Reality TV stars aren’t like you and me. Their symmetrical facial features invite dramatic interplays of light and shadow, as if always gently illuminated by soft, unseen lights. They toss off one-liners like, “If you have a problem with me, I guarantee it’s you.” Their energy rivals that of a morning show host clocking in at 3:30 a.m., four cups of coffee deep.
How do I know this? Because I’ve worked alongside that morning show host (Tamica Lee). I’ve interviewed the guy responsible for the above quip (Isaac Toups). And I’ve met the owner of that symmetrical doll face (Reagan Charleston) a number of times at industry events. Together, Lee and Charleston make up a third of the cast of Bravo’s newest reality TV show, "Southern Charm New Orleans." The show premieres next Sunday, April 15, at 8 p.m.
Clearly, the show’s producers recognized Lee’s and Charleston’s star power and decided to build a series around it — though the precise mechanisms by which this occurred remain somewhat mysterious.
The latest spin-off from Bravo’s "Southern Charm" reality TV franchise features “an elite circle of friends” from “prominent families” in New …
What is known is that the original "Southern Charm" is a Bravo TV franchise that’s followed the same core group of Charleston socialites since 2014. Now in its fifth season, the sleeper hit has spawned three spinoffs: "Southern Charm Savannah," "RelationShep" and "Southern Charm New Orleans."
Andy Dehnart, editor of realityblurred.com and a faculty member at Stetson University in Florida, says all three shows follow a similar bougie, boozy concept.
“Nearly all of Bravo's shows ... are now just variations on 'Real Housewives.' As I've written: ‘rich people acting like (jerks) for our entertainment,’” said Dehnart, who has worked as a reality TV critic for 19 years. “It's a formula that's worked, and they'll continue to produce shows like that until they stop getting the necessary ratings.”
In the works for years
"Southern Charm New Orleans" has been in the works for years. Producers brought multiple casting companies and cast members aboard during the process. Chet Pourciau, an interior designer who passed away in 2015, was among the show’s original cast members.
Cast member Barry Smith came to the producers’ attention after they reached out to his wife, Lee.
“It’s been a long three-year process,” Smith said. “I came home one day, and she said someone contacted her. I met the casting company and did a little interview, but I was just the husband. ... I got scrapped for a little while, it got revisited, they interviewed me again and that’s how it came about.”
Isaac Toups, chef/owner of Toups South and Toups’ Meatery and an alum of reality TV show "Top Chef," says producers look for chemistry like that exhibited by Smith and Lee.
The interview process for "Top Chef" was "more of a personality check,” Toups said. “No matter what, when you’re doing a reality TV show, it’s all about personality, and you have it or you don’t.”
Personality is important because shows like "Southern Charm New Orleans" rely on colorful dispositions and outrageous antics to drive the storylines. Though the conflicts might be innate to the characters, show producers manipulate the storyline from the beginning.
Friendships are real
“I’m not saying the whole story is created ahead of time, but the producers may have some ideas,” said Laszlo Fulop, associate professor of film at the University of New Orleans School of the Arts. “I would guess they found out who these people are, what they’re doing and what would be visually and dramatically interesting in their lives. They definitely try to push the story that direction.”
For "Southern Charm New Orleans," that means relationship conflicts (e.g., Charleston takes jabs at her husband’s sense of humor; Lee and Smith are in a sexless marriage), day drinking, Mardi Gras parading and more day drinking.
Cast members say that while the shooting and editing process confers a certain layer of artificiality, the friendships and day-to-day activities the show depicts are very much real.
“What we did was totally organic,” Smith said. “We might be given a topic to talk about, and (producers) just let you talk. It was never staged (to the extent that they would say) ‘Throw a drink’ or ‘Call this person’— it was never like that.”
Charleston acknowledged that having cameras around “raises the drama quotient,” while for Toups, being on reality TV meant taking his regular personality and “turning it up a notch.”
“It’s called stage presence,” he said. “People on TV know how to put it on with energy and presence, while still being genuine to themselves.”
So reality TV isn’t 100 percent “real”— after translating hours of human interactions to a visual medium that must follow a classic dramatic structure, it can’t be — but it isn’t entirely fake, either, Fulop said.
Perhaps the most pressing question for New Orleanians is this: How well does "Southern Charm" capture our city? In a media landscape saturated with post-Katrina documentaries and shows like "Treme," which are tributes to New Orleanian exceptionalism and fodder for the class of transplants that Tulane geographer Richard Campanella calls “super-natives,” Southern Charm feels surprisingly ... authentic.
Maybe that’s because the storylines came from cast members who were actually born and raised here, who were interconnected directly or with that half-degree-of-separation endemic to New Orleans years before the show’s creation.
They don’t all live in shotgun houses and busk in the French Quarter. They live in Gentilly, Old Metairie and the north shore. Yes, they make gumbo and they party, but they wouldn’t ever throw a “gumbo party.” Though they’re wealthier and more photogenic than I’ll ever be, I found the Sazerac-swilling, costume-donning cast members relatable — which is kind of the point.
“That’s why reality TV is so popular,” Fulop said. “We see ourselves a little bit, more than in a dramatic work. People of the community are playing themselves, so that could be very positive thing.”