Bravo’s The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, whose fifth season wrapped up in April, might not have the distinction of being the first program to air in the reality franchise (that would be The Real Housewives of Orange County), nor is it the most watched (that honor goes to The Real Housewives of Atlanta). It is, however, notable for being the most traditionalist of all Housewives iterations. While many of the Housewives—the plucky real estate agents and self-branded Margarita-mix shillers and on-the-go PR executives—epitomize all that is baldly aspirational and bootstrappishly American, there’s something weirdly High Tory about the Beverly Hills Housewife profile, more Trollopian dowager than spirited arriviste.
You might be an entrepreneur like Lisa Vanderpump, opening West Hollywood restaurants that serve your own bottled Sangria; a former child star like Kim Richards, who once provided for her family with proceeds from her acting; or the Malibu-based Yolanda Foster, whose daughters have been seemingly groomed from birth to join the lucrative family business of modeling. But no matter how hard you hustle, your labor is meant to remain magically separate from your fortunes. Hustling is not something you do; it’s something you leave to those who are not as well heeled as yourself. In one memorable dig during the series’ fourth season, for example, Vanderpump suggested that her cast mate Kyle Richards’ only concern is furthering the success of her husband’s real-estate business, drawing a bold distinction between work and life, money and feeling: “You’ve just got to put your house on the market,” she told Yolanda Foster over wine and salads, “and (you and Kyle) are going to bond really quick.” And Vanderpump herself, too, demanded a retraction when her costar Brandi Glanville claimed on her podcast that the British expat used to live in the San Fernando Valley and at one point even filed for bankruptcy, hinting at a narrative of striving rather than having.
These are ladies who clearly aren’t interested in a Started-from-the-Bottom-Now-We-Here-type story, and so RHOBH has been that paradoxical thing—a reality series that expands its stars’ commercial reach while simultaneously showcasing their essential want-for-nothingness. Save, perhaps, for Glanville—the often tipsy youngest Housewife, who joined the cast in the wake of being jilted by her husband, a Lifetime-movie actor, for the country singer LeAnn Rimes, and who’s established herself as the show’s mess-making, trash-talking villain—a precariously retained hauteur has been RHOBH’s overriding ethos.
Or at least it was, until Lisa Rinna joined the cast this past season. Rinna—an actress who is familiar to American audiences from roles on soaps such as Days of Our Lives and Melrose Place, as much as for her marriage to onetime People magazine Sexiest Man Alive Harry Hamlin and her oversize, artificially enhanced lips—is refreshingly holistic in her attitude toward capital. As she admitted gamely to the camera in one of her early episodes as a cast member, “I’d do anything to make a buck.” When talking about an infomercial she did for the adult diaper brand Depend, she explained, “That . . . job saved our bacon. I got paid more money to do that than I got paid to do anything ever in my life, and I was just, like, winking all the way to the bank.”
Rinna quickly became the most interesting character to follow on RHOBH not because, in classic no filter reality-show style, like Glanville, she caused the most conflict, but because she’s consistently been flipping the script that has equated the work of hustle with humiliation, a tendency that has caused some of the other Housewives to mock her. (Insisting at the end-of-the-season televised reunion that she herself wouldn’t “do anything for a buck,” Kim Richards said to Rinna that she has “a little bit more pride than you do,” only to be embarrassed, in turn, by the waggish host Andy Cohen, who reminded her that “you did Diving with the Stars.”)
The shame that surrounds money’s exact origins on the show also shrouds heavily the bodily processes that women, and especially older women, often go through to present a smooth face to the world. While most of the Housewives have clearly undergone dermatological and surgical cosmetic procedures, discussing the ins and outs of these procedures, either on the show or off it, has been largely a don’t-ask-don’t-tell-type situation. On Keeping Up with the Kardashians, the young Kylie Jenner has refused until very recently to admit that she’d had fillers injected to plump up her formerly much thinner lips. In a similar fashion, the RHOBH cast members exist in a world of incessant, static readiness, where the work of femininity—except for the occasional on-camera spa trip—is always already achieved rather than in process.
There is no dodging questions about fillers for Rinna, however. “I’ll do anything I need to do to stay looking as fresh as a fucking daisy,” she told the camera in one episode. When the Teen Mom reality star Farrah Abraham posted a Twitter picture of her botched lip job, Rinna reposted the photo on Instagram with the deadpan caption “I apologize for starting this shit 26 years ago, please forgive me.” In her Depend commercial, she wore the bulky underwear under a little black dress on a red carpet, displaying how discreet they are by, of course, acknowledging their presence. For her commitment to demystification, it’s almost tempting to call Rinna a Marxist—a fun Marxist. Although really, what is more intriguing, and impressive, is her ability to simultaneously play it both ways. She will admit to the labor while still selling the finished product; she’ll assert her right to be simultaneously honest and calculated.
In Anthony Trollope’s 1875 novel The Way We Live Now, the heiress Marie Melmotte, whose name is besmirched by her money-grubbing father’s scandalous death, which has torn asunder polite London society, decides to wed Hamilton K. Fisker, an American businessman who offers to take her away stateside. “I like you very well, but I’m not going to take a leap in the dark, and I’m not going to marry a pig in a poke,” she tells him, her true feelings of affection for Fisker not canceling out her realization that she must plan her steps wisely if she wants to retain her considerable fortune. Promising Marie a continued control over her money and freedom, Fisker tells her that “America is certainly the country for women—and especially California.” This is a lesson that Rinna, too, knows very well.