On Tuesday, Sept. 24, I attended a taping of Bravo’s “Watch What Happens Live With Andy Cohen” I saw Kelly Dodd. I drank champagne. I procrastinated writing about it for a month. This is my story.
It’s Oct. 29 and I’m in room 406 of an aging Hampton Inn. Things are mostly beige. The air conditioner is roaring and clattering, the television is not. I have the “Real Housewives of Orange County” on mute, although you can tell the women are doing some roaring and clattering of their own. Like the hotel, they, too, have been remodeled, and with modest success. It occurs to me the first time I saw these scenes was with Kelly Dodd herself.
Not with Kelly so much as near Kelly. It’s been a lot to process.
Everything you’ve read about “Watch What Happens Live” is true. Arriving on set, I heard rumblings of house music before the elevator doors opened. When they did, parting like a metal curtain, there was a smattering of sharply dressed people clustered around a bar. It’s a small space that opens up into a bigger one if you’re lucky enough to go behind the bar, where I saw a throng of imbibing revelers and the famous WWHL step-and-repeat en route to my host Meghan McCain’s dressing room.
I saw Kelly in the middle of it all, presiding over the party like it was her birthday. Friday energy on a Tuesday, ethereal in a white blouse, mingling with friends and fans alike. Suddenly, I was nervous.
As a teenager, I once made the questionable decision to wait with a crowd of sweaty superfans outside the “American Idols Live!” tour bus in Milwaukee, not for autographs or pictures (although I got both). I mostly just wanted to see the contestants in person. Even the sight of a D-list loser left my mind spinning like a frozen computer. There’s reality and then there’s television—even on reality television.
I don’t mean that in the way a lot of people might. Most reality television—most good reality television—is fairly reflective of reality. This is why I consume Bravo like it has healing properties (I’m not a doctor, but it does). Yet, when you grow up outside the big cities, Manhattan itself feels about as real as Narnia, let alone its famous denizens, the glamorous people whose existences seem confined to fuzzy squares of pixels. (Donald Trump, for instance.)
Kelly, I learned, is very real indeed. She brought friends that night. A crew of middle-age bottle-blondes caught eagerly in her orbit, basking in the warmth of her fame like it was the Arizona sun on a champagne-splattered pool deck. Status is kind of like a tan for your personality. They seemed drunk and happy.
Thankfully, that energy did not remain backstage. Crowded onto the show’s small set, the audience bustled with excitement, and probably vodka sodas. Kelly’s comments on air sent Vicki reeling on the other side of the country, instantly stirring drama fit for any episode of the show. (I saw it happen live.) Andy chatted amiably with fans, hugged Kelly, and tallied up bean bags between commercial breaks. He took very seriously the task of counting those bean bags, which had been tossed into bowls between the legs of impossibly muscled men, a game connected to that night’s episode of the housewives. (Kelly bonked one of her costars on the head with a mallet while the woman was meditating under a bowl.)
Despite working in media and thinking constantly about Bravo, I’d never seen a real housewife in the wild. I once saw Andy from a distance at a book talk with Wolf Blitzer, but that didn’t do much for me.
My most poignant memory in a museum is the first time I saw Abraham Lincoln’s rusted silk top hat in Washington, D.C. It seemed impossible that an object inches from my face belonged to Lincoln himself.
That’s exactly how I felt when I saw The Bunny at “Watch What Happens Live.” In a different world, a kinder world, the bunny would belong to Kim Richards. Or to her grandson, at least. Instead, the innocent stuffed animal sits on a shelf at WWHL, forever encased in a crinkly plastic prison, an enduring symbol of female cruelty, destined to stare blankly back at viewers for all eternity.
To me, the whole set felt like a museum. I wanted to linger in the clubhouse after the show wrapped, inspecting Andy’s treasures, his books, his bobbleheads, his disco ball, wandering through the backdrop of so many important moments, existing in the same space as Meryl Streep and Sonja Morgan, stepping into history as it happened.
I kept making eye contact with the bunny. (Or was it making eye contact with me?) The subject of a million gifs, a legendary artifact of Bravo lore, just feet away from me—every bit as real as Lincoln’s top hat.
Back to late October in Room 406, where the housewives are still squabbling on mute and my mind is still spinning, although the spinning is now accompanied by pangs of guilt. I’m more than a month late on my story. I have no idea what to write.
I watched what happened live, but everyone saw it at home. Once or twice, I thought I caught Kelly jabbing at Shannon and Vicki when the mics were off, and yet I have every confidence it wasn’t just because the mics were off. I saw Andy grimace and chide when Kelly cussed and jabbed, but if the cameras didn’t catch it, you probably filled in the blanks anyway.
The backstage dynamics have been meticulously well-reported to the point where I knew exactly what to expect, right down to the bar and the tiny set. The dressing rooms are literally designed for Instagram, engineered to pop up in every Bravo fans’ feed night after night.
If you didn’t assume the staff was friendly and enthusiastic, I’m pleased to report that is very much the case. They serve Veuve Clicquot. The walk from the dressing rooms to the stage takes no more than ten seconds. These are the juicy details I can report from the trenches of reality television.
The on-air is the off-air, the off-air is the on-air. It’s robbed me of an exposé but validated my taste. It’s why the “Real Housewives of D.C.,” set awkwardly in my home for the better part of this decade, failed so miserably. In Washington, the off-air is never the on-air. Except, perhaps, at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
I think about the bunny, then I think about Ryan Seacrest and I think about Lincoln, and I fall asleep, feeling like that computer struggling to process a scratched-up floppy disk.
I watched what happened live and it was glorious. It was real, but it was also, finally, reality.