Mormons Gone Wild! Shots, Infidelity, and Sin on ‘The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City’
The new Bravo series is god-tier reality TV, mining intrigue in the Mormon church, subverting Salt Lake City stereotypes, and introducing a woman who married her step-grandfather.
“Everybody in Salt Lake City knows the story about Mary and her step-grandfather.”
Mary Cosby is an inaugural cast member on the new series The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City, which premiered Wednesday night on Bravo. Thin, beautiful, and fabulous, she’s the image of a reality star, name-dropping designers as she stirs drama over cocktails. She also happens to be a Pentecostal First Lady, who inherited her family’s empire of churches when her grandmother passed away.
There was a caveat to taking over the business: as stipulated in the will, she would have to marry her grandmother’s second husband. So Mary boasts about her off-the-runway Valentino frock, and she boasts about her 21-year marriage to her own step-grandfather.
It’s been a bleak 2020. We deserve this.
It’s one thing for The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City to provide, just on paper, reality-TV gold like this. It’s unapologetic bizarreness basking in the spotlight as we gawk. Yet the ladies make good on all the promise.
If you watched the premiere Wednesday night, you saw a new series that is a student of both what has worked and hasn’t in Bravo shows of the past—these ladies know what to do when the camera is on, that’s for sure—and one that, in its own way, rewrites those rules.
As veteran installments of the Real Housewives franchise sputter and grapple with their relevance as audiences demand a more diverse, more aware, less self-conscious show, Salt Lake City joins The Real Housewives of Potomac in proving that the franchise is still unparalleled as reality-TV distraction, or guilty pleasure—however you need to refer to it while delighting in watching—while finally also interacting with real-world conversations about privilege, race, gender, shame, and agency.
The series also marks the introduction of something new to Real Housewives: morals.
If the (tired) critique of Real Housewives is “Shouldn’t these women know better than to behave this way?” then these women answer, with no remorse, literally “Yes.”
The premiere episode of RHOSLC opens with a supercut of cast members explaining the principles of the Mormon church—politeness, sobriety, fidelity, piousness—and then examples of them ripping shots, dancing with strippers, being accused of affairs, and reading each other cruel filth.
For more than a decade, the genius of all the various Real Housewives locations was that you’re supposed to know exactly what kind of woman you’re about to watch running amok on screen based on the city she’s in. Did Teresa Giudice manifest the Real Housewives of New Jersey or did the Real Housewives of New Jersey manifest Teresa Giudice? It’s a chicken-or-the-egg logic problem for the modern era, but the point is you could practically envision her just by reading the words “Real Housewives of New Jersey.”
The genius of RHOSLC is that, yes, you definitely envision a certain kind of person when you think of the locale’s inextricable association with the Mormon church. But the women on this show, all of whom have defining ties to Mormonism and invoke it constantly, are nothing like what you expect.
Jen Shah lives in an Instagram-worthy chalet in Park City. (Is this the first time we’ve seen snow on the ground in a Real Housewives episode?) She’s originally from Hawaii, and also has Tongan and Chinese heritage. “But in Utah, I’m Black,” she says. “Because they don’t know any better.”
She grew up Mormon but her husband, a football coach at the University of Utah, is a Black Muslim, so she converted. “They didn’t accept Black people in the Mormon church until 1970-something,” she says. She couldn’t be a part of a religion that didn’t accept her husband and kids.
In what is undoubtedly a first in an episode of Real Housewives, she screams, “As-salamu alaykum, bitches!”
Heather Gay is an instant fan favorite. She’s introduced at the Botox salon she owns. “It’s like putting your hand in a river of money, because attaining perfection is a Mormon pastime,” she says.
She considers herself a pioneer Mormon woman, with every descendant in her line having roots in the religion. She married into “Mormon royalty;” her husband’s grandfather was Howard Hughes’ driver and henchman and the magnate left the family a portion of his estate. But now she’s divorced, sowing her oats and indulging in all the things “that are not in line with a good Mormon woman.”
Every single biography in this cast is fantastic. It satisfies what’s been one of Bravo fans’ most frustrating desires and remedies one of the franchise’s biggest flaws.
Because the shows’ casts are so preoccupied with keeping up appearances and exist in a state of delusion, they often act as if they apparated into their Beverly Hills mansions and Upper East Side apartments. So much of the off-camera scandals and tabloid fodder uncovers the falsehoods about their worth and their backgrounds. RHOSLC blissfully lays it all out there, step-grandfather-husband and all.
Meredith Marks is Jewish and from Chicago and her husband is only around part-time because he’s doing business there, a bummer for her but a godsend for TV relationship drama. Her 21-year-old son Brooks, an insufferable gay icon after just 15 seconds on screen, is around to do her makeup and find every opportunity to turn himself into a reality-TV star.
There’s Lisa Barlow, who is “Jewish by heritage, Mormon by choice.” She and her husband own several liquor companies, a fantastic conflict of moral code and financial interest. “I’m sure other Mormons care that I own a tequila company,” she says. “What’s important is that I don’t.” She is a fan of Taco Bell drive-thru, a spectacular courting of audience goodwill.
Then there is Whitney Rose. If you were wondering how much Mormonism will impact storylines in this show, you should know that Whitney has been EXCOMMUNICATED from the church. When she was married she had a steamy affair with her also-married boss, got divorced, and married him while she was pregnant with their child. She talks about the decade-long effort to get her Mormon relatives to accept her again. Juicy!
But again, epic biographies are only worth the paper they’re written on. The show has to thrive on the Real Housewives life-blood: petty drama.
There is all of this going on in the women’s respective lives, but the central plot of Wednesday’s premiere episode is a tried and true Housewives staple. It’s all about a birthday party.
You can tell these women have studied their predecessors and internalized the mantra that there is no such thing as too ridiculous. As such, Jen removes all the furniture from her house, stages a step and repeat in her driveway, and throws a birthday party in her chalet for a person she barely knows. More, she starts an argument so dumb no one watching can relate to caring about something like it. But we can relate to investing another 15 episodes in watching the fallout.
The short summary is that Mary (of grandpa husband fame) had recently complained that she hugged Jen at a restaurant and she “smelled like hospital.”
“What?” you may ask, and I do not have an answer. Mary is unbothered by this bafflement, shrugging several times in confessional interviews that Jen smelled like hospital and she does not like that smell.
It turns out that Jen had indeed been at the hospital before seeing and hugging Mary, holding vigil over her aunt who had both her legs amputated. “What do you want me to do?” Mary shrieks, aghast that Jen is offended. “Not say ‘you smell like hospital’ when she gets both legs amputated,” Jen replies, which... fair point.
The circumstances are absurd, to the point that, if you can’t exactly hear a producer saying “you need to make this into a big drama,” you can detect whispers of Jen and Mary’s internal monologue pretty much doing that. (You could say the same about Heather and Lisa’s gossiping over Lisa not remembering Heather when they were students at BYU, but heard things about her flashing her tits and breaking the honor code.)
It’s wacky. It’s consequential. It’s a minute story thread in one of the most subversive reality series I’ve seen, featuring a refreshingly diverse cast, and doing what this franchise was supposed to do in the first place: feed our morbid curiosity into a world we can’t relate to and don’t understand. Joseph Smith would be shook.