Take six strong-willed Utah women who are casual friends, make them spend a lot of time together and film what happens.
Voila! You’ve got “Real Housewives of Salt Lake City.” And the sparks start flying immediately when the guilty-pleasure, must-see show premieres Wednesday on Bravo (8 p.m. Dish and DirecTV; 11 p.m. Comcast).
Jen Shaw and Mary Cosby do not get along. Heather Gay thought she and Lisa Barlow were longtime friends, but Lisa has a different view of things. And Whitney Rose is saying things behind Meredith Mark’s back that may or may not be true, but certainly aren’t nice.
The women discovered they “trigger each other,” Heather said. “But that’s kind of the genius of the ‘Housewives,’ right? You get women who, in normal circumstances, are easy luncheon friends. But when you put them in this environment, it changes the context and it makes it more charged and more volatile.”
What happened as they were filming the season — production ended in March, just before the pandemic forced shutdowns — was “real,” the “Housewives” said, but also manufactured by the fact that they were cast in the show. The previous relationships among the women were “less charged and easier and more surface level,” Heather said.
Everyone has people they don’t get along with. Only a few are followed by cameras to document that conflict. But “nobody is forcing us to do anything,” Meredith made clear, and she does walk away from confrontation during the season.
“Everybody is human and we all have faults,” she said. “But when you’re really spending a lot of intense time together, you get a lot more focused on the faults.”
Whitney compared the experience to going on a family vacation. “At the beginning of the trip, everyone’s so excited and you’re all on the same page,” she said. “And then you’re locked in a hotel room with your brother and you start to irritate each other.”
(Photo courtesy of Fred Hayes/Bravo) Jen Shah and Mary Cosby in “The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City.”
Some of the hostilities on the horizon:
• Heather said her relationship with Lisa has “never been more strained,” and they’ve known each other for decades — since they were both at Brigham Young University. Well, Heather knew Lisa in college; Lisa says she doesn’t remember Heather from BYU.
Lisa was less specific about the ongoing conflict, but did say, “You learn a lot about yourself and a lot about other people when you’re, like, ‘Why is that person acting that way toward me? What are their issues?’”
• Jen and Mary used to be close, but then Mary said something that really offended Jen. In one of the first episode’s more interesting moments, Mary — the “first lady” of the Faith Temple Pentecostal Church in Salt Lake City — refuses to apologize.
“It was very hurtful,” Jen said. “Just say sorry so we can move forward.”
On the other side, Jen says the sort of things a lot of people probably say when they find out that Mary married her step-grandfather after her grandmother’s death: “S--t is weird,” Jen said. Who could argue with that?
• There are indications that there’s trouble in Meredith’s marriage — although we don’t see it in the first episode. But in a clip from a future episode, Whitney questions whether Meredith has been true to her vows. “I would definitely say Meredith’s story is one to watch out for,” Whitney said.
Still, it’s immediately clear that there are strong friendships, too. Lisa and Meredith have been close for a decade. When Jen and Heather are together, “We are laughing and riffing and truly having the time of our lives,” Heather said.
Whitney said she and her cousin, Heather, grew closer. Lisa says the same about her and Jen.
And there’s humor, if you don’t take it all too seriously.
“There are really happy, joyous moments and really sad, upsetting moments,” Meredith said. “I mean, we’re really just showing our lives and how we engage or don’t engage with each other.”
“The highs and lows,” Whitney said, “were a lot more dramatic than I expected.”
(Photo courtesy of Fred Hayes/Bravo) Meredith Marks and Heather Gay in “The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City.”
Religion is one of the stars
In this iteration of “Real Housewives” — the 10th on American TV — the biggest difference is that religion is a major, continuing storyline.
“There’s no way to do a show about Salt Lake City and to act like Mormonism is just one tiny part of it,” Heather said. “It is the current that runs through the state. It affects our politics. It affects our restaurants. It affects our clubs. It affects our nightlife. It affects our taxes, our politicians. It affects everything.”
“RHOSLC” viewers will see “the different way we all live our religions,” Lisa said. “And all of us have a different religion.”
• Meredith, who’s originally from Chicago, is Jewish.
• Mary is Pentecostal — she and her husband lead churches in Salt Lake City and Indianapolis.
• Lisa, a native New Yorker, grew up in a nonreligious Jewish home and converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when she was a teenager.
• Jen grew up LDS, but rejected the religion because of its longtime stance against Black people — and her husband is Black. She says she’s becoming Muslim.
• Whitney was also Mormon, but she and her husband were both excommunicated after they began an affair while each was married to someone else.
• Heather comes from a long line of Latter-day Saints — her ancestors crossed the plains as pioneers — but is ready to leave the church.
(Nobody is following the directive of church President Russell M. Nelson, who wants everyone to stop using the term “Mormon” to describe members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Occasionally, the church’s formal name is referenced, but it’s predominantly “Mormon” this and “Mormon” that.)
It’s clear from the get-go that Utah was attractive to Bravo and the show’s producers because of the church’s presence. The words “Mormon” or “Mormonism” are spoken more than 40 times in the first episode alone.
But one type of Latter-day Saint is not represented in the show.
“We don’t have someone who’s fully, fully, fully active — meaning, like, going to the temple,” Whitney said. “I just don’t think that a reality TV show is designed for that type of person. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. Those are sacred, private things.”
Still, no other “Housewives” has done such a deep dive into the religion of the cast members, let alone into the dominant religion in the city where they live.
“It’s not just polygamy and handcarts and Joseph Smith and five wives,” Whitney said. “Actually, there are a lot of Mormons who are active and live fabulous lives. I think a lot of people would be shocked to see how an everyday, active Mormon functions here in Utah.”
Lisa expects viewers to be surprised that she and the other two “Housewives” who are at least nominally Latter-day Saints “live it their own way” — and she expects the show will draw a distinction between “cultural Mormons” and “religious Mormons.”
“I hope it gives people a different view on the LDS Church,” Lisa said. “The way I practice being LDS is so different from others. … My friend Meredith’s husband called me Mormon 2.0, and it kind of stuck.”
Among the businesses she and her husband run are several alcohol brands, including VIDA Tequila.
“Hopefully, people see that you can own an alcohol brand, you can own any business, and still practice the religion that you love the way you need to and want to,” she said.
The title of the show is somewhat deceptive — these six women are anything but traditional homemakers. “That’s kind of the point, right? It’s non-traditional housewives,” Whitney said. “None of us is a stay-at-home mom. We all have businesses.”
In her first interview with producers, Jen told them, “I’m literally not a housewife. I mean, I will cook anything in the microwave — there’s four of them in our house. There’s some downfalls of working all the time, and one of them is that my cooking skills are not the greatest.”
The casting mandate for “Real Housewives of Salt Lake City” was to find women who all own and operate their own businesses, shattering one of the stereotypes about the state.
“A lot of people think that Utah women just stay home and take care of, like, a million kids,” Lisa said. “... I think that we’re going to combat a lot of the stereotypes. … My husband only has one wife and that’s me.”
Heather owns and operates beauty businesses, and is the only one of the six women who is single. And she knows what it was like to be a stay-at-home mom.
“I was a dutiful housewife for 11 years. … The sun rose and set on [her ex-husband’s] happiness and making his dinner and the kids being bathed and cute and in jammies by 7 p.m.,” she said. “So I understand what it is to be a wife. And I took that role so seriously, which is probably why it was so totally devastating when I got divorced.”
Yep, “Housewives” fans, Mormons get divorced, too.
“RHOSLC” is full of local sights and references — Jen’s assistant really wants to go to Harmons for lunch in the first episode — and there’s plenty that will be familiar to an average Utahn. But these are people whose income is well above the average, and there’s a lot of talk about how “elite” they are.
The women all said they believe “Real Housewives” will make Utah look amazing. Whitney said viewers “are going to be pleasantly surprised by how awesome Salt Lake City is. I don’t think people realize that we actually have great restaurants, great bars. Some people know we have world-class skiing, but the world really doesn’t know how beautiful Utah is.”
They want Salt Lake City to look great … but maybe not too great. “I really hope people love our city as much as we do,” Lisa said. “But just don’t move here. We’re full.”
Filming on “RHOSLC” began last year and continued into March. And, after an eight-week break when the COVID-19 shutdowns began, the six women resumed recording their individual interviews, which are spliced into each episode, to complete the season.
So they’ve been waiting for months to see how this turns out. The first episode was screened for critics, but cast members still haven’t seen it.
“Hopefully, I get a good edit,” Jen said. “There’s nothing I can do about it now!”
Lisa also expressed some concern over how the show will be edited, but is confident that it’ll turn out well for her. “I know who I am as a person. I know how I treat people. I know how I am as a mom and a wife,” she said. “I can’t control and edit it, but I left the experience feeling great.
“I loved it — most of it,” she added with a laugh.
Heather said she’s both excited and “terrified, because I know that I’m unfiltered. I know that I speak from my heart. And I know that I say things that I regret and cringe after I hear myself say them. So I’m terrified of what I’ve done to ruin my own life.”
Meredith, who describes herself as a “very private person,” said that, at this point, she’s resigned to the fact that, “You’re letting the world into your private life, and that’s daunting, to say the least. But I did it. I made the choice.”