It’s not often that I review books here on B-Side Blog, what with my penchant for such lowbrow offerings as Big Brother, Jersey Shore, and various silly adventures in my friends’ apartments. However, every so often a volume comes my way that feels totally apt for this site: specifically, The Real Housewives Get Personal, a companion reader to the hit Real Housewives franchise. I was lucky enough to be sent an advance copy of the book (before Bethenny received the alleged “first copy” on Watch What Happens), and I was only too happy to curl up by the pool and comb through it.
I’ll get right to the point. As much as it pains me to say this, The Real Housewives Get Personal is essential reading for fans of the show. Or rather, it’s essential reading for fans of the show who are headed to the beach, many of whom are probably are doing just that this very weekend. The book is big, splashy, glossy fun — full of colorful photos, charts, and sidebars. Heavy reading this is not. Instead the whole thing presents itself like a giant issue of People Magazine, minus perhaps some of the journalistic gravitas.
Written in a frequently snarky, occasionally earnest, and always accessible style, The Real Housewives Get Personal is a surprisingly exhaustive review of the past several years of the series. Nearly every cast member, past and present, is profiled with one notable exception: Sonja Morgan of the New York cast, who clearly joined Bravo’s lady army a touch too late to be included (however, one of her quotes, as well as several others from the infamous “Crazy Island” episode, managed to quietly sneak into the book).
While Ms. Morgan may be conspicuously absent, many others get their time in the spotlight once again. We get multi-page spreads for Vicki (Orange County), Jill (New York City), and Danielle (New Jersey), but we also revisit some forgotten faces: born-again cougar Quinn, NBA wife DeShawn, and transient cast member Tammy. The men also get plenty of ink too. Notable “gay husbands” Dwight and Brad (from Atlanta and NYC, respectively) each earn sizable sidebars, and the two Simons (Van Kempen and Barney) also get a blurb or two to speak their minds. The latter Simon, formerly married to Tamra from Orange County, uses this outlet to slam his ex, likening her to “kryptonite.” It’s one of many cutting barbs scattered like broken glass throughout the book. Some jabs are rather blunt. Slade Smiley (hold your groans) attacks his ex, Jo, in a screed, saying, “I think her music would have been much more successful if she had actually worked harder than everyone else around her.” Other catty remarks glide in on a cloud of passive aggression. Case in point: Lisa Wu Hartwell, who when asked if she’s a copycat for heading into fashion much like fellow housewife ShereÃ© Whitfield, pretends to take the high road by saying, “What are we in — grade school?” However, she then follows up with a playground zinger of her own: “I can’t copy what you haven’t done, sweetheart.”
Each chapter is dedicated to a different iteration of the franchise, in order of their airing — Orange County, New York City, Atlanta, and New Jersey — and each chapter is divided into lively profiles of each cast member. Long departed women from the franchise receive just a few paragraphs of background coupled with some vital stats (age, marital status, occupation, birthplace, etc.). However, current cast members (and noteworthy former ones) get the full treatment. Their profiles begin with comments from the producers, often saying how they found the women and what their appeal was. Many times this proves to be the most interesting part of the entire book, and if anything, we’re left wanting to learn more about the behind-the-scenes production of it all. Sadly, the goal of the book is not to provide insight as to how the whole operation works; it’s merely to extend the brand of these women, and to that effect, it succeeds. Reading the profiles of each cast member is a nifty way to travel back down memory lane, reliving some of the glorious fights, cattiness, and follies these crazies have to offer.
Much of the book’s humor lies in the clever extras sprinkled throughout each chapter. Author Martha O’Connor has a sly way of both mocking these women’s neurosis while somehow celebrating them at the same time. A full page comparison of Ramona vs. “Ra-mean-a” simultaneously pokes fun at Ramona Singer’s more idiosyncratic moments (ie. one-upping New York Governor David Paterson in the blindness department) while reminding us of the fun we had cringing along to her insanity. Meanwhile, a humorous sidebar about ShereÃ© asks the reader “When it comes to treating yourself well… are you standard… or are you ShereÃ©?” Standard: “Celebrate the end of your long, drawn-out divorce with a few good friends and some drinks.” ShereÃ©: “Celebrate the end of your long, drawn-out divorce with an independence party where you’ll be arriving by helicopter.” You get the point.
Along with humorous sidebars and commentary from the producers, most profiles also come replete with a handful of questions for the housewives, and while most of the Q&A is pure fluff, there are a few pointed questions (and responses) here and there. When the ladies are feeling vaguely nasty, they often reply with polite refrain, serving us up insincere platitudes in an effort to appear ladylike. Every once in a while, however, the claws come out. Tamra pulls no punches while discussing Jeana. “I think that [Jeana] appeals to Middle America because she’s not the skinniest girl on the show,” Tamra says with a mild attempt at tact before ultimately giving up on civility and announcing “She’s a bitch.”
Sadly, there’s not too much by way of follow-up with the questions, but again, this is light summer reading; not the second coming of Frost / Nixon.
The interviews certainly provide touches of insight to the women here and there, but perhaps the greatest value they add is unintentional humor. Avid fans of the show will be able to hear these housewives speak, such as when LuAnn discusses cell phone etiquette in an elevator. One can almost imagine the Countess recoiling in disgust as she asks, “Can you imagine if everybody was having a conversation in an elevator? I just think it’s awful when people use their phones in elevators.”
For some housewives, the interviews upend some of the preconceived notions we’ve developed about these women. Danielle Staub’s entry almost makes us forget that she’s crazy (as an added bonus, she spills the beans very specifically as to why Caroline got pissed at her during the season one reunion). For other housewives, however, the interviews simply reinforce perceptions we already have. Take Kelly Bensimon and her inflated sense of self-worth. Her interview is laughably filled with priceless, head-scratching comments that don’t shy away from immodesty.
On her husband: “I was young, but I had this education, and I had traveled so much that I was wise beyond my years.”
On the public: “Everybody tells me all the time, ‘You’re so down-to-earth, you’re the most down-to-earth Housewife, you’re the most easygoing Housewife. We just want to be like you.'”
And on her personality: “I’m the most generous and genuine person. Everyone always says that.” (Of course, since this is Kelly, she finishes the latter statement with the nonsensical conclusion, “I’m, like, grassroots.”)
Amidst all the sidebars, interviews, and blurbs are oodles of quotes and photos, all of which serve to conjure up our fondest memories of this most campy of guilty pleasures. It’s a neat, appealing package, whose only real detraction is a lack of depth. Sure, there’s content, but I would have liked just a touch more analysis about the show’s appeal or perhaps a theory as to what attracts us to each locale. Maybe someone could touch on what was going on at Bravo (and pop culture in general) that allowed the franchise to grow and flourish.
I suppose the best place for all of that would be in the foreword, written by Andy Cohen (repeatedly cited as Bravo’s Head of Programming and Host in every chapter). With his two page allotment, Cohen admittedly doesn’t have much space to really expound on the cultural ramifications or deeper subtext of the series (not to mention its affect on Bravo), but a perfunctory effort would have been better than what’s currently on display: a dopey rundown of Andy’s favorite and least favorite reunion experiences, written as if it came from an eighth grader who is trying to impress a second grader (“The Housewives make me smile” is how the foreword begins). There’s a brief discussion about the appeal of the show, but overall, the whole thing is embarrassing and somewhat narcissistic; kind of a terrible way to welcome readers to what is otherwise a fun trifle of a book. We know Andy is smarter than what’s on the page. That no one asked him to dig deeper is a bit disconcerting.
Of course, it may be asking too much for a book such as The Real Housewives Get Personal to delve into anything deeper than Alexis Bellino’s boob size (“Watermelon” is the official measurement, for those wondering). We may have to wait for the more academic-minded tomes to hit the bookshelves before we get any real food for thought. For now, Housewives fans can simply enjoy some gossip and factoids, which isn’t a terrible way to spend a warm afternoon by the beach.
The Real Housewives Get Personal arrives in stores July 1st.