I’ve adored your onscreen persona since I first saw you moderating a ‘Housewives’ reunion show on Bravo many years ago. Where did this guy come from, I wondered, who with the same winning smile can spin any subject into campy humor or challenge any guest with a pointed question? You were a novelty then and you remain unique among public personalities. It’s no wonder you now run a self-made media empire centered on your personality and the reality television shows you’ve conceived.
Last June, amfAR gave you and Miley Cyrus awards for your “exceptional contributions to the fight against AIDS.” As a gay man who came of age in the 1980s, I’m sure that that award is very personal to you, as it should be. You’ve worked in both news and entertainment production, and you know better than most how media depictions affect public perceptions, behaviors, and how they can create or break stigma associated with diseases such as HIV.
Do you remember Pedro Zamora, the brave young man who was the central focus of MTV’s The Real World in 1994? At that time, it would have been laudable simply for him to admit on national television that he was gay, much less that he was living with AIDS. I’m sure you remember.
Do you remember when Zamora’s cast mates were shown to mock him, laugh at him, alternately doubt him and blame him for the severity of his illness? Wasn’t it a terrible thing to witness his personal struggles for his life, only for the show to intercut footage of his purported friends making light of his illness?
Contrast the video above with this one:
You don’t remember this because it never happened on The Real World. But it’s happening right now, on your production, The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, as Yolanda Foster’s struggle with Lyme disease is being exploited to create drama. To what end?
All these years later, we still remember Pedro–and at this point really should give producers Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jonathan Murray credit for editing a storyline that broke down stigma and promoted understanding of HIV and AIDS rather than fueling fears and propagating misinformation–and likewise, we will remember Yolanda Foster in 20 years. And we will remember either the compassion or the vitriol with which she and all people who live with Lyme were treated not only by the women in front of the camera, but also by the network that broadcasts the show. It’ll get you tons of money, but not a respectable legacy. If that matters.
I can’t make sense of why you, your co-producers, and your network have chosen to frame Foster as mentally ill rather than physically ill, and to showcase her cast members cackling in private about their assumptions that Foster is feigning a devastating illness for attention. Even when Foster admitted on camera to contemplating suicide, she was lambasted. Your show has become merciless.
OK, I can make sense of it–I get it, you need a story and controversy fuels ratings. But again, at what cost? Please contemplate your amfAR award and think about those who were on the wrong side of the HIV/AIDS conversation in the 80s.
Lyme disease exists, too. What are the consequences of your depiction of it?
Do you recall the community of ignorant people on the Oprah Winfrey Show who wouldn’t let a man with HIV into their swimming pool? Winfrey, to her credit, told these people they were wrong: she took a stand on the basis of compassion and understanding; she didn’t say, “my job is just to let these people speak their minds.” You should really watch Winfrey’s description of her approach. She’s a master creator of compelling and socially responsible entertainment.
By virtue of your role as creator and executive producer of RHOBH, you’re not only on the wrong side of the Lyme conversation, you’re leading it. Many of us do not mistake your off-camera influence on the story for not having a voice. Viewers are savvy enough these days to know that reality television producers carefully craft storylines from hundreds or thousands of hours of footage. The story we are witnessing, even Lisa Vanderpump’s, Kyle Richards’s and Lisa Rinna’s inferences that Foster is mentally ill or not ill at all, is the story you have chosen to convey to audiences. And it’s utterly irresponsible. For people like me with Lyme disease, watching this is like someone at home with AIDS watching Pedro’s cast members mock his health. But that wasn’t shown–it didn’t happen. Why? I would guess because the producers tethered their product to their consciences and saw an opportunity to make Pedro’s life-and-death struggle a lesson for us all.
Andy, you know that media depictions have direct consequences: You recently won an award from the AIDS charity founded by Elizabeth Taylor, who was committed to actually helping those with AIDS who were being treated as cruelly as the people on your show (and its invisible production crew) are treating Yolanda Foster. Her commitment was genuine and loving, and her choices were pivotal in saving countless lives.
You may not be aware–most people aren’t–but chronic Lyme disease today has a great many parallels to HIV/AIDS when the virus became known in the early 1980s. It’s not fatal as often, although it does kill as it recently contributed to the death of a 37-year-old man, but it steals lives and livelihoods even without killing by physically and mentally disabling people.
The storyline that you and the co-producers of RHOBH have chosen to tell is killing a part of me. It’s devastating to witness people mock someone who is so ill while I am at home experiencing the same physical devastation that your cast of adult “mean girls” are doubting and mocking. Remember that the film Mean Girls was a satire on these sorts of adolescent behaviors; your show more and more is a celebration of it.
In the end, you know better than I do that the show exists as it is because of your choices of editing and story, not because of Lisa Rinna’s ignorance of Lyme or Lisa Vanderpump’s casual nastiness.
Emails and tweets bearing this request have gone unanswered, and so I must resort to an open letter: Please, I urge you, Bravo, and the NBC family of networks to acknowledge the severity of Lyme disease and use your influence for good. Broadcast the documentary Under Our Skin so that viewers will understand how complex and devastating the disease is, and how Foster is one of thousands or even millions affected. Interview knowledgeable researchers. And, for God’s sake, show some compassion. You’ve got ample power and influence. It’s time to see your conscience and your heart.