reality tv

A Pilgrimage to the High Church of Bravo

“We both are so fucking broke, and we’re just like, Let’s spend an asinine amount of money to go to BravoCon.”

All eyes on Andy Cohen at BravoCon. Photo: Bravo
All eyes on Andy Cohen at BravoCon.
All eyes on Andy Cohen at BravoCon. Photo: Bravo
All eyes on Andy Cohen at BravoCon.
All eyes on Andy Cohen at BravoCon. Photo: Bravo

Tamra Judge’s breast implants are smaller than I expected. Or is it that they’re bigger? Maybe it’s just that I never expected to see them at all. But yes, a Bravo spokesperson tells me, the two silicone hemispheres sitting in a glass case before me are actually hers. I feel an unreasonable sense of awe at the sight of them, like a pilgrim kneeling before the finger bones of a saint.

The Real Housewives Museum, one of the many attractions at the inaugural BravoCon, held last Friday through Sunday in New York City, serves as a temporary reliquary for the reality-TV dynasty’s crown jewels: a heaping bowl of Kameron Westcott’s pink SparkleDog dog food, the stuffed bunny Kim Richards returned to Lisa Rinna, and Kenya Moore’s “Gone With the Wind fabulous” dress, twirling into infinity on a motorized platform.

Some of the thousands of people who came to BravoCon were lucky enough to snag tickets in the seconds before the first round were sold out; others were committed enough to pay eye-popping markups on secondary marketplaces. (The face-value prices ranged from $124.50 for one-day general admission to $1,499.50 for a “Future Bravoleb” three-day pass. A three-day ticket was reportedly listed for resale at $9,500.) A weekend of panels, photo opportunities, Top Chef dinners, and Southern Charm brunches brought together the network’s high-glam, high-camp, high-blood-alcohol-level stars and the people who love and loathe them, blurring the line between real and reality.

A convention staffer stationed by a selection of glittering reunion gowns tells me that he loves watching the reactions of the “super-hyped” Bravo fans.

“Have you seen the movie Crank?” he asks, before describing the scene in the sequel when Jason Statham’s character zaps his artificial heart with jumper cables. “They’re like that.”

The first face I see at BravoCon is Andy Cohen’s. A life-size cardboard cutout of the Watch What Happens Live host — Bravo’s former executive vice president of development and talent, but its forever figurehead — is in line Friday to enter the Manhattan Center on 34th Street. Cardboard Andy belongs to Kinzie Shaw and Chayse Herrick, cousins from Richmond and Seattle, respectively, who discovered him after a sandstorm, beside a pool, during a joint bachelor-bachelorette party in Scottsdale over the summer. Cardboard Andy flew to New York with Chayse — a flight attendant took photos with him while she was sleeping — only to get lost on the city bus from the airport, then miraculously found. Like he was meant to make it to BravoCon.

The Real Housewives are the one and only subject that everyone in Shaw and Herrick’s family, “even the Republicans,” can talk about. “This is just our lifeline,” Shaw says. “We both are so fucking broke, and we’re just like, ‘Let’s spend an asinine amount of money to fly across the country and go to BravoCon,’ and both of our spouses are like, ‘Please stop doing this. This is horrible.’ And we’re just having the best weekend of our fucking lives. It’s great.”

BravoCon attendees appear to be majority white, majority female, and majority over 30, at least to my white, female, over-30 eyes. Some are dressed in Bravolebrity drag, in sequins, faux fur, and an entire National Geographic issue’s worth of animal prints; others model Bravo-themed merch, official and otherwise. I count two pregnant women in “Future Bravo Fan” tees, with arrows pointing down to their bellies. At a single Below Deck event, three strangers wear “June, June, Hannah” shirts of completely different designs. A fan at the Real Housewives of New York panel with an injured arm decorated her sling with a sign that reads, “I’ll Tell You How I’m Doing — Not Well, Bitch.”

Tamra's implants and Kameron’s pink SparkleDog dog food in the Real Housewives Museum. Photos: Molly Fitzpatrick.
Tamra's implants and Kameron’s pink SparkleDog dog food in the Real Housewives Museum. Photos: Molly Fitzpatrick.

We speak a common language, that’s for sure. At the Skylight Modern event space, Housewives catchphrases like “Bloop!” and “Clip Clip Clip” are enshrined in neon on the wall. In the basement of the Hammerstein Ballroom, belongings are stored at the “Who Gon’ (Coat) Check Me, Boo?” Two lines form in the ladies’ room: One to use a toilet, and another to pose for photos in front of a wall that reads, from floor to ceiling, “Pat the Puss.”

I am anything but an impartial observer: I love Bravo. These shows are the McDonald’s French fries of television — a pinnacle of its form, created in laboratory conditions by skilled professionals at the top of their field, who want me to be happy, if not necessarily conventionally nourished. Whether it takes place behind the gates of Orange County or in the bowels of a luxury yacht, the foundation of Bravo programming is a powerful blend of escapism (glam squads, pet swans, Gstaad) and grounded cast relationships, which inevitably give rise to conflicts that invite the viewer both to relate and to adjudicate. “It gives you the ability to get outside of yourself, but also connect,” says Sarah Galli, host of the Real Housewives podcast Andy’s Girls. “You watch these fights and, sure, they might take place in Dubai in a hotel room that cost $50,000 a night, but you can also think, ‘Shit, I would’ve handled that a lot better.’”

For the truly committed, Bravo programming can lend itself to levels upon levels of meta-narrative scrutiny. “We see the show behind the shows, we see the mechanics of an episode, what they’re not showing us, what they maybe edited out,” explains Danny Pellegrino, host of the podcast Everything Iconic, which recorded a live episode at BravoCon. Even when a show is off the air, the exegesis persists: Which cast members are arguing on Instagram? Who’s getting demoted to a “friend of”? Who leaked what to where?

To Real Housewife of New York emeritus Jill Zarin, Bravo’s fan base is savvier about the “dynamics” of reality TV than ever, in part because the network is increasingly willing to break the fourth wall. “And they’ve acknowledged on the show that [the cast is] famous,” she tells me. “Because when they’re fighting about press — if they’re not famous, then how come they’re doing that?”

BravoCon itself proves ripe for behind-the-scenes analysis. “There’s the politics of who’s going where,” Galli says. “Who’s participating in what? Who gets more attention than this other person, and how might some of these [Bravolebrities] use that as a window into their role next season?” Over the course of the weekend, I heard the Bravo fandom likened to sports (and BravoCon itself, more than once, to the Super Bowl), to politics, to Harry Potter. It’s a “cult, all over the world,” Caroline Manzo, original cast member of The Real Housewives of New Jersey, tells me. “I met people today from London, Australia, and Spain that flew here just for this.”

The easiest comparison to BravoCon would be Comic-Con, the Ur-fan convention, but to do so would miss the point. It’s one thing for a Deadpool fan to meet Ryan Reynolds. It’s a different kind of high for a Ramona Singer fan to meet Ramona Singer, the living, breathing, perhaps lightly Pinot Grigio–perfumed character herself. “We have this Marvel world of over-the-top characters,” says Maria Laino Deluca, Bravo’s senior vice president of marketing. “People love to talk about them, and argue about them, and they get deep into their backstories.”

It’s like Avengers: Endgame, but for Bravolebrities. Photo: Bravo

On Friday night, a Watch What Happens Live special is taped before an audience of 2,000, featuring no less than 77 Bravo personalities, jammed knee-to-knee onto bleachers, all onstage at once. (Except for Manzo and Lisa Vanderpump, who left early before their ex-castmates came out.) This embarrassment of Bravolebrity riches feels like Andy Cohen’s baby shower — the event I most wish I could have attended, over any other, in all of recorded history — where Lisa Rinna legendarily commanded the dozens of Housewives in attendance to dance on the table. During a commercial break, a dark thought came over me: Should disaster strike, there is so much to lose on this one stage. If this was the Housewives State of the Union, then designated survivor Sonja Morgan better have been escorted to a secure underground location.

To fan Colt Paulsen — who, he is excited to tell you, gets his spray tans from the same woman who does Stassi’s — BravoCon represents the irresistible opportunity to “really live the reality-TV life.” And living that life may mean something different to each of us. During the Q&A segment of an “OG Housewives” panel, a man addresses his question to Caroline Manzo. “I happen to have some ham,” he says. “Please, will you throw a piece of ham on my face?” She invites him onstage and does so with impressive aim, reenacting her family’s infamous “Ham Game” before a screaming audience.

BravoCon anticipated this itch for immersion with three video experiences, built to insert fans into sequences straight out of Real Housewives, Project Runway, and Vanderpump Rules. In a slow-motion shot designed to resemble the Pump Rules opening, I pose with a fur stole and a cocktail shaker, only for a high-powered fan at my feet to blow my lash extensions back into my eyeballs. I am momentarily blinded, losing my grip on the shaker. I jokingly ask the man directing the Vanderpump Rules installation if this how they really shoot their credits. “About,” he answered, wearily.

Here is what everyone I’ve spoken to about BravoCon has wanted to know: Are they really like that, in real life? “What you will find about every person you all meet and come across this glorious weekend is that they are exactly they appear,” the real-life Cohen says during Friday’s “OG Housewives” panel. As far as I can tell, and as far as I’ve heard, that holds remarkably true. (One notable exception: Did you have any idea that, in heels, Kathryn Dennis is, like, six-foot-two?)

Of course, we don’t really know these people, not in the way we know a friend, a co-worker, a neighbor, or anyone from not-on-TV life, with all its long, boring pauses, and frequently unflattering lighting. And though it brings me — a sentimental rube if there ever was one — no pleasure to acknowledge this, there’s ultimately no way of telling for sure if the frisson of recognition we may experience upon meeting a reality-TV star is really just confirmation of a professional entertainer’s ability to present a seamless and familiar persona, in whatever circumstances they are asked to perform.

Then again, we’ve not-really-known some Bravo stars for more than a decade now, through marriages, divorces, births, and deaths. In Manzo’s experience, upon meeting her fans, they tend to want a hug. A lot of them shed tears when they meet her. “It’s a deep, deep connection,” she says. “Andy explained it best to me years ago. He said, ‘Caroline, an actor plays a role. A singer sings a song. When you cry, they cry. When you laugh, they laugh. They’re in their living room with you. So they’re living your life with you. They’re invested.’”

At BravoCon, the excitement extended not just to meeting Bravolebrities, but to the even tangentially Bravo-adjacent — and, in my particular case, to petting Jill Zarin’s Pomeranian, Bossy, who I can report is very sweet, and very, very soft. “I think that you can tell on their face, you know? Their eyes light up,” says Zarin’s daughter Ally Shapiro, a frequent object of fan recognition herself. “A lot of the time someone will just say, ‘I’m friends with your mom.’”

BravoCon provides ample opportunity for fans to express our affection, including through cash. Union West’s Bravo Bazaar is a marketplace for Bravolebrities to peddle their wares, where many made sales-boosting appearances to meet fans and sign their purchases. (Am I now the proud owner of an autographed Dorinda mug? I am. Will I be figuring out a way to invoice Vulture for this unavoidable business expense? God knows I’ll try.) Alongside Witches of WeHo wine, Craig from Southern Charm’s pillows (they exist, I’ve seen them, and they’re $58), and the hot guy from Summer House’s hard tea, Vanderpump Rules stars Tom Sandoval and Ariana Madix’s merch table is manned by Lindsay, a college friend of Ariana’s, and Logan, a server at TomTom, the bar that Sandoval co-owns with Lisa Vanderpump and castmate Tom Schwartz.

“Logan’s going to be on the next episode of Vanderpump Rules,” says Lindsay. Upon hearing this, a fan asks for a photo: “We should take a selfie with you now, before you get famous.” Logan gladly obliges.

For many, it’s a thrill just to be physically close to the Bravo personalities normally seen via the one-way mirrors of our TV screens — close enough, maybe, to be seen or heard by them for a change. An incomplete list of things I hear fans yell in the middle of BravoCon events, in no particular order: “Bring Vicki back!” “Black girl magic!” “Stassi retweeted me!” “Shep, you’re so hot!” I myself squawk, “You’re so beautiful!” at a passing Cynthia Bailey.

At other times, though, the celebrity-civilian interactions take on a far uglier tone — as if the same impulse toward judgment that Bravo shows encourage had curdled into the kind of trolling usually restricted to the anonymity of social media. During the raucous “Battle of the Sexes” panel, a Bravolebrity I won’t name here seems like she may have had been — to borrow the drinking parlance of Southern Charm — overserved. Two women sitting behind me have no patience for her behavior.

“Go home, bitch,” one shouts. “That’s why she’s not married,” her friend hisses.

Even the audience Q&As turn contentious, as BravoCon attendees lob insults that might as well be plagiarized from a spicier Housewives confessional. At the Real Housewives of New Jersey panel, a fan — well, maybe “fan” isn’t the right word — calls Jackie Goldschneider “pretentious” and “obsessed” with her castmate Teresa Giudice. During the particularly packed “RHOBH: The Real 90210” panel, someone asks Dorit Kemsley, “When do you decide when your real accent comes out?” Throughout the weekend, BravoCon couldn’t have been more eager to impart to its audience that, yes, Real Housewives are real people — but some couldn’t resist the temptation to treat them otherwise.

The single most-anticipated event of BravoCon (by me, anyway) was also the most disappointing, in that it broke the spell of intimacy the rest of the weekend had cast. On Saturday night, the Hammerstein Ballroom transforms into the Vanderpump Rules After Party, starring DJ James Kennedy. Despite the White Kanye’s best efforts, there is little dancing. Instead, the crowd stands with their heads turned, like flowers to the sun, toward the cordoned-off VIP section, where the rest of the cast is clustered together. A throng of fans push against the barricade, phones held high, snapping selfies with whichever stars their arms could reach — and as accommodating as those SURvers appear to be, there is no dispelling the awkward atmosphere.

It feels clear, more clear than at any other point in BravoCon, that these people are here because it is their job to be here. We aren’t partying with the cast; we are visiting a Vanderpump Rules exhibit at the zoo, as unconvincing a simulacrum of a club experience as an animal’s enclosure is of its natural habitat.

“They’re all kind of just sitting up there,” says after-party attendee Kaira Ednie. “I don’t know. It’s fun, but I thought it was gonna be more interactive.”

In the lobby, I am handed a complimentary plastic coupe of BravoCon-exclusive Pepsi Sparkling Rosé. It’s soda, but an uncanny-valley soda that looks and smells like wine — soda pretending to be something that it isn’t. The effect, like the evening, is disingenuous. And however well-intended the gesture, a little nauseating.

Anybody want to sweat with Dorinda? Photo: Bravo

On Sunday morning, Real Housewife of New York Dorinda Medley leads an ’80s-themed aerobics class. Dorinda is my very favorite Housewife, but after the Pump Rules party, my expectations are low — and lower still when I see that only a handful of people fully committed to the bit in neon headbands and leg warmers. Some are in workout-appropriate leggings and sneakers, but most (myself included) are wearing cardio-unfriendly jeans and even heavy coats.

But then Dorinda takes the stage. Within minutes, we are lost in the sweaty, unself-conscious choreography, hip-thrusting and grapevining to Wham! and Madonna. What we lack, collectively, in coordination, we make up for in enthusiasm. The energy is infectious.

Multiple strangers tell me, unsolicited, that this was their favorite part of BravoCon; I tell multiple strangers, unsolicited, that this was my favorite part of BravoCon. Housewives enthusiast Laurie Hemberger, tugging on a convention-provided orange resistance band beside me, agrees.

“Because we’re doing it with her — this is what it’s all about,” she says, moments before we joined the caboose of a Dorinda-led conga line around the dance floor. “We want to be in their world, for just five seconds. Just not on camera.”

A Pilgrimage to the High Church of Bravo