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The ‘Real Housewives’ Land in Toronto

Theirs is the most notorious reality franchise on TV, and now the wealthy, well-dressed women who spend their time shopping, drinking, and fighting have an outpost in Canada’s largest city.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

They had already colonized Vancouver. And now, in the latest mutation of the fiercely made-up and dressed cabal who began their conquering of the media universe in Orange County 11 years ago—later growing to encompass an NHL-league-wide of cities—the “Real Housewives” have a new Canadian colony: Toronto.

“Is this covered in the NAFTA agreement?” someone joked to me at a recent soiree in town; after all, the “real housewife” label confers a fresh notoriety to a crop of women unknown, more often than not, to most.

In many ways, the recent debut of The Real Housewives of Toronto, was treated like any American export arriving in Canada’s largest metropolis—not unlike when Momofuku opened here some years ago, or when Saks finally set up shop last year.

Trafficking in the lives and travails of a certain caste of women—droll Ann, low-drinking Kara, hippy-dippy Jana, try-hard Joan, congenial Gregoriane, and histrionic Roxy—the show plays with the tropes now all-too familiar to battle-worn followers of the other shows in New York, New Jersey, Atlanta, Beverly Hills, et al.: endless shopping and rosé-drinking, long-games of she said-she said, and too many Faustian bargains to count.

Let’s not also disregard the franchise’s meta-narrative that was Big Little Lies before Big Little Lies was Big Little Lies (in my view) and one which Camille Paglia—who claims to watch nothing but Housewives, and TCM (Turner Classic Movies), on TV these days—once sized up as an art form ablaze with the “frank display of emotion… and the sharp-elbows jockeying for power and visibility.”

“Girl-trips,” as fans know, are a can’t-miss feature of these shows: A Housewives-ologist like me can instantly call up that time the New York women jetted off to Marrakesh, the Atlanta rabble-rousers went to South Africa, or when the Bev Hills group did Paris or Hong Kong or Dubai. It didn’t take that many episodes into the first season of Toronto for the gals to decamp for Muskoka.

Not really too far from Toronto (though many of the women did still take a plane), the multi-lakes idyll is often dubbed “the Hamptons of Canada,” and is, according to Christie’s International Real Estate, “the world’s second-fastest growing recreational real estate market after Cote d’Azur, France.” Bloomberg called it a kind of “rustic retreat that comes with 800-thread-count sheets.”

There, the main brushstrokes of the women’s dynamics began to take shape, and, moreover, what to me is the real drama (behind the drama). Here we saw how the women are choosing to present themselves on camera, and how they’re not, and what inevitably bubbles up to the surface anyway—and who is receiving which “edit” from the producers, and how.

The original media guru Marshall McLuhan, who coined the term “the medium is the message”—and was from Toronto—would, no doubt, have had a field-day with the Housewives! But I digress.

In Muskoka, I almost half-expected Lisa Rinna, the resident pot-stirrer on the Beverly Hills franchise, to show up for a cross-over, considering that she, too, plops down there every summer, her husband Harry Hamlin having had a family cottage in Canada for three generations. (More recent Muskoka transplants include Cindy Crawford, and her brood.) But, alas, no Rinna.

Instead, we get a shot of the women going tubing on a ginormous banana-shaped floatie, and also probably my favorite part of the series thus far: a scene in which Kara and Joan meet up at the local library, during which Kara enthuses about how her in-laws—one of the establishment families in these parts—were the benefactors of the library, and Joan promptly interjects to give a classic Housewives one-up: “I think I mentioned to you, we bought an island last year.”

Speaking of strange-but-true cross-overs, here’s some trivia: Kara was a roommate eons ago, in Los Angeles, with Kyle Richards, another Beverly Hills staple (and Paris Hilton’s aunt). The latter, I understand, gave her some tips pre-shoot, like laying off the booze when with the other ladies.

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In the context of the Housewives vortex, there are some interesting ways the new Canadian version distinguishes itself: Out of the six women on the show, for instance, Roxy enjoyed an Indian upbringing, and Gregoriane was born in Thailand (reflective of a city where half the population is foreign-born). Some other Canadiana fairy-dust comes, too, via Gregoriane, who is French-Canadian, and from whom we get a non-stop volley of what’s known in the country as Franglais.

Meanwhile, Roxy is an atypically “plus-sized” Housewife (a term she personally eschews). Not shy about her curves, she even recently posted a you-go-Mrs. picture of herself in a bikini on Instagram, and has boldly taken up the message of “beauty over pounds.”

In terms of local color, there have been no walk-ons, alas, of local darlings like Drake, or The Weeknd, or, indeed, Prince Harry’s girlfriend Meghan Markle, who has a home in the city. At least not yet. One can hope, though… right?

Part of the intriguing social topography that is a feature on any Housewives show is where they eat, or sit down to eat at least. There’s been some expected sniping that the ladies deign to go to lunch at Sassafraz (a place that was a “hot spot” in 1999), and the fact there’s another party held at a downtown nightclub called The Ace (a place terribly “off-brand” and firmly for the “bridge-and-tunnel” crowd).

Is this part of the inevitable backlash from the more polite corners of Toronto? You betcha. In these circles there’s largely been a “Who Are They?” refrain about the ladies on the show, considering that many of the more well-known socialites in town turned down appearing on the show.

Of course, this is probably the wrong question, for in the ecosystem of Housewives, who, really, had heard of LuAann, NeNe, Ramona, Tamra, Dorit, or Pheadra before they became micro-famous on their respective shows. It’s the shows, in other words, that confer a bizarro halo on these women—not the other way around.

Are the Toronto women a little too aware of the cameras on them? A little all-too-Canadian-polite to really go for the jugular? The production value a little weak-kneed in parts? Oh, I think so. Like the short-lived Vancouver version of Housewives that ran several years ago, the Toronto show—which is not technically part of the Andy Cohen/Bravo universe, and is part of a development deal with NBC Universal—can sometimes look, at least to the trained eye, like nothing less than an Instagram of a painting.

What is now beyond satire, it seems, is the status of the main feud currently aboil on the Toronto show: that of between Roxy and Kara. “I don’t talk to Kara,” confirms Roxy about life now, post-shoot. As any fan knows, such is the reality of being a Housewife.