When Bravo executives first envisioned the Real Housewives franchise, surely they didn't imagine that shows focusing on the catfights of a group of rich and often terrible women would appeal to children. Bravo's bread and butter is, after all, people between the ages of 18 and 49. But something funny happened as the Orange County group spurred a New York spinoff, which grew into Atlanta, and then became New Jersey, Washington, D.C., and Beverly Hills: The kids who would normally be tuned into Gossip Girl and Glee suddenly found themselves fascinated by the dramatic lives of people named Bethenny, Nene, Camille, and dozens of other lady castmembers.
A 13-year-old named Ben Weiner has already nabbed attention for his Housewives fandom after regularly calling into Bravo’s talk show, Watch What Happens Live, to ask host Andy Cohen and his Housewives guests pointed questions. And still other children have starred in a hilarious spoof video. But these certainly aren't the only members of the 18-and-under set who are up on every aspect of the divorces, hair weaves, table flips, and feuds of a certain group of ladies.
"I think dramatic, theatrical kids like to watch The Real Housewives because the women on the show are just like them," says Mickey Rapkin, who spent three weeks at Stagedoor Manor camp in the Catskills while researching his book Theater Geek: The Real Life Drama of a Summer at Stagedoor Manor, The Famous Performing Arts Camp. "These women play things up: They flip a table when they could just as easily express themselves with words." The kids, who, Rapkin says, often stood up after meals and pretended to be flipping the lunch table as an homage to Teresa Giudice's famous “prostitution whore” flip-out on The Real Housewives of New Jersey, "would probably love to be able to act like that."
Nielsen Media Research statistics—which we can assume is a fraction of the teen viewership, since, as we know, kids watch TV on varied devices these days—reveal interesting patterns about teens’ Real Housewives habits. Among viewers of all ages, the Atlanta and New Jersey versions of the franchise are the most popular, with Nene Leakes, Sheree Whitfield, Kim Zolciak, and the other Atlanta ladies having a slight edge over the Manzos of New Jersey—2.63 million viewers versus 2.61 million. But for teen audiences, there is no contest: Atlanta trounces New Jersey—155,000 kids watch the first-run airings of Atlanta versus 84,000 for New Jersey. The four other installments follow the same order of popularity for total audience and teens alike: Orange County (teen audience: 58,000), New York City (47,000), Beverly Hills (37,000), and D.C. (37,000). (It should be noted that among total viewers, Beverly Hills is far more popular then D.C.—1.75 million versus 1.36 million.)
Says Chris Murphy, age 17: “When Bethenny was going through that drama with Jill, I absolutely knew the helplessness she was feeling.”
Other tidbits revealed by Nielsen: Perhaps predictably, girls like Real Housewives a lot more than boys do. But Atlanta does prove to be popular with boys—55,000 of them watch each episode (they like Beverly Hills the least, with a statistically insignificant 9,000). And yes, according to Nielsen, there are children between 2 and 11 who are also watching Real Housewives. In fact, for Atlanta, it’s nearly as popular with that demographic as with teens—an average of 145,000 little kids watch it weekly.
So what are they watching, and why? "I don't want to admit this," says Stacey Oliver, 18, "but part of me aspires to be like them. I know they're completely objectified and that all they do is go shopping and get their pictures taken and go to restaurants. Still, a part of me thinks, 'I want to be really pretty and rich and be able to travel everywhere.'" (In Oliver, Rapkin's theory that the Housewives attracts dramatic, theatrical kids holds solid: She is a part of Project Girl Performance Collective, a New York-based group in which girls write and perform their own work.
But these kids seem to have a lot more sense than the women being televised. "I think I want that because that's what I'm expected to want," continues Oliver. "Yet the truth is that I wouldn't take it if I couldn't also have respect, and it's pretty obvious that a lot of the husbands don't really respect them. Besides," she adds, "I'm not sure how great it would be to get all your power from your beauty."
Seventeen-year-old Chris Murphy of New Jersey feels similarly conflicted. "These shows portray everything people want to have and absolutely nothing they want to become," he says. "It's like, I want to be able to spend $16,000 on something but I don't want to become a crazy fame chaser."
Murphy, who "accidentally" tweeted at Camille Grammer before Grammer quit Twitter—"I read her People magazine interview and, sort of as a joke, tweeted 'I totally feel for you,'" he says—was shocked when the soon-to-be-ex-wife of Kelsey responded. "She wrote back, 'Thanks,'" Murphy says with a laugh. "I showed all my friends at school and they all died."
Interacting with Real Housewives is apparently going around the Murphy house: Chris' younger sister Tori, 15, saw New Jersey's Ashley (Jacqueline Laurita's daughter) at a John Mayer concert. "I was texting all my friends," she says.
While Tori says that she doesn't really want what these women have, she confesses that it's hard not to be impressed by some of it. "When you see these parents, like Teresa, who will get their kids anything, whether it's a scooter or a modeling career, you're somewhat jealous." But she says she also believes the big picture isn't so shiny. "These women are so wrapped up in going to their wine tastings and being in their fights with each other that they're neglecting their kids," she says. "And you just know that these kids wouldn't have so many problems if the moms actually acted more like moms."
Still, the younger set isn't entirely critical of the botoxed Bravo stars. "I really relate to them at times," says Chris Murphy. "When Bethenny was going through that drama with Jill, I absolutely knew the helplessness she was feeling." And Stacey Oliver applauds the women on the show who have successful careers; she just wishes she could see a little more of it. "I'm not saying I want to see them sitting at desks on long conference calls," she says, "but it's like they go shopping for five minutes, mention one thing about work, then sit in a restaurant for five minutes. I'd like to see more of them working and providing for themselves." When I point out that office life just may not be entertaining enough, she, like a good Housewife, has a solid argument to back her suggestion up. "There are shows that are just about office life," she says. "I think we could get a little more.”
Anna David is the author of the novels Party Girl and Bought and has written for The New York Times, Playboy, Details, Cosmo, and Redbook, among other publications. She appears on CBS, NBC, and Fox News regularly. Her most recent book, Reality Matters, is an anthology of essays that she edited about reality shows.