The Cold, Hard Bitch Slap of Reality
We open on a woman sitting in a chair in a Spanish-style home living room. She is very beautiful and, contrary to popular opinion, does not look like Kathleen Turner punched in the face.
AMANDA: What have I learned from doing this reality show? Hmm . . . that you never know a person, even when you think you know them. And that people wear these masks that hide who they really are. You can never know if the person you are talking to, or trust, or love is a saint, a sinner, or a murderer....
(There is a dramatic pause; then the woman continues.)
And that you have to remember that when you're saying good-bye to someone, you really are saying good-bye.
A single tear escapes her azure-frosted, luscious eyes and rolls down her porcelain skin. She blots her eyes with an unimaginably expensive handkerchief. She looks into the camera and we are struck by her intelligence, pathos, and beauty.
That's how I wanted it all to happen. But life doesn't always turn out that way. Two people were murdered. There was sabotage, incest, treachery, and the destruction of several expensive wigs. And we all came out smelling like something, but it was definitely not a rose.
Now, back to reality.
Regina Belle, my sexagenarian neighbor, and I are watching
The Cougars of Santa Barbara
at her house on a TV still housed in a Mediterranean-style faux-wood cabinet. This is not a nature documentary on the indigenous felines of California's Santa Ynez Mountains. No, this is a program about rich, bitchy, overindulgent women from the port city of Santa Barbara whose antics and bad behavior would put Paris Hilton to shame. Regina loves the program, and since I'm looking to get out and be more social, this fits the bill. Plus, her home is right next door, so it's within staggering distance after several blenders of tequila sunrises. Regina is wearing a new T-shirt sporting the phrase: B
ATTERIES NOT INCLUDED
OME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED
Me, I normally avoid reality shows precisely because there's so little reality in them. This is something that seems to escape most people. The dead giveaway is the fact that there always seems to be a camera ready to catch a tempestuous bitch storming out a door, or to be there at the exact moment an awkward meeting just so happens at a local restaurant. The other thing that gets me is that no one ever seems to flub a line when speaking. I can see the director asking for numerous retakes to get the line right, to capture the perfect pout or sneer. Let me tell you, life never works out that way. Because of my Catholic upbringing, I never have the ability to say the perfect comeback, packed full of venom like a pissed-off puff adder. Let me correct that last sentence. I
have the perfect comeback. Unfortunately, it comes to me three hours later, after I've stewed and fumed about a testy encounter and congratulated myself in not owning a gun. But it does no good to get in your car, drive over to the offending person's house, ring their doorbell, and let 'em have it. It's lost the impact, the immediacy; even if you top it all off with a biting bitch slap.
The weird thing about all these reality shows is they've turned the idea of a protagonist upside down. When I was a kid, you were supposed to look up to a show's main character. He or she was supposed to have redeeming characteristics. They were supposed to be smart, witty, sympathetic, kind, or at the very least, likable. Not anymore. You only rise to the top if you're vain, selfish, emotionally stunted, and above all, ready to act out for the cameras. Big time.
Regina, however, loves
The Cougars of Santa Barbara
for one reason only: “I love the fact that here are these vulgar, nouveau riche women horrifying the local Episcopalian stuck-ups with their antics,” she would confess.
“Okay, Regina, how many times were you thrown out of Santa Barbara?”
“Twice,” Regina replied.
is your revenge?”
“Partly. I also like the idea of owning a younger lover.”
“Regina, from what I can see going in and out of your house, you have younger lovers.”
“Amanda, I'm oldâall my lovers are younger, comatose, or dead.”
“Well, someone should call social services about some of these boys on
Some of them can't even be twentyone.”
“Amanda, the age of consent in California is eighteen.”
“You seem rather sure about that.”
“Knowledge is power,” Regina smiled smugly.
“Knowledge that keeps you from being arrested.”
“Exactly. So tell me, Amanda, what's wrong with women having all the power in a relationship for once?”
“Nothing, Regina. I applaud it wholeheartedly. But these women are paying for it.”
“And what's wrong with that?”
“It's called prostitution, Regina.”
Regina waved away my morals with a flip of her hand. “When I was working for Warner Brothers back in '53, I had a lot of the actors pay my way and no one gave it a second thought.”
“But by becoming the paid-for girl, you lose your power in the relationship.”
Regina was not to be outdone. “Women and men give up power all the time in a relationship.”
“That's different, Regina. You wear that horse saddle willingly.”
“Just like when you let Ken handcuff you to the bed.”
Boy, you gotta be careful what you tell your friends. Ken, for the record, is a detective for the Palm Springs Police Department. Currently, we are seeing each other casually. Since we're both divorced, neither of us is intent on running into a new relationship. And furthermore, yes, I let Ken handcuff me to the bed while making love. You got a problem with that?
“But remember, Regina, this is a reality show,” I said, putting vicious quotation marks around the word reality with two fingers on each hand. “There's very little that's real about it. I have a theory about these reality shows.”
“Pray tell. What is it?” Regina asked, leaning forward to rest her head on her hand.
“It's the same thing as the early 1970s.”
“Yes, it was the rise of the ugly, of the unwashed masses rising up into popular culture.”
“You sound like a snob.”
“No, it's not that. Remember how ugly everything was in the early 1970s? The cars, the clothes, the hair, TV shows, architectureâeverything. It's because the tastemakers were from the uneducated ranks.”
“You still sound like an elitist,” Regina commented.
“No, it's not like that. Vivienne Westwood, the British clothing designer, said that it's the role of art, of leaders, to set the pace, style, and manners by raising up the lower classes through good example.”
“I would think she would be the last person you'd use as your barometer for good taste.”
“Regina, you know what I mean. These reality shows reward acting out, bad, trendy clothes, selfishness, lack of consideration for others. It's similar to the 1970s. But now, it's vulgarity that's setting the levels of taste and human interaction.”
“Look!” Regina exclaimed, turning away from my insightful observations of popular culture. “Jasmine just threw a cocktail in Heather's face! Someone's gonna get her earrings slapped clear off!”
“I rest my case,” I relented as my cell phone rang. It was Ian Forbes, owner of a huge hair-care empire and a former client of mine. Perhaps it was much-needed business now that the second Great Depression was upon us.
“Ian, how nice to hear from you. . . . Yes, business is really slow . . . and how's yours? . . . No, not really . . . Well, that is a surprise.... I don't really think so . . . No, no, really, it's not my kind of thing.... How much? . . . Are you kidding me? . . . Are you sure? . . . Is this a joke? . . . No? . . . Okay . . . I'll consider it. Thanks for thinking of me. Okay, we'll talk more tomorrow. Bye.”
Regina broke away from the fight brewing on the TV. “What was that all about?”
“You won't believe this, Regina, but I've just been invited to be on a reality show.”
“A reality show?” Alex asked. “Go for it.”
It was the next morning in the office and I had spilled the news to Alex, my ex-husband, soul mate, and still-business partner. We were married in Michigan years ago, moved here to Palm Springs, whereupon he confessed to me that he needed to be gay. I knew he was bisexual when I married him, but he was so handsome and exotic and from a family that wasn't highly dysfunctional like mine was, I jumped at his proposal of marriage. As it turns out, he needed a man, so we divorced amicably and we're still the best of friends. The trouble is, there's that soul-mate thing, too, blurring the line between friend and ex-husband/wife. It's complicated.
I was aghast.
“You heard me,” Alex repeated himself.
“Why? You're the last person I would have predicted to say that.”
“Amanda, times are tough. Like me, you have investment properties you need to pay for, especially if you're taking cuts in rent just to keep them rented. And you still have some things you want to do to your house.”
“Not too much. The house is almost finished.”
“You've been at it for years, darling,” Alex joked. “Your slow-as-molasses contractor finally moved out of the tent in your backyard last year.”
I sniffed pompously. “A work of art is never finished . . . until you run out of money, which is kinda what happened to me.”
“Well, then, go for it.”
“I'm still trying to digest this.”
“Listen, sweetie pie, besides making some money, you'll get notoriety, which could help publicize yourâourâbusi-ness. Plus, the show could go big time, and there might be book deals, spin-offs, and on and on. You could be famous.”
“Alex, how could a show about a real-estate agent trying to sell a hairdresser's big Spanish house go big time?”
“It's a no-brainer. There's a big-time hairdresser involved who's vain, controlling, shallow, and prone to histrionics. And most likely, there will be good-looking men involved somewhere. The drama is a given.”
“So you think I should do this?”
“You don't think this whole thing could backfire? That I get on the show and I end up looking like a self-absorbed, slut-bitch Realtor? These shows are looking for drama, Alex. I can just see myself having an open house, with prospective buyers looking around the house, opening drawers and closets. Now that would make for riveting viewing. No, Alex, they're going to want people yelling at each other, throwing things, driving cars over the cherished possessions of rival cast members. This isn't going to be pretty.”
“Okay, look on the bright side. Maybe someone will get murdered. If that doesn't get people to tune in, I don't know what will.”