The dog days of summer are upon us, which means the ends of our favorite summer reality series won't be far behind. True, shows like Big Brother and Bachelor in Paradise still have some life left in them, but they’re very much the exception, and as fall’s new series begin to pop up, we’ll talk about them less and less.
Since we’re not ready to say goodbye just yet, let’s take a moment to look back at the reality TV figures who dominated the summer — five in particular. These five women provided a sunny blast of entertainment throughout the season. They were most notable not for big fights or drama, but for sheer charisma. All five can be called fan favorites, and for good reason. They’re who we’ll remember when we think about reality TV in the summer of 2019.
Her star power was evident from the very first week of CBS’ Love Island. Kyra was the definition of a breakout character. She was positioned as something of a sexy interloper in the British reality phenomenon’s first stateside season premiere, appearing after 10 other singles paired themselves off into couples. By the start of the second episode, she would have to take some other girl’s guy for herself.
But Kyra never used this opportunity to be villainous. She wound up picking Cashel Barnett, a goofy guy with surprisingly strong swagger, and forged a strong bond with him. They quickly became a fan-favorite couple, only to break up going into the second week at Kyra’s insistence. This wound up getting Cashel eliminated from Love Island days later, while Kyra was left racked with grief over her decision. The rest of her time was rockier, but included a surprisingly progressive take on a flirtation between two women, herself and Emily Salch. (Kyra, like many of the women on this list, is queer.)
Ultimately, Kyra was eliminated right before the finale — audiences apparently didn’t take to her and new guy Jered Youngblood the way they did to her and Cashel. But all wasn’t lost for Kyra: Cashel flew back to the island to greet her as she left the show. And she got to walk out of her experience on the series as the star of the first season.
You know that meme in which Oprah, talking about Gayle King, calls her “the mother I never had … the sister that everybody would want … [and] the friend that everybody deserves”? That’s me with Jenna from Are You the One? I don’t know a better person.
Jenna has had a remarkable trajectory on MTV’s new, sexually-fluid, dating-and-math reality series. She spent the first several weeks of the season obsessing over Kai Wes, a non-binary transmasculine person and sexual dynamo. Their love affair was torrid, and continued even after the show’s matchmaking system confirmed that they were not a match. This drew the ire of their castmates, who wanted both to start exploring other options.
After a couple weeks, Jenna finally realized that she and Kai were a toxic pair, and made a conscious choice to separate. While Kai continued obsessing over Jenna, and even told her that they love her — a big step on a show like this — Jenna wisely and firmly put her foot down. She kindly, but assertively, set a boundary and stuck to it. That kind of learned self-control, mixed with Jenna’s genuine interest in participating in the Are You the One? process not just to find a partner, but to find herself, made her the hero of her own story.
Much like Kyra and Jenna, Nicole has led with her heart this season of CBS’ Big Brother. Unfortunately for her, no one else has. As such, she's has been the sole bright light in one of the darkest seasons of this 20-year-old reality competition. She's faced every bit of ugliness from other house guests, from bullying to isolation, with kindness. She has called out aggressive and hateful behavior, as when fellow houseguest Bella Wang lied repeatedly to slander her character. And above all, she’s worked hard to stay in the game with her integrity intact.
Big Brother is a show that rewards duplicity and backstabbing, but too many of this season’s contestants have taken things to a personal level. But not Nicole, who's led fan polls for viewers’ favorite houseguest since the beginning of July. She may not win the season, but she definitely has "America’s Favorite Houseguest" on lock.
For years, The Bachelor and its ilk have been far too heterosexual to exist in a modern reality TV space. The Bachelor Nation is a world in which straight, conventionally attractive, mostly white people date 20-plus partners at once, trying to find love. That the show won’t cast a queer lead is absurd — we’re not exactly protecting the sanctity of dating here.
Enter Demi Burnett, a self-described “queer queen” who told it like it is during Colton Underwood’s season of The Bachelor. She shook things up during that season’s reunion special, and thus was a lock to return for the sexier, single-r spinoff Bachelor in Paradise. What’s been surprising about her run so far is that she’s leading with her sexuality, talking frankly about being bisexual. And the addition of her girlfriend Kristian Haggerty to the mix means Bachelor in Paradise is finally getting its very first queer couple. Perhaps ABC let its eyes wander over to Are You the One and realized it was time to evolve?
All hail Denise Richards, a star who's not content with just surviving, but aims to thrive. When she was first announced as the latest Beverly Hills Housewife on Bravo’s flagship franchise, I was concerned. Season 8 of Beverly Hills had been dull drivel, and firing no one but bringing a famous name on felt like a Band-Aid on a big wound. How on earth could Denise Richards be the solution?
Well, shut my mouth, because Denise is the answer. Denise is every answer. Denise is a laid-back Malibu girl with an infectious smile and a hearty laugh. Denise is the kind of girl who will gush about her husband’s anatomy over happy hour drinks. Denise will freely admit she wakes up and has sex every morning. Denise will tell stories out of school about her ex-husband Charlie Sheen bringing hookers to Thanksgiving dinner, hookers she proceded to invite in for dinner! All of this should make Denise feel too Cool Girl, but instead she’s just chill.
Beverly Hills gets a deserved reputation for featuring Housewives with too much focus on etiquette and what’s appropriate. Denise Richards came in and blew all that up, barely breaking a sweat as she did it. It is a much better show for her presence, and our summer was far more enjoyable for her presence, too.
Kevin O'Keeffe is a writer, host, and RuPaul's Drag Race herstorian living in Los Angeles. Follow his musings and rantings on Twitter @kevinpokeeffe.