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Reality show or true crime series? The Real Housewives makes it harder to tell the difference

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The "Real Housewives" franchise on Bravo is no stranger to tossing drinks, flipping tables and throwing shade. But some housewives are finding themselves on the wrong side of the law, and the consequences are steep. The Daily Beast entertainment writer Kyndall Cunningham joins me now to talk about what happens when the Real Housewife lifestyle goes wrong. Welcome to the program.

KYNDALL CUNNINGHAM: Hi. It's a pleasure to be here.

RASCOE: So thank you so much for joining us. I am a huge "Real Housewives" fan. I don't get to watch as much as I would like. But let's start with Jen Shah, a cast member on "The Real Housewives Of Salt Lake City" who was sentenced this month to 6 1/2 years in prison for running a telemarketing scheme that defrauded elderly people. You wrote that fans were watching this sentencing like they were waiting for the Super Bowl. Like, why do you think people were so invested?

CUNNINGHAM: I think it's a confluence of things. I think culturally, at the moment, we're very invested in the scammer story and true crime, especially when it comes to women. I think it's still, you know, very novel to people to see women engage in criminal behavior or running, you know, a shady business or committing white-collar crimes. And I also think Jen Shah specifically was never popular from the beginning. You know, she has a lot of, you know, angry outbursts and, you know, has been lashing out at cast mates.

RASCOE: And she drinks a lot.

CUNNINGHAM: Yes.

RASCOE: (Laughter) And then she'd go off when she start drinking, cursing people out. Yeah.

CUNNINGHAM: Yeah. It's - she's not - she never presented herself as a likable character ever since her first season on "Salt Lake City."

RASCOE: And Jen Shah is not the only Real Housewife who has been charged with or found guilty of a crime while also starring on the show.

CUNNINGHAM: I mean, crime has always existed on the show. You know, you have Teresa Giudice and her ex-husband Joe, who went to prison; you know, Apollo Nida, who was Phaedra Parks' husband on "Real Housewives Of Atlanta," who went to prison on, you know, RICO charges; and obviously, Erika Jayne being this huge bombshell over the past two years with the accusations against her attorney husband, Tom Girardi, and the allegations that he was misusing clients' funds. I think there's been this groundswell of interest in seeing true crime sort of infiltrate the "Real Housewives" franchise. And I think that Jen Shah not only facing charges but pleading guilty was very rewarding and exciting to a lot of people.

RASCOE: And, you know, a lot of people may not realize that "The Real Housewives" first aired in 2006 in Orange County and many other cities have been added since. I watched some of those original seasons.

CUNNINGHAM: As did I.

RASCOE: But how has the nature of the show changed over the years? Because at first, it was a little more low-key. But it's, like, changed over the years, right?

CUNNINGHAM: Yeah. I mean, if you look back at the old seasons of, like, New York and O.C. and Atlanta, it's a lot of mundane drama having to do with, like - I don't know, someone threw a party and they were - they didn't invite this one person, or...

RASCOE: That's the biggest thing. The invite gets lost in the mail.

CUNNINGHAM: Yeah. That used to be the biggest crime...

RASCOE: (Laughter) Yes.

CUNNINGHAM: ...On Bravo, was not letting NeNe Leakes into Sheree's, you know...

RASCOE: Into the party.

CUNNINGHAM: ...Party. And now I feel like there's been this huge shift. I feel like "Housewives" fans have this appetite for bombshells as opposed to the more, you know, day-to-day social situations that you have amongst a group of girlfriends.

RASCOE: Yeah. No, that is - that's a key insight. I mean, you said, though, that "The Real Housewives" has been groundbreaking in a lot of ways by changing the idea of what a housewife is. And a lot of these women are not housewives (laughter) or even married or whatever. It's definitely expanded the definition, right?

CUNNINGHAM: Yeah. And, you know, Andy Cohen, who's, you know, obviously executive produces all the shows, has talked about this a lot, how the show has grown from representing, you know, women who are living off of rich husbands to women that are driven and independent.

RASCOE: Yeah.

CUNNINGHAM: Bravo is just, you know, depicting flawed women as they are. Housewives has a completely different - the definition is not relevant at all.

RASCOE: That was The Daily Beast entertainment writer Kyndall Cunningham. Thank you so much for coming on and talking with us about one of my favorite subjects, "Real Housewives."

CUNNINGHAM: Thank you for having me. This was an absolute pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.