Bravo’s ‘Housewives’ Makes a Mockery of Lyme
With friends like you, Lisa, reality TV doesn’t need villains.
Lisa Vanderpump, our love affair is officially over. If the atrocious cast of soulless narcissists supposedly under your employ in the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills hit (?) spinoff Vanderpump Rules didn’t destroy your good name completely, your comments about Yolanda Foster have done the deed. Auf wiedersehen, Vanderpump.
Let’s back up and examine how our relationship deteriorated so.
When Bravo launched yet another ‘Real Housewives’ series, this time set in Beverly Hills, in 2010, I thought, “do we really need another one of these?” But I liked the New York series and I hadn’t yet reached Bravo saturation point.
In Housewives self-question-and-answer parlance, was I excited about watching then-top-billed Paris Hilton’s wacky aunties on a reality show? Not really. Was I curious? Sure I was. Did Lisa Vanderpump and her pink everything and her plush puppy Giggly steal every scene? Absolutely! (Well, every scene in which Kim Richards wasn’t professing her love of turtles.)
Vanderpump’s short-lived career as a fluffy 1980s TV vixen may not have made her a household name, but her quick British wit and yes-pretentious-but-still-human overthetoppedness immediately made her the breakout star of the franchise. She became something of an icon for the gay men who watched the show, what with her pocketbook of a pet, cotton candy wardrobe, snark-gun always set to stun, and especially her misguided maternal care of her peculiarly billed “permanent houseguest,” a handsome young gay man who whined poolside in few clothes all season and–shocker!–turned out to be conning her the whole time. Vanderpump was built to be at once aspirational, glamorous, matriarchal, intelligent and a little bit tragic. A winning character formulation by any standard.
Yet over the past couple of seasons, through either the truth or the fictions of the series’ editors, Vanderpump has shown a consistently manipulative side and, now, a nearly sociopathic one in her apparent total lack of real empathy, or at the very least sympathy, for costar Yolanda Foster.
I wouldn’t care as much if Foster hadn’t served such an important role in my life. Years ago, as I suffered in bed in inexplicably agonizing episodes of migrating pains, I could do little but watch TV. Shallow Bravo shows were a good distraction from the questions that ran through my mind. Questions like, “Do I have multiple sclerosis?” Or, “Am I dying?” Or, “Wouldn’t it be easier if I were?” Foster was even more pretentious than Vanderpump, inviting the other women to listen to her super-rich husband play music for them and having temper tantrums when they dared to speak. She had her own Malibu hillside lemon grove and made cleanse juices for the women, who didn’t really seem to want them. She was forceful with this stuff, which made her a little unlikable. But she seemed genuinely sweet at the same time, and aside from the pretenses like a kind human being who took a genuine interest in her on-camera friends’ lives.
But slowly Foster’s health began to decline–so slowly it would have been imperceptible were it not for the camera confessionals in which she described her mysterious illness, which didn’t show on her face or body. Then she was diagnosed with Lyme disease and described her symptoms and the diagnostic hell. Then she quickly declined. And then, in part by watching her, I realized–holy sh!t, I had Lyme when I was 18 years old. I’ve detailed that story ad nauseum by now, but yes, seeing Foster’s health degrade on television was vital to my own diagnosis and treatment. Foster was more mobile than I was when she first began describing her illness on the show, but now it seems I am faring better under treatment than she is, despite her seemingly unlimited financial and human resources. I feel so, so bad for her.
Lisa Vanderpump, however, does not. Or if she does, her caustic wit is betraying that, etching out a cynical and sometimes cruel personality that keeps raising doubts about Foster’s illness. For anyone with Lyme disease, or any chronic illness for that matter, Vanderpump represents a worst-case scenario fair weather friend who likes you when you’re fun and kicks you when you’re down. It’s hard to watch in part because I used to like her, but mainly because it makes me wonder how many people who I know question the veracity of my illness behind my back the way Vanderpump speaks ill of Foster? Some of this is expected from the women of this show, feigning sympathy as they actually belittle their very ill friend for not making the effort to put on a full face of drag before dragging herself out of bed to make a requested appearance at a group dinner (no doubt a contractual obligation to the Bravo show).
Can you even imagine if people spoke this way about a friend who was undergoing chemotherapy? Not even in Bravoland would that happen. But it’s commonplace with Lyme disease, and I give Bravo credit for illustrating this reality, either intentionally or not. However, now that RHOBH has addressed Lyme disease, it has an obligation not to question Foster’s diagnosis. In fact, I’ve written to the network and the show’s producers pleading with them to take a huge leap of genre and consider producing a thoughtful documentary on Lyme disease, but haven’t heard back. Since that’s unlikely to happen, every Real Housewives of Beverly Hills viewer and cast member (I’m talking to you, Lisa–and you, Kyle, who aren’t faring much better in this viewer’s eyes.) needs to read this short article, and then go back and read it again.
Lyme is different than many other illnesses because it’s not well understood and it doesn’t have a strong community of support around it as do myriad cancers and HIV/AIDS. There’s no Susan G. Komen Foundation or Bono-led rock star charity (although Avril Lavigne may yet prove to be the disease’s figurehead savior). But make no mistake that Lyme is real and it’s devastating.
I am certain that unless a person has experienced what Foster is experiencing, he or she can’t really relate to the bizarre nature of Lyme disease. When you have it, you may feel almost fine for a full week and then in a matter of hours or even minutes crash, barely able to stand, and be totally bedridden for days or weeks. You may have a slow, gradual decline and then a sudden period of feeling OK. Your pain may change in a matter of minutes from one joint to another to agonizing nerve pain. And then you may have a panic attack for absolutely no reason. It’s a living nightmare; it’s literally an invasion of body snatchers.
To see some of Foster’s castmates, Vanderpump especially, express only polite sympathy with no real feeling and even suggest, as Vanderpump did at least twice in last night’s episode, that “something else” may be wrong with her, with Kyle Richards suggesting it may be simply depression, is so upsetting to a viewer with Lyme disease. As Oprah Winfrey would say, though, it’s a “teachable moment.” I hope that Bravo will take its responsibility seriously and not leave the doubts raised by Foster’s castmates hanging, but rather underscore that, yes, what we are watching is a real, diagnosable and sometimes not well-treatable chronic illness that is relatively new and with which we are not yet very familiar. Foster is brave by playing this out on camera because she’s subjecting herself to public scrutiny and judgement. I admire her greatly.
Lisa Vanderpump, not so much. While Bravo producers have mastered the craft of sculpting characters to be hatable one season and sympathetic the next, it’s hard to forgive someone who has the gall to be so nasty about someone who is so ill. All the face paint, injectables, and all the pink in the world can’t mask a cruel interior. I’m passionate about dogs, too, and I don’t excuse cruelty toward human beings anymore than I would toward any other animal. It’s time for a mea culpa, Lisa. Your dark heart is cracking the carefully painted veneer.