It was 11:30 am on Sunday morning and Dorinda Medley was teaching the proper way to gyrate your hips. She would be, unexpectedly, the first of three different Real Housewives stars to lead a gyration tutorial that day.
Medley was dressed in metallic spandex pants and a rainbow bejeweled athleisure blazer with her hair stiff in electrified spikes, as if transported from an ’80s jazzercise video, suggesting that she may have had authority on the matter. But perhaps the lesson at the end of the day was that there is no wrong way to swivel your hips, as long as you’re in the presence of a Bravo celebrity and surrounded by a few thousand screaming fans.
She gyrated. We screamed. She step-touched to the left. We screamed. She shouted, “Make it nice, BravoCon!” We screamed.
There we were, having our own little collective ecclesiastical experience, sweating under the strobing lights of Manhattan’s Hammerstein Ballroom. While “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” blared over the speakers, we were doing the jitterbug with the Real Housewives of New York City star as she led the first-ever “Werk Out With Dorinda” class at the first-ever BravoCon, a three-day fan convention featuring panels, photo ops, concerts, and, it turns out, jazzercise classes, all in celebration of the channel’s popular reality programming and the people who love it.
Eventually the gyration turned into pelvic thrusts. Hundreds of us were humping the air in camaraderie. In his hot pink shirt and why-hello-sir exercise short-shorts, Andy Cohen was doing it, too. It was the Bravo version of “I’d like to buy the world a Coke.” Bravo obsessives, spiritually connected and humping in perfect harmony. It was perhaps the most joyous and demented event of a weekend that could not merit two more perfect descriptors. Metaphorically and literally, we were humping for Bravo.
Friends Lauren, Claire, and Mary raved about it in rapid-fire succession: “It exceeded every expectation I had.” “We love Dorinda.” “And we love aerobics!” “I wore leg warmers for this.”
They flew to New York from Ohio and Missouri for BravoCon, rationalizing the decision as so obvious I almost felt silly asking: “It’s the only channel we watch. It just felt right.” Yet nothing could downplay the surreal experience of recreating the famous aerobics scene from the last season of RHONY with Medley and Cohen, a man who has played an invaluable role in their lives and friendship. “After this weekend,” says Claire, “his thighs play an important role in my life as well.”
Later that night the three would join hundreds of other Laurens and Claires and Marys at a special performance of Luann de Lesseps’ Countess and Friends cabaret show, the grand finale of BravoCon, in which the RHONY star performed hammy renditions of jazz standards as well as her own dance songs, including “Money Can’t Buy You Class.”
The night before, fans writhed to club beats as the cast of Vanderpump Rules hosted a packed after party. Those who couldn’t make it to Medley’s workout could watch Real Housewives of New Jersey stars Teresa Giudice and Dolores Catania gossip while making sauce and meatballs, or watch the cast of Real Housewives of Orange County be grilled about the recent season by Bravo superfan and impersonator Amy Phillips.
Over the course of the weekend, they may have seen Beverly Hills housewife Kyle Richards do the splits and Erika Jayne “pat the puss,” eaten a dinner cooked by a winner of Top Chef, laughed at Project Runway judge and designer Brandon Maxwell’s critiques of “reunion looks,” grilled any number of Real Housewives cast members during audience Q&As, and taken anywhere between 15 and 1,500 selfies with the more than 85 Bravolebrities in attendance.
As fan conventions go, it was a hot ticket. Three-day passes sold out in just 60 seconds when they were released.
The congregation traveled from all over the country to take part in the more than 45 events spotlighting the various iterations of the flagship Real Housewives franchise as well as shows like Vanderpump Rules, Southern Charm, Below Deck, Shahs of Sunset, and Watch What Happens Live! With Andy Cohen. (The BravoCon website’s tagline: “Friday. Bravo. Saturday. Bravo. Sunday. Bravo. It’s like what you do already but IRL.”)
Even as fan culture goes mainstream and fan conventions like Comic-Con normalize extreme fandom, BravoCon illuminated something fairly new in the pantheon of such events. While the network’s programming was once branded “guilty pleasure” viewing, the weekend proved its elevation into unapologetic obsession.
Anyone who once scoffed at Bravo’s reality TV as brainless entertainment for vapid audiences would have their hypothesis torched by the breadth and intellectual diversity of its viewership, which counts politicians alongside sorority girls finding as much moral and psychological anthropology as diversion in the programming.
“Without Bravo and all your shows, I’d be in a padded cell getting oxygen,” said CNN’s S.E. Cupp as she moderated an “Unfiltered and Unapologetic” panel featuring some of the network’s outspoken women, including Real Housewives of Potomac’s Gizelle Bryant and Ashley Darby and Vanderpump Rules’ Scheana Shay and Lala Kent.
“This isn’t Comic-Con,” Sarah Galli, creator and host of the Real Housewives podcast Andy’s Girls, told me in between sessions. “This is an event that’s sort of about entertainment, but also a little bit about humanity.”
“These are like fans on steroids…”
Nearly 10,000 people walked through the doors of one of BravoCon’s three venues over the weekend, according to a Bravo executive, though that counts more than once some people who had multi-day passes. You felt that scale. You also felt that investment.
Three-day passes ranged from $300 for general admission to $1,500 for the highest level of VIP access, with evening events like the Countess Luann cabaret costing extra. These fans were overwhelmingly glad to shell that out, but just as eager to get their money’s worth. I don’t think there’s a single person I talked to who didn’t have a story about being physically bowled over by a fan in pursuit of a selfie when a Bravoleb was spotted across the room.
The crowd was mostly women, mostly in their thirties and forties, and mostly drunk. There were best friends and mothers with their daughters. There were sisters and new moms on their first outings without their babies. There were woo girls and their equally strong-voiced counterparts, woo gays. There was Queer Eye’s Antoni Porowski.
They were all practically overcome Friday night at the taping of the largest-ever episode of Watch What Happens Live! With Andy Cohen, in which 77 Bravo stars were interviewed by Cohen on stage in front of a crowd of 2,000, a sea of people who had transformed into human versions of used car lot inflatable air dancers, on their feet and out of control as each and every celebrity was introduced.
It was an unprecedented assemblage of Bravo talent, egos, hair extensions, sequins, and grudges. For Bravo fans, it was the equivalent of seeing the Avengers assemble for the first time, if the Avengers had to be herded like feral cats during every commercial break and played games like “Squash That Beef!” addressing why one star blocked another on Twitter and one woman didn’t want to take a photo with another.
Cohen was the ever-impressive maestro, somehow conducting this bonkers cacophonous orchestra to gratifying effect, performing a duet of “Tardy For the Party” with former housewife Kim Zolciak-Biermann and making out with Million Dollar Listing’s Fredrik Eklund along the way.
Catching up with the Vanderpump Rules cast the next day, Ariana Madix told me that the “kids” from her show—as they’re often referred to, though they’re almost all over 30—are well trained in interacting with Bravo fans, as they’ll often accost them at the restaurants where they work on the series. “We had our practice and this is the big show.”
“Some fans have gotten too rowdy before,” James Kennedy, the VPR resident DJ, told me. “Got kicked out of SUR for being too handsy. MILFs trying to touch my ass and stuff. Being sexually harassed left and right in night clubs.” He starts laughing. “But it’s all fun and games. Nothing too serious.”
The BravoCon experience was still surreal to VPR cast member Brittany Cartwright, who was clutching her new husband Jax Taylor’s arm as she spoke. “I’m like are all these people yelling for me? Like what the heck is going on? I’m not Jennifer Aniston.” Taylor said he’s still floored that their show means so much to people that several fans even tried to crash their wedding in June. “They say that the show gets them through their hard times. Like really? My train wreck of a life gets you through hard times? Hey, whatever helps!”
But Bravo fanaticism is not just about enthusiasm and adoration. These people are entrenched in the worlds of these stars and these shows, developing an encyclopedic knowledge of all its minutiae and history, on-screen and off. The specificity of their references is astonishing. They don’t just watch the show. They know the Radar Online and Page Six gossip, and have scanned the tweets and the Instagrams and the Instagram comments. They listen to the fan podcasts and track the Reddit forums.
“At BravoCon, people are sitting next to folks in a space where everybody understands the language and no one needs a lesson in fluency,” Galli said. “You’re referencing a crazy social media post that was done three years ago that you remember and they remember it, too. It feels like you’re home.”
Are BravoCon fans different from normal Bravo fans? “People fall over whenever I walk into a room,” Real Housewives of Potomac star Gizelle Bryant deadpanned when I asked. “I’m kidding!” Her co-star Darby laughed next to her. “No she’s not though. She really thinks that.” But seriously, Bryant continued, “these are like fans on steroids.”
She estimated that the typical Bravo fan is “a woman who is a mom who wants to strive and live the best life she possibly can. That’s your Bravo fan on steroids. That’s your woman.” Darby added that they tend to be very funny, too. “Every Bravo superfan I’ve met has been a sensationally funny person.”
Throughout the weekend, the Bravo fans were being compared to fans of soap operas, a perhaps reductive parallel drawn from the fact that both groups consist largely of women.
“There’s something cooler about a Bravo fan than a soap fan,” Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star Lisa Rinna, a former soap star herself, said during one panel. “You have cooler handbags.” Next to her on the couch, Erika Jayne laughed. “You’re never gonna go back to daytime now.”
“That’s bad shade, Vicki!”
The pièce de résistance at the Real Housewives Museum was a stuffed rabbit. Specifically, it was the toy, still wrapped in cellophane, that Lisa Rinna gifted to former housewife Kim Richards as a peace offering for Richards to give to her new grandson. Richards rejected the gesture, saying the bunny didn’t have “good energy.”
The image of a single tear falling from Rinna’s heavily mascaraed eye in response to the slight is iconic in the Bravoverse. A video of the moment played behind the rabbit in the museum’s glass display case, as artful a backdrop as any curator has ever designed.
The bunny joined a treasure trove of ludicrous, hilarious artifacts. There were the jeweled clips and barrettes that formed a cage around Dorit Kemsley’s hair during the season 9 reunion of Beverly Hills. There was the decor from the “fish room” in Dorinda Medley’s Berkshires manor. Behind one glass case were the burnt remnants of Nene Leakes and Cynthia Bailey’s friend contract.
When we encountered fans Louie Elizondo and Jacob Bondi, they were taking photos of Tamra Judge’s breast implants. (You read that sentence correctly.) They had flown in from Austin, Texas. Like many people I talked to, they bought their plane tickets and reserved hotel rooms as soon as the convention was announced, before tickets even went on sale. Because multi-day passes sold out so quickly, they were only able to secure Saturday tickets. Their giddiness as they strolled through the room betrayed no regrets.
In one corner of the exhibit, mannequins displayed memorable dresses that were worn by housewives during reunion tapings. Among their admirers were Bravo fans paying homage to their own favorite housewives looks. Friends Katelyn and Katie, who host the podcast The Real Football Fans of New Jersey, became folk heroes Saturday at BravoCon, with Katelyn dressed as Medley, blonde wig and all, and Katie dressed as de Lesseps after she had drunkenly fallen into a rose bush in an episode of Real Housewives of New York City.
“I know people dress up for Comic-Con, so I’m surprised more people didn’t dress up for this,” Katie said. “But I’m also happy more people didn’t because now we’re getting more attention.”
The Luann-in-the-rose-bush costume got a raucous reaction when Katie asked a question during the afternoon’s “OGs” panel, which de Lesseps was on and Cohen moderated. While the parties and installations were a bonus for attendees, for many fans the panels were the be-all, end-all. “It’s like getting to go to a reunion taping,” Katie said.
The “OGs” panel proved an excellent showcase for how entertaining these women can be when left unfiltered. De Lesseps confessed that being in the back of a police car in handcuffs was the worst moment she’s had on the show. (Fair.) As for falling in the rose bush? “I was embarrassed at first but then I was laughing,” she said. “I was having a good time in the bush.”
A clip of Teresa Giudice flipping a table was shown, one of possibly 37 times it played on a jumbotron that weekend. Then a mash-up of hers, de Lesseps, Richards, and Vicki Gunvalson’s biggest and most dramatic blow-ups played. A security guard next to me sighed and shook his head. “That was three faces ago,” Gunvalson quipped when it finished, before mapping out the plastic surgery she’s had over the years: nose done, eyes done, face lift, boobs done “four, no five, no six times.”
Later, she tossed off an insult in the direction of Real Housewives of Orange County cast member Kelly Dodd. In front of me, a woman mindlessly eating a muffin and scrolling through Instagram shouted, mid-bite and without lifting her head, “That’s bad shade, Vicki! We love Kelly.” It was as if it was a bodily reflex to respond, almost subconscious. The panels were part behind-the-scenes discussion and part The Jerry Springer Show, with fans shouting opinions and catch phrases, standing and cheering for drama and favorites while loudly booing villains.
Even the classier affairs were juicy, if you were lucky enough to attend. A dinner cooked by Kelsey Barnard Clark, who won the last season of Top Chef, was crashed by a former housewife and her dog, much to Clark’s amusement. “She said the dog really liked the food.”
As we gossiped between courses about the housewives she’s met through her last year as a Bravo star, she offered maybe the freshest take of anyone at BravoCon: She didn’t know who any of them were. May we all remember a time so innocent that our eyes bulged while hearing about the whole Countess Luann…deal. And we may be eating Clark’s sensational “low country boil” shrimp salad—the reason the chef’s kiss gesture was invented—while doing it.
Of course, that it’s all so ridiculous is precisely the point. The ridiculous, heightened as it is on these shows, is what makes them relatable.
“It’s not necessarily just about what’s happening on screen, it’s about why these women are making the decisions that they’re making and the psychology behind it,” said Galli. “So the Iyanla Vanzant of it all is constantly interesting to me because we will never run out of content.”
That, and it’s all just so silly.
During Friday’s “OGs” panel, one fan brought slices of ham in the hope that he could convince former housewife Caroline Manzo to throw them at him. It’s a reference to the “ham game,” which her kids used to play—and piss her off with—on Real Housewives of New Jersey. The game is you throw ham. These shows are insane, the fans more so. It’s so great.
Manzo about lost her mind, scream-cackling as she flung ham at a fan. Cohen, who was moderating the panel, joined her, looking happier than I’ve ever seen him on TV.
“Nobody really knew what BravoCon was going to be like,” Galli said. “To watch throw Andy throw ham at a man’s face in a room of a couple thousand people who all get why this is a magical moment that could only happen here was just special.” She laughed. “The ham game!”