Their faces are a vibrant shade of sunbed orange. Their clothing choices and pushed-up boobs resemble a theatrical caricature of a hooker. And their bitch fights are wild enough to put the fear of God into a pack of stray cats. These are the five, affluent middle-aged stars of the reality show Dublin Wives, and from the moment they first appeared on Irish TV last year, they have been the most talked-about women in Ireland.
Dublin Wives—the show is not made by the team behind the U.S. Real Housewives series, hence the slightly different name—returned for a second series on Ireland’s small independent TV3 channel that concluded last week. The show, made for a paltry €15,000 ($18,000) per episode with a paycheck of €125 per wife per show, performed more than respectably in the country’s ratings once again, with about a quarter of a million viewers for each of the five episodes. It’s not bad for tiny Ireland, with 4.5 million citizens. By comparison, the country’s top rated soap, Fair City, gets about 400,000 viewers.
Slack-jawed viewers were treated to a vintage display of bitch-fights and back-biting as a row escalated over an alleged remark passed by one of the wives. Middle-class plastic surgeon Danielle was accused of calling Jo, the estranged partner of Dublin’s one-time carpet king who grew up in Dublin’s toughest housing project, a “knacker”—a derogatory term for a person of traveler stock that is the Irish equivalent of the N-word.
The four wives closed ranks against Danielle after her alleged “knacker” comment and flew off for a New York shopping trip without her. Danielle then claimed she was being “bullied” by Jo and Virginia, the scion of a “fish and chip dynasty,” over the incident.
Off-air, meanwhile, the plot thickened when a voicemail message left by Virginia telling Danielle she would sue her if she kept on “making stuff up” about her in the papers was posted on YouTube. (Danielle admitted to The Daily Beast that she played the message to journalists but swore blind she did not post the recording, claiming it was the work of an unknown journalist or blogger. However, a producer of the series pointed out in an interview with The Daily Beast that post-Leveson, most journalists have developed something of an aversion to fooling around with other people’s voicemails. The recording has now vanished from YouTube.)
Whilst we Irish are used to the players in British and American reality shows spilling their guts, the cult of public self-revelation is still a somewhat shocking phenomenon in Ireland. This is part of the thrill of Dublin Wives. The Irish are intensely private people who still have a good old-fashioned horror of other people knowing their business, so the sight of so much dirty laundry being aired in public is still a cause of astonishment. Ireland is such a small country that it is still possible to feel everybody really does know each other.
Another part of the Wives’ attraction is their relative lack of media savvy and/or training compared to their counterparts in the U.S. and U.K. shows. As producer Stephen McCormack says: “There is an honesty and a naivety about them. We like the lack of polish.”
Then there’s the makeup, which makes American newscasters look conservative with the trowels. The thick pancake on Dublin Wives is a kind of secret sixth character—a particularly thrilling, really bad guy who can make a scene-stealing appearance at any moment. It’s as often as not the makeup, or the astonishing décor choices in the sumptuous houses, that can have you screaming at the telly or hiding behind the sofa peering at the screen through your fingers as you wait for the next spray-painted wife to come sauntering into shot.
Terrifyingly for the faces of young Irish people, one of the subplots involved Jo’s plans to launch a makeup line, which produced the following bit of MBA-worthy business-planning dialogue with wife Lisa Murphy, the platinum blond former squeeze of Riverdancer Michael Flatley and beauty editor at Irish gossip magazine RSVP:
Jo (glowing orange, frozen forehead that looks like it has been forcibly stretched around a football, and drawn-on eyebrows): “I’ve had an idea for a long time. I’m going to go to Miami and start a makeup line.”
Lisa (made up like Barbie circa 1970 in a koala bear phase): “Brilliant. What type of makeup do you have in mind?”
Jo, “I want to hit the Mac end, but at a cheaper rate. Same quality and all that. I want to aim at all different age groups.”
Lisa: “I think it’s great! As people are going through a recession, I think they will welcome this with open arms. If they get the quality of Mac at a better price, I can’t see why it wouldn’t work.”
Yup, me neither.
The seeds of Dublin Wives were sown when McCormack’s Irish company, Straywave Media, made a much derided but extremely popular scripted soap/reality TV show called Fade Street. Named after a central Dublin street that’s home to many of the city’s best clubs and bars, it featured sexy young Dubliners going about their business wearing not a lot of clothes and lots of makeup. (Do you see a theme emerging here?)
“In the course of doing that show we found out that all their mothers and aunts were quite an interesting demographic, an older Fade Street,” McCormack says. “We did want to specifically play with the concept of the ‘Irish Mammy.’ We wanted to show a modern, complicated Irish woman. They all have very different life stories; one is from the projects, one was abused as a child, one is from a very poor background, one is a doctor, so it’s a bit different from what people think the ladies who lunch usually are.”
McCormack is making no secret of the fact that he hopes to film a third series soon. Intriguingly, Lisa and Jo, who now have both separated from their partners, have moved in together as housemates in real life. Danielle is publicly pushing for a raise, telling The Daily Beast that she has been signed by U.K. talent agency Curtis Brown and that there is no way she is going to carry on with the show for a paltry €125 an episode. She has her own plans to make a show called The Diary of a Botox Bitch, so it remains to be seen whether she will carry on as the wicked witch of the west in Dublin Wives or whether divorce proceedings really are in the offing.
One thing is for sure: the viewing public of Ireland will be hoping that this is one marriage that can be saved, no matter how troubled it may be.