In 2004, a species known as “Real Housewives” arrived on TV. Female and fungible, the tribe is predominantly blond and tan, with long hair, taut skin, trout-pout lips, Barbie-like physical contours and rich husbands or exes. Prone to travel in packs, they delight in ostentatious display, dramatic outbursts, internecine sniping and drinking white wine. The show’s name is arch—their housework usually involves ordering staff around. First spotted in Orange County, the species has surfaced in New York City, Atlanta, New Jersey, Beverly Hills, Washington and Miami. They draw big audiences who enjoy watching rich women behaving badly. Advertisers flock to their glossy production values, celebration of acquisition and “We deserve it!” mantra.
Now “Real Housewives” have been identified north of the border, with next month’s arrival of The Real Housewives of Vancouver. And they’re five tall poppies: Jody Claman, a flamboyant, Hummer-driving “mom-preneur” in business with her 24-year-old daughter; Reiko MacKenzie, a married mother of two girls with a mania for luxury cars; Mary Zilba, a former pageant queen and Canadian “pop star” now well-divorced and raising teenagers; Ronnie Seterdahl Negus, a self-described “domestic goddess” and “jet-setter” who lives in a waterfront gated community with her husband and five children; and Christina Kiesel, who’s 29, single, childless and living large on two divorce settlements: “Vancouver is a gold mine and I love to go digging!” she proclaims shamelessly.
Finding Canada’s “Real Housewives” fell to Louise Clark and Erin Haskett of Vancouver-based Lark Productions; they were commissioned in February 2011 by Shaw Media, which owns Slice channel. The two, now the show’s executive producers, searched Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal, zeroing in on spas, personal trainers and Hello Canada society pages for referrals, then made cold calls. They were deluged with unsolicited applications, Clark says. They targeted Vancouver and Toronto, which had the best social calendars, outdoor activities and “pools of talent,” says Haskett, who notes Calgary had the wealth but not the lifestyle: “They don’t wear their money in the same way.” The key was finding a circle of connected women. “You don’t want them too tight, but with room enough for growth in the dynamic.” Finalists were asked to reveal all in long, taped interviews—lifestyle, spending habits, plastic surgery, sex life. “It was important that they were willing to put everything out there,” says Haskett. If the two-hour premiere is indicative, the branch plant “Real Housewives” are as hypnotically watchable as their American compatriots. The ladies gather for a back-stabbing “girl’s weekend” at a luxe Whistler resort, Reiko buys a Ferrari 458 and Christina enjoys a Botox session with her gay BFF Kevin Chase before her drama-laden 30th birthday party. Vancouver, dubbed “Canada’s playground,” serves as a glam Lotusland backdrop. There are no earnest tree-huggers here; the women don’t even carpool to Whistler. And, true to the “Real Housewives” tribal rules, racial diversity is evident only in the help, with one twist: Reiko’s Japanese mother lives with the family.
The first episode lays out the dynamic: Jody’s the queen bee/bully; Mary’s the sweet doormat; Ronnie’s the smart “mean girl”; Reiko’s calm yet steely; Christina’s outrageous but sensitive. Christina explains the show’s anthropological appeal: “Women like to gang up on the wounded gazelle,” she says in her indeterminate British accent. “I guess I’m the wounded gazelle.” She’s also a good sport. When Ronnie gives her a “Golddigger: Like a Hooker, Only Smarter” T-shirt for her birthday, she strips to her panties and prances around in it.
Whether or not Canadians will want to watch the one per cent strut in a bad economy is a no-brainer, says Christine Shipton, vice-president of original content at Shaw. “People like fantasy,” she says, calling the show “aspirational.” Canadian versions of American franchises always do well. “Canadians love to see themselves reflected,” she says. Now we have a brand-new mirror. Just what or whom it reflects is up for grabs.