The Real Housewives of Potomac, Season 1, Episode 1
Images via Bravo TV
Entertainment

How a Small Town Becomes Famous Through Reality TV

'The Real Housewives of Potomac' has become the darling of the Bravo franchise and given an otherwise unassuming town a shot of cultural recognition.
December 4, 2020, 12:00pm

The Real Housewives of Potomac began with the same flourish as most reality TV shows. In its first airing in 2016, cameras panned across country club greens, uniformed equestrians, sparkling diamond rings, and Washington, D.C., landmarks between cuts of b-roll of the original cast: Gizelle Bryant, Karen Huger, Katie Rost, Robyn Dixon, Ashley Darby, and Charrisse Jackson-Jordan. “If you haven’t heard of Potomac, that’s fine,” Bryant says in the opening line of the series, introducing us to the relatively unknown suburb. “That means we’ve done a great job of keeping it a nice little secret.”

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For Maryland locals, Potomac—lauded as one of the most affluent suburbs in the country and responsible for Maryland’s status as home to some of the nation’s richest Black communities—is a place where generations of uppity white folks settled and put down roots behind sleepy gated communities. It’s not a place you stumble upon; it’s somewhere you intend to visit, with little to see besides massive homes. Growing up, many of us Maryland residents were unaware that Black people even opted to live in the 20854 zip code unless they were athletes or diplomats. Folks from neighboring counties were known to ride around Potomac to get a peek at how the other half lives. Yet Bravo discovered a cast of thriving Black women in a predominantly white bedroom suburb and produced a show that’s arguably become the nucleus of the Housewives franchise, turning a previously unassuming town into a pop culture entity.

“I’m part of a show that has given this little town so much notoriety,” Gizelle Bryant said via email. “I want people to see how beautiful it is and how much fun we have, even though it sits right outside a very conservative, political Washington, D.C.”

Since RHOP premiered, Bravo’s picture of Potomac has proven to be much lusher than what the town really is: a largely unbothered suburbia situated in the shadow of D.C. Potomac boasts a population of only about 45,000 people, and according to the most recent U.S. Census, about 69 percent of residents are white. What’s more, most people outside of Maryland couldn’t find Potomac on a map. But through the reality TV lens, Bravo viewers see it as something else: a well-to-do, etiquette-obsessed community littered with McMansions on expansive green acreage populated with Black women. There’s pageantry and Prada, shade, and lavish extravaganzas on the show—and on unfortunate episodes, a pungent air of respectability politics.

This perception is key to why Potomac is a highly watched jewel of Bravo. The Real Housewives of Potomac works because it dresses up and shoves an otherwise hidden, uninteresting town onto a center stage led by a woman who calls herself the Grande Dame (Karen Huger). Bravo’s new, Mormon-centric installment, The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City, wins similar favor by zeroing in on the scandals within a small group of well-off women in a less humming area, in this case against the backdrop of ski lodges and beautiful, ice-capped mountains. While Salt Lake City isn’t as sparse as Potomac, it’s not a big city either, with an estimated population of close to 201,000, according to the most recent U.S. census numbers. The show has gained immediate mass appeal, along with, naturally, criticism from within the Mormon community.

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The ruse with RHOP is that when the cameras are off, unlike with a busy city, days in Potomac are slow and uneventful, even for the show’s vocal centerpiece, Gizelle Bryant. “I just live my life raising my kids,” Bryant wrote. “I go to the gym every day and then pick up something from Whole Foods to cook.”

The Real Housewives of Potomac, Season 1, Episode 1

Reality TV shows tend to bring waves of newfound interest and scrutiny to the small-town locales in which they’re set. When the location is just as unknown as the cast, the town itself becomes a character, in the same way that Jersey Shore developed a reputation as a rampant party district because of the eponymous, Snooki-led MTV series in the 2010s, or how Waco, Texas, gained pop culture notoriety via HGTV’s Fixer Upper. On a less notorious scale, BET’s Baldwin Hills, which aired from 2007 to 2009, familiarized viewers with young Black people from wealthy families in the area known as the “Black Beverly Hills,” and MTV’s one-season reality series Washington Heights centered one of NYC’s most diverse neighborhoods in 2013. OWN’s Love & Marriage: Huntsville premiered in 2019 and spotlights a cluster of couples in Alabama known for little more than its connections to NASA.

Unlike sister shows in the Real Housewives franchise—set in metropolises like Atlanta, New York City, and Beverly Hills, or massive counties like Orange County, California—Potomac pales in both size and recognition. Part of the ploy is that the series isn’t all shot in Potomac. The women of RHOP have been filmed dining, celebrating, and arguing in D.C. venues, including L2, The Park at 14th, Fig & Olive, and The Howard Theatre. They’re also frequently taped in surrounding towns and counties, which makes it so that, on TV, everything goes on in Potomac, but in reality: “Nothing goes on in Potomac,” said Glenarden native Dominique "Domo" Wells, a DJ and illustrator. “I don’t know that people even recognize where Potomac is actually located if they’re not from the area.”

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Insecure creator Issa Rae, the daughter of a doctor and teacher, spent a portion of her childhood in Potomac. In a 2011 interview with Essence, she mentioned growing up in a town “where I hadn’t been around many Black people” as a catalyst for some of her most awkward moments. So it wasn’t uncommon for minorities to exist in that bubble. “I grew up in the D.C. suburbs, and there wasn’t a place where there weren’t Blacks, so it wasn't foreign to me to know Black people from Potomac,” said comedian and WPGC 95.5 host Joe Clair, who was born and raised in Seat Pleasant, Maryland. “But it was odd to me to see a reality show that was predominantly Black in Potomac.”

Though having an all-Black ensemble from an elite town is unexpected, RHOP was quickly compared to the cast of The Real Housewives of Atlanta, set in a majority-Black city. “We understand that [Andy’s] bringing on another Brown girl show,” cast member Nene Leakes joked on Watch What Happens Live in 2015. “We been the only ones for a long time.” If the Housewives series are sisters, the Potomac and Atlanta casts are the fraternal twins of the bunch.

The Real Housewives of Potomac, Season 1, Episode 1

Raymond Huger and RHOP cast member Karen Huger on the greens

Back in the 1930s, moneyed professionals stumbled upon Potomac’s sprawling farmland in search of wide-open, remote space for a hunting excursion. Considering that it’s now a neighborhood of wealthy residents with a median household income of nearly $200,000, it seems the city maintained its early legacy. Freed slaves founded nearby enclaves like little-known nearby Scotland and Tobytown, a historically Black community, so it’s understandable that Black families still exist in and around Potomac.

So why did Bravo settle on its second all-Black cast and lowest populated city? Well, the network isn’t a stranger to the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia (DMV) region. In 2010, they premiered The Real Housewives of D.C., an arm of the franchise that followed affluent women in the political mecca. And while it sounded good as a concept, a scandal involving a White House security breach canned the series after just one season (and long before viewers cared much about the show). Because RHODC was a bust, it’s hard to believe production simply happened upon Potomac versus making a calculated move to repackage their first failed attempt at spotlighting the nation’s capital, though Bravo executives have previously denied that motive.

RHODC’s misconduct certainly chipped Bravo’s armor, but it also may have drawn more attention to Potomac’s premiere. “Real Housewives of Potomac basically redeemed us nationally,” said WPGC 95.5 radio host Poet Taylor. “The Real Housewives of D.C. was a disaster, from the casting to the storylines, but the résumés of the ladies on RHOP alone elevated the franchise. From Dr. Wendy Osefo being a professor to Monique [Samuels] showing what entrepreneurship looks like in real-time.”

It seemed like Potomac’s polished reputation could smooth over the embarrassment with a gaggle of high-brow and high-net-worth women who prefer a little decorum with their drama. In fact, the show was originally intended to be a series on etiquette, or “a Blood Sweat and Heels sort of show,” Darby said on the podcast Reality Life with Kate Casey, citing Bravo’s previous reality series about professional Black women in New York City. But Potomac morphed into a franchise darling, and though etiquette isn’t explicitly the theme of RHOP, the ladies’ fixation with behavior, academic degrees, and unwritten, arbitrary rules on manners—largely around how Black women present themselves in public and on television—is all in the fine print. Bryant suggested, “Potomac is less about pedigree and more about class and style. People live in Potomac because they want a nice picturesque lifestyle.”

And the cast sticks to that narrative—partly for optics, since they’re all under a national spotlight. But, as Bryant points out, the pretense of civility is also a result of their living in a mostly white town where they’re compelled to keep up appearances. This perception is what the cast feels like separates them from the Black women on what they view as low-brow reality TV. In a 2015 interview, executive producer Andy Cohen said, “Potomac [is] so unusual a choice for a location because it's kind of this random location that people don't necessarily identify with specifically. But it means so much to the women that live there, and they have such a clear sense of what it is and what it means and what the rules are and what it's like.”

As the network’s highest-rated Housewives debut to date, RHOP is a strong model for future Housewives locations to come, a la The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City. The format is invariably the same: A handful of successful, interconnected women (rarely wives, but almost always a mix of friends and mortal enemies) showcase their daily lives—dalliances, tax problems, and all. But the secret to the franchise’s longevity may be uncovering a virtually unknown or less bustling region and attracting the masses with intriguing characters who can put that place on the map and create a new formula for reality TV gold.