Why We Love to Hate Kate

From Kate Gosselin to the housewives of New Jersey, loathsome suburban moms are having a moment. Diane Clehane talks to her friends and neighbors about our national addiction.

From Kate Gosselin to Bravo’s newest Housewives from New Jersey, I’m obsessed with the entire spray-tanned, French-manicured sorority that has managed to turn suburban motherhood into compulsively watchable—albeit train wreck—television.

In this age of living with less of everything, from money to expectations, even our celebrities have gotten smaller. A lot smaller.

I’ve never been a regular watcher of Bravo’s Real Housewives franchise. But for some inexplicable reason, I just knew I had to watch The Real Housewives of New Jersey—and I can’t stop watching. These five women, who clearly shop at the same places Carmela Soprano did, make the screeching strivers from New York look tame.

Watch 10 of Kate's Angriest Moments

And then there’s Gosselin, TLC’s new cash cow and one half of the formerly wholesome, bickering twosome of Jon & Kate Plus 8, about as prototypical a suburban couple (with eight children) as you’d ever find on television. The pair has been transformed into the recession era’s Brangelina, with a record-breaking number of tabloid covers to prove it.

When I see photos of Kate in her red leather (or is it pleather?) jacket and denim miniskirt striding through the airport with her bodyguard, or read stories of a Jersey housewife’s plans to launch a children’s accessory line, I am struck by the thought that in this age of living with less of everything, from money to expectations, even our celebrities have gotten smaller. A lot smaller.

And yet I find myself equally repulsed and fascinated by these women. In an effort to find out why, I decided to ask some of my friends, the “real” housewives of Westchester, to weigh in on the phenomenon. Not surprisingly, no one who copped to watching these domestic divas in action wanted their names used.

“God, I love those Jersey housewives!” enthused one friend. “I can’t get more money out of my husband to send the kids to camp, and these women are drinking Champagne at their kitchen tables in the middle of the day and getting wads of cash, no questions asked, when a house full of furniture is delivered.”

“Today it seems like everybody is tiptoeing around everything from money to being pissed off at your best friend. These girls let it rip. I wish I could be like that sometimes.”

“I’m living vicariously through all the bitchiness,” said one friend who shares my addiction. “These women are so out there with their stuff. Today it seems like everybody is tiptoeing around everything, from money to being pissed off at your best friend. These girls let it rip. I wish I could be like that sometimes.”

One Scarsdale mom told me she feels vindicated by the housewives’ showiness. “With all this talk of everyone being worse off than they were a few years ago, there are still a lot of people around here doing very, very well, but it’s become a crime to show it. I think that’s unfair,” she complained. “I hate to say it, but I’m a little jealous that they seem unaffected all that. They’re over the top and proud of it. Nothing wrong with that.”

In my unofficial survey, I also discovered Kate Gosselin doesn’t have as many fans as she does curiosity seekers tuning in. The overriding response I got when I asked women about her—and these are regular viewers—was pretty negative. “It’s obvious she’s in it for the money and the fame,” sniped one. Another longtime viewer offered this: “It’s heartbreaking to see how her perfectionism and nonstop fighting with Jon is going to break up the family.” So why watch? “I want to see how things turn out.”

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But Kate isn’t without her admirers out here in the ’burbs. One woman who overheard me talking about Gosselin at Starbucks leaned in and offered this clear-headed assessment of suburban wish fulfillment: “She might be a bitch, but I think it’s great to see a woman triumph over her clueless husband. He says he didn’t cheat on her. Maybe not, but he certainly embarrassed her being out late at night with that 23-year-old. Now she’s done with him. She’s figured out a way to make this work for her, and she’s going to be a celebrity making money for a long time. For every woman that is staying with her husband because she can’t afford to get divorced, she’s a heroine.”

It remains to be seen whether any of those Jersey girls will achieve the same level of tabloid fame and subsequent fortune that Kate, the patron saint of desperate housewives everywhere, now enjoys.

I guess I’ll just have to keep watching to find out.

Diane Clehane is a contributing editor at mediabistro.com, where she writes the 'Lunch' column. She is at work on a memoir and lives in Westchester County, New York.