Even the Real Housewives Are Done With Your Voting Excuses
Stars from “Real Housewives” and “Married to Medicine” talk about their efforts to get out the vote, being taken seriously politically, and the “Race in America” Bravo special.
Real Housewives of Potomac star Gizelle Bryant remembered her father telling the story of when he went to register to vote for the first time in 1956, but it’s when he recounted it again recently, against the backdrop of the current election, that she was really struck by how horrific the details are.
He wore a suit and tie, on the advice of his own father who didn’t want the registrar to have an excuse to turn him away because his shoes were dirty or jeans were inappropriate. He arrived early, so that there was plenty of time to talk through a problem in case one arose. And it did.
When he arrived, the registrar handed him a copy of the Preamble to the Constitution and told him that if he couldn’t answer her specific questions about it, he wouldn’t be allowed to register.
Never mind that, then or now, there are few people who would be able to stand up to a line of questioning about the Preamble of the Constitution. It was the mechanism that the registrar was using that day to ensure that a Black man wasn’t able to register, one in an arsenal—legislative or through sheer intimidation—used to stop an entire race of Americans from exercising the right to vote.
“You know, more than 60 years later and we’re still here,” Bryant says, talking to The Daily Beast the week before the 2020 election. “It’s not as tremendously blatant as it was back then when my father was registering. But it’s the same game. It’s just played a different way.”
Bryant is one of the panelists on Race in America: Our Vote Counts, which airs Sunday night on Bravo. The special, following the summer’s A Movement Not a Moment special on racism in America, is a roundtable discussion with Black Bravolebrities from shows including The Real Housewives, Southern Charm and Married to Medicine, all talking about the importance of voting in this election, especially for the Black community.
Yes, not even the Real Housewives have patience for your excuses not to vote. And we all know what happens when Real Housewives lose their patience.
The 10 panelists, who also include Access Hollywood’s Zuri Hall and E! News’ Justin Sylvester, discuss voter suppression, the importance of local elections, the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement, how COVID plays into this year’s vote, and the reasons why no excuse to avoid casting a ballot in this crucial election holds water.
It’s arguably a jarring change of pace for the network, and that’s the point. “When you’re clicking through the entertainment section on your cable and you see the people that you normally enjoy watching on reality TV talking about the importance of voting, you take a pause for a second,” Nina Parker, the co-host of E!’s Nightly Pop who moderated the discussion, tells The Daily Beast.
Whatever you might think of Bravolebrities is irrelevant, Bryant says. “This election is the most important in my lifetime, because we cannot go another four years with this. I am terrified, if this man stays in office, for anybody who is Black and brown.”
Airing at the peak moment in the conversation over what responsibility entertainers do or don’t have to be politically outspoken and if the public wants or even respects their opinions, Our Vote Counts may actually be the best-case scenario of celebrities using their platforms politically.
They aren’t performatively using cute hashtags for attention, or coming out with a series of misguided PSAs. Everything they’re talking about is rooted deeply in their personal experiences and the ways in which those experiences motivated them into action. They just happen to be reality stars. But they are reality stars who are doing the work.
Bryant’s Real Housewives of Potomac co-star Dr. Wendy Osefo, for example, discussed how her experience as an immigrant born in Nigeria instilled in her the privilege of voting. She laughs as she remembers voting for the first time and her aunties, who weren’t citizens, fighting over the “I Voted” sticker she brought back, parading it around with pride as if they had cast a ballot themselves.
“For us, unfortunately, democracy is not given,” she tells the Beast. “Democracy is earned. And that requires the activation of everyone to speak up and speak out against things.”
She brings up the End SARS movement in her home country of Nigeria as an example of just that. “For some of my aunties and uncles who don't have the luxury to be able to vote in this country, there’s a pride in my ability to be able to vote. And they galvanized me. Like they are politicians themselves trying to sway who I vote for because they know what’s so important.”
Dr. Heavenly Kimes and her husband Dr. Damon Kimes, who are on Married to Medicine Atlanta, have been spending the last months working to educate people on how to vote safely. “Nothing is 100% safe, but voting is so important,” Dr. Heavenly tells the Beast. “If you follow the safety guidelines there is a very small percentage of chance that you would get COVID.”
She talks about their experience administering COVID tests at the March on Washington in August. There was one man in particular who made an impression on her. He was a Black man who was HIV positive. As they got to talking, he revealed that he didn’t plan to vote. He didn’t feel it was safe, and he didn’t think it mattered anyway.
“I didn’t realize a lot of our Black males feel like they’re not important,” she says. “They feel like their vote is not going to be heard. I explained to him that President Trump won by a small margin and in fact he didn’t win the popular vote. I explained how important his vote is and his friends’ votes are, because a lot of Black men feel like the world doesn’t care about them and they don’t matter as much. With that term Black Lives Matter, something we can do is matter.”
Bryant explains that her first job out of college was working for the NAACP, so this kind of activism has long been ingrained in her. She was a national event coordinator who served as the liaison to special guests like Bill Clinton at the organization’s annual convention, spending the rest of the year organizing voter registration drives.
She marvels that despite being on Bravo for six years at this point, she’s never talked much about that time, because it does speak to how well-suited she is for having a platform at a time like this. And if she has to win over skeptics who think that, because she’s a Real Housewife, she hasn’t earned that platform, well she’s ready for that fight.
“I was told in no uncertain terms by other producers from other networks, not Bravo, that because I am a Housewife the immediate assumption is that I am not smart. That I’m stupid,” she says. “I couldn’t reconcile that in my mind. I’m a college grad. I have a plethora of work history behind me. I am very articulate. I’m outspoken. ‘Stupid’ has just never been a word that has been assigned to me.”
While not exactly the equivalent of watching CNN—or, in the case of some shows’ casts, Fox News—the content on the network now reveals what a difference four tumultuous years makes.
When The Real Housewives of New York City aired scenes chronicling stars Carole Radziwill and Dorinda Medley canvassing for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and throwing Election Night parties, there were viewers who parroted Ramona Singer’s annoyance that things in the reality TV show’s gilded cage were getting political.
Andy Cohen asked the women who they voted for at the season’s reunion, and Singer joined Sonja Morgan and Luann de Lesseps in refusing to answer the question: “I’m not going there, I’m pleading the fifth, it’s just such a hot topic.”
There is a kernel of a point there. Gauging the Housewives’ political leanings has become a fan-favorite parlor game, and those who are pegged as Trump supporters are mercilessly dragged by fans. But then there are those fans who think that if everything else in their lives are expected to be on camera, why would this be the one thing that’s kept hidden?
And there’s the fact that, especially now, it’s impossible to separate politics from the pores of every facet of life in America it has seeped into. How could you film a reality series about these women’s lives without addressing it?
Dr. Osefo notes that the episode of RHOP that aired last week and featured the cast gathered at an event she threw to talk about politics and the importance of voting was filmed last year, long before this Election Eve emergency countdown that practically demands scenes like that be shot.
“In season one of Real Housewives of Potomac, we talked about race,” Bryant says. “At the time, it infuriated people. No one really understood that we were just talking about what we are, which is Black women and we’re proud of it. Like, ‘Why are they talking about race?’ And so to go from season one to now, when all we want to do is talk about race and anytime you turn on the television it’s all about race and racial equality and justice for all, it’s refreshing, to be quite honest.”
It’s been somewhat of a journey to get Bravo fans—and maybe more arduously, the shows’ scrutinizing and dismissive critics—to realize and understand that the women who are on these shows are capable of entertaining us with their antics and drama while also being intelligent, informed, and politically and socially engaged.
But things have changed to the point that Dr. Osefo, who was a professor at Johns Hopkins and a political commentator for cable news when she joined her series, had no concern over whether those preconceived notions about Real Housewives or reality TV stars would affect her credibility.
“There was a time when it was taboo to talk about civic engagement,” she says. “Part of what makes the Real Housewives franchise so important and so relatable is that the women on those shows really opened up their lives in such a vulnerable way to the audience, and it speaks to the times that part of what’s going on with us is how you know some of us have been ignited, and how civic engagement is a part of who we are.”
It’s been important to her, through her involvement in Black Lives Matter marches, to insist to the protesters and ralliers around her that protesting is not enough. You have to vote, no matter how disillusioned you feel, no matter how much you feel unserved by the system.
“We can’t complain and we can’t say we want to see a difference but don’t activate ourselves to be able to make that difference,” she says. “One of the highest forms of activism is voting. You protest when you see things that you don’t like, but you also have to vote to make sure that the right people are in office.”
There has been no shortage of efforts to get out the vote and pressure ambivalent Americans into going to the polls. But there’s also no accounting for how different it is to get that message from Bravo stars. That can only be a good thing, Parker thinks. Or at least hopes.
“I hope that people come out of it feeling that they can start wherever they’re at,” she says. “I think people have to take away the intimidation factor with politics and with voting, and just take everything step by step. Just be patient with yourself. And vote.”