Scott D. Pierce: ‘Real Housewives’ producers sued for allegedly tolerating — even encouraging — racism

The lawsuit involves the Atlanta version of the show, but what happened in Salt Lake City seems similar.

(Photo courtesy of Bravo) Mary Cosby is not a happy woman in an episode of "The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City."

“Real Housewives” is being sued for tolerating, if not encouraging, racism. And, somewhat surprisingly, the lawsuit has nothing to do with the Salt Lake City edition of the reality show.

That’s despite the fact that racism reared its ugly head during the first season of “RHSLC” and became a recurring theme in season two. Although the lawsuit may provide some insight into why that happened. Or, at least, why no effort was made to make it stop happening.

A few days ago, former “Real Housewives of Atlanta” star NeNe Leakes sued executive producer Andy Cohen, the production companies, Bravo and its parent company, NBCUniversal, for fostering “a corporate and workplace culture in which racially-insensitive and inappropriate behavior is tolerated — if not, encouraged.”

Leakes, who was one of the original stars of “RHOA,” charges that fellow cast member Kim Zolciak-Biermann consistently made racist comments — including the use of the n-word — while the show was in production. According to the lawsuit, the show’s producers and Bravo executives not only didn’t fire Zolciak-Biermann, but took no “meaningful action to put an end to her racially offensive behavior.”

(Bravo) Kim Zolciak-Biermann’, Andy Cohen and NeNe Leakes at the "Real Housewives of Atlanta" Season 10 reunion.

Leakes, who is Black, alleges that she was forced off the show because she complained about the racism, while Zolciak-Biermann, who is white, was rewarded with her own spinoff show.

(Zolciak-Biermann is not named in the lawsuit. Her spinoff, “Don’t Be Tardy,” was canceled in 2021 after eight seasons. In 2015 — well after Zolciak-Biermann had first exhibited racist behavior, according to Leakes — Bravo announced a spinoff series titled, “NeNe and Kim: The Road to Riches,” that never came to fruition.)

From what we know about “The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City,” there may be a pattern here. Original cast member Mary Cosby made racist comments in season one, and suffered no consequences from the show’s producers.

And in season two, Mary made racist comments about Mexicans and Asians. She mocked fellow castmate Jennie Nguyen’s Vietnamese accent. She mocked members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Cosby tried to deny she’d said or done racist things, but that proved impossible because her behavior was caught on camera. She made the occasional weak apology, which she then ignored or repudiated.

Cosby was fired from the show, but it didn’t have anything to do with her racism. She skipped the contractually required reunion episodes, and was — according to reports — canned for that.

(Bravo) Robert Cosby Sr. and Mary Cosby on "The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City."

Why, you might ask, would the producers of “Real Housewives” tolerate or even encourage racism? Because the shows are built on controversy and conflict.

I am not an expert on all things “Real Housewives.” I watch the Salt Lake City version because it’s my job, but I don’t watch the Atlanta version (or any of the others), and I can’t speak to what happened on those shows.

But anybody who has watched “RHOSLC” can tell you that Cosby wasn’t in the cast because she contributed to thoughtful, intelligent discourse. She was hired because she married her step-grandfather and her contributions consisted of fighting with Jen Shah and Whitney Rose, lying about her castmates behind their backs, spending extravagant sums of money on designer clothes, making faces, talking to herself and generally acting oddly.

The racism was a bonus for producers. It became a social media talking point among the show’s viewers.

And, who knows? The fact that it went unchecked for so long might be brought up in the Atlanta lawsuit, if that ever gets to court.

I can understand why the shows’ producers didn’t stop it, but I’m not giving them a pass. Modeling the kind of behavior Cosby exhibited in “The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City” is irresponsible and potentially harmful to viewers.

(Natalie Cass/Bravo) Jennie Nguyen and Jen Shan on "The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City."

Way back in 2008, just as “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” was getting started, Zolciak-Biermann told me that she looked upon herself as a role model — that women who watched the show aspired to be like her. Really.

What we learned recently is that Cohen, Bravo and “Real Housewives” will respond to charges of racism if there’s a public outcry. Nguyen was fired from “RHOSLC” when racist social media posts she’d made before she was hired prompted protests.

You might ask why the posts — which remained up during production of season two and while almost all the episodes aired — didn’t prompt producers to pass on Nguyen as a cast member. Either their vetting process was unbelievably flawed, or racism wasn’t seen as disqualifying.

Maybe that’ll be brought up by Leakes’ attorneys, too.

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