By Amanda Brown Heckert
Five pretty Georgia peaches, plump with collagen and ripe with ambition, sit as still as Evian in the pool house of the Pink Palace, a ludicrously lavish villa that has housed generations of Buckhead socialites and, now that it’s for rent, a Ne-Yo video. The women are the stars of Bravo’s The Real Housewives of Atlanta, and as their eyelashes are curled and their full lips frosted and their hair steamed and straightened against the early morning humidity, they are (so far, under the eye of a Bravo rep) behaving themselves. On the verge of a second season of what the New York Times called “the best choice for a time capsule of the Bling Decade,” Shereé Whitfield, Kim Zolciak, NeNe Leakes, Lisa Wu Hartwell, and Kandi Burruss are celebrities—midrange on the bell curve but quasi-famous nonetheless—for doing just the opposite (such as NeNe and Kim’s all-out slapfest at Atlantic Station this spring, all caught by Bravo cameras).
This semi-renown means makeup artists and hair stylists regularly preen over them, like the ones coming at their tired asses with flatirons and mascara wands right now. Some of us were out late last night. Kandi even got thrown out of Club Libra for throwing her water bottle at a dude!
It means free clothes from up-and-coming designers dying for a break, even if it only comes in the soft-core spotlight of cable.
It means the ladies get paid to do party “walk-throughs,” like they’re Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan. It means they’re asked to cohost Today, like NeNe did this summer.
Most of all, it means that by now they know that the flesh of fame is not flawless, but marred by spoiled and rotten spots. The blights that most concern the Housewives, though, are those caused by the public’s judgment. Our judgment. Our nasty blog comments, our stones of condemnation thrown with rocket force into the worldwide ether, calling the women an affront to their city, to their races, to good taste.
It hurts their feelings.
“I remember when we first came out, everyone’s excited—we didn’t know the show would be as successful as it is,” says Lisa. “But then you read a few [blogs] and you’re like, ‘Where are these people coming from?’ And they’re mean-spirited! Do they not know that you have children?”
Yet it’s not enough to make them take the Jaws of Life to their wrecked reputations. When it comes down to it, they will endure our slagging of their low class and their dirty mouths and their off-key country wailing. They will endure our most common complaint: They don’t represent Atlanta! They don’t even live in Atlanta! They will endure lemonade-and-cayenne-
pepper cleanses (Lisa) and no-carb diets (NeNe). They will even endure each other: “These girls are not my friends,” says NeNe. “I know this is a business relationship, and that’s where it begins and ends.” It’s a Sophie’s Choice between dignity and ambition, and they choose a huge, juicy bite of fame. Because even with the gossip and the rumors and the haters, don’t you see? Girl, it’s totally worth it.
Bravo presented The Real Housewives of Atlanta as a Southern sister of its earlier Housewives “docusoaps,” Orange County and New York, last fall. To use language coined by NeNe’s dapper gay hairdresser, Dwight, it was the reality-drenched network’s most “très très très déclassé” franchise yet—and its first to feature not just one minority cast member but four.
To manufacture (yes, manufacture—producers have been known to reshoot some scenes) its Housewives series, Bravo first cherry-picks a handful of wealthy “housewives” (a term used loosely; a few are divorced or never married) with over-the-top personalities and at least a dollop (if not a wallop) of dysfunction. Some of the women already run in the same social circle; others are cast for the sake of the cameras. Slapped together, they fumble through seemingly normal scenarios such as charity gala meetings or Sunday brunch gossip sessions that—thanks to the magic of editing, alcohol, or ego—tend to spiral into theater of the absurd by episode’s end. For the Atlanta Housewives, the show’s few sweet moments, primarily exchanges with family, get short shrift; warm fuzzies don’t win time slots.
But it was more than a high spectacle-to-episode ratio that made the Atlanta cast stand out. They were racially diverse—and it was no accident.
“Bravo was interested in expanding the series, and so the question became, without repeating what they had done, what would be new and different,” explains Steven Weinstock, an RHOA executive producer for True Entertainment, a New York–based production company that initially pitched the show to Bravo and now produces it. A multiracial cast was the answer. “So where are you going to find a high concentration of affluent African Americans? Atlanta comes up really quickly in the thinking. So we went to Atlanta and began to cast for a group of women who could work in the context of the franchise. One of the first people we talked to was NeNe Leakes. She’s just an incredibly big personality. And we said, ‘Wow, she’s terrific.’ When it was clear to us that we were very interested in her, we said, ‘Who do you know? Do you have friends?’”
Boy, did she ever. There was Shereé, built with the upper arms of a soldier and a striking, angular face that both belies her age and endorses the impression many TV viewers come away with: that she is a stone-cold bitch. Last season, for example, Shereé threw herself a birthday soiree and accidentally left NeNe off the guest list. Instead of attending to the problem, Shereé let NeNe—who was throwing an expletive-filled fit—languish in the driveway. “This is not that type of party,” Shereé sniffed. “That’s not what I want on my day.”
Kim, on the other hand, was RHOA’s good-time gal, a merry divorcee who served primarily as arm candy around town for her filthy-rich married boyfriend, the coquettishly nicknamed, not-yet-officially-identified “Big Poppa.” Her ballooning breasts, signature wig, and country music ambitions call to mind another buxom blonde not afraid to speak her mind: Dolly Parton—sans talent and class, that is. On the show, Kim is occasionally seen lighting up one of her twenty-daily menthols in front of her kids, who cough and beg her to quit.
No, the talent came in the form of the doll-like, half-Chinese, half-black Lisa, the “hustler” ex-wife of R&B crooner Keith Sweat, whose pre-Housewives resume had the most swagger. Her ventures included fashion design, acting, writing, producing, and selling real estate with her second husband, Ed. Her RHOA’s opening credit line—“If it doesn’t make me money, I don’t do it”—is no lie. Though mostly even-keeled, Lisa did have her moments. During a heated she-said/she-said last season, spitfire Lisa threatened Kim: “I’ll flip you over the couch, really. For real.” Now Lisa has competition in the skills-to-pay-the-bills department: Newest Housewife Kandi is a Kewpie-cute, Grammy-winning singer/songwriter whose fortune has seemingly not gone to her head.
And NeNe herself? She’s emerged as the RHOA fan favorite, a towering diva who “keeps it real” with her straight-shooting sass. She’s even charmed Anderson Cooper; last fall the CNN anchor admitted, “I like to keep abreast of The Real Housewives of Atlanta. You have to sort of watch to enjoy the fullness of NeNe,” referencing her ample, often-braless chest.
Bravo’s formula of crass over class worked. Within four episodes, the RHOA audience had doubled. A reunion special attracted 2.2 million viewers—at that point a record for a single Housewives franchise episode. When it came time to plan season two, producers ordered a dozen episodes—five more than what they’d asked for in season one.
“I was surprised at how successful it became and how much of a watercooler sensation it was,” says Andy Cohen, Bravo’s senior vice president of production and development. “It was different than anything else on TV. Even though it fits into the format we’ve created with the Housewives, I just don’t think there are a lot of rich black people on TV, especially reality TV.”
Like a child who eats candy without imagining cavities, the Housewives did not take into account the consequences of becoming reality stars. But we dug. Yes, we did; we Googled and we Nexised and we heard from a friend of NeNe’s cousin’s wife’s sister. And now we can see the decay under the Housewives’ veneers.
So we basked in the fact that Shereé (She’s not so high and mighty now!) was arrested for theft back in the Buckeye State in 1989 when she was nineteen.
Kim, bless her little Lifetime-movie heart, got entangled in a sordid affair with a police sergeant in Connecticut when she was a teenager. Since Kim was a witness in one of his criminal investigations, the sergeant was terminated. The scrutiny got so intense Kim almost didn’t come back for season two. “I had to come to terms with the fact that my life is my life, I love who I am, I have great children, and I’m just kind of signing up for the fact that [Bravo] is going to portray me however they want. But I’m not here to prove myself to America. I said, ‘As long as my daughters are okay with it, I’m going to go ahead and do it again.’”
Gossip about NeNe included claims that she was a former stripper, a rumor she tactically (if not tastefully) deflected during the reunion show last fall—“Ex-stripper? That’s false. I’m still a stripper. I strip most nights for Gregg.”
Lisa was not granted custody—something she’s trying to get now—of Jordan and Justin, her two boys with Sweat, upon their divorce. The judge deemed her unfit because, according to Lisa, she was living the on-the-go life of an aspiring actress at the time. And girl, did you hear? Lisa was sued by Sweat for, among other things, not paying back a $150,000 loan he had given her to produce a movie, Black Ball. She had to file for bankruptcy. We could go on, but you see the price, don’t you?
By now the Housewives have learned that attempting to preserve your mistakes in the vinegar of the past is futile. Because these days, anyone with a search engine can unscrew your shame, dump it in a pot, and turn up the heat.
Newbie Kandi is used to the limelight, has been since 1992, when Xscape hit the scene. But nobody said jack about the 1,500-watt stadium lighting of reality TV. Within days of the announcement that Kandi would be the new Housewife, blogdom was digging up dirt on her fiance.
“People just know [me] for my music or the songs I’ve written. They really don’t know my personal, personal business. When the blogs went crazy, saying stuff about my fiance, I was like, ‘Whoa! What did I get myself into?’”
She laughs. “I’m kind of scared, actually.”
To those outside Atlanta, the addition of such a diverse cast of characters to the Housewives pantheon must surely be a good thing, right?
“I love how Atlanta comes off as a really kind of integrated city,” says Cohen, based on the RHOA footage. “I think that’s kind of where our country should be everywhere, and I think that’s very cool.”
Cool, yes. But accurate? We have our doubts.
"If you’re not from Atlanta or Georgia or the South, I think the PR about Atlanta is that it’s a black city and there is a high level of integration,” says Ayoka Chenzira, a filmmaker and professor at Spelman College. “As someone who comes from the North, I have not found that to be true at all. I have found it to be extremely segregated. I think Cohen’s remarks are telling—that he doesn’t know very much about Atlanta.”
Still, at least the Atlanta version of Housewives shows a little diversity; men and women of all races are often shown kissing cheeks and writing charity checks. Contrast that with the social landscape depicted on The Real Housewives of New York—most of their parties are so lily-white the setting looks more like the Icelandic Parliament than the world’s melting pot.
“On the one hand, people are glad to see some kind of representation of black women on television,” says Chenzira. “On the other hand, it’s like, why does it have to be this? I think the Atlanta community is very offended because this is one of those places that has a very strong legacy around black people marching, fighting, struggling for equality. When my [college] girls look at that show, they are, quite frankly, appalled. [RHOA] is a version that doesn’t match up with a certain kind of sense of integrity and achievement that black Atlanta has for itself. It’s like junior high school, with money.”
During last season’s reunion special, Cohen brought up this conundrum to the women: “Do you ladies think the show, based on your actions, has been good or bad for the black community?” Shereé admitted she did initially feel pressure to represent her race well; NeNe said she didn’t really think about it.
A survey of blog comments on atlantamagazine.com, though, bears easy witness to the cruder, often spelling- and punctuation-challenged side of the inevitable backlash:
The rumor is that Kim was a stripper at the Cheetah club named ‘barbie’ till a few years back. PLEASE someone find some pictures!!! —“Hoochie”
I’m confused as to why SHE by SHEREÉ has a damn PR assistant. She was actually trying to be serious when she said she was a ‘busy’ woman, ‘her time was valuable’—With what?—being a pompous bitch? (LOL). —“Lila”
If all these women werent such classless hookers we wouldn’t be interested. Nee nee pisses me off . . . she’s soo hood. Kims is a hott mess . . . but her house is a dump. Nio ghetto ass bitches. —“Tgirl87”
The show need to look for some ‘real’ Atlanta socialites. These women are all broke and fronting. A better name for their show should be ‘Bankrupt, Foreclosed and Golddiggers of Atlanta.’ —“Carlea”
Such intense viewer reaction was another caveat of celebrity the Housewives didn’t expect. After all, Bravo wasn’t looking for women to replace Mayor Franklin—it was looking for women who wouldn’t constantly be worried about getting fired from Alston & Bird or booted from the Junior League for, say, telling someone to “close your legs to married men,” as NeNe oh-so-delicately advised Kim last season.
“There’s no way that five women can accurately portray all the women of Atlanta,” counters Lisa. “I’m being myself, and hopefully that doesn’t offend you. We make mistakes and we say things we regret. But I mean, my God! Cut us some slack.”
Shereé concurs: “We cannot represent all people. I can only be Shereé. I can only represent Shereé.” This is the same woman who represents Shereé in the first episode of the second season by pulling off one of the most explosive, vein-popping meltdowns in Housewives history. While planning her “Independence Party” divorce celebration, Shereé finds that her party planner is less than receptive to her concerns. The argument quickly escalates into a verbal battle royale, complete with a one-two “You need to watch yourself before you get checked” and “Who gonna check me, boo?” before the planner, physically restrained by his staff, ends with a cherry-on-top “Yo mama.”
“Is that something I’m proud of? Absolutely not,” says Shereé. “But it’s not pretend; it’s very real. After a while you forget the cameras are there, so something may come out that you wouldn’t want to say on TV. But I can’t turn it on and off like that. That’s me. I can’t change it.”
Even the most blue-blooded Swan Ball sister has to admit: It takes guts to open your life to the cameras. And when it comes to NeNe, it also takes balls. “I have what I call ‘camera balls.’ When the camera’s on, my balls come out—I’m not guarded at all. Then when the camera goes off, I go, ‘Oh my God! Did I just say that?’”
Though all of the Housewives similarly attribute their tendency to collapse in on themselves like a yelling, slapping, finger-pointing, hair-pulling, name-calling black hole to them just being “real,” it must also be a survival strategy. Because if there’s anything they’ve learned from the unceremonious eviction of season one Housewife DeShawn Snow, it’s that they’re not here to politely turn to their neighbor and ask, Will you please pass the jelly?—they’re here for ratings. For the drama. They’re here to dance.
Fame can fizz away quickly, like cotton candy hitting the tongue. Reality stardom is especially fleeting, and unlike other shows, RHOA offers no concrete prize, no tempting $1 million, Survivor-like carrot dangling from the end of this long-suffering shtick. So unless these women want to fade back into life B.B. (Before Bravo), now is the time to feign smiles and fight dirty and stand out in order to seize the show’s intangible benefit: a chance to translate this flash-in-the-pan Housewives phenomenon into a platform for longevity—and even more riches.
“It’s really important, now that I’m in it, to build a brand,” says NeNe. “You may as well make it work for you.” Her “brand” looks to include a boutique hotel; a new memoir she wrote with New York Times bestseller Denene Millner, Never Make the Same Mistake Twice; cohosting gigs on TV and radio; and maybe, down the road, a talk show.
Shereé is busy this season promoting her fashion line, She by Shereé. A fitness video is in the works. Crafty Kim is determined to make lemonade from lemons: When voice coach Jan Smith told her last year that she was living in a beautiful house with a “crack in the foundation,” Kim was initially deflated. But why let a professional opinion demolish your dream/delusions? So she named her first country single “A Crack in the Foundation.” We’ll also see Kim attempt to develop her own wig line after getting grief for her hairpiece last season. And Kandi, who’s working on a solo album, just wants to introduce more people to her music.
Of all the Housewives, though, Lisa seems most energetic and enterprising. She, too, has a book on the way, about domestic abuse and self-esteem, along with an expanded Closet Freak line, a starring role in a Debbie Allen–helmed sitcom on ION as Jasmine Guy’s best friend, and another self-produced and self-written film, The Root of All Evil. She also claims to ask the most of any of the Housewives for speaking events or party appearances: $10,000 to $15,000. “I know how much my time is worth.”
You bet she does. Her time as a Housewife is worth the humiliation and hurt feelings; this is her opportunity to take a tangled mess of matted yarn and knit it into a cashmere Closet Freak sweater. This is the Housewives’ big break—and it’s worth every ounce of flak we can fire at them.
Kim hikes her tangerine-tanned knee up onto the balustrade of the Pink Palace’s front porch and tosses her gum into the perfectly manicured bushes below. It’s our first shot of the day, and she’s wearing a hot pink number that she initially scoffed at—“too dowdy.” So our stylists taped it up to her mid-thigh (“Shorter! Shorter!”) till she was happy. It’s enough to make you wonder why we didn’t shoot at the Pink Pony instead.
But our photographer shouts, “Beautiful!” and she giggles and plays along. Finally, she rips away at the tape holding her top to her bosom and leans toward the camera, her jaw-dropping cleavage exposed to the crew and the dozens of fuchsia flamingos dotting the lawn before her. “Just act natural,” the photographer yells. In a throaty, nicotine-tinged alto, she barks back.
“Nothing about this is fucking natural!”