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The NYC Reality Freak Show


The Real Housewives of New York City Clockwise from top left: Jill Zarin, Bethenny Frankel, Alex McCord, Ramona Singer, LuAnn de Lesseps, Kelly Killoren Bensimon.   

“I also promised my parents that it wouldn’t interfere with my homework,” says Kelli, digging into a banana split.

“Junior year’s a big year!” says her mom.

The show taped a few hours a week for months, with at least a half-dozen crew members trailing the kids. Kelli liked it, mostly. “I’m very allergic to nuts, all nuts,” she says. “Once, we were out to dinner, and I took a little bite of food and then asked, ‘Are there nuts in this? Guys, are there nuts in this? Omigod, I could go to the hospital, don’t you understand?’ And the guys just sat behind their cameras, like, whatever.” She laughs. “I guess that’s good TV.”

In the past, reality shows about the rich were, for the most part, a West Coast phenomenon. The conspicuous consumption, exhibitionism, and lovably bad values belonged to the Tori Spellings and the Osbournes, entertainment families that crave the spotlight at all costs. New York’s bright lights seemed almost tasteful compared with those on the other coast. Sex and the City, in particular, was a kind of romance with New York, about the way that women could make their way in a town with too many options to choose from. The glittery lifestyle of Town Cars and Cosmos seemed like something to covet, a fantasy of a fabulous life that was easy to satisfy with the right handbags and shoes. Beneath the wardrobe, these girls were real people. The show was fundamentally about love.

But even before the crash, the image of the city was beginning to change. Gossip Girl is the Sex and the City of its moment—a soap opera about privilege and the unfailingly nasty things that people do when they have it. Whereas in Sex and the City money was a means to a beautiful end—Manolos, most often—cash, not love, is the real currency in Gossip Girl. New York is a Louis XIV court, beautiful and decadent, making nothing, obsessed with its own intrigue, on its way out.

NYC Prep is a further evolution of this idea. The first episode, which attracted over a million viewers, sells it as a high-stakes drama about the “elite of the elite,” as Peterson calls it (at one point, he sums up the current economic climate as “the recession’s my bitch”), but really it’s a comedy about the silliness of the rich. As you may or may not know, it’s deeply uncool, as a student at a New York private school, to be a fan of Gossip Girl—it’s too outsized, too camp, for kids who are living that life to enjoy. It might also hit too close to home. Some details are right in NYC Prep, like the way Upper East Side kids speak: a hybrid of Valley Girl–speak and East Coast boarding-school lockjaw, meant to communicate that the person is blasé, unconcerned, cooler than you. Of course, to survive in this shark tank, you have to be a gorgeous monster. As in most private schools, the hair of the girls on the show is possibly the best tended in the city, long and luxurious, flipped very quickly back and forth over shoulders in a furious mating call.

Actually, NYC Prep is modeled on the Real Housewives franchise, which is buoying Bravo after the loss of Project Runway. The formula is a reality show with irony, with a wink, a step more sophisticated than the bitch-slappery on VH1. “In a sense, NYC Prep is The Real Kids of New York City,” says Andy Cohen, a senior vice-president at Bravo Media. “Those kids could be the offspring of the women on the Housewives show.” In a brilliant marketing move, the Housewives, which has ballooned to include Orange County, Atlanta, New Jersey, and possibly D.C., is set to become a powerhouse all year long, rotating geographical locations every couple of months. (The debuts of NYC Prep and Miami Social, another “docu-soap” about similarly voracious spenders in that city, complete the picture, bridging the gaps between Housewives installations.)

The Housewives series, of course, is a freak show. Some of the New York Housewives dress like anchors on Entertainment Tonight, all perfect hair, plastic surgery, and magenta party dresses (with the exception of Kelly Killoren Bensimon, who makes up for her impeccable fashions by frequently making no sense). They strip the pretense from New York striving, show it for the laugh riot it is. Do you want a place in the upper class? “The admission price is going to charity events, political events, gifting, naming hospitals after yourself,” explains Zarin on the show. Are you going to the Hamptons because you really love the beach, or is there another motivation at work? “We escape to the Hamptons because it’s great for socializing,” admits LuAnn de Lesseps, a countess, she explains, since her ex-husband’s family built the Suez Canal. Are you nervous about losing status by moving to another borough, even though the rents are cheaper and the services comparable? “It was a big change to move to Brooklyn,” says Simon van Kempen, husband of housewife Alex McCord. “I was worried how people would react.”

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