Reality Game Changers
In this limited series, The A.V. Club highlights the reality TV cast members who came to define their respective franchises. From a dedicated activist to a queen bee to the savviest competitor, these are the people who have altered the genre.
The Real Housewives Of Beverly Hills entered Bravo’s vaunted Housewives franchise in 2010 as number six in the series, trailing Real Housewives Of Orange County, Real Housewives Of Atlanta, and Real Housewives Of New York (original title: Manhattan Moms). But it’s safe to say that the glittering opulence of Beverly Hills has become the crown jewel of the Housewives landscape. Much of that success is due to the unbridled magnificence of one Lisa Vanderpump, the Beverly Hills Housewife who introduced the series in the very first segment.
Some of the Housewives shows quickly devolve into chaos without a credible queen bee, so that episodes often descend into near-incessant cackling and in-fighting. Other show’s wannabe monarchs have been felled by real-life hurdles, like the legal troubles of Real Housewives Of New Jersey’s Teresa Giudice and Real Housewives Of Salt Lake City’s Jen Shah, or Luann de Lesseps’ visits to rehab on RHONY. But where RHOA’s formidable NeNe Leakes ruled her franchise (on and off) with an iron fist, Vanderpump’s was always wrapped in the proverbial velvet glove. Until recently, LVP always served as Beverly Hills’ true north, a necessity when you had such cast members as the tumultuous Kim Richards and Taylor Armstrong, or the always entertaining but often volatile Brandi Glanville. Lisa was older than many of her co-stars, still married to her first husband Ken Todd, and her children were grown. She also was a partner with Ken in their many business ventures. Consequently, she had a worldly wisdom and an ability to look at the big picture that many of the Housewives lacked. Even Kyle Richards, the next most stable member of the BH cast, kept getting tripped up by squabbles with her constantly faltering sister Kim, while a sympathetic Lisa would ask actually helpful questions like, “Do you think she’ll ever really change?”
Lisa Vanderpump had a grounding effect on the rest of the Real Housewives Of Beverly Hills, not just because she was one of the calmest cast members (who hardly ever raised her voice, an out-and-out rarity), but because everyone else would knock themselves out to gain her acceptance. Her interviews might match her co-stars’ cattiness, but were usually funny as well. When she was around, she would often provide a secure sounding board and solid advice (while also trying to prevent Brandi from drinking wine right out of the bottle).
Lisa was/is well aware of her queen bee status, and some of the critiques she’s received point to her manipulative tendencies. But this is why she’s one of the most successful Housewives ever, with an estimated net worth of $75 million from businesses that she did not inherit (unlike Adrienne). While many of her fellow Housewives spun off their series fame to write books or create some sort of cottage industry (like Bethenny Frankel’s Skinnygirl food and clothing companies), Lisa wisely used RHOBH to bolster the prominent assets she already had, making herself a true media mogul.
In season two, when many of the ladies shunned Brandi, Lisa could see that the show definitely needed her fun party girl antics and took her in. Lisa was always willing to open up her life to the show—performing a lap dance on a Chippendales dancer at her daughter Pandora’s Vegas bachelor party, for example, or featuring an event at one of her restaurants for some free promo—but she never seemed out of control about it. There was always the somewhat comforting sense that we were seeing exactly what she wanted us to see. When one of Lisa’s show intros stated, “Life in Beverly Hills is a game, and I make the rules,” you were inclined to believe her.
So it makes sense that Lisa’s Real Housewives’ spin-off is one of the rare successful ones (anyone remember Bethenny Ever After?): Vanderpump Rules, about to enter its ninth season. In Vanderpump, Lisa lords over a younger, even more explosive cast, which again would be too much to witness if she wasn’t there to (verbally) slap them upside the head occasionally. She functions not just as a calming voice of reason on the show, but also as a role model—especially for Vanderpump’s young, female cast members, who look up to Lisa as a woman in charge. While her husband Ken is her partner, and their marriage is one of the strengths that add to Lisa’s formidable foundation, it’s clear who rules the roost at the Vanderpump household. A lot of Housewives long for star power (especially those married or formerly married to famous husbands, like Camille Grammer or Lisa Rinna), but Lisa actually has it. Not only is she reigning over Vanderpump, she’s just premiered yet another new show on E!, Overserved With Lisa Vanderpump, which involves her throwing fabulous themed dinner parties in her Eden-like garden with guests like Lance Bass and Vivica A. Fox. She’s also a judge in ABC’s new dog-grooming reality series Pooch Perfect.
Sadly, Lisa’s nine-season tenure at RHOBH came to a close in 2019, following an incident termed “puppygate” and a rift between Lisa and Kyle, the Housewives with the longest BH tenure (and formerly most solid friendship). Lisa was still reeling from the death of her brother, and her fight with Kyle was the angriest and most out of control we’d ever seen her; naturally she immediately remodeled her kitchen where the now-former friends had it out. RHOBH tried to raise the show’s stakes by drawing in cast members who are actual actors viewers might recognize (the aforementioned Rinna, Eileen Davidson, Denise Richards). But the show’s most recent seasons featured a plethora of interchangeable blondes (Teddi, Erika, Dorit), a far cry from the memorable Housewives of yesteryear. At least after so many all-white seasons—Joyce Giraud de Ohoven’s appearance in season four a rare exception—the show finally added its first Black Housewife, Garcelle Beauvais, in season 10, with Crystal Kung-Minkoff coming up for season 11.
But Lisa Vanderpump took a major source of the show’s spark with her. She understood the way the series worked, and used her people-pleasing, manipulative talents to make Beverly Hills the most enjoyable to watch of all the Housewives series. Richards gave the series a temporary shot in the arm, but has since quit; Rinna is still trying her hardest to claw her way to the queen bee’s throne. But she just can’t measure up: Vanderpump still rules.