Why is everyone obsessed with reality TV about the rich and famous?

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“I married a billionaire…Poor people can’t stand this,” says Carolyna Hutchings, one of the stars of The Real Housewives of Lagos – the newly launched version of the popular American reality TV franchise – a salvo she fires in the trailer promoting the Nigerian adaptation.

Hutchings, a socialite and once Nollywood star, is part of a vibrant group of well-heeled women who make the poshest neighborhoods of Lagos their playground on the show.

From fancy lunches to strategically curated intervention sessions, Hutchings and her teammates (including another Nollywood actress and a celebrity fashion stylist, among others) find interesting ways to chat, create drama, engage in massive trips of ego and displaying their privilege.

This kind of rude and problematic behavior must be off-putting to the public, right? Bad. According to Showmax, the streaming service owned by Multichoice, which is licensing the famous franchise from NBC Universal, audiences can’t get enough.

The first episode of The Real Housewives of Lagos, which launched in April, was a hit, setting a new record for most first-day views on Showmax in Nigeria. This follows the streamer’s experience launching local adaptations of the franchise in South Africa. The first season of The Real Housewives of Durban broke all previous day one viewing records on Showmax when it launched in 2021. The show is now broadcast in 50 countries across Africa.

Clearly, there is an intrinsic fascination with wealthy people behaving badly.

To appreciate the early success of The Real Housewives of Lagos is to understand the kind of glamorous mayhem the franchise sells. From 2006 with The Real Housewives of Orange Countythe new reality series inspired by hit soap operas like Peyton Square and Desperate Housewives followed a group of wealthy, middle-aged housewives living fabulous lives in a California gated community.

Adopt a mix of formats like confessional interviews and live social interactions, the housewives distributed the most interesting and scandalous parts of their lives. The Real Housewives of Orange County was a huge hit and inspired aftershocks in 10 other US cities. Internationally, success also exploded with the real housewives franchise operating in 21 cities including Lagos, Durban and Johannesburg.

“A facet of Africa that we don’t see enough on TV”

Candice Fangueiro, Head of Content at Showmax, explains the international appeal of the franchise and why it is successfully translating to African audiences. “For the super fans of The Real Housewives frankness, it’s all about the drama and the opulence, the fabulousness of the characters. Are they friends or foes? Do they have the same kind of problems as ordinary people? ” she says The Africa Report by email.

There is also the question of the representation as local adaptations provide viewers with familiar — and sometimes relatable — versions of characters who are just as “unhinged” as those on American shows. Fangueiro says: “African editions show us a side of Africa that we don’t see enough on TV – it’s more than dinner parties and fashion brands; you will see the actors wearing traditional outfits, sharing local dishes, talking about culture, customs and family.

The Netflix original series Young, Famous and African – a global hit for the streamer – is presented, even superficially, as also showing another side to established representations of the African continent, particularly in the global north. The show borrows heavily from The Real Housewives structured in that it follows a retinue of wealthy, jet-set African superstars as they camp out in Johannesburg and do things that these people do.

Africa represented in Young, Famous and African is one of expediency and extravagance. Some of them are unrelated – a South African actress cum socialite has her teenage daughter living in a separate apartment next to her – while many of them are quite familiar: gossip, backbiting, romantic entanglements. Either way, the relentless drama makes for compelling television that easily sparks cooler moments and trending topics on Twitter.

Even for the stars who attend, the show has been a godsend. Nigerian actress and celebrity wife Annie Macaulay-Idibia, buoyed by her rising profile after taking part in Young, Famous and African, confesses that she is now “…at the peak of my career!” Celebrities participate in these shows for different reasons: some of them seek to clear questionable images, others hope to launch difficult careers, while a part of them seem grateful for the salary as well as the opportunity. to be seen by an increasingly global audience. .

For The Real Housewives of Lagos star Toyin Lawani-Adeshayo, who is no stranger to television herself – having starred in her own reality show Tiannah’s Empire in the past – this represents an opportunity to set the record straight. The infamous fashion designer and businesswoman recounts The Africa Report“The world doesn’t see your true character online. They just read the narrative that blogs sell them about you. Instagram is all about glamour, but no one understands the hard work that goes into what you do. She says, “Being an entrepreneur is hard work, but I’d like to show people how I juggle it. I would like them to see the dedication behind every win they see.

But what’s in it for audiences and why are shows like these so popular?

“Access to the lives of famous people”

Anita Eboigbe, an Abuja-based journalist and media editor at HumAngle, breaks down her observations gathered over years of covering reality TV shows. “The reality TV industrial complex has gone through several cycles. The singing competitions from american idol empowered viewers to be a part of someone lucky coming. Then Big brother caused the micro-obsessions of ordinary people’s lives. With the The Kardashians and the real housewives, it’s about accessing the lives of famous people. The shows give people access that they otherwise wouldn’t have, and that’s starting to beget rights,” she said. The Africa Report.

This fascination of watching the privileged and living vicariously through them as they make the same – sometimes even worse – mistakes is its own heady feeling. Watching them wrestle at random tends to reinforce a shared humanity. In a twisted way, the aspirational element of shows then allows punching up, a phenomenon that can at least be considered less problematic than punching down. It is, after all, easier and more ethically acceptable to make fun of people who are already successful.

A lot of these shows want to emulate what we’ve seen elsewhere.

The American influence on reality TV programming in Africa has been unmistakable and while much can be lost in translation across cultures, some things, when done with specificity and insight, can be gained. “A lot of these shows want to emulate what we’ve seen elsewhere,” says South African critic Thabisa Ngcobo before recording her impressions of the cultural portrayal of popular show Mzansi Magic. The Ranakas – also streaming on Showmax. Ngcobo says, “I remember seeing the protagonist going through her Sangoma initiation. It is something very sacred and many South Africans are linked to it. There is authenticity to the show and I was pleasantly surprised.

Authenticity, however, means different things to different people. For Lawani-Adeshayo, The Real Housewives of Lagos is important because despite the catfighting fury and wholesale drama, the show offers an important feminist perspective. It documents the lifestyles and experiences of successful Nigerian women as they seize their agency and get things done.

For anyone looking for even more reasons why The Real Housewives of Lagos has become a TV staple, Lawani-Adeshayo attributes that to her participation. “The show has me, the king of all queens — and fashion — in it,” she says.

No surprise there. She is a real housewife after all.

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