By the time the Real Housewives of Atlanta episode “What Happened in the Dungeon?” aired this February, fans already knew what had happened: A mononymous stripper, soon to be introduced as Bolo, had allegedly had a private after-hours party at a scandalous bachelorette party in South Carolina ahead of Cynthia Bailey’s wedding. We had been informed that Tanya Sam and Porsha Williams were placed in the room, under suspicion of a ménage à trois with the guest of honor. And we knew that newcomer LaToya Ali was somehow involved, alleged to have been engaging in same-sex carnal interactions either before or after the events in question. We knew this because on the October 2, 2020, episode of the B. Scott Show podcast, the well-connected internet personality announced an exclusive: “They gave Cynthia a bachelorette party, and from what I hear things got really spicy … evidently there were some well-endowed strippers that came and performed for Cynthia’s bachelorette party, and afterwards a couple of the ladies got it in with the strippers.”
While the leak had the upside of piquing audiences’ interest in the upcoming proceedings on the show — the episode featuring the bachelorette party had the season’s highest ratings — the bevy of information that was made available in the lead-up to the premiere, an increasingly common phenomenon, also usurped the shock and awe of seeing things play out within the show’s narrative. As the episode rolled live, various cast members posted the hashtag #itwasntme on social media in real time, accelerating tensions between the cast and frustrating the production company and Bravo. (Executive producer and reunion host Andy Cohen has gone on the record saying that when the cast starts “ broadcasting on social media or posting a lot of stuff from the trip,” he becomes “the guy who’s like, ‘Ugh! Stop posting this! It’s gonna feel stale when it comes out in six months!’”) Bolo-gate is one of the most tangible examples of this dynamic: The narrative arc percolated in public for months before it made its way to TV screens, and details initially leaked before Bravo could even allude to them in a trailer.
A few days after the B. Scott podcast episode dropped, it unearthed more details under the brazen headline “Porsha Williams and Tanya Sam Allegedly Got Their Peaches Cobbled by a Long Dong Stripper on RHOA Cast Trip.” The story, which had also been picked up by “Page Six” and other outlets, went viral and got immediately dissected by an apparatus of dedicated Instagram accounts, podcasts, blogs, and traditional gossip media hyperfocused on shows like RHOA. The sleuthing and reporting of such digital correspondents — Funky Dineva, B. Scott, DJ Richie Skye, Tamara Tattles, All About the Tea, among many others — have made the reality TV show’s fourth wall increasingly porous; they track such picayune details as social-media follows and blocks to gauge cast alliances between seasons, and leak contract renewals and cast-status updates that become necessary context for understanding onscreen tensions, past and present: Are NeNe and Kandi at odds because of an issue that has played out on the series, or because of ongoing qualms around spinoffs and marketability on the Bravo network?
In February, the Bolo leak finally surfaced on Housewives during the season’s tenth episode, “Front Page News,” after months of buildup — and questions about the show’s ethics around privacy. After Cynthia’s sister Malorie revealed that news of the bachelorette party leaked to “Page Six,” a game of whodunit commenced as we watched the cast try to figure out the source for gossip reports from “Page Six,” All About the Tea, the Jasmine Brand, and Daily Mail as the notifications hit their phones. Kenya Moore, consummate archvillain, held “Bolo court” to dig into the crevices of the night in question. Kandi, who arranged the evening, was openly annoyed that details of her judgment-free space had been revealed to the public so soon.
The rest of the cast collectively assumed that Kenya was the leaker, partially due to her vocal criticism of the events in question — but also because of her known relationships with receptive outlets like TMZ and B. Scott, where the story originally emerged. Kenya, who had been having open tensions with Porsha and Tanya, had the perceived benefit of indicting both women for behavior she found reprehensible, centering herself in the main conflict of the season, and actively distancing herself from the evening’s alleged indulgences before it went to air. These suspicions were affirmed by Kenya’s friend Cynthia, who told curious producers, “I honestly don’t know who leaked the information to the press. Now, I know who was the most pressed, and I’m gonna leave it right there.”
Though even casual viewers have come to realize that reality TV is inherently undergirded by artifice — as far back as 2010, the ending scene of The Hills winked that the “reality” of reality TV is a veneer — cast members have increasingly attuned themselves to the rhythms and nuances of arcs that “make for good TV” in pursuit of celebrity and richer contracts. On Housewives, characters seek control over their narratives, building relationships with bloggers in pursuit of favorable spin outside of the producers’ domain. Kandi, for example, uses her Speak on It series on YouTube to remark on events in real time, at times inviting other cast members to flesh out their stories as they wish. Kenya has appeared on the web series to air frustrations with erased plotlines that gave context to her in-show conflict with Porsha over the proper way to protest at a Black Lives Matter rally. (Anna Peele covered the beef and the broader Kremlinology of the Bravo-verse in a feature story for Vulture, which Williams then sought to spin in her direction during an Instagram Live session.)
Not all shows have embraced such narrative fluidity, often to their detriment. On Basketball Wives, Ogom “OG” Chijindu has gone rogue, releasing unedited footage on Instagram in response to the show’s resistance to acknowledging ugly story lines about colorism from the prior season, an unprecedented strategy that has taken the air out of the VH1 franchise’s constructed bubble. The Kardashian empire has notoriously attempted to maintain a chokehold over the pipeline of information that is revealed about Keeping Up With the Kardashians or the family, leading to waning cultural resonance, and, ultimately, the show’s cancellation.
We have arrived at a point where if you were to consume a reality docuseries by only watching its programmatic content, you might only get two-thirds of the story. The evolution of the RHOA universe reflects that reality TV may be as unreal as ever — every cast member is their own producer, serving their own interests, and the viewers are increasingly savvy to those machinations — but what still lies beneath the surface are real people making their way through the world, spinning narratives that audiences are still compelled to consume. Even if they already know what’s coming.