“Meet the Wives”
The Real Housewives of Orange County
PREMIERE DATE: MARCH 21, 2006
We were ready to kill the show before it ever made air.
Jeana Keough (Housewife): Vicki tries to pretend she was the first Housewife, but the bottom line is, it was me.
Vicki Gunvalson (Housewife): We started it together, but Jeana didn’t last fourteen years. It was my show. When you start a job and you’re the first employee and you work there for fourteen years, you have a sense of ownership. And I do believe if the show wasn’t successful the first couple of years, there would be no other franchises. There would be no fifteen seasons. I set the map.
Scott Dunlop (Original Producer, Real Housewives of Orange County, Season 1): Of course Jeana would say I created the show for her, just like Vicki would say “It’s my show.” But Jeana actually was the first person I met when I moved to Coto de Caza, California, in 1986. I was unpacking the trunk of my car, and this woman in a white jumpsuit came up to me and asked, “What the fuck are you doing?”
Before Coto, I was living in Los Angeles. And Coto is a beautiful place—five thousand homes, fifteen thousand people, it’s the largest gated community in America. But I was used to diversity, and it’s very WASPy. All-white conservatives in this uber-wealthy area.
Kathleen French (Senior Vice President of Current Production, Bravo): It is the weirdest place. You go through this first gate—you have to give your name—and you’re in this completely different land. Immediately, the world changes around you. It’s a huge community, and there are gated communities within the gated community. More fabulous homes behind other gates of their own.
Scott Dunlop: The men would leave for work and the women were left to run wild on “the ranch,” as they called it, playing golf and hanging out and shopping. These ladies who lunch, if you will. They were all such unusual humans. Entertaining, but also kind of annoying. There were the “Tennis Bitches,” who were these violent femmes resolving their unsettled conflicts from high school in tennis matches they’d play while dripping in diamonds. There was the “Man of Leisure,” who worked as little as possible to make as much money as possible. Oh, and the “Boomerang Kid,” who was living back at home again and slacking on the couch all day, watching MTV, because that’s way easier than finding a job.
All these archetypes started appearing for me, and I had an idea to do a short film that was kind of a send-up of life in affluent suburbia; something tongue-in-cheek and a little parodistic. Then, around 2003, reality TV was becoming big business. It made me think of the Loud family, who were on PBS’s An American Family. And I said to myself, “There are plenty of characters here who are just as compelling. Maybe this could be a reality series? What would that look like?”
After marinating on his vision, Scott wrote up a one-page treatment and, beginning in 2004, started crafting a sizzle reel he could use to sell his concept to networks. Luckily for him, he had a strong anchor at the center of his presentation: his neighbor, Jeana.
Jeana Keough: Scott said, “You guys are like Ozzy Osbourne without the drugs.”
Scott Dunlop: Jeana’s family was very unusual. They were perfect for television, really. Jeana came from Hollywood—she was a Playboy Playmate of the Year, she had been one of the muses in ZZ Top’s music videos, but she was now working as a real estate agent. Her husband, Matt Keough, was a retired baseball player. They were always gone, and their three children sort of roamed the streets of Coto de Caza wild. I remember seeing their son Shane one day, he must have been about seven years old, just standing at my door. I asked, “Shane, what are you doing?” He goes, “I’m hungry.” I said, “Where’s your mom?” and he didn’t have an answer. That was the Keoughs. I knew we could get a lot out of them.
Jeana Keough: He was pretty excited about us. I thought, “Oh, how sweet. Anything we can do to help him out, we’ll do.” I’ve always been a networker and someone who helps people realize their dreams. It’s coming from the Midwest, that’s what we do.
With the Keough family in place, Scott began scouting for other people around Coto to participate in his reel. When it came to the “Tennis Bitches,” he picked the leader of the pack: fitness fanatic, mother of two, and self-proclaimed trophy wife, Kimberly Bryant.
Scott Dunlop: Kimberly was one of the most eager to do the show. And she was fearless. The “Tennis Bitches” would always go out for cocktails and gossip, and while we were filming, Kimberly made this great backhanded comment about how her husband isn’t in as good shape as the others’ husbands because all he does is work. It captured my attention. She was also the one who was unafraid to say, “Eighty-five percent of the women in Coto de Caza have breast implants.” We used that down the line in the intro for the show and people hated her here for saying that.
Jeana Keough: I actually thought 85 percent was a low number. It was probably more!
After flushing out the sizzle with more participants—including future actor Ryan Eggold, of NBC’s New Amsterdam fame, as the show’s token “Boomerang Kid”—Scott began shopping it to networks under the title Behind the Gates. Bravo was the first to bite.
Frances Berwick (Chairman, Entertainment Networks, NBCUniversal): I was in the very first pitch meeting. Scott Dunlop came in wearing white leather loafers—which in New York stood out—and talked about this gated community that he lives in and the antics that were going on. He really created a picture where these lonely, bored Housewives were staring out the window as these barely legal pool boys cleaned their pools. And we thought, “Well, that really sounds kind of up our alley.” It was representative of the affluent, educated audience that Bravo attracts.
Shari Levine (Executive Vice President of Current Production, Bravo): You have to remember: Bravo had started out as an arts channel, so we were at a place where we were really defining ourselves and moving into uncharted reality programming.
Scott Dunlop: I was a first-time television producer, and this was a docu-soap as we know it now, which wasn’t as dominant at the time. But I knew that Bravo was kind of reengineering their brand.
Frances Berwick: The network was just coming on the other side of the huge hit that had been Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, which changed everything for us.
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