‘The Real Housewives of Potomac’ Is Hotter Than Ever. Will a Shocking, Violent Fight Change That?
The stars of TV’s hottest reality show on the show’s Cinderella rise, their talks with Bravo about race, and how the cast’s headline-making “altercation” will change everything.
“Five years, boo boo, and we going strong.”
“Grande Dame” of The Real Housewives of Potomac Karen Huger may have been referring to the strong, if complicated, bonds between the cast of the Bravo series when she made the pronouncement in the teaser for the upcoming season. But it’s not hard to apply the assessment to the Cinderella run the reality TV series has had.
After its original May air date was postponed due to the pandemic, The Real Housewives of Potomac premieres its fifth season on Sunday. Reality TV fans have been counting down the days with the anticipation of a child on Christmas Eve. Though instead of gifts under the tree, it’s the wild lives of seven Black women who live in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. whose drama they are rabid to unpack.
RHOP is the eighth installment of Bravo’s game-changing, lightning-rod reality TV franchise. Premiering in 2016, 10 years after the women of Orange County made their debuts, it was only the second Housewives series to feature a cast of all Black women, following in the heels of The Real Housewives of Atlanta. It also became first to be marketed around a city that few people know. For many, “Potomac” doesn’t immediately telegraph a recognizable type of culture or socialite, certainly not in the ways that Beverly Hills, New York City, or Dallas do.
Cast member Gizelle Bryant remembers “we were like the redheaded stepchild” of Bravo when the series first launched. At the height of water-cooler antics from the likes of stars Nene Leakes, Bethenny Frankel, and Lisa Vanderpump on the network’s veteran franchises, the show struggled for attention. Now, RHOP might be the hottest reality show on TV.
A testament to the power and appeal of a Black cast on a network that has been criticized for a lack of diversity, the show’s stars grew a passionate fanbase with their candor about divorce, fertility issues, and the specific experiences of Black women in high society.
A handful of viral clips—may we all never forget the first time we saw Bryant and Huger bombarded by a mime while at dinner in Bethesda—and headline-making scandals, including one in which cast member Ashley Darby’s husband was accused of groping a Bravo cameraman, helped put interest and viewership on a steady upward trajectory.
Then came the pandemic.
“It’s been a gift for us,” says Monique Samuels, who joined the cast in season two.
Bingeing RHOP became a popular exercise while viewers are stuck at home and looking for diverting television to distract from the harsher realities of the world. On social media, countless reality TV fans are tweeting their way through last-minute catch-ups ahead of Sunday’s premiere.
“I'm not even bragging,” says Candiace Dillard Bassett, a cast member since season three. “Everyone has been, like, drooling with bated breath waiting for this premiere.”
Yet for Samuels and Dillard Bassett, their own excitement is more complicated.
There has been no shortage of fights on Real Housewives. Tables have been flipped. Legs have been tossed. Cocktail glasses have been shattered. There are not enough hours in the day to recount the drunken hysterics, the screaming matches, the Twitter feuds, or the insults hurled.
Fights are a hallmark of the venerable franchise, but none have ever been referred to as “an altercation.”
The “altercation” took place in October 2019 during a dinner party that was filmed for the show.
A physical fight broke out between Samuels and Dillard Bassett that, according to the first footage of the incident from Sunday night’s premiere, ends with the women being separated by fellow cast members and the crowd. Both women were charged with second-degree assault, with each filing complaints against the other and facing possible jail time.
In December, both cases were dismissed, after the legal back-and-forth played out in TMZ, People, various gossip blogs, and tabloids, with rumors spreading about just how bad and violent the altercation became.
Eight months later and with the show’s popularity at a fever pitch, the constant headlines about the altercation are a large contributing factor in the excitement for Sunday’s premiere.
“Speaking for myself and also I would say everyone at Bravo, we do not take joy or pleasure in the fact that there was an altercation,” Joshua Brown, VP of current production at Bravo, says. “But it’s something that happened. On Potomac we feel like it's so important to always lean into the real and to the documentary aspect of it. The altercation was obviously very short, you know, under a minute. But it affected their lives for many months and continues to affect their lives to this day.”
Sunday’s premiere doesn’t just tease viewers with some of the first glimpses of how the altercation played out on camera, but also previews conversations the cast members had about how it reflects on all of them as Black women in the public eye.
When the decision was made to push the air date back because of the pandemic, no one could have imagined the momentum the Black Lives Matter movement would gain in ensuing months, galvanizing many industries into reflection, reckoning, and action to confront institutional racism and their own responsibility in becoming anti-racist—including Bravo.
Ahead of Sunday’s premiere, we spoke at length with cast members Bryant, Dillard Bassett, Huger, and Samuels about the show’s meteoric rise, what the seismic altercation means for the series, and their experience launching the new season amidst a conversation about race and responsibility they’ve fiercely engaged in with Bravo in recent months.
“We’re The Real Housewives of Potomac. We’re not the cookie-cutter deal,” Huger says. “I couldn’t be prouder to stand in this moment.”
The interesting thing about The Real Housewives of Potomac is that it wasn’t supposed to be a Real Housewives series at all, at least not specifically.
As Brown tells it, the network is constantly searching for circles of friends in different regions of the country who organically are connected and whose intersecting lives could make for compelling programming.
That’s exactly what they found in Potomac, a bedroom community about a 30-minute drive from Washington, D.C. that boasts small-town vibes while still holding the status of one of the most affluent zip codes in the United States. If Potomac was a small town, the Black community in it was even smaller and more connected. That was great for a potential television cast. “Not even speaking just about Bravo, on television you can generally pick up when people feel actually, really connected,” Brown says.
Eventual original cast members Gizelle Bryant, Robyn Dixon, Karen Huger, and Charisse Jackson Jordan all had been friends for years. When future cast members joined, they were all at the very least familiar with the original women. And not in the way that’s true of social circles in, say, New York, where the gilded cage is the size of Jupiter and “my old friend” typically translates to “I saw her once across the dining room during lunch at The Palm in the ’90s.”
It wasn’t until after the entire first season had filmed that Bravo decided that the new show fit into the Real Housewives model. “We found out we were going to be The Real Housewives of Potomac five minutes before the world found out,” Bryant remembers.
There was one issue, though Brown stresses it was ultimately a small one. Unlike other cities that had provided the backdrop of Housewives installments, few knew what—or where—the hell Potomac was.
If 10 years ago you heard the phrase “Real Housewife of New Jersey,” you pretty much conjured an image of Teresa Giudice in your head, even before she ever appeared for one second on TV. There was something interesting, he thought, in viewers having no preconceived notions of who a woman from Potomac would be, discovering the answer in real time.
Still, the discovery was a process. “In the beginning, I promise you, Kevin, we couldn't win,” Bryant says. “When the producer would ask the restaurant if we could film there, the number one answer was no. Like who is this? Who are these ladies? A camera crew? We were not accepted, so to speak, and no one understood what we were doing.”
The saving grace? An equation that was, in small part, patience on behalf of Bravo and, in larger part, the women’s confidence that they made for great TV.
As she tells it, Huger was simply biding her time waiting for her invitation to be on reality television. “I was always sitting there ready to be a Housewife on Bravo,” Huger says. “I wish I was joking, but I'm not. I always said if they came into Potomac I thought I would be someone they would cast. Then lo and behold, they did.”
Ask cast members why they think their show has connected with such fervor, and they delight in purred, Bravo-ready soundbites, even while giggling at their ultimate meaninglessness.
“Well, Kevin, you’ve met Gizelle, so there’s that,” Bryant says, laughing at herself for the brazen answer. “We have fun, we have love, we have sass, and we’ve got class,” Huger says for the first of three different times during our interview.
Huger is referred to on the show as the “Grande Dame,” a motherly figure and spiritual leader for the group of women. It’s a regality that seems self-appointed as much as it is bestowed, though the status is certainly revered by the other ladies—even if with the occasional snicker—as Huger bestows advice on everything from business ventures to the benefits of “sucking” your man’s tongue: “I can’t believe you don’t know how to control your man’s kiss.”
(A lack of filter is just one of this cast’s greatest attributes. Case in point, this exchange from the new season’s trailer: “I have a tear in my anus.” “That’s a whole new can of whoop ass.”)
The women are both relatable and endearingly weird. Dixon famously missed her flight to the group vacation that she herself was hosting and planned. Samuels has a pet bird named T’Challa, who walks on a leash and cradles in her bosom at night, rubbing his head until he falls asleep. “Like a puppy with wings,” she says.
With all due respect to the other Real Housewives series, the Potomac women all telegraph a self-awareness and emotional intelligence that is often missing from reality TV stars. Call it Black Girl Magic? Sure. They do, introducing new cast member Wendy Osefo, a political commentator and college professor.
An improv comedian’s knack for quick humor is practically a prerequisite for Bravolebrity status at this point, and the RHOP women complement that with a reality-TV poet’s ability to read each other for filth. But whether it’s when they’re going after each other, confiding in each other and seeking advice, or experiencing milestones both painful and triumphant, what’s stuck about this series is how deeply personal they’ve allowed themselves to get with cameras and fans.
That’s true when Darby is is opening up about her struggle to get pregnant (while her husband is the subject of gay rumors, to boot). That’s true when Bryant is laying bare her journey to reuniting with her ex-husband, years after they broke up when he cheated. And that’s true when cast members fight; with vulnerability comes viciousness.
That’s why an altercation like the one Dillard and Samuels got into has already garnered such attention. Fans can only imagine the darkness that may be at the root of it.
“I think a lot of people out there think that Real Housewives is just about interpersonal conflict and cast members getting into quote-unquote drama with each other. But I really don't think that that is what drives success because two people fighting about nothing is not interesting at all to me as a viewer or as someone who works in television,” Brown says.
Fans that have latched onto RHOP—and vented their exasperation over prolonged storylines about champagne glasses or who is paying for a cast member’s hotel room on other franchises—can attest to that. But then again, they’d also be lying if they didn’t admit to be champing at the bit to see what went down with “the altercation.”
“We never thought as Black women that we would be right here, but here we are,” Huger says at the start of the teaser for the new season. “It’s not something you can brush under the rug, but you’ve got to address this.”
“We have been able to hold ourselves above the stereotype,” Bryant is then seen saying, as the camera cuts to a tearful Samuels. “And in five minutes, she took it away.”
There are then dramatic flashes to the now-infamous skirmish, in which cuts of Dillard Bassett and Samuels swinging at each other, then grabbing at each other’s hair, then a crowd frantically trying to separate them, and then the carnage of shattered glass on the ground play like strobe effects.
It’s one thing to star in a reality TV show and feel the anticipation of a new season, in which all of your actions and words will be served up to the public for judgment. It’s another when that public’s morbid curiosity over exactly what happened in that incident has been itching at you, too.
“It’s definitely been stressful,” says Samuels. “Being that we are filming a reality show, I also have to maintain a certain professionalism that says I will not speak on what goes on during filming. So the fact that so many people were getting all these different stories, it was hard for me because I'm not one to keep my mouth shut.”
“I'm a type-A personality and I'm an over-thinker, so I'm constantly trying to anticipate what everyone's going to say and hoping that the story is told the way that it happened,” says Dillard Bassett. “Once it's told, if it's told the way that it happened, my hope and my prayers that people will really see what's what. And then I want to move on.”
At the end of 2019, the second-degree assault charges that the pair filed against each other were dismissed. While they’re not able to discuss the specifics of what happened, for legal and production reasons, they’re refreshingly candid about their feelings about being part of an incident so violent and, now, so public.
“I wish that it never happened,” Samuels says, frankly. “I wish that I could go back and it could have been a totally different story. No one wants to have their name attached to anything that is so negative.”
For Dillard Bassett, “One of my immediate thoughts was shame and embarrassment to have even a headline that suggests that there might have been violence. I never sought out to be a part of anything that I feel will represent me in a way that is less than favorable and unsavory.”
As that clip in the season trailer indicates, this is an event that reverberates throughout the whole group.
Echoing what she says in the teaser, Bryant says, “Black women are not held to the same standard as everyone else in this country, so that has been very important to me and to most of the cast as it relates to how we portray ourselves.”
“I think about that all day, every day, regardless of whether cameras are with me,” Bryant says, speaking more broadly about her experience as a Black woman. “We are held to a different standard. We are looked upon and thought upon by this country differently. I can't be a Sonja Morgan and go into the crops in a cornfield and pee. Like, no. That would be taken differently if a Black woman did it.”
Responding directly to Bryant’s statement in the show, alleging that the altercation played to a stereotype about Black women, Samuels says she thought it was hypocritical. “The first question is, what stereotype? What stereotype were we trying to maintain above, because we've all done things on this show that may have not been the best decision.”
It remains to be seen how the incident will play and how the audience will respond to what happens and how the cast members talk about it; clearly there are strong, passionate feelings.
But Bryant does see a silver lining to how the aftermath is handled and how the women work through it. It started a conversation she says the cast needed to have about who they are and what they’re doing.
“It's even more important in present tense,” she says. “With all that has happened with Black Lives Matter and with what we're trying to accomplish as a Black culture, how we're trying to advance and move forward, it's even more important now. Housewives can be a lot of things. You know, we're funny, we're sassy, we're shady, we're cutesy. But this particular altercation allowed for great conversation about a whole lot of realness that, I think, in the past had not been seen, especially on a Real Housewives platform.”
The national conversation following the uprising of Black Lives Matter protests in May and June directed a harsh spotlight on powerful industries, including entertainment and television. Networks like Bravo were called out for their shortcomings when it comes to diversity and combating institutional racism.
In response, the network fired cast members from Vanderpump Rules and Below Deck: Mediterranean over past racist behavior and actions. Andy Cohen’s Watch What Happens Live! talk show aired a two-part conversation on race and hosted the likes of Kamala Harris and Cory Booker as guests.
The network released a statement pledging to do better. Talking with The Daily Beast earlier this month, Cohen said, “I have talked about in the past that we have not succeeded in integrating the shows. And that’s a problem, and we’re looking at it. We’re on it.” On Sunday night, Bravo is airing Race in America: A Movement Not a Moment, a roundtable featuring Bravolebrities.
As this was happening and being planned, the network’s Black talent spoke out about their own experiences, both in life and on the network.
Dillard Bassett spoke to the “Andy’s Girls” podcast, saying, “‘Everything is not about race.’ I’ve heard that from a myriad of people. People from leadership positions—‘You do talk about race a lot’—that’s a direct quote. I’ve heard that from everyone, from leadership at Bravo all the way down to fans who think they’re leadership at Bravo.”
She says now that being suddenly asked explicitly to talk about race was, at first, hard to deal with.
“It was frustrating to be in the presence of big companies and white people who've always had a platform and a voice, and never saw fit to use it to advocate for people of color,” she says. “We've been here. We've been having the same struggles. We've been dealing with the same issues. But now all of a sudden, you want to see it and you want to acknowledge it and you want to honor it for a minute? That was like, wait a minute. What were you doing three weeks ago?”
She also says that she quickly embraced the role, and clarifies that she’s also been impressed by the concerted efforts of the network and parent company NBCUniversal to be a part of the conversation and, specifically, in conversation with her and her on-camera colleagues. She was especially impressed by their decision to fire the Vanderpump cast members.
There were critics who felt it was unfair to put the onus on Black talent to speak out about these issues, but the RHOP cast members who spoke to The Daily Beast all say that was never an issue for them.
“I've always been one who believed that where there are students that are willing to be taught, I will educate,” Huger says.
“I don't mind the burden, because it's not a burden,” Bryant says. “I'm just happy that people are listening. So, the conversation is going to happen regardless, whether I had it with my pillow, whether I had it with my children, or whether I had it with the senior vice president of Bravo. We're going to have these conversations. I'm just happy now that they're listening.”
If there’s one thing that’s true about the cast of The Real Housewives of Potomac, it’s that, at this moment, everybody is listening.