Reality TV came to life when the icons of the Bravo Cinematic Universe invaded a New York City convention center for three days of blissful chaos
“OK, I know it’s probably evil to say this about a baby, but I have to.”
This is the kind of prelude that makes a casual eavesdropper perk up and start listening in earnest. There are three women across from me on the train to midtown Manhattan who, in between taking down Starbucks Egg Bites, are talking enough smack about their friends back home to make me silence my AirPods and tune in to what’s going on in Not New York. They’ve started discussing a toddler who, thus far—and I know it’s probably evil to say this about a baby—looks more like his “gremlin” father than his beautiful mother. The use of the word “gremlin” makes something in my own brain tingle with familiarity. My eyes slide down to the women’s wrists where, pressed up against their matching trio of Apple Watches, are a matching trio of teal wristbands. And though they haven’t uttered the parents’ names or any distinguishing features other than “gremlin,” it takes me only a moment to realize who they’ve been talking about—not their mutual friends back home, but our mutual friends from a wealthy area just outside Washington, D.C. Because we all speak the same language, we all know the same people, and we’re all headed to the same place: BravoCon 2022.
When The Real Housewives of Orange County premiered on Bravo in 2006, the cable network was in a period of transition: caught between its earnest devotion to the arts in the ’90s and an almost accidental brush with progressive popularity when Queer Eye for the Straight Guy premiered in the 2000s. The Real Housewives franchise was an attempt to engage a more pop culturally savvy audience who had come to the network for Queer Eye and stayed for exciting new competition shows like Project Runway and Top Chef. “There’s really something to be said about the power of women living their lives on-screen. I wanted to celebrate that and celebrate women’s programming, which at the time was not revered,” former executive vice president of NBCUniversal Lauren Zalaznick said of Bravo’s sudden Housewives genesis in Dave Quinn’s oral history of the Real Housewives, Not All Diamonds and Rosé. “Men can spend 10 hours every Sunday watching the NFL, and that’s never called a guilty pleasure! That always bothered me.”
Sixteen years after The Real Housewives of Orange County premiered, the novel idea of “women living their lives on-screen” has spawned 11 different Housewives series; branched out into Married to Medicine, Shahs of Sunset, and Family Karma; and launched an entire junior varsity catalog in the form of Vanderpump Rules, Southern Charm, a fleet of Below Deck series, and the seasonal stylings of Summer House and Winter House. Bravo regularly ranks as the top cable network among—no surprise—women ages 18 to 54. Its prolific and regenerative output has created a Bravo Cinematic Universe, wherein Summer House can transform into Winter House and back again; The Real Housewives of New York City can be scrapped for becoming both problematic and boring, only to be resurrected a year later as two new New York franchises, which are both technically the old franchise but with different (and also the same) cast members. A younger franchise like Below Deck can quietly usurp the stalwart Housewives, and access to streaming-only series like Ultimate Girls Trip and Below Deck: Down Under can inspire people to actually pay for another streaming service in the form of Peacock.
And there’s no end in sight. In less than two decades, Bravo has amassed a super-fandom with a stunning hunger for more access to its ever-growing universe of characters. BravoCon 2022 exists not only to prove that demand, but to iterate upon it with a brand-new application of fandom: live events. As I descend the escalator to the bottom floor of the Javits Center (or in Bravo-speak, “the lower level”), the chaos makes it clear: Bravo fans want this.
Though BravoCon 2022—featuring nearly 150 Bravolebrities and attended by about 30,000 fans over one unusually warm October weekend—feels like an inaugural event, it actually launched in 2019. Also a three-day convention, also in Manhattan, and also featuring live panels, photo opportunities, and interactive experiences, three-day passes for BravoCon 2019 sold out in under a minute. So, following two years of COVID delays, BravoCon 2022 crunched the numbers on the mounting demand and returned three times its size—or, at least, it sold three times the tickets.
When I enter the Javits Center on Friday morning, there’s a 20-foot salutation hanging from the rafters: “HI, BABY GORGEOUS,” the sign reads, mentally conjuring the voice of Lisa Barlow as she greets her 8-year-old son with an after-school cake pop on The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City. After descending the escalator, instead of turning right toward BravoCon’s three main stages (“On Display,” “Feeling Jovani,” and “Don’t Be Tardy,” listed in ascending order of stage size and YouTube views), I accidentally hang a left directly into Bravoland: an LED-illuminated, Wonka-esque interactive museum of iconic Bravo memorabilia and photo ops: Lisa Rinna’s rejected cellophane-wrapped bunny, Tamra Judge’s rejected breast implants, the eroded outdoor bathtubs where Jen Shah once splashed the RHOSLC camera crew with hot spring water, a pre-tipped table to upend just like Teresa Giudice on RHONJ. While working my way through the labyrinth of nostalgia, I hear multiple attendees insist that Bravo should set this up as a permanent museum installation somewhere. Transporting Kelly Bensimon’s “Scary Island” jelly beans to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the public’s reverence is not an outrageous suggestion here at BravoCon. This is history.
Once inside Javits, I never see my subway companions again, lost to a sea of Tresemmé hair care blowout booths, countless cocktail opportunities, interactive photo stations, screaming, heckling, cheering, jeering, and more lines than Disney World—an oft-called-upon point of comparison for BravoCon. There’s certainly an overlap in the Venn Diagram of Disney Adults and Bravoholics—and after all, BravoCon is a convention based entirely on a sole media brand’s outsized growth in the market of watching fantastical figures experience moral dilemmas. Just swap the children screaming when they spy Mickey Mouse for adults howling when they see Below Deck’s Captain Lee ride by on a golf cart.
As Bravo more aggressively steps its foot into cultivating live events for an eager and impassioned audience, many have wondered whether this supersized return to BravoCon might blow up in the network’s face—some maybe even hoped that Bravo had finally bitten off more than it could chew, and that fans were gullible enough to buy in. On day one, the BravoCon relaunch is showing some of the pains of that outsized growth, yes—but it’s also an undeniable display of the pseudo-celebrity ecosystem at work.
In 2022, BravoCon has an app. Though I’ve never felt compelled to rearrange my iPhone’s home screen before, one hour into this convention I’ve moved the BravoCon app to the quickest possible position my thumb can locate. The app is a lifeline, informing all curious attendees that Friday’s two biggest panels are taking place one after the other on the Don’t Be Tardy stage. It tells us who has access to what and when. (Though there’s still so much more it could tell us—guide us, BravoCon app! Tell us where to go, and whether Karen Huger will be there!) There are the general admission ticket-holders, who’ve purchased either a one-day pass for $170 plus fees or a three-day pass for $430 plus fees. The VIP three-day pass goes for $825 plus fees and features preferred seating and fast-track admission for all panels, photo ops, immersive experiences—like filming a slow-motion Vanderpump Rules title card sequence—and add-ons like Bravopalooza happy hours at which fans can interact with a flow of Bravolebrities and drink “free” cocktails for an hour. And finally, there’s the SVIP pass, which supersedes all of those: the fastest admission, the best seating, and access to the SVIP lounge, where ticket-holders can meet-and-greet Bravolebs for three days, all for the low, low price of $1,950 plus fees, not including add-ons. (I assume that the “S” stands for “Super,” but its true meaning was never disclosed to me.)
An hour before the “Thrills in Beverly Hills” panel is set to begin early Friday afternoon, a massive line begins forming outside the auditorium (and then through the hallway, around the Bravo Bazaar, and into the food court). Inside, a woman is asking Andy Cohen whether he’s single, appearing to proposition him “if [he’s] ever in Michigan,” to which Andy quips, “I have bad news: I will never emotionally fulfill you.” We laugh and laugh at our little inside joke, not knowing the storm that’s brewing nearby. There are 30 minutes in between the Andy panel and the Beverly Hills panel, during which time I decide to stay put in my front-row seat in the press section, because no one told me not to and I don’t know any better. Likewise, just behind me in the SVIP section, not a soul moves unless they’ve laid out all the appropriate seat-saving plans in their last Bravo will and testament with their neighbor. Tracy Ritter, an SVIP, tells me she’s currently skipping the Bravopalooza time slot she paid for because she bought it before she knew when the Beverly Hills panel would take place (and before she knew what “Bravopalooza” even meant). But she’s not about to leave the Beverly Hills Housewives to go share passed apps with a question mark.
“You could not pay me to sit on the fucking Javits Center floor,” someone says behind me as the Don’t Be Tardy auditorium erupts into literal chaos minutes later. As it turns out, this auditorium isn’t so much an auditorium as it is a large corner of the Javits Center that’s been partitioned off by curtains to create the idea of an auditorium. So, as the line for one of the most anticipated panels of the weekend multiplies outside, and hardly anyone moves to free up any seats inside, the mounting crowd grows impatient and quite literally storms the curtains: streams of people flooding through every velvet crevasse.
Within an hour of arriving @BravoTV Con, any #eventpro would have recognized lack of proper orchestrating / audience flow. Sure enough, chaos ensued. pic.twitter.com/Q7A38um0et
Soon, there is not an inch of Javits floor visible to the human eye. Women in decorative belly chains and vegan leather pants are sitting on the cement ground in front of the press section, an area no one has even been allowed to walk through during the panels. Every aisle is flooded with standing bodies. Heather McDonald, a popular Bravo podcaster, is (successfully) attempting to haggle her way from the floor into the SVIP section. Every time a staff member tells the floor dwellers they cannot simply sit on the floor, they briefly stand up, and then decidedly sit back down again, citing that they’ve paid to be there—they’ve paid to sit on the fucking Javits Center floor.
By the time the floor dwellers have officially appointed a union rep who’s willing to go toe-to-toe with any and every security guard who so much as glances in their direction—she stands to debate with staff so that everyone else can defiantly remain seated—a man who’s certainly had some sort of crisis management training in his past takes the stage. The director of BravoCon guest services announces that they’re opening up the curtain walls in order to turn all of Hall A into standing-room-only for the Beverly Hills panel. The women and men who once rushed the auditorium now file slowly back to the exact space where they’d stood in line for an hour to get inside. On the big screen, the event producers roll the comedic stylings of RHOBH’s “Homeless Not Toothless” scene, surely in an effort to calm us down. (It works.) Soon, there is laughing and cheering through the packed audience once more, as the women of Beverly Hills are able to finally take the stage … and mostly give us nothing. It’s a treat to look at Garcelle Beauvais in a floral suit, or course, and impressive to watch Erika Jayne’s continued heel turn, but there’s nothing in the way of content on this stage that reaches the level of drama it took to get inside this room.
But Ritter, who traveled solo from Denver to be at BravoCon, learned a valuable lesson that first afternoon as she fought tooth and nail to save the seat of a newfound friend who’d had the audacity to venture to the restroom between panels. “I literally took the dehydration route,” Ritter says. “I was like, I’m not drinking or eating anything until my day is over because I’m not about to have to go to the bathroom.” BravoCon managed to circumvent similar disasters by making sure to clear the auditorium between all future panels, and bring in extra curtain security for Saturday. But there was another prevailing feeling, beyond dehydration, in the “Thrills in Beverly Hills” debacle: fulfillment. From the privilege of my own safely secured seat, and with only a few people sitting atop my toes, I thought, “Now, this is what I came here to see.” The thrill—and, yes, chaos—of watching something unfold live in front of me that I never knew existed. This level of fandom for The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills? Running and screaming, hours spent in lines, precious dollars spent—all to lay one’s eyes on the same six women I watch on my little screens each week? This meant something to people.
To a large contingent of mostly women and gay men, reality TV is like the sports for human behavior, and yet there are no live events to watch our favorite game at play—until now.
At BravoCon, a casual mention from a fan on Watch What Happens Live that the newly single Ashley Darby should get together with Summer House’s Luke Gulbranson turns into Darby and Gulbranson meeting at Andy Cohen’s Legends Ball on Friday and being seen holding hands on Saturday. By Sunday, we’re able to observe, in real time, the very specific shade of Darby’s blush as she confirms at the RHOP panel that she and Gulbranson connected “off site.” A “Jersey Ladies and Their Men” panel can be listed as one event at the start of the convention, but get split into two events by mid-convention when the sibling feud between Teresa Giudice and Joe Gorga heightens because of constant audience questions—and by the end of BravoCon, there’s a video of Jen Aydin throwing a drink at the Gorgas in the lobby of the Gansevoort hotel (where all the Bravolebrities have brilliantly been booked together). Within the confines of one single panel, Andy Cohen can casually tease that the only thing that gets a Housewife fired is “really pissing the audience off,” giving Jessica from Canada the opportunity to confront him during the Q&A and say, if that’s really the case, Andy, then why hasn’t Lisa Rinna been fired yet, eliciting thunderous applause from the audience. (An hour later, at the now infamous Beverly Hills panel, Rinna is the only Bravolebrity to be thoroughly booed all weekend, adding further proof of concept to Jessica from Canada’s mounting case.) BravoCon is a powder keg of pseudo-celebrity and parasocial relationships, and the fans are just as much a part of that codependent dynamic as the Bravolebrities: They need us to want them, and we want them to take a perfectly Instagrammable selfie, and maybe tell us one secret they’ve never told anyone else in their whole lives.
Between the 150 Bravolebrities in attendance, the countless ways to construct a schedule around them, and one’s level of purchased access, each BravoCon attendee can have their own uniquely defined experience. Walking toward BravoCon on Saturday, I stumble upon a Rinna Beauty truck hawking its wares just outside of the Javits Center, either because Rinna wasn’t invited to hawk them inside at the Bravo Bazaar, or because she didn’t fill out the paperwork in time, depending on who you ask. If you ask Ronna Smith Barney, perhaps Rinna’s biggest and only fan at BravoCon, Rinna is a hard-working woman who was in the throes of grief during Season 12. Smith Barney warns me the moment we start talking about Rinna that she will get emotional, thinking back to the loss of her own parent: “I cannot imagine the grief she was [experiencing] with losing her mom, and I just think it came across way too harsh, way too mean, and she was lashing out at the wrong people. She had a bad season, that’s all.”
When The Real Housewives of Orange County launched, the burgeoning franchise’s clear and stated point was to be aspirational—to offer a peek into how the other 1 percent lives, just like its scripted muses on The OC and Desperate Housewives. The women were rich, they were beautiful, and no matter where you lived, you’d never met anyone like them. But somewhere along the way, Bravo and its audience started to pave a parallel path, wherein the human impulse to find common ground with someone you know—or someone you feel like you know—became unavoidable. Somewhere along the way, the Bravo Cinematic Universe became both aspirational and accessible. Crystal Kung Minkoff is married to the codirector of The Lion King and throws fancy parties as her main hobby, but she also struggles with an eating disorder. Lindsay Hubbard is torn between the five-year plan she has for starting a family and having a Hot Hubbs Summer, every summer. The gorgeous, glamorous Cynthia Bailey cannot choose the right man to save her life. The delicate balance of wanting to live like these people, never wanting to live like these people, and also finding ways to relate to their deeply unrelatable circumstances has created a magnetic pull deeper and deeper into this universe, fueled by the energy it takes to ping back and forth between frustration and empathy, outrage and understanding, all within one scene of The Real Housewives of Potomac.
That founding Housewives principle—the power of women living their lives on-screen—remains a running theme throughout BravoCon’s many Q&A opportunities. Later that morning, at a panel titled “Bravo’s Most Golden Moments Power Hour: Presented by Lay’s,” a woman named Alex expresses to Vicki Gunvalson that she lost her mother two years ago but took great solace from Gunvalson speaking about her own losses on The Real Housewives of Orange County. Gunvalson, who has remained mostly in tears throughout the entire panel—first instigated by a montage of her tripping and falling over the course of 13 seasons, which she says (somehow) made her realize how much she misses filming the show—is now racked with sobs. She advises the audience to cherish every moment with loved ones “because you never know.”
Every Bravolebrity is either five inches shorter or four inches taller than you think. I knew she was small, but Kyle Richards? Is an armrest. Whitney Rose? A Polly Pocket. Captain Glenn? A cherub on your shoulder. On the other hand, Kathryn Dennis? A Themysciran goddess. Carl Radke? A positively towering presence. Austen Kroll? Making a few things about his previously inexplicable ability to attract normally level-headed women suddenly add up. I know this because I laid my eyes on these people in the flesh, and possibly, replacing an assumption of truth (6-foot-1) with actual fact (6-foot-5) will change my outlook on them forever. Early on, I ask two young women what they hoped to get out of BravoCon when they decided to buy tickets, and they say, simply: “Photos. It’s not like they’re gonna tell us anything.” And they’re mostly right. BravoCon has some similarities to a convention like ComicCon—a handful of attendees made stabs at cosplay like a “slut pig” (the insult Kim Richards once lobbed at her now good friend and BravoCon 2022 panelist, Brandi Glanville), and Bravo dropped a few new trailers and clips—but finding out that Luann & Sonja: Welcome to Crappie Lake is positively chock-full of testicle jokes doesn’t exactly have the same effect as finding out live that the Hulk is gonna be in the next Thor movie, or whatever. More than anything I learned at a RHONJ panel, Teresa Giudice offering me the warmest human smile I’ve ever been on the receiving end of while departing a party where we had not spoken a word to one another is what will ultimately transform me from a casual fan of Teresa into a willing organ donor for Teresa.
At BravoCon, the entertainment is in the access. Bravo is one of the few TV networks that pays its reality stars a full-time salary to entertain us, and as a result, Bravo’s fans have a particularly high set of expectations for what entertainment should be. We’re the reason you have a job: Perform or be put on pause. The same can be said of BravoCon, except here we’re not paying for entertainment, we’re paying for a revelation—to get some piece of these people that we’d never otherwise get when separated by a screen and months of editing. Nicole Gleizer, who at 25 has been watching Bravo for most of her life with her mom, starting with Inside the Actors Studio and Queer Eye, says, “It’s one thing to sit on the couch and obviously live my life with all of these people all the time, but I thought that it would just be fun to actually watch them formulate an answer right in front of the audience … to watch them interact with the fans and see how the fans reacted.”
There are almost endless ways to manufacture Bravolebrity encounters at BravoCon, but just like in the non-Bravo world, you either pay for that access, hustle for that access, or do some combination of the two. The Bravopalooza rooms guarantee celebrity interaction, but they’re an additional cost of around $150, and they don’t guarantee who you’ll see inside. If there’s one specific Bravolebrity you can’t miss meeting, a photo op is the most direct route, but making sure you’re one of the first 30 people in line—and you must be one of the first 30 people to stand a chance—means planting yourself there 30 minutes to two hours in advance. An SVIP can simply sit in the SVIP lounge all day and wait to see which Bravolebrities roll through for meet-and-greets, whereas Valerie Calogerakis hacked the general admission version of that, mostly hanging around the BravoTV press stage with her daughter and waiting for celebrities to take photos and chat after their interviews finished. “We just stood at that stage and got to see almost everybody that we wanted,” she said, “and we met friends—it was cute.”
The BravoTV stage is how I ultimately spot Kathy Hilton, who caused the biggest photo op circus of the weekend on Friday. After her press interview, she was smiling and waving like the first lady, offering her final round of goodbye selfies upward of five times before finally being ushered off the stage by handlers. I hear a security guard ask a group of fans who was causing such a scene. Assuming that he doesn’t speak Bravo, they explain that it was Paris Hilton’s mother. “Who is Paris Hilton?” he asks.
But hands down, simply wandering the Bravo Bazaar is the best way to run into a myriad of Bravolebrities selling their wares (or at least selling the suggestion of their wares, in the case of Craig’s pillows and Shereé’s joggers). It’s there you may discover that Candiace Dillard’s outlandishness on RHOP simply reads as charmingly gregarious in real life, and that Sutton Stracke’s strangeness on RHOBH is very real, but in the flesh, sweet and earnest. Or maybe Dorinda Medley will make you procure proof that you bought the whiskey you never knew she sold in order to take a photo, who knows.
By Saturday, with a Bravopalooza under my belt and one deeply surreal Bravolebrity party where I briefly ended up in a conga line with the notorious Jen Shah, the comparison is indeed unavoidable: BravoCon is like Disney World. Only there are no rides, just parades and character breakfasts wherein one hopes to catch a true glimpse of personality or insight under the Donald Duck costume. Is verifying with one of your own five senses that Andrea Denver from Winter House truly smells wonderful worth your time, energy, and ticket to entry? Perhaps you may be content to hear Lisa Barlow call Heather Gay “fucking fake” in an extremely live and emotionally tumultuous Real Housewives of Salt Lake City panel (moments later, Gay is in tears when an audience member professes the Bravo fandom’s love to her as a “relatable fairy,” and he wasn’t wrong). “I spend so much of my life watching these people that it’s cool to actually be here; yes, people hate on reality TV, but look,” Gleizer says, gesturing around to the hordes of people whizzing past us in the bathroom line on Sunday morning. “This whole thing was reality TV, and it was real.”
Three days at BravoCon is exhausting, and on the third day, I stumble across the woman who’s been working toward it for the last three years. Lisa Hendrickson is wearing a tiara, so I assume it’s her birthday, but when I get closer, I see that the crown has been custom made to read, in little rhinestone letters: “QUEEN OF BRAVO.” Hendrickson, a tech consultant, bought the crown for $30 on Etsy, but she earned the nickname itself on the BravoCon Facebook group she started in 2019.
The group began as a way for Hendrickson to connect with other solo travelers headed to BravoCon 2019, but following an injury, Hendrickson could no longer attend the event: “So I ended up just staying home during the whole thing, just running the command center, as I called it.” That command center wound up consisting of Hendrickson moderating 70,000 comments during the three-day event, and more importantly, honing her project-management skills for an even bigger task: BravoCon 2022. “I just get excited because, with my job, I don’t run big projects that often anymore because I’m a private consultant,” Hendrickson says. “But work is work—this is exciting.”
After missing BravoCon 2019, Hendrickson arrived at BravoCon 2022 on a motorized scooter, the coronated Queen of Bravo, having organized discounted hotel blocks at two different hotels for attendees and coordinated a welcome meetup party for over 300 people, and with only two goals in mind: Meet Gary King from Below Deck: Sailing Yacht, and have a smoke with Shep Rose from Southern Charm. “I kept my expectations small,” Hendrickson says. “I didn’t need to go to the panels and all the extra things. To me, it was seeing the few people I wanted to see, meeting all my friends [from the group] … I loved having no plans, just scooting around doing whatever I wanted to do.” Through a whisper network of loyal BravoCon Facebook-ers, Hendrickson met Gary King multiple times; he was as funny and engaging as she’d hoped. But when she finally encountered Shep and asked for that smoke, the logistics of getting outside were too much to coordinate. “I was like, ‘Hey, don’t worry about it, I’m just joking,’” Hendrickson recounts, permanently laid-back about these things. “But then I said something like, ‘Wait … do you want to ride on the scooter?’” Indeed, he did want to ride. “And it was just this fun, unplanned thing, you know?”
Just the kind of fun, unplanned thing one hopes, schedules, plots, and coordinates for at BravoCon. Hendrickson sent me the video of Rose riding around in circles on the back of her scooter that he also posted to his own Instagram stories. They both—Bravolebrity and Bravo fan alike—look thrilled with the unexpected turn of events. From the beginning to the end of the three-day event, the BravoCon Facebook group got nearly 100,000 comments and gained 3,000 more followers—it now stands at 10,400 followers, over a third of the 30,000 total attendees at BravoCon 2022. Hendrickson thinks next year, at BravoCon 2023, it could be 60,000.
“My job as the leader is to figure out a way to make it still seem small so people don’t feel left out,” Hendrickson says of the growing Facebook group. “We had 3,000 new people this week, but I’ve got to make sure that we keep that same small community feel in a large environment.” That’s BravoCon’s—and Bravo’s—challenge as well. To make this fandom that’s grown on couches, in communities, and now at cons feel like it felt in the very beginning. Because there’s still really something to be said—quite a lot to be said, actually—about the power of watching women live their lives on-screen.
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