The past few years have been a tough time for The Real Housewives of Orange County. We’ve lost longtimers like Tamra Judge and Vicki Gunvalson, who had one of the more toxic friendships on television. Gunvalson got pushed out after what she thought was an insulting demotion from cast member to “friend” of the wives in Season 14. Though she likes to remind anyone and everyone that she started the franchise way back in 2006, Gunvalson had finally alienated and exhausted what was left of her fanbase. Having once fallen for a credibly accused con artist whom she defended for years before eventually suing him herself, Gunvalson has since been called out for her hypocrisy and narcissism. (Once, in Season 10, she threw her arms open and claimed to have been crucified: “nailed to the cross, like Jesus!”)
Before her departure, Gunvalson got into many a nasty fight with fellow cast member Kelly Dodd (now Kelly Leventhal after marrying former Fox News correspondent Rick Leventhal), whose odious racism during the Black Lives Matter protests and homophobia toward newcomer Braunwyn Windham-Burke, among other controversies, led to her ouster after five seasons. Post-Trump, it’s gotten harder than ever to treat reality TV as an escape from our political reality rather than exemplars of it, and RHOC, like other Housewives series, was skewing more ugly and bitter than silly and entertaining once 2020’s racial reckoning came for unscripted television.
No other series has fared so poorly post-reckoning than The Real Housewives of New York, the second-oldest centerpiece of the franchise, which became pretty much unwatchable when the rude reality of racial justice invaded the Hamptons and the Upper East Side. The latest season was, embarrassingly, the first time RHONY featured a Black cast member, Eboni K. Williams, who got stuck having to deal with Trumper Ramona Singer’s petulance and bigotry. Though Williams is charming and deserving of better, it was a painful season, drawing dismal ratings — the worst in the show’s history. They didn’t even bother shooting a reunion, another Housewives first. (In the face of this grim reality, Bravo just announced a big, desperately needed shakeup: The next season of RHONY will be split into two shows, one with all-new faces and a reboot with ex–New York stars.)
Given this disappointing recent history from two of the longest-running Housewives series, it was obvious Orange County producers needed to inject some new life into the franchise this season.
Enter — rather, reenter — Heather Dubrow, an RHOC fan favorite from 2012 to 2016. Raised in the upper crusts of Chappaqua, New York, Dubrow went to Syracuse University, briefly starred in That’s Life, an early-2000s CBS show, and married plastic surgeon Terry Dubrow, a reality TV titan in his own right as the longtime cohost of Botched, with whom she has four children. The couple are now bigtime shopping network shills — they sell beauty products — and are widely considered the wealthiest family ever featured on Orange County.
In retrospect, leaving reality TV before the Trump era (to spend more time with family, she said at the time) was a smart move on Dubrow’s part. She went out on a relatively high note, most derisively known by the end of her first tenure as being a “fancy pants” with annoyingly high standards. In the Housewives world, there are far worse things to be than a snob. If anything, Dubrow’s calculated image-consciousness and rarely, if ever, disturbed projection of familial bliss and domestic perfection could get a little snoozy, as well as mildly irritating.
Even so, I very much welcomed the return of Fancy Pants to The Real Housewives of Orange County’s 16th season, which premiered back in December. Dubrow, alongside her frenemy Shannon Beador, is responsible for some of the most breathtakingly petty fights in Housewives history, including a spat over whose chair was whose at a restaurant after Heather took Shannon’s while she was in the bathroom — an incident still referenced years after the fact.
Dubrow and Beador are, in some ways, each other’s perfect foils: one brunette, one blonde; one always Southern California–skinny, one whose weight has yo-yoed through the years; one seemingly forever on the up, up, up (in previous seasons we’ve seen all the time and money Dubrow pours into building increasingly gigantic mansions) and one whose new boyfriend and QVC food line have failed to convince her “friends” that she’s finally, actually, really happy now. One of the main plotlines this season involves Dubrow and fellow Northeasterner Gina Kirschenheiter accusing Beador of jealousy; Beador, meanwhile, is a little too transparently desperate to be liked to convince them otherwise.
In this season’s first episode, Dubrow gives the ladies a tour of the garish 22,000-square-foot monstrosity of a family home she’d planned and built for years, the “Dubrow Chateau,” now finally complete. In her talking head interview, Dubrow happily admits to not knowing how many rooms there are in the house. Watching her brag about how the shipping container that brought her custom chandelier to the estate was the largest ever to enter the US, and the time she had dozens of custom cabinets trashed so they could be remade to her exacting specifications, I felt ready to embrace Dubrow as Villain, the Housewife you love to hate. The way she and her husband casually talk about building still more homes, in Cabo and Idaho, for some reason, while a pandemic has left a million dead and hundreds of thousands more suffering, can be difficult to watch. But it also sets Dubrow up for some delicious schadenfreude, at her expense, if her carefully crafted self-image ever comes crumbling down.
Yes, most Housewives across the franchise have a lot of money, but it’s smoke and mirrors much more often than you’d think. The Dubrows seem to have real cash, and they’re blowing it on tacky movie theaters and champagne walls. Some viewers on a r/BravoRealHousewives thread think Heather would be better suited to The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, where her wealth might not stick out quite as much. As it stands right now, her ego and pretension are newly grating on old fans. One redditor who used to love her now thinks “she just seems like an asshole.”
Beador, who used to live right around the corner in a massive estate in Newport Beach, isn’t thrilled with the couple’s new home, either. While Dubrow shows off her heated towel drawers and jaw-dropping views, the camera rudely zooms onto Beador’s crestfallen face. She says in voiceover that her old house, which she lost when she and her ex-husband divorced, was her “fourth child.” She now lives in a beautiful seven-bedroom bungalow with her daughters, still huge but (IMO) much more tasteful than the stuffy-old-lady mansion over which she used to reside. But you can tell, as much as she says she’s now in her “dream home,” that there’s a part of Beador who will always look back on what she’s lost in Newport Beach. And for now, proof of that loss is standing right in front of her in the image of Dubrow, who can afford to spend tens of thousands of dollars on a sushi party where nobody ends up eating the sushi.
As this relatively uneven season winds down, things are heating up, since Dubrow and Beador are still fighting over the true intentions of a FaceTime call Dubrow made to Beador a few episodes back. Beador was having a dinner party at home in Orange County and Dubrow was in New York shooting an episode of her podcast. Dubrow had decided to take Kirschenheiter, with whom she’d been getting friendly, to New York with her, which some cast members think has activated Beador’s jealousy. Beador’s FaceTime is perfectly benign — Beador says she’d just called to say hello, how are you — but Dubrow is upset after the fact that Beador hadn’t specifically asked her about how her podcast taping was going.
This is a perfect bit of Housewives conflict: absolutely zero stakes and spun out of control so as to be supposedly indicative of some greater issue of profound importance.
Real Housewives is at its best when it reveals the dark heart of American culture at the intersections of power, money, and the family.
In last week’s episode, new Housewife Noella Bergener tossed a bomb during drinks in Aspen by alleging that earlier in the season, during a party gone bad, Dubrow threw a camera operator against the wall. (Bergener didn’t see the shove herself, she said, just heard it?) Beador failing to condemn this accusation makes Dubrow even more pissed at her, resulting in a classic Housewives scene: everybody stewing in the rental van on the way home after they’ve all screamed at each other at the function.
Real Housewives is at its best when it reveals the dark heart of American culture at the intersections of power, money, and the family. Dubrow accusing Beador of being jealous isn’t really about her being jealous — obviously the Dubrows want people to be jealous of them, to aspire to their marriage, their money, their lives. The issue is that Beador isn’t pledging her fealty.
Let’s look at the tapes. In one of their biggest and most iconic blowouts, in Season 13, Beador is still hurting that news of her then-husband wanting to move out of their house made it from a private conversation to public knowledge via Tamra Judge, then Heather Dubrow. Already upset about the gossip, Beador hears a rumor that Terry Dubrow said he wanted to “take the Beadors down,” leading to a fabulous clash between the two husbands at a beach house party, rich dudes cosplaying as rougher, more macho versions of themselves: "You couldn't take us down!" David Beador says to Terry Dubrow, who retorts, "You're right, David, I can't. Because you're so tough.” Shannon Beador then leaves the house screaming, iconically, about Heather: “Soon you’ll see the truth. You’ll ALL see the truth!”
Dubrow managed to emerge more or less unscathed from having spread the gossip about Beador’s marital woes, and only because Beador blew up spectacularly as a result. Dubrow, in the way of other savvy Housewives across the franchise, manages to keep every hair in place — and poise, in this world of wealth and excess, is often worth far more than whatever “the truth” even is.
Dubrow and Beador’s latest fight seems destined to go the way of its predecessors: Dubrow’s original ridiculousness (her being mad at Beador’s failure to kiss her feet about a podcast taping…narcissistic and delusional!) might ultimately pale in comparison to Beador spiraling out, yet again.
But things have also changed since those early days of Dubrow-Beador showdowns. Dubrow is no longer as beloved now that she’s richer, haughtier, and no longer the sideshow to Vicki Gunvalson and Tamra Judge’s epic blowouts. Having returned the star — victorious over her now-fired nemesis, Kelly Dodd — Dubrow has found herself squarely in the spotlight, and time will tell whether she can take the heat.
Dubrow made an interesting slip during last week’s episode, semi-accepting yet another one of Beador’s apologies with: “You’ve won.” This is the woman who’s told us more than once that “It’s not a competition!” — and by “it” she means “living an affluent lifestyle as a wife and mom and influencer in Orange County.” We’re supposed to believe she throws painstakingly elaborate parties and builds ever more grandiose houses simply for the fun of it, rather than those class markers having anything to do with seeming richer and better and happier than other people. But of course, this show, like life, is a competition: We live under capitalism, baby! And just because she doesn’t want to look like she’s playing the game doesn’t mean Heather Dubrow isn’t playing one. ●
Correction: Eboni K. Williams' name was misspelled in a previous version of this post.