Jackie, Gia and Teresa from RHONJ

Tongues were wagging – well, who am I kidding? We are in a pandemic… Fingers were tapping following the Real Housewives of Atlanta (RHOA) episode in which Bolo, a stripper, whipped out his 26 inch member (numeric hyperbole? Perhaps…but we didn’t get specs as much as we got shock and awe) to show the ladies his…talent. Of course, the anatomical structure itself was shadow-blocked by the show’s editing team. Bolo also allegedly proceeded to have a sexual romp with two women in the cast later that night. The thing is: had Housewife Kandi Burruss gotten her way, we viewers would never have known what allegedly went down after (cameras went) dark. 

After Bolo’s initial PG-13 performance for Cynthia Bailey’s surpise bachelorette party, during the requisite annual RHOA cast trip, the always sex-positive Kandi (also of “Kandi Coated Nights”) wanted her cast mates to just have fun. So, she asked production to leave. We see the crew respect her wishes for “no cameras” as they depart. At least we think we do. Then, because the vacation house is mic’d up and accessorized with built-in wall cams, we see the ladies drape sheets over what they’re able to spot. But just as memorable as BOLO’s YOLO flashes of girth, were the sounds we heard cast mates utter while enjoying after hours entertainment he provided. Despite the draped over cameras, the audience could see silhouettes and hear audio footage of what crossed over from a performance to…interactions

The trouble-stirring, and painfully-aware-of-reality-TV-making Kenya Moore had retired to her room where her baby lay sleeping. However, the next morning she was quickly clued in to the fact that Bolo had never left during the night time hours as planned. So, Kenya actively launched a trial by jury of one, seemingly breaking the “girl code” instituted by Kandi the prior evening. Kenya began interrogating her cast mates to get to the bottom of the mystery: Who exactly were the two women she heard “having sex” with Bolo? It isn’t a stretch to imagine production egging her on as viewers were shown a floor map of the house. That map indicated who stayed where and in which room the noises originated, according to Kenya’s crusade.

Now, imagine I have just told you all of the above, and you are an attorney on your way to a serious meeting.    

“I actually really appreciate this levity before my meeting,” says Ben Manevitz, Esq, who practices in the New York Metropolitan area. “What was the name of that stripper again?”

“Bolo,” I reply. He laughs and then I explain that I too can be serious, that I actually have a question he could perhaps answer from a legal standpoint.

“Does reality TV allow for privacy in clauses of contracts?” I ask. I had tried reaching out to an entertainment lawyer before Manevitz who had specifically worked on Bravo talents’ contracts, but because of that, she was bound by confidentiality. Manevitz has represented entertainment clients that include reality TV, but did not work on the contracts of the individual women mentioned above.

“There isn’t any legal recourse here,” he explains, confirming my belief that when you sign release forms and contracts, you have signed your soul to the devil.

Immediately, my mind flashes to George Burns in the Oh God series of movies, with his signature cigar in mouth while sternly admonishing some poor schmo: “You chose this path, but you didn’t have to.” Basically, agreeing to be part of a cast and signing a contract means you have sacrificed your life to magnified scrutiny and  exposure: the good, the bad, the chaotically impulsive and the salacious. The Bolos. The cheating accusations. The “Did you do coke in the bathroom?” and “I heard your daughter does coke.” (These are all real scenarios that Bravo reality TV watchers are familiar with).

As Manevitz points out,  on these shows, we frequently see people in the background of scenes with their faces blurred. They are the poor souls who had the misfortune of dining in a restaurant where loud Housewives showed up, arguing about whether a kid’s pizza party with a toy chest is suitable when adults are present. Frankly, why anyone would agree to go on reality television – even as an extra, noticeable and bound to be ridiculed on Twitter – is beyond my ken.

People I know who thought “this will be fun! I’m likable” were always in for a rude awakening once their seasons began airing. One close friend of mine thought her primary business would be highlighted when she was a main cast member on a show, but her costars chose to focus with disdain on her side hustle, exuding an elitism that divided viewers.

“When Kandi asked the crew to leave so her cast mates could have privacy,” Manevitz explains, “She was fully aware that there were wall cameras with microphones that could pick up sounds. The fact that the women were draping those wall cameras with sheets indicates that they knew it was part of the deal. They are in the middle of filming. This is a cast trip. Also, Kenya is not in violation of anything legally. In legal terms, she is what we call an ‘unreliable ear.’ Because she agreed to be recorded for a reality show, you have to assume the risk that she will not keep what she overheard private.”

As podcast host Kate Casey (of Reality Life with Kate Casey) says: “Kenya Moore broke girl code. It’s a given she didn’t do anything illegal. It is still a violation of a verbal, non-legally binding agreement, an understanding between the women that what happened after the crew left would stay between the women and not be discussed afterwards.”

On the Real Housewives of New Jersey (RHONJ), Margaret Josephs discusses the two things that are off limits to the group: “analogies,” because some in the group are unable to grasp that they are not literal, and “children.”

In retaliation to Teresa Giudice spreading gossip at Evan Goldschneider’s birthday party, saying he “does stuff at the gym,” which quickly took shape into a full-fledged affair rumor, Jackie Goldschneider made the fatal flaw when confronting Teresa of making an analogy. Jackie wanted Teresa to shut down the rumor and also said Teresa must have made it up.

“I heard it. I don’t know who I heard it from,” Teresa claimed. Flummoxed and frustrated by the woman in front of her allergic to apologies to a Trumpian extent, Jackie replied: “I heard Gia does coke. I don’t know where I heard it, but I heard it.” As Jackie tried beginning to explain the analogy and the gut punch of Teresa’s actions, Teresa got up and cursed her out, calling Jackie the C word multiple times.

I explain to Manevitz that Gia, Teresa’s daughter, is now 20, has signed release forms for RHONJ, and viewers were able to hear her opinion when Teresa’s recorded phone conversation with her daughter aired after the epic showdown. Because Gia was granted confessionals that we saw last season, and will likely see ahead in the currently airing season, Manevitz confirms the obvious of Gia being a consenting adult. She has grown up on the show and is still a part of it now. 

A friend reminds me “Both of Gia’s parents went to prison while they were still part of this franchise. That was a storyline and they went through a public divorce that was also a storyline. Teresa could have quit a long time ago, but she made the choice to continue having her life exposed. Her four daughters continue to be privy to all of it.”

I ask an inside source of the Bravo world, someone with tremendous legal acumen who asked to remain “off the record,” if there is anything in the contracts of the New Jersey Housewives stating offspring are off limits — at least in terms of an analogy that could potentially be misconstrued by….well…many viewers who post on social media. Perusing Instagram and then my least favorite place in the world, Twitter, RHONJ fans seem angrier at Jackie for retaliating in the manner that she did than at Teresa for stirring the pot.

The inside source replied to me “No contracts. No verbal agreements, but it’s understood that attacking children is not something the ladies engage in. Call it an unwritten rule.” Again, we get back to the issue of Gia, now 20, getting paid for Cameos to fans and confessionals on the show, not truly qualifying as a “child.” However, what I think my anonymous insider means is “Real Housewives’ offspring.” 

“The contracts I have seen,” the insider continues, “Do not allow for privacy. Those contracts specifically state they can capture audio/video. So to me, had that happened (the RHOA debacle with Kenya) on one of the shows I was involved with, I would have said that was ‘in bounds,’ as opposed to ‘out of bounds.’”

Ever since the current season of Real Housewives of New Jersey premiered, with the shocking affair accusation, I have said to myself time and again “why do these women do this to themselves? Why do they go on reality TV?” 

Some need the money, but others, like Jackie Goldschneider, are financially comfortable. In an interview with Kate Casey, she said the money is definitely a plus, but focused on being a chubby child and not the most popular kid. I can understand from a psychological angle that a public platform can give those with childhood-induced insecurities a sense of validation. However, to me, I expect the worst with reality television. Having covered the subject extensively for Huffington Post and other outlets in the past, people often ask me: “Would you ever go on reality TV?” My emphatic, immediate answer is always: “No way in hell!” 

Then they tend to prod: “What if the money was really good?” I don’t even have to think twice about how the old cliche “money can’t buy you happiness” applies doubly when you account for cast mates who want to make great TV to secure pots, spread salacious untrue rumors and divulge real things that you’d rather safeguard. I have talked to too many miserable reality stars in the past to even consider it an option.

A few years ago, when I spoke with the hosts of Watch What Crappens, a comedy podcast devoted to recapping Bravo TV shows, complete with hilarious impersonations and observations, I asked them if they would ever go on reality TV.

“No!” Ben Mandelker and Ronnie Karam replied in unison.

I couldn’t deal with thousands of people making fun of my posture, my body…I can’t deal with one person making fun of my posture!” said Mandelker, “I wouldn’t be able to open myself up to America. It would be cool to have a glimmer of that feeling of fame, but I couldn’t live with all that criticism.”

I don’t live a reality show type of life,” said Karam, “I’m wearing a t-shirt…writing or recording. I don’t really have anything (for viewers) to follow.”

“Just having seen what these shows do to friendships…like with Shahs of Sunset where they know that for storylines they have to incite drama and get into fights, I couldn’t do that. We say mean things (on the podcast), but at least we’re trying to be funny when we say them and it’s part of the entertainment.”

“There are these fans that take the shows very seriously and then write to Bravo stars on Twitter. ‘You’re a whore! How can you have a child?!’”

Karam’s last comment really hammers the point home for me. There is no such thing as maintaining a private life once you have chosen to expose your personal one (however much of it you reveal, more will inevitably be elicited by production or fellow cast members), especially during the months that you are filming a reality show, and then months later as fans watch the footage and weigh in online.

As much as Teresa wants her daughter not to be mentioned negatively in an analogy, as much as Jackie desires to protect her marriage, or Kandi Burruss wants Bolo on the down low after dark, it’s just not an option…Not when you’ve signed forms to air your dirty laundry, even the portion you thought you hid so well behind your hamper.