This season of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills was a lot. Between Erika Jayne’s ongoing legal battles, Garcelle’s teen son Jax becoming the target of racist trolls and the infamous Aspen trip that saw Lisa Rinna and Kathy Hilton at odds with Kyle Richards caught in the middle, there was much to cover in the highly anticipated three-part reunion.
But while some topics got fully dissected and even reached a resolution, other topics, like Garcelle’s memoir being photographed in the garbage or the bullying she and her son faced, fell to the wayside and weren’t given enough time and attention by host and reunion moderator Andy Cohen – and social media users took him to task over it, prompting him to make a rare apology.
“I really need to sincerely apologize not only for diverting the topic but for not returning, even worse, to the serious conversation that was at hand,” Andy said on his SiriusXM radio show, Andy Cohen Live.
The topic he’s talking about is the photo Erika posted to her Instagram story showing Garcelle’s memoir, Love Me As I Am, in the trash back in April. Erika revealed it was actually Lisa Rinna who had thrown the book in the trash because she was upset that Garcelle wrote about her daughter’s eating disorder in the memoir. Lisa Rinna and Garcelle confirmed that the two of them had moved on from the issue after Garcelle removed the mention from an audio version and second edition of the book.
But during this conversation, Lisa Rinna and Erika Jayne explained how the photo had spread. Lisa took the photo and sent it to a group chat. And when Erika became upset over a clip from the show that Garcelle had reshared about how bad Erika makes herself look on TV, she took the photo that Lisa sent to the group and posted it.
“There’s a separate group chat, obviously,” Garcelle said after Erika and Lisa's revelation.
A separate group chat of which the only Black cast member is not a part. Hm. I wish I could say this is a new low for Bravo but really, it isn’t. I’m always torn between what is to be expected in being a cast member on a show like Real Housewives and what is actually crossing the line. But over the years, the treatment of Black cast members has been so atrocious and so markedly unfair that it can be ethically and morally challenging to continue to indulge. And those are just my thoughts as a viewer. What is it actually like for Black Bravo cast members?
Former Real Housewives of Atlanta star and OG NeNe Leakes lifted the veil on her experience as a castmate earlier this year when she filed a lawsuit against Andy Cohen, Bravo and a bunch of other network subsidiaries. It was dismissed in August, and there were unconfirmed rumours of a $4 million settlement, but it chronicled network-wide issues with racism and the unfair treatment of Black staff.
Leakes accused Andy Cohen, Bravo, NBCUniversal, and others with creating “racially segregated workplaces in which racially insensitive and inappropriate conduct is condoned and allowed to fester, often creating discriminatory and hostile work environments for diverse talent who are working in their workplaces,” the lawsuit outlines. It went on to describe how Real Housewives is run as a segregated franchise, with “white shows” and “Black shows” with “little if any overlap or mixing between the two.”
And NeNe’s not lying. The very first installment of the show, Real Housewives of Orange County, premiered with just one “diverse” cast member, Jo de la Rosa, who was demoted to the role of a friend just two seasons later. The cast stayed all-white until the arrival of Peggy Sulahian in season 12, lasting one season. Again, an all-white cast until the arrival of Noella Bergener, who is bi-racial, in season 16.
Real Housewives of Atlanta was another one of the very first installments of the franchise to feature a mixed cast. Kim Zolciak-Bierman was the only non-Black cast member on the show from 2008-2012. The show has only featured Black housewives since her departure.
Other than that, Real Housewives of New Jersey has been almost exclusively Italian since inception. Real Housewives of Beverly Hills was all-white until Puerto Rican actress and model Joyce Giraud appeared in 2013. And Real Housewives of New York was all-white until the Queen Eboni K. Williams took the show by storm in season 13 – which only aired last year. Interestingly, Eboni’s time on the show resulted in an investigation into claims of racism by Ramona Singer, an original castmate on the show, who is accused of saying, “This is why we shouldn’t have Black people on the show.” And I’d bet my last dollar that every single word in that sentence came out of her mouth.
Unfortunately, NeNe’s lawsuit paints an ugly picture that extends far beyond the Real Housewives franchise. She listed former Vanderpump Rules stars Stassi Schroeder and Kristin Doute who were exposed by former cast member Faith Stowers, brought onto the show in 2015 to help with the lack of diversity. After her departure, Faith publicly expressed that she felt she was treated differently than the other cast members and reported being subjected to inappropriate race-based comments, including remarks that her hair was “nappy”. There was also the horrifying instance where Stassi and Kristen bragged about making a false report to the police that Stowers was a suspect in a crime. I need not describe the dangers of calling the police on a Black woman – falsely or not.
It took five years for Bravo to fire Stassi and Kristin. Granted, Faith didn’t share her story until 2018. But nothing happened after that. It wasn’t until she spoke up about her experience again in June of 2020, after the death of George Floyd, that Bravo took action.
Faith described Stassi and Kristin’s assumption that she was the same Black woman who appeared in security camera footage that had been circulating. The woman in the footage was accused of drugging men and stealing from them. Stassi and Kristin, self-proclaimed true crime fans, bragged about helping to solve crime by calling the police and suggesting the woman was Faith in a since-deleted episode of the Bible Bitch podcast.
Even on Below Deck, I can think of so many instances off the top of my head of the anti-Black racism we’ve seen chronicled in that show. It’s the exclusive, mostly-white yachting industry, after all. But nothing sticks out more than the literal chief stew of the yacht using the n-word in the presence of a Black deck hand, Rayna. The issue was escalated, but mostly brushed off with Rayna being gaslit and made to feel like it wasn’t that deep. During the reunion, Captain Lee Rosbach indicated there had been a full investigation into the use of the slur but that it had been determined that “no further action was required.”
That line is one that Black folks hear too often. But who made that decision? Who decided that “no further action was required” when the chief stew uttered a racist slur? What is the makeup of the HR department investigating Ramona’s racist comment? Beyond Andy Cohen, what does the production team and the HR team and the upper crust of Bravo even look like? Because what that line is really saying is we don’t deem this a serious enough issue to take action – and a lot of us are dying to know who the “we” really is.
And why would it be a serious enough issue to take action when racism has been proven to fuel ratings. People, myself included, waited with baited breath during this season of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills when Krystal alluded to a racist comment being made. Who said it? What was it? This is the stuff that makes reality TV.
But Black women have also played an integral role in making reality TV what it is. Some of the most iconic moments not only of Real Housewives history, but reality TV history, were created by Black women like Tiffany Pollard and Omarosa and so many others. There’s also the very obvious departure in discourse around behaviour. When Black women yell and flip tables on television, it’s viewed as messy and ratchet. When Theresa Giudice does it, it’s iconic. Why are we so overlooked? So poorly treated? So gaslit?
“I have deep admiration for Garcelle. She and I had a really good, productive conversation last Thursday and I should’ve been more in tune with her feelings. I get it,” Andy said during his apology.
Do you get it though, Andy? Do you?
I think Andy Cohen and Bravo owe a lot to their fans. It’s part of the reason the entire cast of Real Housewives of New York has been replaced with new, hot and young “influencer” type women (much to the dismay of like, everyone with a vested interest in the show). But more importantly, Bravo owes a lot to the Black women who have served as the foundation for much of the success the franchise sees, enjoys and monetizes today. And until the higher-ups are more reflective of the casts, until there is more diversity and discretion in the network’s decision-making, they face the risk of losing OGs like NeNe Leakes and fans like you and me.