The ‘Real Housewives’ Shows Are in the Midst of an Authenticity Crisis
The wedding had it all: beautiful roses, a stunning bride, an intimate setting, and even a rom-com-ready redemption story. In the season finale of Bravo’s The Real Housewives of Potomac, fans watched Robyn and Juan Dixon once again tie the knot after previously divorcing in 2012. The now-happy couple walked into the sunset on a Maryland pier as Robyn joyfully waved her bouquet.
But suddenly, the screen went dark. A statement appeared. “Five months later, Robyn admitted that Juan had been inappropriately communicating with another woman prior to their wedding,” the words read. “The couple claims to have worked through the issue.”
Wait, what? Throughout the latest season of RHOP, Robyn’s husband Juan had been repeatedly accused of infidelity – the cause of the couple’s previous marital breakdown. Robyn’s co-star Karen Huger had doubted whether the pair, who got engaged again three years ago, were actually getting married. She then dropped the bombshell that Juan apparently had a mistress. The Dixons strongly denied this and, in response, Huger herself was accused of being unfaithful to her husband. It all got very messy.
After the current season and reunion wrapped filming, a woman claiming to be the “other woman” started posting details of an alleged sexual relationship with Juan on TikTok. The posts gained traction and Robyn eventually admitted that her husband had in fact been involved with another woman during the COVID pandemic. And despite her repeated denials, Robyn had known all about it before filming began. The Dixons still dispute that the affair was physical, but no one is convinced.
On social media, fans fumed that Robyn appeared to have not only lied, but actively accused her co-stars of infidelity while covering up her husband’s own indiscretions. Her decision to finally come clean behind a paywall on her Patreon, rather than the show she is presumably paid handsomely to appear on, felt like a further slap in the face. Soon, #FireRobyn began to trend on Twitter and her own co-stars spoke out about their disappointment that she had not kept her side of the deal to authentically share her life. “It tarnishes the integrity of the premise of our show. It tap dances on the intelligence of the viewership,” tweeted RHOP’s Candiace Dillard Bassett in an impassioned thread. “Why be open or genuine or authentic when the least of us can rob our viewers of the truth and continually be rewarded for it?”
Watching this scandal unfold, it’s clear that Dixon broke the invisible contract between reality stars and their audience, where fans might not expect her to share every part of her life, but feel they deserve a basic level of transparency. “Reading between the lines about what the Housewives are sharing and why adds an intriguing ‘meta’ layer to these shows that I actually love,” says Gibson Johns, host on Yahoo’s In The Know platform and writer of a Bravo-focused newsletter. But Johns thinks Dixon’s outright denial, plus the “empty deflection onto others,” has made the audience, her co-stars, and even the Bravo network feel “duped.” Basically, there is a difference between trying to keep something private, presumably for the sake of the couple’s sons, and straight-up lying about it.
Responding to the backlash, Dixon appeared on Watch What Happens Live to be grilled by Housewives reunion host and executive producer Andy Cohen. She also sat down with Cohen to film a one-on-one segment, which will be added to the final part of the upcoming reunion to hopefully provide fans with answers and some form of narrative cohesion. It remains to be seen whether she has done enough to save her job, but the damage to the show may well take longer to mend.
Right now, there is a crisis of authenticity facing some of Bravo’s Housewives shows. For the most part, this is being driven by the perception among fans that the stars are too preoccupied with creating “storylines” instead of sharing their real lives. Fans have become hyperaware (to the point of being borderline conspiratorial) that Housewives are trying to control the way they’re portrayed on the show, or inventing storylines as a means of distraction or self-promotion.
In this wider context, the Dixon scandal couldn’t have happened at a worse time. “Fans are always theorizing that the women are hiding stories, accusing others so that they don’t have to talk about their own mess, and otherwise conspiring over what they should and should not talk about on-camera,” says author Brian Moylan, writer of Vulture’s Housewives Institute Bulletin newsletter. “In my opinion, these things happen way less than fans think they do, but now that Robyn has been caught doing just that, everything is going to be looked at like it’s a new QAnon drop about JFK returning to Dallas.”
Elsewhere, The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City has also infuriated fans. This season, viewers were subjected to a bizarre plotline about original cast member Heather Gay getting black eye on a cast trip to California. Gay refused to reveal how she got the much-memed purple bruise on her face, which led to conspiracies about the cast and even the crew. Only at the reunion did Gay eventually admit, after weeks of teasing, that she was so “blackout” drunk she had no idea how it happened. A Bravo investigation into the incident also failed to find a culprit.
Excessive storylining is partly what led to the inevitable firing of Lisa Rinna from The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. In the latest season, Rinna seemed determined to make a major storyline out of an off-camera “breakdown” by Kathy Hilton, mother of Paris Hilton and sister of original cast member Kyle Richards. Even after filming wrapped, Rinna spent months posting about the incident on social media, only for it to fall short of expectations, leading to speculation that Hilton was being unfairly scapegoated. Rinna was branded a “bully” and booed at BravoCon, before being let go.
In the last few years, scandals engulfing these two Housewives shows have dented viewer trust in the wider franchise. On RHOBH, Erika Girardi’s estranged husband Tom Girardi was accused of treating his law firm like a “ponzi scheme” and stealing millions of dollars from clients, including orphans, burn victims, and the families of plane crash victims. Tom Girardi has been indicted on fraud charges. And in January, RHOSLC’s Jen Shah was sentenced to six and a half years in prison after pleading guilty to running a nationwide telemarketing scheme which targeted the elderly and the vulnerable.
Bravo’s true-crime era has generated plenty of headlines, but it has often left fans dissatisfied. For legal reasons, Girardi and Shah were unable to provide fans with the level of detail they wanted. Shah took things even further by protesting her innocence right up until she pleaded guilty, before skipping the reunion and backing out of a one-on-one interview with Andy Cohen. On these shows, Shah and Girardi both once appeared to “have it all,” but their lifestyles were nothing more than a carefully constructed mirage. Watching these façades collapse has been captivating, but it has lifted the veil on just how much reality TV and reality can differ.
In the wake of these respective scandals, it makes sense that some of the cast or even Bravo might feel pressured to amp up the drama. But with fans already feeling paranoid about being manipulated, doing so has created the perfect storm, where storylines that feel overcooked or straight-up invented damage the already-shaky trust in the authenticity of these shows.
The good news, for Bravo and its fans, is that authenticity isn’t in crisis on all of the network’s Housewives shows. The Real Housewives of Miami, which streams on Peacock, has become a fan favorite with drama that doesn’t feel nearly as high stakes as its counterparts. Similarly, The Real Housewives of New Jersey has returned to its roots by focusing on the strained relationships between family members and long-time friends who, even when they’re estranged or fighting, seem to genuinely care about each other.
Outside of the Housewives franchise, Below Deck — where the biggest drama is a drunken kiss or millionaire guests not liking the fancy dinner they’ve been served — proves that Bravo doesn’t need the highest stakes to create entertaining reality TV. And after a dismal ninth season, which led to calls for its cancellation, Vanderpump Rules has found its groove again. The show had become contrived, with matriarch Lisa Vanderpump awkwardly inserted into scenes and its premise unclear. Now, Vanderpump puts the show’s resurgence down to a renewed focus on “real” issues like divorce, breakups, and financial struggles. So far, there are two central questions of the season: “Is it OK to hook up with your friend’s ex?” and “Is it OK to ask friends to pick sides during a breakup?” These relatable dilemmas are what Bravo does best.
It’s easy to forget that the Real Housewives franchise became successful as a relatively fly-on-the-wall look into the lives of elite women. We watched how miniscule details, like whose names were on a charity luncheon invite, could spiral into all-out war on the Upper East Side. Gradually, the baseline of drama has risen and the women appearing on these shows also have much more to lose. On the whole, fans are comfortable with a certain level of producing and narrativizing – for many, dissecting that minutia is now part of the appeal, while others simply understand the need for even reality stars to have some boundaries.
But the current backlash presents a difficulty for Bravo. So far, the network’s strategy seems to be to follow the lead of its stars and then let the fans decide whether a storyline is fishy. There is a clear rationale for this: after all, if the “real lives” of these women include going out of their way to fake a storyline for TV, then surely that should be captured and fans should have the opportunity to call it out? But now that reality stars have shown they can’t always be trusted with such power, I wonder if Bravo’s producers need to spend more time trying to decipher which storylines are authentic before structuring several episodes or entire seasons of Housewives around plotlines which insult the intelligence of viewers.
Maybe these shows don’t have a huge, headline-grabbing storyline every season. When one doesn’t present itself, Bravo and its stars should have more confidence that lower-stakes, less-consequential drama can still entertain us if it feels real and genuine. Because after one-too-many forced storylines gone wrong, Housewives fans are now more paranoid than ever about being strung along. With some shows which were once genre-defining suddenly stuck in an authenticity crisis, Bravo should remember that viewer trust is fragile.