Is ‘Real Housewive’ Star NeNe’s Drama Fake?

On Wednesday, December 8th, 2010

Reality shows aren’t real. I know because I used to help make them. I’ve sat in meetings where development executives would create plotlines long before the show was even cast. I watched as producers coached reality stars on what they were supposed to say and do in a scene. Nothing that you see on reality shows is completely organic, that would cost too much money.

Scenes have to be decorated and lit, stars have to be mic’d and made up, extras have to be cast and legally cleared. Reality shows are more like low-budget and loosely scripted sitcoms, with one very important distinction — the characters are supposed to be portraying themselves.

Whereas your favorite soap opera star can murder off a lover in one episode, and still peacefully go grab coffee the next day without getting accused of being a killer, there is no line between the fake and real on reality shows. We the viewer are supposed to believe everything we see, and consequently a star’s personal life is their profession. If something monumental happens, a burgeoning reality star must capitalize on the moment by leaking the news to top gossip blogs and selling an “exclusive” of the story to Us Weekly. Publicity stunts aren’t just the norm, they’re a requirement for reality TV stars.

But don’t pity these stars — 9 out of 10 times, they are in collusion with producers on how to plot and script their character on reality television. Reality TV stars know that if they want premium screen time, if they want a shot at a spin-off and maybe a spot on Dancing with the Stars, they can’t play it mild or polite. You have to be big, bad, and out of control.

Reality stars have to pick their character — do you want to be the bitch? The snitch? The pimp? The jester? Lasting careers in reality TV have to be carefully plotted because there is no craft or skill to cultivate. Being yourself is the skill, and your very person must become a brand.

Which brings us to NeNe Leakes. The popular star of Bravo’s Real Housewives of Atlanta represents the complex nature of reality TV celebrity. When we first met NeNe, a lifetime ago in 2008, she was the sort of down-home-tell-it-like-it-is girlfriend viewers immediately fell for. Though her character could be obnoxious at times, generally she was likable beyond her brash demeanor.

Now in season three of the popular series, NeNe is like a different person. She went and got a new nose, liposuction, and a whole lot of drama. On the most current episode she is engaged in a very ugly and public fight with her husband and on the brink of divorce (though as of this publishing, they are still reportedly married).

It is sad and uncomfortable, and as cynical as I can be about the industry, I can’t imagine a producer bold enough to suggest NeNe contrive marital issues for the sake of the show. No doubt fame has gotten to the Leakes, and we’re watching the slow dismantling of a marriage and family played out over 18 episodes.

It’s tempting to feel bad for NeNe and family, however consider this — thanks to this major storyline of divorce and drama, NeNe is getting more press than ever. There have been magazine covers, exclusive interviews, and near daily items in top gossip mags like People and OK! It seems that despite her unfortunate home life, Nene is steadily chugging up the reality TV ladder of fame and fortune. So if she was maybe hamming up the negativity for ratings, could you blame her?

Consider the millionaires reality TV has made. Kim Kardashian is on track to make $6 million in 2010, making her the highest paid reality TV star of the year, according to the Daily Beast. And it all started with a sex tape! If the success model in reality TV is sinking low to earn high, NeNe is on the path to lucrative endorsement deals, spin-off shows, and an exclusive line of jeans/perfume/prosthetic noses.

So who’s the fool here? The viewer, for buying into the drama? Or NeNe for selling her personal life in hopes of a cash prize? Could it be that she’s a savvy businesswoman stringing viewers along on her contrived ride?

I know producers can’t make up reality shows all alone, so in the end, NeNe is conspiring with them one way or another. I can’t knock her hustle, but I have to wonder: how much she’s willing to lose in order to gain the fame and fortune?

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