During a very early episode of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, cast member Taylor throws a birthday party for her four-year-old daughter. There are grass sculptures, flower arrangements, a band, a bodyguard and a diamond ring for the birthday girl. The haul comes to around $50,000 (£38,152), revealed in text that flashes up at the bottom of the screen with a neat “kerching” sound.
I'm pretty sure my fourth birthday party involved a Tesco caterpillar cake and some felt tip pens. But I didn’t watch that Real Housewives scene with jealousy, or even contempt. My reaction was more complicated than that: a mixture of low-level aspiration, deep fascination, fantasy and mild disgust.
The Real Housewives franchise wasn't the first to feature an outrageous amount of wealth as a primary character – there were plenty of shows before it, especially in the 2000s. Shows with lip-glossed girls and glistening 4x4s and million dollar weddings. MTV Cribs. Keeping Up with the Kardashians. The Simple Life. The Hills. Rich Kids of Beverly Hills. But this trend didn't end when Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie faded from public view; we’ve had Below Deck and Made in Chelsea since, and, of course, the mother of them all: Selling Sunset. Our fascination with the mega rich persists.
Selling Sunset – the new season of which is out this month – is particularly unrestrained when it comes to money. The show follows a group of bronzed women in heels who sell luxury houses in the Hollywood Hills. The property prices, which are always in the millions, swish across the screen as the camera pans across jacuzzis and tennis courts and complicated fireplaces. Their interpersonal dramas, of which there are many, exist against a backdrop of high-end cocktail parties and chef-made salads. But why do we continue to return to this kind of wealth-smothered entertainment?
“I can't explain it, but I think it's because it's a life I will never have. They're like aliens to me,” 23-year-old Dani says of her fascination with Selling Sunset. “I grew up in a typical working class northern household where I'd fantasise about being rich when I was older and having a house with a big TV and a swimming pool. My aspirations have changed as time's gone on, and I've realised money isn't everything, but there's still probably a part of me that longs for that stuff. It's nice to imagine living in these mansions, what that life could feel like.”
I know what Dani means. When I was a kid, families with SMEG fridges and granola in jars were the height of luxury. I'd fantasise about suddenly coming into money, being ejected from the basement flat in Archway that I shared with my mum and into a proper house with a deep ceramic bath and new fluffy towels where we could watch SKY on a flatscreen. This fantasy has dulled and evolved somewhat (I just want to pay off my overdraft), but that doesn’t mean I don’t still dream about one day owning, idk, a Jaguar and two extremely perky tits.
Helen Wood, a professor of Media and Cultural Studies who focuses on reality TV and class, says this type of “aspirational” TV really ramped up in the late 2000s. “Real Housewives started around 2008, which is the same time as the economic downturn,” she says. “There was this moment where we were seeing the uber rich with no bars to what they could do, while the rest of the world was moving into austerity or even experiencing homelessness. You'd think that's when we wouldn't want to see it, but actually that's the moment it became much more interesting to us.”
Wood puts our fascination down to a mixture of fantasy and escapism. “I guess the Kardashians is more about celebrity and aspiration and the idea that anyone could have access to this lifestyle,” she says. “Reality TV still tries to circulate that idea, that this is broadly attainable.”
But our obsession with watching the mega wealthy on TV also arguably isn't as simple as wanting their expensive handbags and matte faces. You also become invested in the cast’s emotional lives. Taylor might have been spending $50,000 on her daughter's birthday party, for instance, but she was also surviving an emotionally and physically abusive marriage. Money can buy you material comfort and temporary relief, but beneath the immaculate manicures and sparkling chandeliers are human feelings and human problems, some of which might mirror your own.
“You do sort of forget that these people are so rich after a while,” agrees 25-year-old Aimee, who watches Real Housewives and Selling Sunset religiously. “You might be like, 'That is ridiculous,' when one of them takes their private jet to Vegas, but once you're a few episodes in, you have your favourite and least favourite characters, and you take sides in arguments and care how their lives pan out. I also think it shows how money comes with its own problems. They get trapped in certain lifestyles and loveless marriages, and being that rich can seem quite claustrophobic.”
But alongside simultaneously aspiring and relating to the mega wealthy on TV, there’s often also a heavy dose of judgment too. ‘If I were a millionairess, I would never buy that tacky coffee table with the elephant legs,’ you think to yourself smugly, while clicking “Skip Recap” for the seventh time that day. “Look at them, with their walk-in closets just for shoes. Could never be me,” you say out loud to no one, while scrolling through GoFundMes.
Wood calls this type of “judgy” enjoyment a “tournament of values”.
“People compare their own values to other people’s,” she explains. “That's mostly what they're engaged with; trying to prove their own worth in comparison to people on TV.” In other words: it makes us feel better about ourselves to hate-watch people we view as morally inferior, even subconsciously. “We’re quite judgmental,” Wood adds.
Basically, we love watching wealthy people for the same reason we doom-scroll through Instagram. We’re fascinated with other people’s lives. But mainly, really, we’re fascinated with what other people’s lives say about our own. We’re not obsessed with watching mega rich people. We’re obsessed with what mega rich people reveal about us.