performance review

Erika Jayne and the Runaway Narrative

Erika Jayne is working hard to control the narrative surrounding her divorce on this season of RHOBH, but while she continues to deliver reality-TV gold, the whole thing has started to feel a little overly rehearsed. Photo: Bravo

Erika Jayne was a perfect Roxie Hart. In January 2020, like so many Bravolebrities before her, the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star shimmied into the long-running Broadway revival of Chicago, a show that’s survived decades in large part thanks to the stunt casting of C- and D-list celebrities. Erika may not have had the vocal range for some of Roxie’s bigger numbers, but she acted the hell out of the role, convincingly portraying a woman using the scandal she’s mired in to catapult herself to stardom, all while trying to avoid serious legal consequences for her actions.

Erika’s run in Chicago ended abruptly when Broadway shut down as a result of the rapidly escalating COVID crisis in New York City, but there are glimmers of her theatrical performance on this season of RHOBH. The central story line has become Erika’s divorce from legal titan Tom Girardi and the accusation that Girardi embezzled tens of millions of dollars in settlement money from his clients — at least $20 million of which he’s alleged to have funneled into an account for Erika’s corporation. What Erika knew and when she knew it remains the most pressing question, though she is adamant that she had no knowledge of her estranged husband’s shady dealings. Nevertheless, the controversy has forced Erika into the hot seat, with some of her fellow Housewives now grilling her on perceived holes in her stories. Off the show, her name is in headlines, but like Roxie, Erika’s future depends on the high-wire act of maintaining her innocence without relinquishing her fame.

The Erika storyline has been a boon to RHOBH, making the series more compelling and consistently entertaining than it has been in years. The past few seasons have been dragged down by non-issues stretched out over a dozen episodes to fill airtime. Did Dorit Kemsley improperly return the dog she adopted from Lisa’s shelter? Did Denise Richards sleep with Brandi Glanville? Who cares, especially when the question now is the far more incendiary “Did Erika knowingly accept and spend a small fortune that was rightfully owed to the widows and orphans of plane-crash victims?” Meanwhile, the show’s voyeuristic thrills — ultimately the driving force behind the success of the entire Real Housewives brand — have been amplified by the knowledge that Erika almost certainly shouldn’t be filming.

Legal experts seem to agree that the best thing Erika could do for herself at this point would be to keep quiet, speaking only in carefully worded statements vetted by her lawyers. Instead, she’s filming a reality show in which she’s required to share endlessly, whether in confessionals where she’s being interviewed by producers or when pressed for details by the other Housewives. She has, in fact, been more forthcoming about her divorce and the fallout than she has been about anything in her six-season stint on the show, perhaps because she can’t afford not to be. As Erika has repeatedly reminded the other women, she is now financially independent from Tom, which makes her RHOBH paycheck a necessity. That means being game for all of the messy business attached to being a Housewife. Mention it all, as The Real Housewives of New York’s Bethenny Frankel once shouted while doing No. 17, the spread eagle.

In reflecting on Erika’s fascinating, sometimes maddening performance on RHOBH this season, it’s only fair to acknowledge the impossible position she’s in. News of her divorce and the flood of lawsuits that followed dropped after weeks of filming, meaning that stepping away would have meant breaking her contract, which could carry financial consequences of its own. That Erika wavers between clipped reticence and hissing rebukes speaks as much to the paradox of needing to protect herself while also protecting her checkbook as anything else.

Regardless, the end result is that Erika is not doing herself any favors. She has worked hard to present herself as another victim of Tom’s alleged crimes, a neglected wife who had no idea that her lavish lifestyle may have been funded by ill-gotten gains. But she’s also had to be a Housewife — scrapping with her castmates (and fans online), spinning dramatic tales that are easily contradicted, and still engaging in the conspicuous consumption that’s part of the Bravo brand but not exactly in great taste under the circumstances. It’s a mess, and not a particularly pretty one.

To Erika’s credit, she managed the balancing act well enough at the start. In real life, she announced her divorce from Tom on Election Day 2020, a move she acknowledged was designed to bury it; on the show, it arrived at the end of the fourth episode. When she finally faced the other women in the sixth episode of the season, it was at Sutton Stracke’s luncheon, where Erika arrived in an unusually chipper mood. Cheerful and startlingly open, Erika displayed none of the iciness that has characterized much of her run on the series. It was as if a weight had been lifted off her shoulders, and that squared with the story she began to relay about her marriage, one in which she felt beholden to a much older, much richer man who kept her in her place.

Over the course of several subsequent episodes, Erika purported to reveal the truth about her life with Tom, crying in confessionals while acknowledging that she never had the kind of union that her castmates have with their spouses. She related the story of the last time she spoke to Tom, an “I love you” that was met with a cold “thanks, hon.” Even with the legal troubles casting a long shadow, it was impossible not to feel sympathetic toward Erika in these scenes. There’s no question that she and her husband were never on an even playing field — the editors have repeatedly inserted a scene from her first season in which Tom admonished her for speaking out of turn — and given the revelations about Tom’s alleged criminal behavior, it’s not hard to cast him as the villain.

The other shoe dropped in episode nine, as the first stories about embezzlement and other bad behavior began to surface. In an emotional video chat with co-stars Kyle Richards and Lisa Rinna, Erika wept over reports that her divorce was a sham to hide assets. Even as Erika was forced to grow a bit cagier — she pleaded the fifth in a confessional for the first time after a producer asked when she first found out about the lawsuits against Tom — her anguish at least appeared sincere. Decked out in COVID-quarantine sweats, she seemed genuinely caught off guard by the accusation that her divorce was part of a nefarious plot to keep millions squirreled away.

But something started to shift at the end of the episode, when Erika and Kyle met to talk about the allegations in person. As Erika sobbed about being in the middle of a federal investigation and not being able to tell her side of the story, her mascara ran down her face to create the perfect soap-opera moment. It was too perfect for some. “We filmed in the Bahamas season 9 and we were all swimming in the water,” Erika’s former co-star Camille Grammer Meyer tweeted. “I don’t remember seeing EJ’s mascara run after swimming underwater.” The implication, shared oh-so obliquely by a master of passive-aggressive jabs, was that Erika’s tears were just for the cameras.

It’s no surprise that Erika is working hard to control the narrative, but while she continues to deliver reality-TV gold, the whole thing has started to feel a little overly rehearsed. “Erika is acting like she’s totally innocent,” Sutton said in a recent confessional. “Emphasis on the word ‘acting.’” Sometimes being a Housewife means being over-the-top — just ask RHONY’s Aviva Drescher and her prosthetic leg. But Erika cannot afford to sacrifice authenticity when she needs people on her side believing in her innocence. And the more she shares in dramatic monologues about what went on behind closed doors in her marriage, the more her stories strain credulity.

The meandering tale of Tom’s secret car accident is perhaps the most notable example. In the tenth episode of the season, Erika told the women that Tom had driven his car off the road behind their home and ended up unconscious for 12 hours — a gripping story, to be sure, but one that immediately didn’t add up. If Erika found him, why did she say he called her from the hospital? If he was instantly thrown from the car, how was the car totaled? And, most importantly, if Tom’s apparent head trauma was responsible for his alleged criminal behavior, why did the embezzlement he’s accused of predate the accident? Before anyone could ask for some much-needed clarification, Erika had moved on to suddenly divulging the details of Tom’s many extramarital affairs.

Housewives are often accused of self-producing, maintaining tight control of their story lines and making sure that only the most flattering version of reality makes it to air. But the stakes here are so much higher than Denise trying to “Bravo, Bravo, fucking Bravo” her way out of talking about a possible affair with Brandi. When Erika snapped at Garcelle Beauvais for revealing that Tom calls Erika every day, her hostility and subsequent breakdown baffled the other women. For viewers, however, it looked a lot like frustration at losing control of the narrative. Was she upset that Garcelle told a personal story that wasn’t hers to share — or was she panicked that the truth of Tom pleading with her to come home contradicted the scene she has been trying to paint of a cruel and vindictive man deliberately leaving Erika to fend for herself as punishment for her leaving?

The introduction of a particularly damning L.A. Times article on the show has made things worse for Erika. It was Sutton — the only one able to make it through a longform piece, apparently — who first suggested that Erika may have lied to the other woman, noting that the timeline of Tom’s apparent cognitive decline and alleged embezzlement does not make sense, and that Erika might have collaborated with his lawyers on the story. While once a staunch ally, Sutton has led the charge in asking Erika the questions she does not want to answer. Sutton has also made it clear, in confessionals and to the other Housewives, that even though Erika may not have been consciously complicit in Tom’s dealings, she’s still responsible for knowing where her money comes from.

Erika’s response to being questioned has moved from icy calm to spitting rage, a familiar trajectory to anyone who has watched her temper flare up over the years. Sometimes she balances victimhood with vitriol, as at Kathy Hilton’s dinner party in episode 15, which saw a tearful Erika accuse the other women of torturing her before she turned her ire on Sutton and told her to shut the fuck up. Erika’s “look at my fucking life” histrionics and righteous anger are not particularly surprising, and there’s a good chance they’re part of what’s driving up RHOBH’s ratings, just as the show’s predecessor, RHONY, flails aimlessly. Assuming she wants to keep filming, Erika has almost certainly earned herself another season.

But the performance she’s delivering now — the mob-boss threats coupled with her evasiveness and contradictory statements — undercuts the sympathy she was building in the first half of the season. Anyone who questions her has become the enemy, from her castmates to the “dumb bitches” who tweet at her, which makes it that much harder to feel compassion for the position she’s now in. Whatever hope Erika had of emerging triumphant is buckling under the combined weight of the allegations and the expectations of being a Housewife. What we’re left with is less Erika Jayne taking a bow after “Hot Honey Rag” and more Erika Jayne in an act of desperation.

Erika Jayne and the Runaway Narrative