For 48 hours, the Real Housewives fandom was buzzing.
Maggie Kelley, the creator and operator of @BestOfBravo, was waking up from a nap at her home in Nashville earlier this month when she reached for her phone and took in the news through a flurry of group chat messages: soap star-turned-reality TV MVP Lisa Rinna was departing The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills after eight years.
“I was like, ‘Oh, my God,’ and immediately I started composing a post,” said Kelley, referring to her Instagram fan account, which pumps out memes and news bites to the glee of 226,000 followers.
“That’s just my first reaction – to get the news out there for my followers.”
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Roughly 3200km away, in Southern California, the proprietor of @QueensofBravo, who requested anonymity in order to continue making Housewives content in peace, was working their administrative job when the news hit.
“To quote Lisa Barlow [of The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City], I was shaking. I was physically shaking,” they said. “I couldn’t even say words because I was trying to post as quickly as possible. I peaced out of my job for a solid 15 minutes – I was like, ‘I’m taking my break,’ and I just started posting. The news was not a surprise to me, as I had been hearing this since October from people fairly close to production. But it was shocking that it came at that point in time.”
@QueensofBravo’s owner knew, like anyone who counts Housewives such as Kyle Richards and Teresa Giudice as main characters in their group chat, that the following day was already slated to be a headline-maker: The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City cast member Jen Shah was scheduled to be sentenced for her role in a telemarketing scheme targeting senior citizens.
“We’re well past 10 years of this franchise being on the air, and it’s still making national headlines,” Kelley said. “I muted my work call to listen to Jen Shah’s sentencing, and I know I’m not the only one doing that.”
Real Housewives isn’t just a reality TV saga. The Bravo mainstay is also an addictively messy and scandal-plagued fantasy epic, one that has obsessed fans throughout its nearly 17 years on air. And as with Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones, its admirers aren’t passive viewers; they’ve become a vital part of the Housewives ecosystem.
In fact, they’ve become main characters in their own right.
Thanks to real-life controversies – including Shah’s six-and-a-half-year sentence and the legal proceedings involving Beverly Hills Erika Girardi, aka Erika Jayne, stemming from alleged financial crimes by her estranged husband Tom Girardi – fans are no longer satisfied waiting for a new season to unfold. And a cottage industry of chatty podcasts, metacriticism and spoof accounts has sprung up to serve them: Followers can find support and updates on Instagram, TikTok, Reddit and other platforms, where a community of Housewives obsessives gather at handles like @BestofBravo, @QueensOfBravo, @RealMomsofBravo and @BravoandCocktails_.
From Housewives GIFs to Brad Goreski’s meticulous and comical reenactment videos, the franchise’s fandom has created an internet subgenre in its own right. And while its intensity and dedication is easy to dismiss or trivialise, its rise has reshaped how we view – and, by extension, the power of – a TV genre that’s typically not taken seriously.
“It’s close to its own little religion,” said Kristen Warner, an associate professor in the department of journalism and creative media at the University of Alabama. “The Housewives folks are committed, and very loyal, and have lots of opinions.”
Vanessa Rizi and Abby Steffens, both 37, began the Real Moms of Bravo podcast in November 2018 as working moms trying to foster a creative outlet all their own. For the friends, who met as students at the University of Missouri, the Real Housewives has long been a subject that regularly sparks lively exchanges.
“At first, we were like, ‘Do we do this? There’s other podcasts out there,'” Rizi said. “But I talked to Abby and I was like, ‘You know what, there’s a million true-crime podcasts and no one’s complaining about the number of true-crime podcasts. So why not do one with a motherhood angle?”
Rizi, who lives in Kansas City and works in account management, is a mother of two girls; Steffens, who lives in St. Louis and works in sales, is a mother of three boys. In the recap podcast, which now boasts more than 180 episodes, they often key in on topics like the relatability of The Real Housewives of Potomac star Candiace Dillard-Bassett’s in vitro fertilisation journey. And while the podcast began as their primary focus, its accompanying Instagram account provided more immediate insight into the following they were building.
“We got really competitive and into it,” said Rizi of the account, which now boasts 91,000 followers. “And we just kind of threw ourselves into this world of Bravo and this bubble of meme accounts and things that I never thought I would be into. But here I am.”
For some of these Housewives pundits, enthusiasm for the franchise (and Bravo programming more broadly) spilled into social media and other platforms as they sought to extend the escapism of something they enjoyed. The handler of @QueensofBravo, whose indoctrination into the Housewives-verse began with Beverly Hills, launched their account during the pandemic; it now has nearly 140,000 followers on Twitter and 161,000 followers on Instagram – actor Sharon Stone among them.
“I didn’t go all-in until the pandemic,” they said. “I was still working, but working from home, so not doing the commute as much. I just had so much more free time on my hands. And like everybody else, you were just on social media and you’re talking about these shows, or looking around [for information on them]. There was something that was missing and I wanted to put my voice in there as well. I don’t think I always have the most popular opinion out there.”
The woman who runs the Bravo and Cocktails website and social accounts, and asked to be identified only as B in order to speak candidly about the work, found the distraction a form of therapy when she launched her page in 2019.
“My mom was sick,” she said. “I was a full-time working mom of two kids sitting in a hospital waiting room for hours. And I always had my Instagram and I was looking at other fan accounts. I remember calling my sister-in-law being like, ‘What do you think about me starting an Instagram [fan] account?’ As things got bad with my mom, it just became an outlet for me to zone out from the serious and heavy stuff that was going on. I just started making memes. I’m not a techie at all – my degrees are in psychology. I remember asking younger people like, ‘Which app do you use? And how do you do it?’ And so my memes were always very basic, but I thought they were funny.”
Memes are still a mainstay on the grid, but the focus has increasingly shifted to posts with updates about the goings-on of Housewives and other Bravo stars. Reporters at some outlets sometimes tip off the fan accounts about news that will drop to help boost clicks. In addition to monitoring and sharing news gathered by other outlets or fan pages, most accounts steadily build their own roster of insiders who disclose bits of gossip.
“Does talent contact me? Absolutely,” said B of Bravo and Cocktails, who also co-hosts a podcast called “Cocktails and Gossip.” “It’s sort of like a broker system. Stuff comes to me and maybe I’ll message somebody and say, ‘Hey, listen, I got this. I don’t really want to post it …’ And they’ll give me something so I don’t. It’s not necessarily what people assume, like, it’s directly from a Housewife. Often, it’s their agents, their PR people. I don’t work in this world at all. But I have a lot of different sources.”
The admin of @QueensofBravo takes this outlook: “Look at the DC or Marvel universe – people want to know everything about what’s going on, what’s coming up in the next year, who is joining the cast … In this ‘everybody is Gossip Girl’ world of social media, you’re getting content that you wouldn’t get in other publications. They want it now, in real time. It takes like eight months for [new seasons of] these shows to come out.”
The online discourse can lead to anticipation – and also disappointment. In July, Shah pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud as part of a plea deal in her federal case, and viewers eagerly awaited the current season of Salt Lake City, which premiered in late September, to see how it would handle the lead-up to that development. Whispers on Bravo blogs and fan pages about Kathy Hilton’s alleged meltdown on a group trip to Aspen during the most recent season of Beverly Hills left fans disgruntled when it turned out that much of what was alleged happened off-screen and addressed only in confessional interviews.
“The Bravo accounts used to mostly just be memes and pictures,” said @BravoandCocktails_’ B. “But some accounts started posting more tea; people like that, so other accounts felt that they needed to get into that. And I think that the more accounts there were, the bigger we got, the more the network bought into it, the more that the PR people and the ladies themselves bought into it – it’s marketing. It costs nothing for Dorinda [Medley] to send me a bottle of bourbon; she knows I’m going to post it, and now my 100,000 followers are going to be like, ‘Did you like it?’ And if I say yes, they buy it. It’s changed the landscape completely.”
The undeniable force of the fan base that surrounds Housewives, as well as the network’s other addictive programming, is partly what prompted Bravo to launch its own convention, BravoCon, in 2019. It’s since become practically a pilgrimage site for the network’s most ardent fans, who enthusiastically pay good money to see Tamra Judge’s breast implant in a museum display box or the chance to snap a photo with former cast members like Dorinda Medley (The Real Housewives of New York City) and Phaedra Parks (The Real Housewives of Atlanta).
“I kind of went into it as a journalist in a way,” is how @QueensofBravo’s owner described their role at last year’s event, held in New York City. “I would post polls, ‘Who’s going to BravoCon?’ and it was basically like 5% of people going. A lot of the people couldn’t attend. I felt like it was my duty to be the boots on the ground for the people that couldn’t be there. So I was looking for tea and moments. I was literally making memes and posting stories while there like I would if I was watching the show at home.”
And the reach of these fan accounts has also made them a desirable marketing tool for Bravo itself, which provided complimentary or discounted passes to a select number of accounts.
“The Bravo fandom is unmatched in their loyalty, passion and dedication. They are a critical part of our brand DNA and we value them tremendously for their opinions,” says Ellen Stone, executive vice president, Entertainment Consumer Engagement and Brand Strategy, NBCUniversal Television and Streaming. “Listening to their feedback is extremely important to us, and we love engaging with them on a personal level across various platforms each week, or in-person at events like BravoCon.”
The biggest fan accounts generate enough chatter to engage Housewives themselves, past and present, who are prone to liking, sharing and commenting on posts – or occasionally blocking the accounts altogether. Kelley, who began her account in July 2018, took the opportunity to playfully confront Rinna last fall at BravoCon, as the polarising, pillowy-lipped star was greeting fans at a merchandise van hawking products from Rinna’s beauty line.
“She was like, ‘Oh, you’re one of the only ones [fan accounts] I like'” Kelley recalled. “And I go, ‘Well, you blocked me. Why did you block me?’ She was like, ‘I didn’t block you, did I?’ I said, ‘Yes you did. And then you unblocked me.’ And she said, ‘Oh, yeah. Well, I was blocking everybody.’ “
Sometimes, the drama stoked by gossip sites and fan accounts spills back into the show, fueling cast members’ on-camera arguments.
A video of a shirtless Luis “Louie” Ruelas, the beau of original cast member Teresa Giudice, was a big talking point of The Real Housewives of New Jersey Season 12 – and eventually led to a screenshot of @BravoandCocktails_, the first to leak the video, being featured in an episode. (“I got 30,000 followers overnight,” B said.) The account was also later name-checked by “RHONJ” cast member Margaret Josephs during an appearance on Watch What Happens Live.
And a screenshot of a tweet posted by @QueensofBravo featuring a grid of photos of Jayne snapping at fellow cast member Sutton Stracke with the caption, “And not once was she called a bully by anyone,” was shown during the reunion for Season 11 of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. (As pointed out in the reunion, cast member Garcelle Beauvais had engaged with it online.)
“That was fairly special,” the @QueensOfBravo account holder said. “Queens of Bravo will always be part of Bravo forever – forever. People all over the world are going to be able to see – and it had my logo on there too.”
But becoming one of the real pot-stirrers of the Real Housewives universe is demanding work, especially as the proliferation of fan accounts leads to fiercer competition. Ex-Housewives themselves have even jumped into the fray: Former cast members Tamra Judge of Orange County and Teddi Mellencamp of Beverly Hills have their own podcast devoted to breaking down the action, “Two Ts in a Pod.”
On a typical day, B of Bravo and Cocktails wakes up early and spends about two hours focused on the account and preparing her posts before shifting attention to her day job. After work, she goes through the website’s inbox to scan for any tips or leads. And there are spurts of attention too: After making her daughter a snack, B will squeeze in 10 minutes to focus on the account; when her daughter is at soccer practice, B watches her from the car while also monitoring for news with posting potential. The shift to working from home during the pandemic has provided more flexibility.
The popularity of these social media profiles can be lucrative, leading to subscription-based offshoots of their content or partnerships with brands.
“I started to get opportunities for ads and Amazon and things like that,” said Kelley, who works in healthcare IT recruiting. “Before that, it was nothing. And I’m putting like 40 hours a week into this. And I was fine, that was never my intention whatsoever. But at the end of the day, it’s extra money, why would I not take it?”
To understand the intensity of the Housewives fandom, Racquel Gates, associate professor of media and cinema studies at the CUNY College of Staten Island and an avid “Housewives” viewer, said it’s important to acknowledge the franchise’s roots in soap operas.
“The thing that reality television has going for it, in terms of audience engagement, is that you get to build relationships with the cast members, especially if you have cast members who’ve been on for 10-plus years,” Gates says. “We’ve seen people get married, we’ve seen people have their kids on camera, we’ve seen those kids grow up. … We’re invested in their lives.”
It’s the same link B, of Bravo and Cocktails, cited to describe the hold the franchise has on her.
“My mom and her friends would get Soap Opera Digest, and they would talk about the cast, they would call each other up and talk about what happened in whatever episode of ‘Days of Our Lives,'” she says. “So for me, it was a very familiar thing. Once I was in my older teens, early 20s, when ‘Housewives’ came out, this was more relatable than the fantasy of soap operas and still addicting. I think people my age, we’re kind of doing what our moms did with soap operas. When you work full time and you have kids and you’re married, it becomes a thing where your time is limited. I just got to a point where I was basically exclusively watching Bravo.”
Added Steffens: “Some people might say – and typically it’s men – ‘Oh, it’s just some silly show about women fighting,’ but it’s so much more than that. If it was just that, it wouldn’t have the fan base that it does.”
If creating content in response to pop culture is a common feature of fandom, what’s unique to the “Housewives” contingent, according to media studies scholar Warner, is that such output typically revolves around fictional characters.
“The way that we talk about these people is as if they were fictional characters,” Warner said. “So when I’m watching clips out of BravoCon, and there’s a fan saying, ‘Here’s another thing I don’t like about so and so’ – it’s like having an argument with a character in a show that you love. It’s that kind of energy that is so different and it’s what Bravo has brought, and wrought, in this weird way, because we’re doing this with reality television.”
That blurring of the line between fiction and reality has consequences: Cast members may have signed up for the spotlight, but they aren’t immune to criticism, which can often be mean-spirited. And the most powerful fan accounts can make or break a Housewife, whose run on the series depends on their ability to gin up drama without appearing to be disingenuous – and thereby alienating viewers.
“I think it’s gotten to a crazy level, much like the politics in the country right now,” Rinna told the Los Angeles Times in a 2019 interview. “I don’t think it’s great. I think they’ve lost [sight of] the fact that it’s a TV show, it’s fun. They’ve taken it very seriously. I mean, I’ve had death threats.”
The majority of fans maintain a healthier relationship with the series, though – one Steffens compared to her husband watching “college football all day Saturday, [NFL] all day Sunday, Monday Night Football, Thursday Night Football, because it’s just a break from your everyday life.” As her “Real Moms of Bravo” partner Rizi put it, the franchise is “the best form of escapism.”
“These women have let us into their lives, and you still feel the need to keep up whether you want to or not,” she said. “As a community, we all thrive on the big moments and ‘Housewives’ gives us so many – either big blowout fights or funny moments. And I think we collectively like to be in on the joke. I really just enjoy petty drama sometimes when it’s not my own.”