There's a lot that can be said about the stars of The Real Housewives of Orange County. After all, their shrill screams and wine tossings have kept viewers of the original incarnation of the franchise—which just kicked off its 15th season last week—entertained for years. But at least one constant when it comes to the overly-fillered ladies of the historically Republican region of Southern California is that their lack of socio-political awareness is often glaringly obvious. Recently though, the heavy lean to the right from one housewife in particular has led Bravo universe talking heads to boycott the season.
Kelly Dodd has long been a controversial figure on RHOC. The brash 45-year-old came to the series in 2016 for its 11th season, bringing a level of crassness and explosive reactiveness that wavered between overkill and entertaining. Dodd has regularly made offensive or full on racist statements both on and off the show ("I am disgusted by this vulgar, vile display from Kelly. I cannot physically sit here," former housewife Heather DuBrow once said of Dodd during an episode when Dodd called castmate Shannon Beador a cunt), but since beginning a romantic relationship with Fox News reporter Rick Leventhal last year (the couple married this month), and regularly espousing dangerous views on the public health measures tied to COVID-19, many fans and critics have had enough.
It all came to a head when Dodd posted a photo from her bridal shower earlier this month wearing a novelty hat that read "Drunk Wives Matter." After a wave of backlash, Dodd posted a clarification on Instagram, before deciding to go harder on Instagram Stories, explaining that the hat was a gift and "people that can't get a joke, go fuck yourselves." (She also dropped an "all lives matter," in case you were wondering where she stood on that front.) In response, in what appears to be a first, a collective of Bravo podcasters and fan pages have come together to boycott the season, refusing to recap, post about, or discuss RHOC on their various platforms, and calling on Bravo to fire Dodd.
The parties in question range from Instagram accounts like @bravoingtogether ("Two friends getting through life one bravo quip at a time"), @MainlyBravo ("Bravo/reality tv obsessed bitch watching this shit like it’s my job") and @bravooomg, plus those with podcasts, such as Mixing with Mani and Andy's Girls. Other popular accounts, like @bravobetch ("Bravo memes, Bravo news") and @bravohistorian ("I’ve been following the lives of these bitches for 10+ years"), have posted memes that mock Dodd and call for her firing.
The Bravo community is huge and strong; some of these pages boast anywhere in the range of 10,000 followers to well over 400,000, not to mention the listens their various podcasts get. It's the kind of fandom that made BravoCon, a convention the network started in 2019 (this year's was canceled due to COVID), such a success, with thousands of fans from all over the world convening with Bravolebrities and indulging in their favorite pop culture obsessions. The Bravo viewership is fervent, and makes it known on social media when they're not happy with a cast member, series, or the network.
The fire under Dodd's Louboutins started with leading Bravoholics (as they're known) privately and publicly discussing boycotting this season of RHOC, ultimately banding together to not watch or amplify the show. And while there's no evidence that the boycott is to blame, and a number of long time cast members weren't asked back after last season, ratings for last week's season premiere were the lowest in three years.
"I think that her immediate jumping into the MAGA world as soon as she got into a relationship with a Fox News correspondent has really opened a lot of our eyes to the fact that this woman isn't deserving of any attention, regardless of whether or not she's a Housewife," Sarah Galli, host the popular podcast Andy's Girls, told VICE.
Indeed, Dodd has taken to the life of a celebrity conservative in 2020: in December, she posted a photo at Fox News correspondent Jesse Waters' wedding alongside Eric Trump, Donald Trump Jr., and Kimberly Guilfoyle, marveling at the "impressive guest list" while noting, in all caps, she is "NOT AT ALL POLITICAL."
Though Dodd might not see her actions that way, her flagrant embrace of the current presidential administration and its talking points have brought to a head a tension brewing within the reality television landscape for some time. Plenty of fan favorites in the Real Housewives universe are Trump-voting Republicans, including "OG"'s Ramona Singer and Teresa Guidice. The stars of the Real Housewives franchises have been cast because their bubbles of wealth, privilege, and ignorance, and penchant for shade and drama makes them compelling television. Their lives offer a level of escapism viewers can aspire to, laugh at, or want to dissect in blogs, Facebook groups, or the group chat.
But sidling up to members of the United States' current fascist regime seems to be too far for some, though it hasn't come out of left field: Dodd has made antisemitic remarks on the show before; has called Black Lives Matter protests "terrorism on our land"; and has been extremely outspoken about her views on masks, making news recently for her bridal shower and wedding, which were partially mask-off affairs.
As Dodd's lean towards the right has continued, the landscape around her has shifted too. In June, Bravo announced Stassi Schroeder, Kristen Doute, Max Boyens, and Brett Caprioni from Vanderpump Rules would not be returning to the show after a range of racist statements and actions (in Schroeder and Doute's case, potentially life-threatening ones against a Black castmate)—a move most certainly made at least in part because of outside pressure. The rabid fan bases that have made the shows wild successes expect consequences, and Bravo has been slow to dole them out or have a set standard across the board for all their network stars—instead, in Dodd's case, her "political beliefs and tone-deaf jokes" have been teased in her bio on the network's website in advance of this season.
"Listen, we all watch stuff we love to hate, right?" Ellen Brenchley, who runs the Bravo fan page @bravoingtogether with Kristina Overland. "This is beyond that. This is something that's dangerous. This is someone who is spreading misinformation, who is hurting the Black community."
"What she has done to this day with the spread of misinformation as relating to corona[virus], and essentially celebrating not wearing a mask and ridiculing people who are who are is grotesque," said Galli, who even expressed concern that Dodd's posts about COVID could "possibly [kill] people."
The Drunk Wives Matter hat was the "final straw" for Galli, who said it exemplifies Dodd's ignorance, racism, and deepens the trauma felt by Black viewers and Black talent on the network. "It feels like we're now at a space where we have to decide, like, are we going to participate in this by watching Orange County and amplifying Kelly's hate and give her more attention," she said, "or we're going to say this is too much." While Galli doesn't plan to watch or discuss this season of RHOC on Andy's Girls, she said she might change her mind at some point in the future, and won't bar guests from bringing up Dodd or the season if they choose to discuss.
"The Bravo audience [is] saying, Hey guys. Where's Kelly's employer in all of this?" Galli said. "She's saying these crazy things and she's getting a check. Why is there nobody combating that?"
"I think as we're being pushed to hold people in power accountable, platforming racist white people for entertainment value is also supporting racism," said Brenchley. "For us, we do have a platform. We have over 15,000 followers. We don't want to platform that."
The podcasters and page moderators VICE spoke to all began their platforms as a space to share jokes and pick apart the happenings on their favorite shows. For most, it's a hobby that happens to have a huge following. According to Brenchley, most pages aren't making much, if any, money on their Bravo-based endeavors.
Brenchley believes that giving Dodd any press only feeds the beast, and adds to the aura of controversy Dodd courts on and off screen. The frustration also lies in Bravo's inconsistent track record of holding its Bravolebrities accountable for racist, homophobic, transphobic, and other offensive behavior. While the house cleaning done at Vanderpump Rules and the recent firing of Below Deck: Mediterranean star Peter Hunziker was, according to Brenchley, the right move, as were the specials on Black Lives Matter the network put on with activist and cast member of Real Housewives of Atlanta Porsha Williams and comedian/culture critic W. Kamau Bell, she believes the lack of consistency in action on the network's part creates confusion and frustration when Dodd and other controversial figures like VPR's Jax Taylor remain employed. "We want to understand, what's the protocol?" she said. "Because if this isn't grounds for firing, then none of those other people should have been fired either. I think they should have been fired. Let me be very clear. But there's no consistency here so it feels like there's no real justice."
Mani Marcus, who hosts the podcast and runs the page Mixing with Mani, also decided not to watch the new season to avoid discomfort, a feeling she's had to contend with for years as a Black Bravo viewer and talking head. On her podcast and other platforms, she dives into the happenings on the many Bravo offerings from her perspective as a Black woman. "Most of these shows on Bravo—with the exception of a couple at a time—are not marketed towards me," she told VICE. "I just don't feel like I need to relive my experience of 2020 as a Black person, as someone who's trying to stay clear of a pandemic, through these women."
RHOC has certainly been one of the whitest casts in the Housewives franchises. Dodd, who is part Mexican, has long used her ethnicity as a cover for her bad behavior, often claiming she's "not racist" because "she's Mexican" when called out by cast mates and critics. (That same Bravo bio also refers to "Her fiery Latin lineage and unfiltered opinions.") Racism from a reality TV star, amplified on a series and network that severely lacks diversity and tends to segregate its series (Married to Medicine, Real Housewives of Atlanta, and Real Housewives of Potomac feature an all-Black or predominately Black cast, and are often viewed as Bravo's Black series') is unfortunately nothing new to Marcus. The network has made strides to bring greater diversity to different franchises, with the addition of Garcelle Beauvais as the first Black cast member on Real Housewives of Beverly Hills last season, the announcement of Eboni K. Williams cast on Real Housewives of New York next season (where she'll also be the first Black Housewife on that series), and the upcoming premiere of Real Housewives of Salt Lake City, which will boast one of the most diverse casts of all the franchises, but much of that progress has felt like it's been pressured from the outside, not inside the network.
"We knew what we signed up for and we knew the potential discomfort and racism that can come from Bravo or any reality TV when we signed on," Marcus said. "We're not new to this as people of color. We watch the show and we know exactly what these women are capable of."
Brenchley believes Bravo will only make a more concerted effort to hold Dodd accountable when it "hits their pocketbook." (As for Dodd herself, when fan pages began posting about not supporting the current RHOC season, she responded on Instagram by calling them "whackjobs.") Even so, completely ignoring the season will be impossible with such a rabid and extremely online fanbase, and every source for this piece said they were open to changing their mind in the future; the hope is to use any talks to continue having productive conversations about the harm Dodd's presence on the show causes, and holding Bravo accountable for their part in amplifying her.
While Galli, Brenchley, and other white Bravo fans and critics have been outspoken about Dodd and their plans not to watch RHOC this season, Marcus' boycott adds greater weight to what Bravo's lack of action says to Black viewers, especially during a time when Black Lives Matter protests are still taking place and when COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting the Black and Latinx community. For Marcus, watching a group of white women on RHOC fumble through the early days of COVID and ignorantly discuss BLM feels like too much to take, especially since we're "still in it"—meaning both issues are ongoing.
"I don't really need to watch my personal rights, and that of people who look like me, as a human being be debated, or my anger, my anguish, my hurt, my anything be debated, on television by people who are not us," Marcus said. "That's not fun TV to me…I frankly don't need that to be a part of the conversation while I protest and try to post resources…I really don't want to be reminded that this is a population of people that think like this."
The escapism that makes shows like RHOC fun for Black and brown viewers is no longer possible, not just in content but in conscientiousness. For Marcus and others, it's also a matter of self-care. "[Black people] don't want a situation where we're watching and trying to enjoy just something messy, fun, and shady, and we feel attacked," said Marcus.
It's hard to quantify if their boycott will have an impact. "I want to believe that Bravo wouldn't have had BravoCon if they didn't understand the importance of this community," said Brenchley. "I want to believe that they understand the importance of this community and how much we are invested. But again, do I think that they'll do anything without there being an effect to their bottom line first? I can't answer that. I don't know. I want to believe that they would, but they haven't yet, so it's discouraging at this point."
That won't keep them from pushing, however.
"We know Kelly's a troll so at a certain point the dialogue to me, on Andy's Girls and off, veers away from Kelly's behavior—because we know who she is, she's telling us repeatedly—and more toward this community, the foundation of which was created and is ongoing because of the work and voices of Bravoholics and Bravo accounts, who are now saying to the network, do better for us and yourselves, and they're not," said Galli. "That's a conversation that's going to go on regardless of Kelly's employment in the future, and it's one the network doesn't appear to want to have, but we're going to have it anyway. It's going to happen regardless of their participation. But if they don't participate, I don't know what that says about this community. Like, I don't know if Bravo the network wants to be a willing member of the Bravo community in the ways that we hope they would."
While the network hasn't made any public statements regarding Dodd (and hasn't responded to a request for comment from VICE; neither has Dodd herself), producer Andy Cohen did drop a shady, if dodging, comment on his show Radio Andy last month, saying, "I think that her posts show how woefully uninformed we all are and what a horrible job that this administration has done to inform us about this disease…And, concurrently, if you are going to Kelly Dodd for advice about what to do in the face of the coronavirus, there is a problem. I think that, you know, [you should] consult your doctor. Do some research. Maybe don’t consult your plastic surgeon." Perhaps it's time the network consults with some experts themselves—they're ready and waiting.
Alex Zaragoza is a senior staff writer at VICE.