How Bravo Fans are Finding Comfort and Community Through Their Favorite Reality TV Shows
Podcasters who usually joke about the drama in shows like 'Vanderpump Rules' have found their fan communities engaging in today's issues through the lens of Bravo TV.
Around 2am on May 31, Ryan Bailey sat at his computer, talking to himself about Vanderpump Rules. This wasn’t particularly unusual for the creator of the pop-culture podcast So Bad It’s Good With Ryan Bailey. Since launching his show in October 2019, Bailey has often found himself recording segments and piecing together interview clips well into the wee hours. But on that particular night, something was different: From his second floor West Hollywood apartment, Bailey could see Melrose Avenue going up in flames.
The events transpiring outside Bailey’s window were unrelated to the nonviolent Black Lives Matter demonstrations occurring throughout the city and around the country in the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of the police. Looking down on his burning street, Bailey began to contemplate major social issues he’d never considered discussing on his podcast, a forum mostly reserved for reality show breakdowns, celebrity news, and the occasional Justin Bieber mockery. “Things exploded and it all coincided with Stassi and Kristen getting fired."
For the uninitiated, Bailey’s referring to Bravo’s decision to fire Vanderpump Rules stars Stassi Schroeder and Kristen Doute one week after former castmate Faith Stowers alleged the duo had taken racist actions against her, implicating Stowers in a crime she had nothing to do with. While Bailey and many other fans had long considered the Bravo universe to be an escapist paradise built on overproduced drama and impeccably lit confessionals, reality was bleeding into reality shows in a way that couldn’t be ignored.
When he reached out to Stowers for an interview, she obliged. "Ryan did a great job during my interview and he understood the tragic event that happened to me," Stowers says about their hour-long conversation. "He is a Bravo TV expert and hilarious." That dialogue provoked the kind of thoughtful social media conversation that made one thing clear: In an unprecedented year marked by a global pandemic, a long-overdue racial justice reckoning, and countless other soul-penetrating realities, Bravo fans are finding community and coping strategies in what was once written off as unrealistic reality show fluff.
Bailey isn’t the only podcaster and content creator to tackle social and political issues through the lens of reality shows like Vanderpump Rules, Below Deck, and every iteration of The Real Housewives franchise. But he has seen his numbers skyrocket since COVID-19 prompted national shelter-in-place orders in mid-March. Since the beginning of the lockdown, Bailey has seen his Instagram following explode by more than 12,000 users, and he’s currently banking around 12,000 downloads per podcast episode.
"Now, I have 300 DMs I haven't answered—so many people want to participate," he says. "I thought, 'I’m a white cis male—who am I to talk about these issues?' I think we all feel scared that our comments won’t be received well by everyone, but if I can be the dummy in this situation and walk through the scary forest, then maybe listeners can walk through it with me and we can figure things out together."
Raven Chatman, creator of Mainly Bravo on Twitter and Instagram and co-host of the podcast, Bitch is Better Podcast, says she’s found solace in discussing the state of the world through Bravo-hued lenses and feels there’s unexpected profundity to be found in the network’s content, even though it’s often dismissed as superficial or frivolous.
"While it is an 'escape from reality' for most, it still gives you the opportunity to learn some real lessons and see things from a different perspective,” Chatman says. "I know that when I watch, I forget about this shitstorm that we’re living in, even if it’s only for a few hours, and I love that. I also love all of the friends that I’ve made in this little Bravo community, and that’s something really special to me too. I think we all learn from each other."
For Kara Berry, host of Everyone’s Business But Mine with Kara Berry, podcasting about Bravo shows and other pop culture content has been a conduit for meaningful conversations that go way beyond the borders of VPR or Real Housewives. "It's been a savior to have my own podcast and to be able to connect with other podcasters and listeners," she says. "I've been absolutely humbled by the messages I have gotten about how much I've helped people be even a little less lonely in a year that has been unexpectedly isolating for everyone, and I've been so blessed to find a community of Black women podcasters that, like me, consume and comment on majority white shows and how we view it from a very different perspective from others. When the George Floyd protests began, we all felt a sense of duty to speak out and educate our audience, and it was and remains really nice to be able to have conversations on advocacy and action and being aware of how racism/racial injustice permeates throughout the pop culture space."
"In times of national trauma and uncertainty, Bravo offers a welcome escape from reality," says pop-culture aficionado and Bravo fan Erin Carlson, author of Queen Meryl and I’ll Have What She’s Having. "The Housewives' petty squabbles are far removed from the pandemic and its related anxieties (horrific mass death, dystopian misinformation and homeschooling). Honestly, the cast members deserve some kind of award for helping take our minds off 2020, at least for a little while, and serving ridiculousness that feels… normal."
According to San Diego-based psychotherapist and self-professed Bravo fanatic, Alyssa Mass, MFT, the online camaraderie surrounding Bravo content isn’t just about finding comfort in a challenging time. "Bravo is personal and the Housewives are about as intimate as it gets," she says. "We've known some of these women for ten years. We've lived an entire decade with them: the good, the bad, and the Ramona. Sure, in a decade we've seen people flip tables, travel to Scary Island, and throw lit tiki torches into the bushes. But so much more importantly, take a step back and realize we've been gifted examples of female friendship, businesses, entrepreneurship, financial woes, motherhood, marriage, divorce, pregnancy, and forgiveness over and over again. And that doesn't even touch on the gamut of mental health issues that have been openly discussed on these shows."
Mass says that the real magic of Bravo lies in the kind of organic cliques that it inspires, like Bailey’s growing So Bad It’s Good family. "To an outsider, the communities that cropped up may seem, at best, confusing," she says. "But any community is created on a shared set of values and beliefs and these Bravo communities are no different. What Bravo has given viewers is a platform from which to identify moments and to connect with one another. Like any valuable community, they have provided a common language for connection which, at the best of times is important, and at the worst of times is imperative."
Danny Pellegrino, host of Everything Iconic, which ranks #7 ranking in the After Shows category on Apple Podcasts, says escapism may not be the only benefit of Bravo viewing and discussion, but it’s a big one. "There are so many unknowns around us right now—the pandemic, the election… We’re living in a 24-hour news cycle and it can be incredibly overwhelming," he says. "Spending an hour a day watching reality TV helps us escape our actual reality and focus on the trials and tribulations of the people on screen instead of our own. Reality TV podcasts and recaps also make us all feel part of a community, and those extra outlets allow us to extend the escapism beyond the episode of whatever we’re watching on television. If we can all have a few laughs along the way, I think it’s a good thing since it’s so important to get the endorphins wherever we can right now!"
For Bailey, creating content and connecting with other fans is helping him find community, education, and meaning in the wake of a disorienting and eye-opening time in history. He feels that for all the flack the network may get for producing questionably real reality shows, Bravo has taken important measures to further the conversations around serious world issues through the firing of stars like Shroeder and Doute and airing the hour-long special, Race in America: A Movement Not a Moment, which included personal stories from Bravo-lebrities on the Black Lives Matter movement, insight from experts on racial inequality in America, and more.
"Race in America was a huge first step, now we can continue to build on that," he says. "Podcasting during quarantine has been wild. I made longer and longer episodes because I needed to not be alone and I know others needed it too. It was one of the clearest forms of communication I had during one of the weirder times of my life and I love that we can all hate and love different things and have our own opinions and strive to be on the right side of history."
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