Looking Back at the Debut of Real Housewives of Orange County, the Show That Started It All

In DepthIn Depth
Looking Back at the Debut of Real Housewives of Orange County, the Show That Started It All

The Real Housewives of Orange County wasn’t supposed to end up as it did. It was supposed to be a quaint little docu-series called Behind the Gates, which creator Scott Dunlop pitched to networks as a look into the dinner-party conversations he’d had with rich “housewives” in the affluent Orange County gated suburb of Coto De Caza, dubbed “Coto” by its residents.

Yet after 1,545 episodes, 84 seasons, and 11 spin-offs—not including the international variants—The Real Housewives is inarguably the most iconic reality television IP in any network’s history. It has spawned roadshows, podcasts, websites, and social media frenzies. There are conventions catering to its sprawling mass, or there were before the pandemic, anyway. Its stars, the housewives themselves (who are not always wives), have shaped the language of memes online for a decade, birthing new screencaps and GIFs and catchphrases and retorts at an alarming rate. Most important, however, is how the franchise has shaped the business of reality TV with the model that The Real Housewives perfected: a cast of zany socialites plugged into recurring confessionals and trailed by glam squads, personal photographers, and at least a half-dozen controversies. Throw a rock in any direction and it’s bound to hit a look-a-like.

What began as a peek into the world of the “real” Desperate Housewives of an exclusive California suburb ultimately evolved into a premiere television destination, where personalities are built, packaged, and shipped out en masse. The vacuous cast members of that first season of The Real Housewives of Orange County were primarily concerned with the sort of cars their neighbors recently leased and whether their nemesis in the school pick-up line had a real Rolex or a fake. But the devastating recession in 2008 collapsed that universe
and transformed the franchise into the juggernaut it is today. The show ultimately became less about simply having wealth, but the cutthroat and increasingly dramatic pursuit of it—the glitz and the grift that defines our era.

Beat for beat, the arc of The Real Housewives of Orange County charts the sudden death of an American dream and its zombie-like rebirth. No longer did the aspiring suburban rich need to while away the hours of their life in a nondescript office somewhere in San Bernadino or suffer with the children while their spouses promised better lives in the future. With the expansion of The Real Housewives into cities across the country, why not start a purse line, rent a McMansion, and try that elusive luck on television.

Behind the Gates was picked up in 2005 by Bravo, then just a minor player in the cable wars boasting innumerable failed reality television attempts and two breakout hits, Project Runway and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Fun and frothy, Bravo’s haphazard lineup was notable for catering to an oft-hinted-at gay audience, or at least, pop culture savants who may or may not have been gay. Former Bravo exec and current Real Housewives executive producer Andy Cohen’s rise into the pantheon of extremely famous homosexuals later in the 2010s only confirms this, as he was so clearly the architect of the network’s modern ubiquity, with his name plastered front and center on some of NBC Universal Comcast’s most profitable business ventures.

As Scott Dunlop later told the Guardian, execs at Bravo reworked Behind the Gates into a show more akin to Desperate Housewives, then a ratings hit and a pop-cultural obsession in a country consumed with wealth amid the economic boom that preceded the 2008 bust. Fox’s classically melodramatic The O.C, about disaffected Southern California teens, was yet another facet of this national fixation. Across America, plots of land were being bulldozed for suburban tract housing connected to swanky retail outlets by cars that were bigger, fancier, and more gas-guzzling than ever. The show it soon became, The Real Housewives of Orange County, launched on March 21, 2006, to near national fascination. Slate columnist Troy Patterson wrote at the time: “Here is a craftily presented slice of America that makes room for guns, silicone, status anxiety, and sibling rivalry,” noting: “What makes the show something better than a guilty pleasure is the way that, after introducing its subjects as borderline-reprehensible cartoons, it allows them flickers of self-awareness or shows them trying their damnedest to be terrific parents.”

In Washington Post critic Tom Shales’s review of the premiere episode, he wrote: “The people of Orange County as seen in this documentary look as though they couldn’t care less, that the whole thing is a kind of kick for them, and maybe an excuse to have parties.” The cast’s carefree whiteness and opulent display of wealth and frivolity made for a “persistently diverting journey: that would give “sociologists and anthropologists of the future” enough material to properly understand the ‘trash heap’ of a decade known now as the aughts.”

What’s shocking to the modern The Real Housewives fan, revisiting its first season, is how utterly devoid of drama it is. There are no catfights or thrown wine glasses or even glitzy overseas vacations where one cast member inevitably has a national news-making nervous breakdown. It was told as vignettes of different women’s lives as they juggled divorce, marriage, motherhood, and partying; the original cast included Kimberly Bryant, Jo De La Rosa, Lauri Waring, Jeana Keough, and the O.G. of the OC, Vicki Gunvalson.

In one episode, Bryant ponders breast implants. In another, Waring deals with a son in juvenile hall for cannabis possession. Gunvalson shows off her insurance agency, and De La Rosa adjusts to her engagement to the now-iconic villain Slade Smiley, later the husband of eventual cast member Gretchen Rossi. (As the show would reveal in later seasons, these women’s social lives ultimately became downright incestuous.)

Most notable were the possessions flashed on camera by the “wives.” They drove Hummers and BMWs and Suburbans, cars so big they announced a person’s presence from miles down the road. While many of their problems were recognizably human, they also contended with the specific dramas of the fabulous: boat purchases, mansion renovations, private school expenses, vacations. While more modern iterations of the Real Housewives are glamorous—lash extensions in anticipation of a new season, assistants and housekeepers and makeup artists, custom-made gowns, sometimes couture, for reunion episodes and media appearances—there’s something so banal in the first season’s flashing of new money in Southern California. It’s a landscape of golf buddies and clubhouse lunches and chunky statement necklaces and pool parties. It’s all so Republican, and blindingly white, without a single person of color in sight; its protagonists’ political imaginations don’t extend any further than their immediate economic interests and whether or not they’d be able to continue making their massive mortgage payments.

What’s shocking to the modern The Real Housewives fan, revisiting its first season, is how utterly devoid of drama it is.

The “reunion” of the women after a brief, eight-episode run wasn’t even a “reunion” as the modern The Real Housewives fan understands it. The women were not assembled in a room with host Andy Cohen. They weren’t dolled up by a horde of glam squad assistants. Nobody stormed out of the room or jumped across couches to attack a cast member. They looked as regular as they did all season, alone in front of a green screen, recounting what it felt like to be the very first Real Housewives ever. Some wore what appeared to be jeans, with hair extensions kept to a manageable level, while most others showed off iterations of the popular sky-top. Think a run-of-the-mill J.C. Penney blouse twisted up around the breast and cinched with a large, fake jewel brooch.

Later, in a 100th episode reunion, the cast members would once again reflect on that first season. Smiley revealed he and De La Rosa, who were both in a lower tax bracket than their cast members, had won spots on the show in an auction. Others, besides original cast member Keough, were difficult to select, as Dunlop’s team had difficulty scouting the notoriously private gated community of Coto de Caza. Ironic, as in the years since, lines form down the metaphorical blocks of Page Six each time a new The Real Housewives spin-off is announced. What’s stands out most, however, is an admission by Waring, who revealed on the special that in its first season, producers on the show encouraged the women to be their authentic selves, but in later seasons, changed that requirement, asking them to instead play upon the glamour and opulence of their lives. Vicki Gunvalson echoes this shift, saying: “I think when the cameras get on, people like to show off their shit.”

Unquestionably, this spawned the current climate of The Real Housewives, where no-name women from Salt Lake City can travel across the country with glam squads for seemingly no other reason than their appearance on television once a week. One season-five addition to the show, Alexis Bellino, boldly declared to cameras in the special, “I’m not going to apologize for liking nice things. It doesn’t make me good or bad either way, it’s just who I am.” Andy Cohen, however, sums it up most succinctly in the 100th episode: “What goes on with the Housewives is an incredible phenomenon. They are literally housewives one day, and the next day, they are very famous.”

Where fame is now pre-built into the architecture of Bravo’s The Real Housewives, these first women came into the limelight at a time when reality TV producers were looking to mine the lost corners of the country, with shows like The Real World, Survivor, and American Idol already dominating the landscape. Viewers saw a boom in exploitative programming, most famously on TLC, featuring Mormon sister-wives, families with sextuplets or people with rare genetic conditions, and all others onto which the television watchers of the country could direct their newfound fascination with the medium. While the women of Coto de Caza were scouted for their secretive lifestyles behind the pearly gates, it was their aspirational wealthiness that soon became the sole lens of the franchise.

No longer was it just about finding rich women in unheard-of places, just another quirky and fascinating slice of life one couldn’t see anywhere but on television. After that first season, the wealthy socialites of America came running and the format changed permanently. The differences between seasons one and two are so stark, they might as well be different shows entirely. Let alone between The Real Housewives of Orange County and its first two spinoffs, The Real Housewives of New York and The Real Housewives of Atlanta, which perfected the format: Cast wealthy show-offs and characters, ply them with alcohol, meddle in their personal lives, and film the ensuing chaos. Why dwell on the anxieties of a trophy wife back on the job market when wine glasses could be thrown in people’s faces? On those same two spin-offs, producers didn’t have to look far for a cast; not of suburban stay-at-home women but athlete’s wives, women connected to aristocracy, and once-billionaires. Sonja Morgan, Luann De Lesseps, Sheree Whitfield, and more are now among the franchises’ most famous faces.

What changed, predictably, was everything, but not all at once. Two years after the show premiered, a recession devastated California and the rest of the country—most visibly in the suburbs, where a subprime lending crisis left many in foreclosure and exploded major banking institutions after almost a decade of preying on homeowners with faulty loans and mortgages. In turn, the country’s taste also changed. As critics noted, RHOC’s first season was tinged with a hint of irony. It knew its subjects were ridiculous, but there was also an understanding that they had the capacity to be something else, should they choose. It was the room for error, and the capacity to prove viewers wrong—even if they failed monumentally at the task—that isolates the first entry in the franchise.

The growing viewership, coupled with this shift in the format of The Real Housewives, was equal parts repulsion and attraction. Easy to project upon, the sharpened format invited viewers to imagine how they would live should all their weekends be spent at luxurious golf club cabanas, or on private jets to Mexico. But as the recession deepened into one of the worst financial crises in American history, it could also be said that the same viewership had an active interest in the sudden reversals of fortune, as seen on the show or in popular media elsewhere. It was this tension that propelled the franchise to superstardom.

When the recession hit, it wasn’t just that tastes towards the wealthy changed. In response to the crisis, the women’s approach to their class status altered completely. Some hid their new financial predicaments from each other and the cameras. Famously, Lynne Curtin’s Season 5 eviction notice amid the recession was a recognizable (yet shocking) experience. Producers who had likely been setting up for filming that day caught the eviction process server as he walked up her sprawling driveway and to her front door. Her daughter opens the door and he asks, “Is your mom or dad home?” She disappears and then re-appears, and he hands her the slip again. “I’m here to serve an eviction notice, you’ve been served, your mom and dad have been served, thank you very much.” He leaves, the door closes, and you can hear her children say: “Is this for real?”

There’s something so banal in the first season’s flashing of new money in Southern California

Meanwhile, Alexis Bellino monologued about the fleet of “gas-guzzling” Porsches and Escalades that her family owned. (It was made comical by her insistence that they bought a Prius to “help the economy.”) In filming the changing lifestyles, and their increasingly tense interactions with each other, now that their fame had eclipsed the small suburb of Coto de Caza, viewers became conditioned to expect repeated moments of heightened drama.

Season 4 introduced perhaps the most controversial OC Real Housewife to date, Gretchen Rossi, a casting decision that has since been poured over by Real Housewives fanatics and historians like myself alike. Rossi, as her story went, was a down-and-out woman lucky enough to fall in love with a fabulously wealthy older man who was terminally ill and bound to leave his immense fortune to her. With others on the cast facing financial ruin or living through traumatizing divorces, Rossi stood out more than any of her peers, even despite the noticeable age gap between her and the other cast members. She was ditzy and awkward, dressed permanently in too-short dresses, with blowouts so big they might have been wigs stolen from Dolly Parton’s private collection. She was a monolithically Southern California woman, tan and flirty, not to mention that obscenely rich and soon-to-be-dead fiance. Her introduction was the beginning of the end of the first era of The Real Housewives.

Alongside Rossi, the most scandalous moments of reality TV in Bravo’s lineup include The Real Housewives of New York’s Season 3 episode set on “Scary Island,” in which cast member Kelly Bensimon had what appeared to be a nervous breakdown on camera; and the four-part The Real Housewives of Atlanta Season 9 reunion that toppled Phaedra Parks after she spread rumors that Kandi Burruss and Todd Tucker were sexual predators. Before these, however, was The Real Housewives of Orange County’s highly controversial Season 4 episode, “Naked Wasted.” It’s long been seen by fans as the moment the show changed permanently, all the way back in 2008. (Just check out one of the countless write-ups and examinations of the episode over on the official Reddit.) The women threw a dinner party, at which longtime villain Tamra Judge, then Tamra Barney, would try and “trick” Rossi into getting blackout drunk, so she could hook her up with her son and prove Rossi’s engagement was a sham. Judge would later retract her statements on the show, claiming her intention wasn’t to dangerously intoxicate Rossi—even though Rossi said at the reunion that season, and later in media appearances, that the experience left her feeling vulnerable and taken advantage of by her cast members. That incident set the stage for increasingly ludicrous feuds, manipulations, and outright scandals, egged on by producers, and expected of cast members if they planned to keep their seats on reunion coaches for very long.

The Real Housewives of Atlanta and The Real Housewives of New York also premiered in 2008, and while their first seasons would hew somewhat close to their progenitor in the OC, the broader culture was changing and the franchise with it. These monumental shifts from an unassuming docu-series to television juggernaut are felt in RHONY cast member Sonja Morgan’s own seasons-long financial ruin after her divorce from immensely wealthy banking heir John Adams Morgan; and in Teresa Giudice’s imprisonment alongside ex-husband Joe, who was later deported, after they were indicted in 2013 for conspiracy to commit bank fraud, bankruptcy fraud, mail and wire fraud, and making false statements on loan applications. Coincidentally, Erika Jayne joined the cast of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills that same year. Five years later, she and husband Tom Girardi would be implicated in a wide-reaching scandal, which alleged he had frauded investors, stolen settlement money, and funneled it through her budding tv and pop music career. By the time of their downfall in late 2020, viewers almost expected that a scandal of this caliber would play out on television. And months after the Erika Jayne story broke, newcomer and The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City breakout star Jen Shah was arrested and charged with running a “nationwide telemarketing scheme” by the federal government, which carries a maximum prison sentence of 30 years.

While the first season found rich women (somewhat) fully realized in the suburbs, their ensuing conflict in later seasons, and the national attention those conflicts drew, would build a pipeline for grifters, aspiring class-climbers, and future t-shirt entrepreneurs and influencers to find a place on television. Viewers, as history has proved, were more than welcoming of the change.

The suburbs, especially those that stretched out beyond the gates of Coto de Caza and across California, were built on the ideal of American exceptionalism and the isolationist belief in the nuclear family. Those early seasons of The Real Housewives of Orange County most reflected that, while the franchises it helped spawn would model a new American dream, as the old one collapsed around that very first cast of wide-eyed stay-at-home moms. Ironic, isn’t it? Even though the dream is dead, the ethos of the suburbs lives on in The Real Housewives: Covet each other’s possessions, peer through the windows of your neighbors, gossip on the phone, and sit alone in your living room, watching the worst bits of yourself play out in people just like you on television.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin