The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills is having something of an identity crisis. When it comes to casting, all of the Housewives series must strike a tricky balance between likability and monstrousness: We want mess, but not so much that there’s nobody left to root for. And as the original Beverly Hills stars have earned greater fame, they’ve been getting harder and harder to like.
The franchise runs on bitchiness, of course — ridiculous, overblown fights are why we tune in — but the bad vibes reached a particularly insidious level in Season 10, which aired last year. Longtime Housewives Lisa Rinna and Kyle Richards circled their wagons and all but waged war on newcomer Denise Richards for failing to “tell the truth” about an alleged lesbian affair with former cast member Brandi Glanville. Denise, who seemed a little naive about the extent to which a reality show would put her personal life on display, had nonetheless been a welcome addition to the Beverly Hills world, scandalizing the other ladies with her casual denim and, alongside her husband, stirring bizarre cancer conspiracy theory drama.
But after the affair allegations, she was seemingly mean-girled off the show and announced she wouldn’t be returning for Season 11. I didn’t have high hopes for the future of RHOBH after such a gratuitous witch hunt, which to me reeked of gay panic.
Luckily, Bravo has come through for us once again. Season 11 kicked off in May, and not only have we been watching Erika Jayne become embroiled in her husband Tom Girardi’s shocking embezzlement scandal, but we’ve been gifted the remarkable and singular onscreen presence that is Kathy Hilton.
Hilton, who joined the cast as a “friend” of the Housewives, is Kyle and former Housewife Kim Richards’ older half-sister, as well as mom to paparazzi favorites Paris and Nicky: a true socialite of the caliber Housewives has never seen (though she dislikes the term “socialite” because she thinks it’s old-fashioned, and would rather be known for her philanthropy — which, no offense, Kathy, is exactly what a socialite would say). Hilton “literally helped birth reality television,” Matt Donnelly recently wrote for Variety: Paris’s unscripted series The Simple Life, which ran in the mid-aughts, “came to define an era of tabloid celebrity culture and über-wealthy voyeurism.” Housewives fans who’ve seen tantalizing glimpses of Kathy throughout years of cameos have long wondered when, and if, we might get to see more; now is finally our time. And though it remains uncertain whether Kathy will become a permanent cast member, what we’ve seen from her so far this season has already cemented her as a veritable Housewives legend.
This season of RHOBH has spent a lot of time litigating a multilayered fight between new Housewife Crystal Kung Minkoff and sophomore Sutton Stracke, a Dolce & Gabbana–loving Southern belle who’s been newly promoted from “friend” to cast member. Crystal and Sutton are embroiled in another classic Housewives fight, this one about Sutton walking in on Crystal naked during a girls trip, which dovetailed into a fight about racism. (Garcelle Beauvais is no longer the only woman of color forced to deal with the other wives’ microaggressions on Beverly Hills, but the Housewives franchise’s newfound rocky racial reckoning has overall made for some mighty uncomfortable television.)
What could have been a meaty three-episode arc has now been dragged along for most of the season, culminating in last week’s screaming fight; Crystal implies that Sutton must be jealous of her, to which Sutton screams: “Jealous of what? Your stupid leather pants?” Thank the gay gods for Kathy, who shortly before that final blowout cuts the tension in the way only she can. “It’s hard for me to sit there and pretend that everything is great and hunky-dory, when it’s not,” Sutton tells the other women, dabbing her eyes. Kathy, who has said nothing throughout the whole debacle, chimes in out of nowhere with, “Who is Hunky Dory?”
It’s kind of hard to believe that Kathy truly doesn’t know what the phrase “hunky-dory” means — one of my friends suggested she was pulling a Paris-like gaffe, winkingly leaning into the ditzy Hilton archetype — but feigned or not, I was still screaming with joy at my television.
As the franchise reckons with more serious topics — in ways that sometimes work wonderfully, and other times fall disastrously flat (RHONY trying to get Trump voter Ramona Singer to talk about race is the fucking pits) — Kathy’s interludes are the hits of jubilation I so desperately crave night now. She refuses to go on stupid little excursions because she’d rather sleep than get screentime, but she will climb into Kyle’s bed and keep her up all night while she ruffles through multiple physical newspapers and accidentally drinks Red Bull. Her failure to finish sentences is utterly beguiling. And she’s a prankster; at one point she orders martini glasses full of water to convince the other women she’s getting sloshed. Classic Kathy!
The consensus on Kathy I’ve seen shared across various Housewives fan communities, including the podcast Bitch Sesh, is that she doesn’t seem to need this show the way that pretty much every other Housewife across the franchise does, whether for increasing awareness of their brand, launching silly business ventures, or for general attention and infamy. She’s been married to real estate magnate Rick Hilton since she was 20, meaning that Kyle and her husband, Mauricio, whose wealth has ballooned in the past decade thanks to Mauricio’s own successes in real estate, are no longer anywhere close to the wealthiest people on Beverly Hills. And if, like Kathy, you’re really, really rich (rather than, in grand Housewives tradition, pretending you’re a lot richer than you actually are), then you probably don’t need to be debasing yourself on reality television.
It’s precisely because Kathy doesn’t seem to be interested in jockeying for screentime or one-upping the other women that she’s such a delight to watch. That, and her many little particularities: She’s an old-world broad with a mid-Atlantic drawl and terrible taste (her home decor seems to involve blue and white pottery motifs, and little else), with hints of your goofy grandma slipping you booze under the table. I can’t stop mimicking the drawn-out way she drones “Kyyyyle” to her sister, nor can I stop thinking about Kyle’s excellent Kathy impressions.
The thing is, Kathy is just sort of kooky — and I say that in the most complimentary way possible. How can you possibly mistake the striking Garcelle Beauvais, a Black woman, for your very white sister? (Another thing I can’t stop saying: “I thought you were Kyyyyle!”) Basic rules of perception and logic do not seem to apply to her. I realized Kathy was next level when, early in the season, the ladies play two truths and a lie, and Kathy lists three truths — all things about herself that she’d shared with the other women mere moments earlier. And even when the women again explained the rules of the game, Kathy just smiled, refusing to play along. This is someone existing purely on her own timeline. She is simply vibing.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone quite like Kathy on television, and characters like her are essential additions to the Housewives universe — they save the franchise from its own growing self-seriousness. While the rest of the Housewives keep trying to outdo one another with mega-expensive outfits (Dorit wrapping herself head to toe in brands makes my head hurt), Kathy is content to simply just sit there in her graphic tees from Kohl’s, richer and more fabulous and fun than the rest of them, seemingly without even trying. RHOBH for me is now, like, 70% Kathywatch. And I am so grateful. ●