Wild Divorce Shakes D.C.
On television, she’s the glamorous, leggy MILF who can’t resist the urge to cut her co-stars down to size with dry-witted zingers delivered in a lock-jawed British accent. (“Chardonnay with froth?” she haughtily inquires, when famed White House crasher and co-star Tareq Salahi offers her beer in a wine glass.) But over the telephone, months after her show, The Real Housewives of D.C., has wrapped and is just beginning to unspool on TV, Catherine “Cat” Ommanney sounds harried and beaten down.
“I’m not in a very happy place,” says Ommanney, who’s emerging as the show’s surprising star (the anticipated scene-stealers, Tareq and Michaele Salahi, appear predictably plastic in comparison.) “Now I’m three stone lighter, and I’ve lost all my family.”
“I think there’s always got to be a villain in any show. But I didn’t imagine myself to be set up to be the villain.”
This is not the way reality-TV fairy tales are supposed to end. Where’s the Dancing With the Stars contract? The spread in Us Weekly with some other minor-league celebrity on the beaches of St. Tropez? The tell-all book deal? (Actually, that was in the works, but is now on hold due to the un-Cinderella-like turn her life has taken.)
• Tareq and Michaele Salahi Interview on White House CrashingOmmanney can boast of none of the above. Instead, all that her Housewives fame has brought her so far is the end of a marriage to a man who seemed in every way Prince Charming. (Ommanney already had a real taste of royalty, when she kissed Prince Harry in 2006 and blabbed about it to the British press, reportedly for $24,000; she has denied the payment.) A Newsweek White House photographer with a Pierce Brosnan profile and a head of wavy locks that inspired the nickname Lion King from former President George W. Bush, Charles Ommanney was every bit as dashing as his bride. Their story was equally picture-perfect. There was a “whirlwind, five-month” romance before he popped the question and she followed him from London to the U.S., where, unsurprisingly, she was chosen as the brassy Brit on the latest incarnation of Bravo’s hit series—set in the nation’s clubby capital—about ladies of not-so-slender means whose primary pastimes are glugging Chardonnay and gossiping behind each other’s backs.
On the show, the Ommanneys reside, along with Cat’s two young daughters from a previous marriage, and three dogs, in a sprawling, yellow clapboard house in the tony suburb of Chevy Chase, Maryland. But after Housewives finished filming in November 2009, the Ommanneys’ marriage imploded. Last May, Charles—who early on in the series shows a disdain for all the “swanning around” demanded by reality TV—walked away from the relationship. Cat says she has not seen or spoken to him, and that any hopes of reconciliation have been abandoned.
When he left, “he closed the door on every level.” She admits that her marriage “had some issues prior to filming,” but does not elaborate.
Charles’ feelings about the off-screen drama were printed in full in a New York Times story on Sunday. In it, he calls being on the show one of the few regrets he has in his life, and says that having to combine the dog-and-pony aspect of reality TV with his real life as a serious photographer was “embarrassing.”
His wife’s response? “Well, I’m kind of quite surprised, because it was actually his boss (at Newsweek) that asked me if she could put me up for the show. I didn’t know what I was getting into. I hadn’t heard of the show. So I find it quite ironic that Charles is obviously portrayed as being—everyone is feeling sorry for Charles, while I’m completely put out in the cold.”
“His boss said it wouldn’t be a bad thing for Charles, as Newsweek was in trouble, and Charles is an incredible photographer,” Cat continues. “And having him and his charming presence and his talent on TV wouldn’t be a bad thing for his career at all. So it wasn’t just about me and my book. She thought it would be a good thing for both of us.”
A call to Charles’ photo editor at Newsweek was not returned.
Charles is, indeed, given promotional moments on the show, not all of which he seems to resent. In one episode, after Cat is unhappy with a photo shoot for her book that’s been set up by her publisher, Charles swoops in and takes over. He dramatically whisks her off—in a convertible with the top rolled down—to Dupont Circle, where he photographs her riding up the Metro escalator, clad in a leopard-print coat and mile-high boots. The scene feels far more Vogue than Newsweek, with lots of “Brilliant, dah-ling” coos of approval.
Cat, meanwhile, serves as his non-stop publicist, bragging to the ladies about how Charles’ photographs of Barack Obama before the election helped him win, and showing off iPhone photos of Charles in a limo with Vice President Joe Biden.
It’s this shamelessness, along with Cat’s propensity to say what she thinks, that’s earned her the “mean” role on a show that was expected to revolve around the cringe-worthy antics of the camera-obsessed Salahis, who made headlines last November when they allegedly crashed the Obamas’ first-ever state dinner. She upsets Stacie Turner, an African-American Housewife with a Harvard MBA degree, when she shows up to a dinner party and sniffs, and then rejects, a glass of wine. Things get worse when, at another dinner, she disses Tyra Banks and Obama (the president, she complains, did not RSVP for her wedding), leading Stacie to believe Ommanney has racist tendencies.
“She was straight up rude,” Stacie says of Cat’s behavior. “And, you know, rudeness can be disguised in London brashness. OK, how do I say this gently? She is not used to being in an environment where it’s majority black people. I think she felt uncomfortable.”
This caricature upsets Cat, who sounds genuinely wounded when she says, “I think there’s always got to be a villain in any show. But I didn’t imagine myself to be set up to be the villain. There’s a lot of clever editing going on, because it looks like all my castmates don’t like me, but I got to be good friends with most of them. I hope that will come out later in the show, and people will see the kinder, nicer side of me.”
Sour grapes on Real Housewives
Over the past several weeks, Cat has been on a whirlwind publicity tour and has appeared mostly upbeat and chipper at all the press junkets and cocktail parties for the Housewives cast. But on the phone, she sounds uncharacteristically listless. “This is a miserable time in my life, and I’m very lonely.” (Besides losing Charles, she just shipped her daughters off to school in the U.K.)
As for the future, she says she has no interest in a second season of Housewives, with or without the Salahis, and that, “I have no idea what I’m doing.”
Meanwhile, her memoir, which she describes as “ Bridget Jones, except a mother’s version,” is “on hold, mostly because I’m not in a mentally great place to be super creative… It’s meant to make women hopeful that anything’s possible, and it’s supposed to have a really happy ending. Maybe there will be one day.”
Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast reporter for The Daily Beast and the author of The Men Who Would Be King: An Almost Epic Tale of Moguls, Movies, and a Company Called DreamWorks.