to ensure rivalries would ensue. There have been physical fights. At times the women say unfathomably cruel things to each other. There have also been extraordinarily dark moments — women relapsing on their sobriety, women being domestically abused, women finding out while on camera that their mother has died; women dealing with addiction and infidelity and divorce and depression.

The Real Housewives of Atlanta season 8 reunion.
NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via

These issues are also what give the Real Housewives themselves a degree of relatability despite their fabulous wealth. “Relatable” was a refrain I heard multiple times at BravoCon from both fans and stars, as reasons for the show’s massive success, which I found somewhat paradoxical. For as foreign as starting a cancer charity after you’ve been accused of helping someone fake cancer or spending $60,000 on a 4-year-old’s birthday party is to most people, everyone can understand the experience of feeling excluded or bullied. Drama ranges from serious marital issues and impending financial doom to pure petty gossip; on any episode of a Bravo show there’s something for everyone to theoretically “relate” to, even if the trappings of the stars’ lives include indoor pools and living room-sized closets. However dark a show gets, there’s at least usually a nice kitchen to look at.

“Relatability” gets more complicated, however, when considering the Housewives franchise’s track record with race. Shows have historically been divided, with Atlanta and Potomac primarily centered on black women and the others largely white; a few months ago, the announcement that Beverly Hills will soon feature its first black cast member was major news. Though Bravo shows include a breadth of racial and sexual diversity, Housewives has always been mostly segregated. Who gets to relate to which Housewife, then, becomes more complicated.

Even so, Housewives fans themselves are diverse — the tenor of the conversation these days celebrates how so many of its fans are feminists, women, gay men, and queer people who digest the shows with both earnestness and irony, and who understand that the Real Housewives is best viewed as fun escapism rather than something prescriptive or aspirational.

Why we keep watching Bravo — and why Bravolebrities keep opting in

We’re in line to take photos with a handful of men from the Bravo universe — Craig of Southern Charm, a show about old-money millennials in Charleston; and the Toms (Sandoval and Schwartz) of Vanderpump Rules — when I meet three women who’ve traveled to BravoCon from Washington, DC, and Seattle. They have “kind of important jobs,” they laugh; one is a lawyer, another works in climate communications, and the third is a planned gift fundraiser. “It’s really nice to come home and unwind and enjoy the irreverence and silliness and drama,” says one of them, Amy.

Mary, the lawyer, says, “I also, well, I always just want to yell at people all day at work and I can’t. So it’s nice to see these people just openly yelling at each other, which I know isn’t a great reason, but I also really dig it. Even in their theoretical worst moments, they are freaking hilarious.”

Tom Sandoval of Vanderpump Rules pours cocktails at BravoCon.
NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
Tom Schwartz of Vanderpump Rules takes fan selfies at BravoCon.
NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

It’s true. The Real Housewives, Vanderpump Rules, Southern Charm, and all the other Bravo shows are truly funny, which is in part thanks to clever editing but mostly due to smart casting; as former New York Housewife Heather Thomson once told the New York Post, “They don’t care if [a potential Housewife] is skinny, fat, young or old — she just has to be funny. [Producers] need someone who is quick-witted and the queen of the one-liner.” (Though the claim that producers don’t care if a Housewife is fat is most certainly a lie.)

It also explains the myriad meme T-shirts I saw at BravoCon: Bethenny Frankel’s #thisisacrisis T-shirt, one that just said “Jovani!”, “June, June, Hannah” for Below Deck, and “Yeah, I’m drinking Luann!”

At the merch station, there are T-shirts that say “I need my own Bravo show.” That’s part of the fun of Bravo, too: imagining what you’d be like as a waiter at SUR on Vanderpump Rules (they’re called SURvers) or whether you would have sided with NeNe or Cynthia in season six and seven of Atlanta (obviously Cynthia!).

BravoCon knows this — there are special “experiences” where you can film your own Housewives intro while a producer eggs you on in front of a wind machine. There’s a Housewife Hall where you can pose next to neon signs blaring the franchise’s most iconic quotes and oil paintings of dramatic reunion moments, and an entire museum with important memorabilia, including but not limited to: Lisa Rinna’s sandwich bag of pills, an installation of Dorinda Medley’s infamous fish-themed guest room in her Berkshires mansion, a replica of Dorit Kemsley’s blonde wig and dozens of gaudy bejeweled hair clips, and Tamra Judge’s old breast implants.

Everywhere at BravoCon there are goofy mementos of Bravo wit: Bathrooms are plastered in phrases like “Pat the puss” and “Close your legs to married men;” a sign reading “It’s all happening” welcomes visitors to the main ballroom, a reference to Vanderpump Rules cast member Scheana Shay’s enormous forearm tattoo.

Dorinda Medley of the Real Housewives of New York, during a scene in which she says the now-iconic line, “I’ll tell ya how I’m doing: not well, bitch.”
NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via

It is playful, and it is not always clear whether the Bravolebrities are the butt of the joke. Being on a television show that demands constant access to every wrinkle in your personal life is not always a pleasant experience, even when you’re technically getting paid. Andy Cohen, for his part, doesn’t entertain the idea that the show harms its stars. When Taffy Brodesser-Akner profiled him in 2017 and asked whether he felt bad for the Housewives, he shook his head. “I’m in a business relationship with these women,” he said. “They know what they’re doing.”

As much as it is known for riveting personal drama, the Bravo universe is now known as an incubator for celebrity side hustles. The most successful example is Bethenny Frankel’s diet margarita concept Skinnygirl. But now, nearly everyone who appears on a Bravo show is there to promote something else — a fragrance, a budding pop music career, pink dog food, or if all else fails, an Instagram account. These products — from Vicki Gunvalson’s vodka, Vicki’s Vodka, to Shereé Whitfield’s She By Shereé jogger line — extend the Bravo universe to your living room, and the many food and beverage products are often meant to be enjoyed while watching the show. If buying one of them means purchasing your way into Bravodom, then a ticket to BravoCon is the ultimate get.

Still, there are some Housewives for whom any business deal, no matter how lucrative, would seem insufficient to negate the effects of appearing on the franchise. I am interviewing Kim Richards at BravoCon after the panel for Housewives “OGs” when I ask why she kept coming back to the show even after her first few seasons proved so tumultuous. Richards had one of the darkest arcs in Housewives history: The former child star struggled with alcoholism and relapses in sobriety, ultimately culminating in an arrest for public intoxication, and drunken screaming matches with her sister, fellow Beverly Hills cast member Kyle Richards.

Kyle (left) and Kim Richards of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.
NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via

“What brought me back was I really wanted the audience to see it,” she says, referring to her health struggles. It is at this point that she begins to cry. “The fans may come back because they end up getting attached to us. A lot of people identified with [me] because they were there. And then they saw me get better. They might have family members, they might have a mother, a sister [dealing with similar issues].”

Tom Sandoval of Vanderpump Rules told me, while in full drag, that there are three reasons he keeps coming back to the show. “First of all, it’s therapeutic. Second, it pays the bills. Third, it’s a blast and it’s like, a reciprocal relationship to some extent. Like when I meet fans of the show, it’s very cathartic. We talk about similar instances they’ve been through in life, then we have a heart-to-hearts. It’s like an instantaneous bond.”

To be perfectly honest, I felt like Tom and I were already friends by the time we’d met, and I remembered that at a panel earlier that morning, Andy Cohen had surveyed the ballroom and told the audience, “These are your new best friends,” referring to the people sitting next to us. The people on stage were already our best friends, though — women we’ve watched for more than a decade. We knew exactly what kinds of fights they’d get in with their husbands, we’d seen their children grow up, we saw them get drunk on vacation and say things like “I’m sorry you feel that way.” Because I was there without my friends and family, with whom I talk obsessively about the Bravo universe, I felt a dull sense of loneliness, reminding me of how much more fun it would have been had I come with someone else.

It was pure coincidence that the second BravoCon attendee I spoke to also happened to run a Bravo Instagram account that I and 45,000 other people follow. Katie and Betsy, the proprietors of @twobravosisters, never had much in common growing up until they both communicated their shared love of Bravo. “We weren’t very close, so we were like, ‘Let’s do this to try to contact each other and talk more and bring us together,’” says Betsy.

“We went from talking twice a year to twice a day,” Katie adds. “We’ve just been crazy about Bravo and closer as sisters.”

Countess Luann of the Real Housewives of New York performs in her cabaret show at BravoCon.
NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

My sister and I, too, bond over Bravo, much to the annoyance of our parents who have zero clue who Austen or Ashley or Gina or Dorinda are and why we know so much about their lives. Bravo, like any fandom, is social, and BravoCon is the homecoming dance, where everyone dresses up to gossip about the kings and queens.

It’s just before the big Watch What Happens Live taping, and we’re waiting outside in the dark as the Bravolebrities begin to exit their shiny black vans and into the backstage area. Brittany and Katie from Vanderpump Rules pass through to dozens of screaming fans, followed by Stassi, Lala, and Lala’s enigmatic fiancé Randall. The “tres amigas” of the OC Housewives — Shannon, Tamra, and Vicki — roll through next, Shannon hand-in-hand with her very new boyfriend, the first man she’s dated publicly since her ex-husband David revealed that he’d had a long-term affair a few seasons ago. In the aftermath, her erratic mental health, financial struggles, and weight gain became a central storyline on the show, but today she’s beaming, mouthing “oh my god” at the number of people waiting to catch a glimpse of her.

As I head to the ballroom for the show, I overhear a fan say, “There’s like, every celebrity you can think of here!”

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