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Reality TV's Biggest Stories Are Happening Off Camera

The candor that used to define the genre has been replaced with calculated reveals, resulting in weaker, less coherent TV.
  • Andy Cohen, Tom Sandoval, Ariana Madix, Lisa Vanderpump, Kyle Cooke, Kandy Muse, and Heidi N Closet (photos: Bravo, Paramount+)
    Andy Cohen, Tom Sandoval, Ariana Madix, Lisa Vanderpump, Kyle Cooke, Kandy Muse, and Heidi N Closet (photos: Bravo, Paramount+)

    Back in the early days of reality TV, there was much hand-wringing about the troublesome voyeurism inherent to the genre. These shows where ordinary people seemed so willing to put their lives on camera for the world to see were turning the American viewing public into an audience of peeping Toms. But that willingness of reality TV cast members to be exhibitionists has changed the face of television. From ordinary people to burgeoning professionals to established celebrities, so many people were willing to open the doors of their lives to the public. The Real World begat Survivor, Big Brother's 24/7 live feeds, and The Real Housewives, and what was once called an invitation to voyeurism has evolved into a genre as accepted as sitcoms and police procedurals.

    Ultimate candor has become the goal or at the very least an expectation on these shows. But recently, some major reality TV storylines have not only happened off camera, but the participants have taken steps to ensure these events have happened away from the cameras. And while camera crews can't be expected to capture every waking moment of these cast members' lives, there's been a recent laxness and permissibility on the part of production to allow this to happen.

    One prominent example was during the recent "Scandoval" storyline on Vanderpump Rules. That Tom Sandoval and Raquel Leviss' affair came to light after the show had stopped filming for the season couldn't have been avoided on a production level. And the show's executive producer, Alex Baskin, did yeoman's work getting the show back up and running in time to capture as much of the fallout on camera as it did. But at the Vanderpump reunion, Sandoval attempted to defend himself by claiming that his and Ariana Madix's relationship had been curated for the cameras for several seasons. "We put on a front when we were filming," Sandoval said, "and I even talked to our showrunner. For us to be having these issues and keeping it from people, I just didn't think it was fair to the rest of the cast." Madix reflexively pushed back, saying, "I feel like I always showed everything, from my point of view." But this was followed up by a behind-the-scenes clip of Sandoval apologizing to a producer for the ongoing deception. "It's not fair," Sandoval said in the clip. "I feel like it's important for us to like, talk about this sh*t and not pretend like it's all amazing."

    It's no surprise that this moment was overshadowed by the accusations and recriminations being hurled across the stage at the bombastic Vanderpump reunion, but for a longtime reality TV viewer, that scene was pretty shocking. It was clear evidence of reality TV cast members colluding with production to keep a storyline off camera. It's always been assumed and rumored that cast members and production engage in a delicate dance about what becomes fodder for the TV show, but no one has ever admitted to it quite so explicitly. Meanwhile, Andy Cohen didn't comment at all about Tom and Ariana keeping the truth of their relationship hidden even after Ariana admitted she knew about Tom's affair with "Miami Girl" and lied about it on camera, nor when she slammed Tom for coaching Raquel on what to say on camera, as he'd done previously with her. Tom even tried to engineer off-camera time with Raquel mid-reunion, though in that case, production at least held firm on not allowing him to do that.

    This happened mere days after the Summer House reunion, also on Bravo, featured an argument between Lindsay Hubbard and Kyle Cooke about Kyle's hard feelings from seasons ago when Lindsay brought up accusations (on camera) that Kyle had cheated on his then-fiancee Amanda. Kyle was still furious that Lindsay waited several weeks to reveal this information, until the Summer House production had begun. Lindsay's defense was basically "We're on a TV show," which isn't a great thing for a friend to say, but it's a perfectly reasonable thing for a co-star to say.

    These are the blurred lines that make Summer House such a potent mix of TV drama. At the reunion, Amanda outright told Lindsay that she'd expected Lindsay to approach her with this information before the season had begun filming so they could deal with it without the cameras rolling. You can see why Amanda and Kyle would prefer it this way. But for reunion host Andy Cohen not to say a word about how he'd prefer it if they didn't collude to keep good storylines off of TV was a glaring oversight.

    For The Real Housewives and their spinoff shows like Vanderpump Rules and Summer House, there's always been a delicate balancing act between what gets addressed on camera and what is declared out of bounds. Some of the biggest feuds in Housewives history have happened when one woman introduced information in front of the cameras that another woman wanted kept off TV. The famous fight on the first season of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, in which sisters Kyle and Kim Richards let their lingering resentments fly in the back of a limo ("you stole my goddamn house!"), was so intense because Kyle broke what had seemingly been an agreement with Kim not to address her alcoholism on camera.

    The women of Beverly Hills are kind of notorious for trying to keep their secrets off screen, it's just never worked very well. Adrienne Maloof left RHOBH when Brandi Glanville brought up details about her using a surrogate to carry her twin boys, something the other women had clearly agreed was a verboten topic. Camille Grammer blew up at Taylor Armstrong in Season 2 out of frustration that the other women weren't allowed to talk about the domestic abuse Taylor had been suffering at the hands of her husband, Russell. (Russell died by suicide before Season 2 began airing.)

    Throughout all of these controversies, Cohen has always been steadfast about his belief that being a Real Housewife is a job, and that job description involves complete candor and honesty about what's going on in their lives. "I think what makes a good Housewife is [being] willing to live their lives openly in front of the cameras," he said in a 2017 Watch What Happens Live conversation with Lisa Rinna, who has some experience with wanting her fellow cast members to spill all their secrets during production. "They don't hide things. Anytime you hide things on camera, it will come out, it will come back to bite you and it will be far worse than it ever would have been if you had just owned it, as you say."

    Andy has been consistent on this front. He was relentless during the Real Housewives of New York City Season 6 reunion when Ramona wanted to stonewall on the subject of her separation (and eventual divorce) from Mario. Only a few months before the Vanderpump and Summer House reunions, Andy got on Robyn Dixon's case when the Real Housewives of Potomac star waited until after the reunions filmed to drop news of her husband's infidelity on her podcast. "You're on a reality show about your life, and infidelity has been THE hot topic of the season," Cohen told her on Watch What Happens Live shortly thereafter. "The expectation is that you're sharing everything that's going on in your life."

    To see Cohen then sit idly by while Tom and Ariana talked matter-of-factly about the parts of their relationship that were kept off screen — parts that materially affected the way said relationship came across, and thus perpetuated a fiction of a relationship that was more functional than it was — ran counter to his professed feelings about cast members' openness. "Scandoval" would have been a big deal no matter what preceded it, but it would have been a more honest story if the audience had been privy to the apparently very real problems in Ariana and Tom's relationship.

    This recent trend of off-camera shenanigans hasn't just been happening on the Housewives shows either. The current season of RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars was rocked in Episode 5, when fan favorite Heidi N Closet abruptly left the competition after an argument with her heretofore allies Kandy Muse and Jimbo about… things that were said off camera.

    Heidi, Kandy, and Jimbo had an alliance based on their preexisting relationship from touring together (this touches on another aspect of off-camera reality TV, which is pre-game alliances for all-star seasons, but that's another conversation), and while the formation of this alliance wasn’t captured on camera, all three members spoke about it in their talking heads. Later, though, after Kandy irked Heidi with some of her workroom comments, Heidi pulled Jimbo aside to warn her that Kandy stated her intention to vote out Jimbo (the season's major frontrunner by that point) the first chance she got.

    According to Heidi, Kandy said this in an open discussion heard by, among others, Alexis Michelle. None of this discussion occurred in front of the camera, and so Heidi had no backup when Kandy denied saying anything of the sort and Alexis pretended to temporarily lose her ability to see, hear, or speak. Frustrated at how this (alleged) gaslighting was going to make her look, Heidi made a split decision to leave the show.

    The concept of anything happening on Drag Race while the cameras weren't rolling is a relatively recent one. Season 7 contestant Pearl shocked fans when she said Ru once told her, "Nothing you say matters unless that camera is rolling." Michelle Visage later explained away this apparently rude remark by saying that contestants aren't allowed to talk to each other off camera.

    The former Drag Race restriction on queens speaking to each other off-camera seemed draconian. Andy Cohen's long-held belief that Housewives are obligated to put every awful thing that happens to them on screen feels heartless. If reality TV stardom is indeed a devil's bargain, though, these have been the terms. They may be changing, but it'll mean a different product for the audiences. Relaxing the old restrictions and allowing cast members to save their most unvarnished selves for when the cameras aren't running may allow cast members to better control their narratives. But it makes for weaker, less coherent television.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Vanderpump Rules, The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, The Real Housewives of Potomac, RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars, Summer House, Andy Cohen, Ariana Madix, Heidi N Closet, Robyn Dixon, RuPaul Charles, Tom Sandoval, The Real Housewives Franchise, Reality TV