This article originally appeared on VICE US
When my then-wife told me two Octobers ago that she’d found someone she loved more than me and that our marriage was over, a couple things happened.
First, I got extremely creative in my swearing. Second, our lives, which had joined together over the 11 years prior, suddenly bifurcated. Everything split: our friends and possessions, and the rituals we’d developed together as a couple. After the initial impact of my ex's announcement, I watched as pieces of my life I thought were default programming became associated with her and our life together. One of the most heartbreaking losses in the split was of The Real Housewives of Bravo.
Toward the end of our relationship, it had been our thing to sit in amiable silence and watch hours of reality TV drama unfolding in massive walk-in closets full of Birkin bags, themselves in big cities across the country. We didn’t watch any other type of reality TV except live sports, so this obsession with The Real Housewives popped out of nowhere. Honestly, when I first started watching, it was out of sheer curiosity: the sort of grotesque urge you get to stare at a car crash. The wives felt so different from me—these women whose lives seemed to rotate around competitive friendships and social status, Bentleys, diamonds, and properties in some of the most expensive places to live in America. I fully judged them for it.
I am a small-town reporter in Montana who identifies as a soft butch. I buy new clothes only when my old ones fall apart. But there was something so soothing about getting home after a day of wild news, turning on Hulu, and becoming absorbed into a world where the most pressing issue for those who live in it is, like, “She didn’t get invited to the charity ball!” For instance: When Countess Luann of New York City's marriage to a count fell apart, I laughed at her, because I assumed she was only upset about the loss of her title and the social edge it gave her over the other ladies. My ex and I rolled our eyes at her tears.
There was nothing on the surface that said these women would eventually save my life, that they’d be with me through the hardest parts of my adult existence, and that I’d be crying along with one of them, nodding, saying, “Yes, Bethenny Frankel, titan of the margarita-based Skinny Girl product empire, it IS hard when a solid foundation of your life crumbles and you are heartbroken,” while watching her have a full-on hyperventilating breakdown on a Mexico trip, when fellow Housewife Ramona Singer invoked a “scandal” about Bethenny having topless footage out there.
My wife left me in October 2017. We were divorced by January 1. That winter is a blur, largely because my feelings were cauterized by the amount of weed I smoked. Snowbound in my home, I mainlined a couple seasons of the Housewives, whose foibles had always perked my ex and me up. I couldn’t even get through the opening credits. It reminded me too much of some of the tender, sweeter parts of my marriage, when we laughed at the show's silliness and thought about how we were the ones who really had our lives together.
Last fall, as the leaves turned, I decided to give The Real Housewives of New York City a shot. It took about an episode to get back into the rhythm of the Bravo world, but after that, I was in. I started back on season seven, when Bethenny Frankel rejoins the cast after three seasons away. Bethenny is a Real Housewife who, in the first few seasons, builds her now-massive Skinny Girl brand from the ground up. We watch her grow into a powerful businessperson—someone with a machine-gun mouth who hardly ever shows her vulnerabilities and needs to maintain the appearance of capability at all times.
And then Bethenny’s life falls apart. Her marriage ends nastily, and her custody battles with her ex-husband go public. None of this is news to anyone who watches the franchise as it airs, but I was a couple of years behind, and broken myself. Watching Bethenny battle through all of that trouble while on camera made me feel less like a voyeur into the worlds of these weird rich ladies who didn’t seem to actually exist, and more like watching a real human being suffer the same deep hurts I was suffering.
In those next few seasons, I cannot tell you how many times I sobbed along with Bethenny as her life came together and fell apart, again and again. She’d get into more drama with her friends—I’ll never get over her friend breakup with Carole Radziwill—and back into the regular brain-melting Housewife activities, like hosting a tailgate party in the Hamptons, in time. But, for a few seasons, her pain mirrored my own.
This was humbling. I was more alike these women than I’d known, and it changed how I watched the whole show. After New York City, I went back to The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills with new eyes, and I felt true affection for the women I used to only mock. Each franchise I’ve watched since then—aka, all of them—has felt the same.
But nothing will compare to how Bethenny broke through that for me, and how, in showing her vulnerabilities to the world, she actually changed how I perceived it. I’m kinder and gentler in my reality show viewings now, just as I’m kinder and gentler to myself about my marriage ending and my life crumbling from underneath me.
Bethenny assumed she could control how the world perceived her vulnerabilities—that we could only see the tenderness or weaknesses she chose to share, while keeping the rest hidden and safe. Then all her foundations were shaken, and suddenly this incredibly painful and intimate piece of her life became the focus, because it had to. Nothing else mattered. Like season-seven Bethenny, I eventually picked myself back up and moved forward, harder and softer, all at the same time. I collected the parts of my life that turned out to be mine after all, including Housewives.
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