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'Nailed to the Cross Like Jesus Was': A Farewell to Bravo's OG of the OC

Vicki Gunvalson started and helped maintain The Real Housewives franchise. But by the end, she became a victim of her own success.

by Madeleine Davies
Feb 10 2020, 3:07pm

Image via Getty

The first words uttered by Vicki Gunvalson on Bravo’s The Real Housewives of Orange County were "I don’t want to get old," the audio of which was played over footage of her getting botox injected into her crow’s feet. Then just a tagline in the series' now-iconic intro, the comment showed a prescient understanding for the reality TV world that Gunvalson newly inhabited. In 2019, thirteen years after Orange County debuted, she—known by fans as the OG of the OC —was demoted from Housewife to "friend of the Housewives," reportedly to make room for younger cast members. Then, in early 2020, she was fired completely, bringing her reign as longest-running Housewife (and the only original Housewife still on the show) to an end.

The Real Housewives has come a long way since it began in 2006, having become so interwoven in the tapestry of pop culture that it’s hard to imagine a time when the tropes created and honed by the franchise didn't exist. Fans of the series are now ardent enough to merit BravoCon, a convention with cast panels, exhibits, and merch booths; the series inspired its own genre of podcasts; Housewives fans can speak in a shorthand, no one confused when someone shouts "I made it nice" (Dorinda, New York), "Who gon’ check me, boo?" (Shereé, Atlanta) or "PROSTITUTION WHORE" (Teresa, New Jersey). The Real Housewives is now a behemoth with nine U.S.-based versions (and a 10th— The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City—imminent), as well as 13 international additions.

But in the beginning, when The Real Housewives of Orange County was concisely titled The Real Housewives (no further specification needed) because no one knew what a bounty Bravo had headed our way, the series was a scrappier animal. It was up to Gunvalson and her four other castmates (Kimberly Bryant, Jo De La Rosa, Jeana Keough, and Lauri Peterson), neighbors and frenemies in the California gated community of Coto de Caza to create the form. And no one took to the task as well or as viciously as Gunvalson did. The insurance agent and mother of two was the ideal reality TV personality—quick to get offended and slow to let go of a grudge. She made her mark early, loudly opining that her then-husband Donn didn’t fill her "love tank," embarrassing her teenage children, and screaming at limo service operators for sending the wrong vehicle—"A FAMILY VAN!"—to pick her up. She was easily threatened and more easily jealous, always hating new cast members unless they happened to share her star sign (Aries) and show her, a founding cast member, proper deference.

It’s fair to say that no one gave up more of their lives to The Real Housewives franchise than Gunvalson: On camera, she went through a divorce; learned that her mother died; and for a full season appeared with not-yet-settled facelift that left her swollen and bruised. She screamed in women’s faces at multiple bunco parties; accidentally peed on a castmate's bed; and did her signature sloppy "whoop it up" partying everywhere from Bali to Ireland to Puerto Vallarta, finding unique ways to get in blow-out fights all along the way. Her biggest contribution of all, though, was her onscreen romantic relationship with Brooks Ayers, an oily, southern insurance salesman who seemed to have slithered directly out of a Flannery O’Connor short story. While their relationship was full of cringe-worthy moments (asked at a dinner to name Vicki’s best quality, Brooks doesn’t hesitate before saying " Her ver-gi-na"), nothing was more memorable than Ayers allegedly faking cancer for the whole of Season 10. Gunvalson, who still implausibly denies knowing that Brooks' was misrepresenting himself, met the accusations from the other Housewives with defensiveness, at one point screaming—at a fellow cast member’s baptism, no less—that she was being "nailed to the cross like Jesus was."

But by her last season as a full-time Housewife, Gunvalson was shrinking in the role that she had created for herself. She got another facelift (been there!), and was in a new healthier relationship with retired cop and failed politician Steve Lodge (brother of Blind Date’s Roger Lodge), which made for boring television. She was only a bit player in the drama between the women (among them, Tamra Judge, the second longest-running Orange County housewife, who was also fired at the end of the 14th season), having alienated herself so extremely in previous seasons that she dare not offend anyone important, lest she has no one left to film with. Then there was the growing audience fascination in newer cast member Kelly Dodd, who remarkably and horribly seemed able to out-Vicki Gunvalson herself—she could scream and name-call, she had no problem issuing grandiose threats, and most damning of all for Gunvalson, she was kind of funny. While the audience loved to hate Gunvalson, Dodd (after a rocky introduction) became somewhat adored by Bravo audiences.

Perhaps as punishment for a lackluster couple of seasons, Gunvalson was demoted to "friend of the Housewives," an insult that she didn’t take well, given her increasing tendency to label it "her" show. For the Season 14 reunion, she was left in a dressing room while the other cast members talked on set with Bravo host and Real Housewives executive producer Andy Cohen. She became increasingly agitated being kept out of the spotlight, resulting in a tantrum of epic proportions that contradictorily seemed painfully self-aware and increasingly unhinged, the death rattle of the OG. It couldn’t have gone much worse: Not only did she berate the production staff on camera, but she also went after new cast member Braunwyn Windham-Burke, who is open about her bisexuality and how it works in her heterosexual marriage, for somehow bringing down the moral character of the show, saying, “We have got to be women that people want to emulate to be. Do you think people want to emulate to be this trash? [sic]” and gesturing to Windham-Burke. Later, Gunvalson doubled down on her homophobia, adding, “I think it’s disgusting,” a comment that didn’t sit well with Cohen or many of her castmates, all quick to point out that she herself has been a terrible role model and Windham-Burke’s choices were none of her business.

While Vicki’s increased irrelevance on Orange County merits firing, returning as a "friend of the Housewives" for yet another season remained a realistic expectation, even considering her bigotry. (Vicki, it’s worth pointing out, has been a conservative and made such comments for years.) That is until Vicki made the worst mistake a flailing Housewife can commit: She went after Cohen, whose control over The Real Housewives is close to absolute, rebuking him with a sharp “Don’t forget where you came from.” Any smart Housewife knows to kiss the ring—at Cohen’s baby shower last year, Beverly Hills‘ Lisa Rinna savvily demanded that her castmates dance for him, shouting, "Fucking bitches, go. Get up on a fucking table and dance for Andy now...He paid for your life, so get up on a table and dance fucking now." It’s widely accepted that once Cohen is over a cast member, the cast member is done with the series. As he told Paper in June of 2019, cast members get the boot "If they become a turn-off to viewers, for whatever reason—they appear too fake, they're not interesting, they're not entertaining." But also, "When people cross the line and it becomes unreal, that's when they are out."

"When people cross the line" can mean many things, some more explicit than others. Fan-favorite Phaedra Parks was cut from Atlanta after it was revealed that she started a sexual assault rumor involving her fellow castmates, an obviously firable offense. But other times, it seems to have as much to do with Cohen being personally irked by a person (all the better if the audience has soured on them, as well). By essentially crediting herself for Cohen’s success, Gunvalson falls as much into that category of "crossing the line" as she does "being uninteresting." Furthermore, in 2019, she used the pseudonym Jane Roe to file a lawsuit against production and castmate Kelly Dodd to keep footage she found defamatory from airing (the lawsuit was swiftly withdrawn). Housewives, it’s worth noting, are contractually barred from suing each other, according to a BuzzFeed interview with Carole Radziwill, formerly of The Real Housewives of New York. (Other Housewives have also confirmed this.) If the lawsuit wasn’t enough to seal Gunvalson’s fate, then telling Cohen to remember where he came from assured that the guillotine on her Bravo career would drop.

Gunvalson wasn’t entirely wrong in taking credit for at least some of Cohen’s and The Real Housewives’ success, but she did forget that it’s Bravo, not her, with all the power. The despicable (yet watchable) persona she and other early reality stars embodied is now so ubiquitous—on TV, in viral videos of suburban women demanding to speak to a manager, in the Oval Office—that pop culture, and Orange County, no longer need her.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

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