Monday, November 16, 2015

Washington Social Diary: Real Housewives with a New Zipcode

WE LOVE FRANCE. Throughout the weekend people stopped by the French Embassy on Reservoir Road in Washington to stop and pray, take photos, place flowers, candles, bottles of wine, balloons, notes and placards - each a gesture of mourning and respect for those who died or were wounded in the ISIS attack in Paris on Friday night.
REAL HOUSEWIVES OF WASHINGTON RETURN, BUT WITH A NEW ZIPCODE
by Carol Joynt

When I heard the news this week of a new Washington area Real Housewives franchise my first thought was, didn't Bravo get the memo?  Washington, for whatever reason, is death to reality TV. With the exception of news broadcasts, no DC reality programming gets traction. The nation’s capital was also the locale of the biggest embarrassment in Bravo’s RH history: The Real Housewives of Washington DC. Need I say anything more than “White House gate crashers” to bring that saga roaring back to the fore in all its messy glory?

The Real Housewives of Washington DC launched on Bravo in August 2010 and ran until October of that year, and then was cancelled. According to various reports, it was the first time Bravo did not renew a RH franchise. While the program was shooting in late 2009, cast members Michaele and Tareq Salahi made global headlines for “crashing” the White House state dinner for the Indian prime minister.
The original Real Housewives of Washington: Cat Ommanney, Stacie Turner, Mary Amongs, Linda Ekiletian, and Michaele Salahi. 
Members of the Washington cast, when all was good.
Their cameras followed them right up to the White House gates. The incident became a notorious thread of the show’s nine episodes and raised questions about whether Bravo was in on the stunt. The network insisted it was not.

On the plus side, the RHODC, and the Salahis, provided rich fodder for bloggers such as Richard Lawson, now with Vanity Fair but then with Gawker, where he pulled no punches in his weekly recap. He called the show “this Mid-Atlantic torture chamber,” and “undeniably worst Housewives franchise,” and he mocked the cast, deriding one of them more than the others, and it was not Michaele. There were threats of lawsuits. The worst thing said about the DC franchise, though, by Lawson and other reviewers, was that it was boring, with the exception of the Salahis, but their antics crossed a divide troubling even for reality TV.
During the brief time that the Salahis were at the White House dinner, and only during the reception, they posed for a lot of photos, including this one with President Obama.
On the "reunion" show, Michaele and Tareq Salahi explain the "gatecrash," an incident that made global headlines and prompted a House committee investigation.
On the other hand, as I often wrote on New York Social Diary, here at the outset and here again only last year, that if Bravo really wanted to get to the heart of Washington wealth and excess, the better franchise would be “Real Housewives of Potomac.” And guess what, that’s what the new show will be set. The cast members are, according to Bravo, “socialite and single mom Gizelle Bryant, international model and TV personality Katie Rost, grand dame Karen Huger, social butterfly Charrisse Jackson-Jordan, publicist and single mom Robyn Dixon, as well as restaurateur Ashley Darby.” (Eye-roll each time Bravo refers to a reality cast member as a “socialite.” Shouldn’t it be qualified as “reality socialite?”)

I know none of the women and when I contacted a friend who is a genuine social force in Potomac and Washington, she said she did not know any of them, either. But that’s okay. What is essential is that they be entertaining and, perhaps, also stay clear of the White House.
The Real Housewives of Potomac - l to r, Charrisse Jackson Jordan, Robyn Dixon, Karen Huger, Gizelle Bryant, Katie Rost and Ashley Darby.
Full disclosure: I do watch some of the RH franchises. My favorite is Real Housewives of New York, because it is a city I love and I relate to the narratives of LuAnn de Lesseps and Sonja Morgan (and her podcast, too, btw); followed by Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, for Lisa Vanderpump, her husband, Ken, because they, too, are restaurateurs, and Yolanda Foster, who is sympathetic; and Real Housewives of Orange County, because it is the opposite of sympathetic and makes me howl at the screen. I sample the others.
Sonja and LuAnn.
With the Potomac franchise, though, Bravo is adding a twist that for them has proved to be a winning ingredient: a cast that is all African-American. To understand the logic just look at the success of the Real Housewives of Atlanta, which in recent seasons has had an all-black cast. In the New York Daily News, David Hinckley reports the RHOA ratings nearly double those of the other franchises. “’Orange County may have been the original, and ‘New Jersey’ and ‘New York’ sometimes get more attention for catfights,” he writes, “but ‘Atlanta’ is the one America actually watches.”
The season 8 cast of Real Housewives of Atlanta, apparently minus its breakout star, Nene Leakes.
There will be a ratings test come season seven of “New Jersey,” with prison time in the mix for a couple of cast members, husband and wife Joe and Teresa Giudice. If that element boosts the numbers, the ladies and gentlemen of the other shows might put a criminal lawyer on retainer while also Googling crimes that have some glam but short sentences. I jest, but Teresa has made the most of residing at the Federal pen in Danbury, where she’s about to complete a sentence of 15 months for bankruptcy fraud and wire and mail fraud conspiracy. There was a Bravo spin-off, “Teresa Checks In,” centered on her phone calls to her family and she has a memoir ready to launch, and plenty of items in the glossies. Keeping it in the family, Joe begins his 41-month sentence in January.
Teresa and Joe Giudice leave court after pleading guilty to multiple federal fraud charges.
But back to my town, Washington, or more specifically nearby Potomac. It is the right choice for Bravo, because that’s where what passes for Washington flash goes to roost, and behind miles of walls, fences and gates, manicured lawns and all manner of statuary and fountains.

Potomac is a popular destination for Washingtonians because it has access points to a great stretch of National Park Service land at Great Falls, and the challenging and fun Billy Goat Trail. Adjacent to the trailhead is the Old Anglers Inn, a beloved rustic restaurant. (Trivia: the first time I went for dinner it was 1969. I was a young reporter, taken there by then White House special assistant Jeb Magruder. We climbed spiral stairs and dined in a cozy room with a vaulted ceiling. He kept his White House “radiophone” on the table the whole time, and it repeatedly, and obnoxiously, blurted, “Mr. Magruder, call the White House switchboard!”)
The Billy Goat Trail is called that for a reason, its a steep and rocky scramble, perfect for reality TV.
A few years ago some patrons installed the Old Anglers fire pit for a private party. The Old Anglers decided to keep it.
I was happy to learn that the RHOP cast already has brought their cameras to Old Anglers, and more than once, gathering at a round table out on the terrace. (Happy to hear, too, that chef Jose Andres may soon take over running the kitchen). I hope the show takes viewers to Potomac Village, the shopping hub of the area, and its excellent River Falls Market, adjacent to the neighborhoody Renato restaurant, where Potomac moms meet for lunch before afternoon school carpool, and Potomac Pizza, where they take the children after pickup.
Potomac Village shopping center.
Renato restaurant, on the left, The Market, on the right.
The Market at Potomac Village.
Inside The Market.
Popular after school.
Inside Potomac Pizza.
I hope the ladies hike the Billy Goat Trail, too, and that they shoot inside Congressional County Club, in every way a reflection of the lush splendor of the neighborhood. I mean, they let the U.S. Open cameras on the golf course, so why not the Real Housewives?
Lavish and lux Congressional Country Club in Potomac MD.
Potomac is to Washington what Orange County is to Bel Air, or what Greenwich is to Manhattan, though in car miles it is only a 20-minute drive from DC. It's a good place to live large. It is where the pro athletes tend to have homes, and it’s also where team owners Ted Leonsis (Wizards, Caps) and Dan Snyder (Redskins) have compounds. Kennedys have lived there, Queen Noor, the widow of King Hussein of Jordan, made it her home before moving to the Virginia comparable, McLean; Farah Pahlavi, the former Empress of Iran, and her son, Reza Pahlavi, live quietly there. In addition to Snyder, a few of the other Washington area billionaires who make the Forbes list live there: Richard Marriott, Bill Marriott, Jr., and Mitch Rales.
The home of Ted Leonsis in Potomac MD.
The home of Dan Snyder in Potomac MD.
Entrance to one of the neighborhoods of Potomac.
Scenes of typical Potomac MD neighborhood: manicured lawns, gates, fences ...
The wealth of Potomac is undisputed. Will we see the reality on the air? We know reality TV is a bravura example of scripted smoke and mirrors, and self-promotion, and product promotion. We expect those standards. But the franchise also lays waste to a private life and, often, seems to take down marriages.

Mary Amons, one the Real Housewives of Washington, notes it was relationship scorched earth for that cast: “Unfortunately, every one of us did go through divorce or break ups,” after the show got cancelled. But she doesn’t blame reality TV. “For the most part women who choose to go on a show like real housewives are looking for opportunities to create financial independence with the exposure to build an exit plan.” It certainly changed her life. “If you would have told me 5 years ago that I'd be moving to Dallas for love and business opportunities in 2016, I would have called you crazy! You just never know where life will lead.”
Reality life: Mary Amons with her husband, Rich, and their five children, posing for a Christmas card shoot that was featured in Real Housewives of Washington DC. (Photo by Glenn Fry).
I had a few other questions for her, especially after she told me that she was now legally free to talk about Bravo and RHODC. “I have no restrictions on what I can share now because I've been released from my contract. Those contracts were extremely binding and limiting.”

Therefore, here is some Mary Amons – unleashed:

The Salahis: “We all banded together to get through the disbelief and upheaval of the ‘gatecrash’ incident; which included 4 cast members, crew, producers, Bravo and Andy (Cohen). This event was something very serious and I'm certain caused much legal expense for Bravo and our producers that were implicated and had to defend themselves and prove to the White House that they did not make this happen .... Sadly, the choices and behavior of one cast member and her husband seemingly ‘crashed’ the entire season and our future with the franchise.”
Andy Cohen with his "Washington wives," now "ex's." Mary Amons, Michaele Salahi, Stacie Turner, Cat Ommanney and Linda Erkiletian.
The “gatecrash” damage: “The main reason for my going on the show was to showcase and expose my charity work ... The ‘gatecrash’ incident made it so the entire show was edited to weave the big story, which completely derailed character development for the rest of us. One week before our premiere, I received a call from our producers informing me that the entire storyline featuring my charity work was cut.” 

Mary Amons, making a public appearance.
Looking back: “Overall, the experience was a lot of fun and working with the other girls, we shared a lot of laughs ... maybe having too much fun was a cause of our being cancelled. We didn't bring enough nasty girl drama, which is unfortunately the formula for a successful show in this franchise.”

On Andy Cohen, RHO Executive Producer: “We all loved being Andy's ‘wives.’  We now tease him and now lovingly call ourselves his ‘ex's.’  ... There was never any direct explanation from him regarding our cancellation, (but) it was not difficult to figure out that it was a combination of factors, and what seemed obvious that the ‘gatecrash’ was a large factor.” Mary insists ratings were not an issue. “We had the highest ratings of a freshman season.”

Interesting side note: “My grandfather, Arthur Godfrey was the true father of reality television in the '50s. He was the first real voice speaking the truth about products and life in general on the radio, showcasing talent and encouraging people to share their stories in the early days of TV."
On the new Potomac franchise: “I do find it interesting that Bravo decided to completely recast and rename the DC based show ... it does seem that the subject of race and defining race will be a topic of some drama between these women who all identify themselves as African Americans. They did spin that issue into our show, characterizing Cat (Catherine Ommanney) as a racist, which was not only 100% false, but also a terrible thing to do to a person, especially when it holds no truth.”
The Real Housewives of Potomac.
Cautionary note to the RHOP cast: “I've learned a tremendous amount about the reality show space and the lack of control and risk of being characterized as someone I am not. I'm blessed to say that I came out alive and unscathed with my first go round!”

When she mentioned “first” we wondered if that might mean a second “go round” with the Real Housewives, because Bravo also announced another new franchise, Real Housewives of Dallas, and Mary is moving to Dallas. Hmmmm?

“I would consider being on the Dallas show. If there is an opportunity, I will have to think seriously about whether that would be a good thing for me.” Maybe she could play the role of the “counselor,” the go-to for Real Housewives therapy. Mary says, “Drama, Texas style, should be very entertaining.”
Photographs by Carol Joynt,

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