“How do you think I feel?”
That question was asked by cast member Erika “Erika Jayne” Girardi countless times during the four-part Real Housewives of Beverly Hills reunion. On the final installment, which aired Wednesday night, she said it so often that the uninitiated watching might have wondered if there was some sort of dare, or perhaps a drinking game that she was pandering to.
Sometimes she screamed it in rage at a cast member she felt may not have been compassionate enough to her situation. Often a colorful expletive was added somewhere in the middle, to add a little raunchy pizazz, or remind that, though she might be dressed in pink satin, she’s tough and not to be messed with.
In this regard, she was glad to remix the line any number of ways—Erika Jayne is a recording artist after all—so that it might be an exasperated plea, a heartbroken appeal, a gasket-blown wail, a diva’s aria of narcissism, or a taunt meant to throw the inquisition off its axis. At its most unsettling, she channeled Beelzebub himself, lowering her voice after a chaotic cacophony of arguing as a lacerating bit of punctuation. Sternly delivered, her deep Southern drawl summoning the basement register of its bass, it reads like a demonic threat.
It’s the Erika Jayne specialty. It’s terrifying; on behalf of its target, castmate Sutton Stracke, we shrieked and hid beneath our couch, only to watch the aftermath through slivers of light between the fingers covering our eyes. It’s theater. It’s performance. It’s reality TV.
Or, perhaps, is it a genuine request for empathy from a person so buried under scandal, legal controversies, and the damning judgment from the court of public opinion—an online tribunal powered by such an appetite for savage schadenfreude it makes Judge Judy look like Mister Rogers—that it’s a wonder she could even breathe at all, let alone hold her own against the Bravo equivalent of a grueling deposition: four hours of rapid-fire questioning from the network’s presiding magistrate, Andy Cohen.
It may be that. It may be the diabolical miscalculation of a public figure facing not just the scrutiny of an obsessively dedicated TV fanbase, but lawyers and judges who may be determining her financial future based on the things she’s said on screen. It may also be a masterful act of puppeteering from a reality star who has spent six years learning the art—and how she might be able to manipulate it in her favor at a low moment.
Think of her in that context as a modern-day Roxie Hart from Chicago, spinning scandal into stardom, calculating the alchemy of behavior and perception that might concoct the ultimate elixir: fame and exoneration, orchestrated on her accord. After all, it’s a role for which, as Louis Peitzman noted in Vulture, she’s already off-book.
Erika Jayne is implicated in several lawsuits and investigations in tandem with her now-estranged husband, once-prolific lawyer Tom Girardi, who is accused of stealing tens of millions of dollars from clients, including burn victims and the widows and orphans of people who died in a plane crash. Erika and Tom married in 2000, and their lavish lifestyle has been prominently featured on Real Housewives. As a recording artist whose career was funded by her husband, she has released songs with lyrics like, “It’s expensive to be me.”
The optics are atrocious. It seems as if, while these victims were robbed of the money they’ve been owed after an unspeakable tragedy, the couple had been paying for their private-jet, glam-squad, Pasadena-mansion lifestyle with those funds. On the show and in official statements, Erika has denied knowing anything about her husband’s actions or how money was handled at the firm, and also has said she was not involved with or connected to any of it.
It has been one of the best-rated, best-reviewed, and buzziest seasons of any Real Housewives franchise that’s ever aired on Bravo. That’s what happens when can’t-make-this-up drama descends on reality TV. That also, however, ends up choreographing an awkward dance between the riveting and the tawdry.
Do you believe Erika? To justify our watching of this entire season, rabid consumption of any and every news article and gossip item detailing developments of her scandal, and then the Super Bowl event-izing of the four-part reunion, we told ourselves as audience members that discerning the answer to the question was the reason to watch. Because otherwise, wouldn’t we just be complicit chorus members in this opera of the grotesque?
Some of the show’s fans sneered at the four-part reunion and Erika’s performance in it as an elaborate pity party they have misgivings about RSVP-ing to. Did Bravo, and our outsized interest in her story, lead to the network essentially building her a platform from which to exonerate herself, and then let her swan dive right off it?
Equally uneasy was the borderline violent interest in the reunion episodes. Rightfully or not, and guilty or not, Erika has been villainized by a not-small, not-quiet mob of viewers. Their desire to tune in was to see her get pummeled, bruised, and ruined by any trip-up or unsatisfactory answer. A Bravo show that had once been considered a guilty pleasure was now bloodsport.
That’s the thing about this season of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, and this accompanying reunion. Yes, it’s been juicy. It has been a new kind of viewing experience to watch Erika and the cast members grapple on the show with how to react and spin developments in a major scandal that we, as audience members, are steps ahead of while watching, thanks to the never-ending torrent of news articles and developments. But it’s not exactly gratifying.
It’s been extremely uncomfortable and frustrating. Of course we’re captivated by Erika’s awkward and histrionic—a combustible combination—attempts to explain herself to the cast, all while victims and legal ramifications lay in wait. But every story that didn’t add up, every maniacal uncorking on anyone who dared question the details or express distress over being associated with such a tragic scandal, compounded viewers’ stress to the point that Bravo might be negligent for not supplying each audience member with a Costco-sized container of Tums to chew on while watching.
Ambiguity and nuance are novel and welcome additions to a genre that generally exists in starkness: villain and victim, truth and lies, staged and real, screaming or giggling, cruelty or fun, provocative or tasteless. Perhaps that’s why it’s been so baffling and unpleasant to watch Erika, in response, operate in extremes.
From the start, there were things that didn’t sit right.
When it was announced that the reunion would be an unprecedented four parts, she boasted on social media, “Now what would make it 4 parts? Me.” It was a dark-sided humblebrag—well, not humble at all, really—from a person at the center of attention because the public demands to know how complicit she may have been in orphans and widows being defrauded of millions of dollars while she teetered around the Beverly Hills social circle in designer stilettos.
There was also the major throughline of Wednesday night’s final episode, that appearing on Housewives this season and cooperating with authorities in the investigations are dual acts of valor.
In the eyes of many fans of the series, it had seemed throughout the season that the only victim in this situation that Erika would acknowledge was herself.
When she was forced to move out of her Pasadena mansion into an objectively gorgeous (and, by human standards, pricey) bungalow, she moped as if she was being cast to the streets. “I know what you make on this show. It ain’t bad,” Andy Cohen clapped back at the insinuation that she was destitute, just before she could gather her Little Orphan Annie wig and belt out a chorus of “Hard Knock Life.” .
In an infamous scene from the season, she seemed to have gotten lost on the way to the audition to play Tammy Faye Bakker in the recent biopic when she instead found herself on a hiking trail with Kyle Richards, mascara dripping as she reacted to the catastrophic upheaval of her life. (During the reunion, she doubled down on her insistence that forgetting to wear waterproof mascara was “a fluke,” and not a ploy for sympathy.)
Of course that is valid. Her entire world had been blown to smithereens. That is destabilizing and emotional. But it was the relentlessness of the martyrdom when, again, there were actual victims going unmentioned, that irked viewers.
By the time she, wearing designer fashions and full glam at a dinner party at the Hilton family mansion at a table set with $950 Baccarat candlesticks eating caviar pie and drinking champagne, bellowed “LOOK AT MY FUCKING LIFE,” like Fantine belting for that Tony on her deathbed, viewers had reached a breaking point.
On social media Wednesday night, those watching the reunion were quick to pick apart Erika’s answer to Cohen’s question about if she had asked Tom if he did the things he’s accused of doing. It was probably the most emotional Erika became throughout the four parts of the reunion, stopping her answer multiple times to catch her voice. “Why would you leave me with millions of dollars of lawsuits pointed at me?” she said she asked him. Her question was about her and what she was going through, not the victims.
The biggest takeaway from the reunion was the fact that Erika did finally acknowledge those victims, though in a terse, irritated manner. Even the cast members who supported her were quick to point out that she never expressed outrage or sympathy for them, and Cohen had to drive the point home multiple times that, naturally, this would upset viewers.
“Understood. However, understand this: We are a long way from understanding what is going on here. I loved my husband. Now he is allegedly defrauding widows, orphans, and burn victims. How do you think I feel?”—take a drink!— “Horrible.” Everyone at once emphatically started telling her that she never expressed that, and she finally said, “If anyone in these cases is proven wronged, I want them remedied, despite what you might have read.”
When accused of playing the victim herself again instead of prioritizing those wronged in these allegations, she argued that she deserves credit for speaking at all: “It is best in any of these situations to be quiet. And what did I do? I chose to say as much as I possibly could. And I may have fucked myself [for it].”
Near the end of the final reunion episode, Cohen returns one last time to the idea that she had been problematically silent about the victims and what they deserve. “You know how I can be serving the victims the best? By cooperating,” she said, as if she’s Erin Brockovich herself advocating for the victims because she’s not blowing off subpoenas.
Here’s the thing: Throughout the four parts, Erika unleashes alarming fury each time anyone questions her feelings or argues that her actions were inappropriate. Crystal Kung Minkoff asks if she’s angry at Tom, and Erika doesn’t so much bite off her head as unhinge her jaw and swallow the poor rookie cast member whole like an anaconda.
She refused to apologize or accept responsibility for threatening Sutton Stracke’s life when Stracke questioned the truthfulness of her accounts, instead calling her a “bitchy fucking cunt” and settling smugly back into the reunion set’s sofa.
In reference to being named in lawsuits from victims hoping to collect the money they’ve been owed for years, she is instantly sarcastic and dismissive: “I am being sued by people who think I have some magical pot of gold at the end of some rainbow.”
When Dorit Kemsley, who is one of her allies on the show, interrupted the story, finally, about what really happened in the preposterous monologue (now a meme) involving burglars, eye surgery, and flipped cars, she uncoiled again.
She refused to acknowledge that these women could be supportive of her and also have questions about what was happening. She repeatedly attempted to shame the cast for not asking her directly about things and gossiping instead. Yet when Cohen and several of the other women pointed out that it was impossible to ask her anything because she would shut down or snap at them, she also wouldn’t validate that—even while snapping again.
Erika’s chief frustration seemed to be that people wanted her to behave or react to things in a certain way, and she felt judged if she didn’t act according to that script. “Am I angry enough now?” she would say. Or, “Listen to my voice,” she would warn, dripping with venom.
That is indisputably fair. Yet this is a television show, one that, as she reminded us so many times, she expects grace for by virtue of eschewing lawyers’ advice and participating in. People who watch TV, especially TV in which the stakes are what they are in these bombshell investigations, expect things. They expect contrition. Warmth. Humility. And emotion. What they got was viciousness. Retribution. Bitterness. And, yes, a fair amount of emotion, too.
Her honesty and her emotion were impressive. Her pugilistic disdain was gross. So here we are.
To what end is all of this? Having watched it all, I’m not sure what I gained or lost, or even what value there was to following the saga so closely. Will it help the victims? I’m not sure. Will it help Erika? She was open, often to her detriment, about how she often came off as aggrieved and impenetrable. Did we want it to help her, though? Even that I’m not sure of.
Was it good TV? That’s maybe the thing I’m most unsure about of all. That also, however, may be the one thing that Erika Jayne was so certain of this whole time: that she was, to quote the star herself, “giving the gays everything they want.” Maybe somewhere in that dissonance, in that nuance that she seems unable to see, the answer—and the value of all this—lies.
For that, we’ll have to quote Erika, ever the showman, again, after she was asked what she would do if she survives this: “You’ll just have to wait and see.”