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Real Housewives Is Pioneering a New, ‘Mormon-ish’ Trail in Salt Lake City

Each SLC Housewife has carved out a unique space for herself in a community dominated by a singular religious culture in which nuance and gray area can be difficult to find. Photo: Fred Hayes/Bravo

When Andy Cohen revealed Salt Lake City as the landmark tenth Real Housewives franchise almost a year ago, the announcement was met with a mix of elation and surprised confusion. The crowd of BravoCon attendees inside the Manhattan Center’s Grand Ballroom let out a whooping cheer, but the chatter online was decidedly more perplexed. Utah? Really?

It certainly wasn’t the most obvious choice. After all, could a place synonymous with the Mormon Church’s clean-cut religiosity and veneer of well-mannered neighborliness (not to mention some of the most strictly regulated liquor laws in the country) deliver the kind of table-flipping, cancer-scamming, Berkshires-induced drama that Real Housewives from Orange County to Dallas have become famous for over the last 15 years?

Trust me, the answer is yes. Having grown up in Utah as both a born and bred Mormon and an OG Bravoholic, it felt like I’d suddenly been blessed by the Bravo gods with a new Housewives franchise made just for me. As a teenager, the extent of my rebellious streak was using the TV in my parents’ room — the only one in the house without parental controls — to watch Vicki Gunvalson melt down over the infamous “family van” incident and Lauri Waring Peterson go from rich to poor to rich again in the very first seasons of The Real Housewives of Orange County. In college, I was recapping Housewives shows from my apartment at Brigham Young University and forcing my roommates to turn off ESPN so I could livetweet episodes from my anonymous Gossip Girl–style Twitter account dedicated to my favorite Bravo ladies. I’d spent my entire life living in the cloistered, often misunderstood world these new Housewives were about to lay bare for Bravo’s cameras, and couldn’t wait to see how it would be portrayed.

Salt Lake is a city of duality. Yes, it’s the global headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, more commonly known as the Mormon Church. But over the last several decades, a vibrant counterculture has also arisen in the metropolis in direct response to Mormonism’s domination of the city’s cultural landscape. Yes, the Salt Lake Valley is dotted with temples, chapels, and pairs of Mormon missionaries. But Salt Lake also boasts a vibrant LGBTQ scene, proximity to the star-studded cultural mecca that is the Sundance Film Festival every winter, and even street cred from the likes of Post Malone. (Posty loves the state so much that he bought a $3 million compound in Salt Lake’s tony Cottonwood Heights neighborhood in 2019 and casually references Utah in his song lyrics. In a particular stroke of genius, a reworked version of the rapper’s hit single “Wow.” is even being used to soundtrack promo spots for RHOSLC.)

That being said, even I’ve been taken aback by just how heavily Bravo has painted the show’s identity against the backdrop of Mormonism. Because while I never expected Andy & Co. to find an active Mormon who’d want to join the Housewives circus, four of the six women sharing their lives for Bravo’s cameras this season have direct, albeit wildly different, ties to the church.

“Mormon-ish” Heather Gay seems positioned as the show’s go-to authority on all things Latter-day Saint, while Jen Shah — the first Polynesian Housewife in Bravo history — grew up Mormon, but is in the process of converting to her husband’s Muslim faith due to the church’s historic mistreatment of Black members. Glamorous New York transplant Lisa Barlow went to BYU with Heather but describes herself now as “Mormon 2.0,” largely due to the fact that she owns multiple tequila brands — a livelihood in direct opposition of the church’s Word of Wisdom, a commandment that strictly prohibits drinking alcohol, coffee, or tea, but leaves room for copious amounts of Diet Coke. (“I’m sure other Mormons care that I own a tequila company. What’s important is that I don’t,” Heather deadpans in her intro package.) And then there’s Heather’s cousin, Whitney Rose, who left the church following a scandalous affair with her boss turned husband when they were both married to other people. Whitney clarified over the weekend that — contrary to what was said in the episode — she was never actually excommunicated from the church, but rather “chose to walk away” on her own terms.

What promises to make RHOSLC fascinating as it continues is that each Housewife has carved out a unique space for herself in a community dominated by a singular religious culture in which nuance and gray area can be difficult to find. As Whitney states in her confessional, it’s a big deal in Utah society when you’re no longer Mormon. Or when you’re only “Mormon-ish,” for that matter.

Naturally, the backlash from within Utah over whether these women accurately represent the state’s community and culture was swift, if expected. In an article published the day of the premiere, a reviewer at the Mormon Church–owned Deseret News blatantly told readers not to tune in. “Real Housewives of Salt Lake City is not the show for you or your family,” he wrote. “It’s full of digs at Utah culture, church members and the general vibe from the city that will make any Utah diehard squirm or even surge with anger.” I personally had more than one actively Mormon friend call and complain about the way the church was characterized on the show.

But here’s the thing: Other than an offhand comment in a confessional interview or two, nothing any of the Housewives say about orthodox Mormonism, or Utah culture in general, is patently untrue. The fact is, the church didn’t accept Black members into full fellowship until “1970-something,” as Jen explains five minutes into the premiere. (To be precise, the year was 1978. Before then, only white male members were permitted to be ordained to the church’s priesthood.) To be a good Mormon, you are taught not to drink, smoke, or swear, and to treat your body like a temple.

Furthermore, a singular goal is drilled into the psyche of basically every Mormon woman from the time they’re born: to become a wife and a mother. Of course, a rich family life has always been a crucial piece of the equation that makes a successful Housewife, a treasure trove to be mined for personal story lines full of quirky mothers-in-law, polarizing husbands, and precocious children ready to mug for the camera at any given moment. And so far, the Salt Lake franchise checks all of these necessary familial boxes. Look no further than the home lives of Meredith Marks, whose scene-stealing son Brooks almost certainly took a semester off from school to become a Bravolebrity, or Mary M. Cosby, whose arranged wedding to her step-grandfather turned husband eclipses even the state’s long history of polygamy in terms of scandalous marriage practices. But in Utah, marriage and motherhood are viewed as much more than just pieces of a woman’s journey in her quest to have it all; it’s expected to be the whole pie.

In the season’s third episode, Heather breaks down the immense burden this puts on Utah women both Mormon and “Mormon-ish,” the latest batch of Real Housewives included. “We are successful Mormons based on how we raise our children, and how happy we keep our husbands, and how perfect our family is … or appears,” she explains while planning an over-the-top baby shower for five of her young Mormon employees, all of whom happen to be pregnant at the same time. “That’s really the social code that we all adhere to and we know we’re judged on.” In Mormon society, it’s being a real housewife — rather than a Real Housewife — that counts as the ultimate sign of a successful life. And the pressure to measure up to that ideal is the by-product of Mormon doctrine dictating nearly every code in the social handbook.

Mormonism is a religion of constant progression, based on a never-ending cycle of following the commandments, repenting for sin, and striving to live more righteously. On a societal level, this principle fosters a competitive, high-pressure environment where everyone is always trying to be — and appear — their very best at all times. And if you’re not measuring up to the standards dictated by the collective majority, prepare to be judged.

Former RHONY star Carole Radziwill recently touched on the role that appearance so often plays in the world of Housewives. “What came first: The Real Housewives or our ever-growing quest for perfection?” the journalist turned princess asked in an essay for Allure looking back on her five seasons as voice of reason on the NYC franchise. From the very beginning, luxuries like plastic surgery, cosmetic treatments, and rampant materialism have been veritable hallmarks of the Housewives experience in basically every city. Over the years, we’ve watched our favorite cast members get boob jobs, injectables, explants, vaginal rejuvenation, and even one rather terrifying case of flesh-eating bacteria. Taglines have ranged from “I’m just your typical Orange County Housewife; I am obsessed with being young” to “My husband’s a top plastic surgeon in this town, and I’m his best creation.” And bickering over glam has become something of a favorite pastime for the ladies in Beverly Hills. (Just ask Dorit Kemsley how her focus on glam went over with Kyle Richards last season.)

But the idea, as Heather claims in the premiere, that “perfection is attainable” was a part of Utah culture long before Bravo’s cameras started rolling. And the new Housewife’s med-spa business is far from the only place in town offering 15-minute Botox parking. In fact, if you can believe it, as recently as a few years ago Utah’s capital boasted more plastic surgeons per capita than the city of Los Angeles. Because in Salt Lake City, keeping up appearances isn’t just spiritual; it’s physical too.

It may be surprising to the outside world that a culture imbued with a reputation for such wholesome, clean-cut religiosity would be steeped in the superficial vanities of plastic surgery, but it’s simply a modern outgrowth of the idealized perfectionism that’s practically baked into Mormonism’s DNA. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that while Mormon prophets have handed down multiple edicts from on high prohibiting tattoos, immodest dress, and any piercings beyond a single set of earrings for women, they’ve never revealed God’s explicit position on a little nip/tuck.

When Real Housewives of Orange County debuted nearly 15 years ago, the title wasn’t just a play on Desperate Housewives. Sure, it tapped into the Zeitgeist created by the fictional ladies of Wisteria Lane, but it also subverted the very definition of what it meant to be a 21st-century housewife. Amid the fights and feuds, glitz and glamour, power struggles and pecking orders, the franchise has successfully rewritten the rule book for the modern woman, and as their lives played out for Bravo’s cameras, the Housewives themselves shone a giant spotlight on all the different ways women can be strong, ambitious, and truly have it all. So perhaps there’s no better place to take the pioneering franchise after 15 years than the one city in America where the rules for how to be a housewife are still at their most traditional, and once again turn that expectation on its head. Because even in a place like Salt Lake City, there’s always room for the Housewives to blaze a new trail.

RHOSLC Is Pioneering a New, ‘Mormon-ish’ Trail