Kyle Richards Reckons With the Feminism of ‘Real Housewives’ and ‘American Woman’
The reality star talks her new semi-autobiographical show ‘American Woman,’ its feminist themes, her lifetime in showbiz, and the polarizing ‘Housewives.’
There's something Kyle Richards does on Bravo's Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, and with each passing season does more often, that clues you into the fact that she has spent nearly her entire life working in front of the camera. She cries pretty.
You and I? When we weep, Gollum himself transmogrifies onto our contorting, reddening faces while a torrent of snot and tears congeal into a soupy goulash of hideous emotion. But when Kyle Richards tells Lisa Vanderpump that she feels betrayed because she sided with Dorit in a fight, her tears are stunning. She cries, and her features, those big, green eyes, pop. The emotion may be real and raw, but the expression of it, aesthetically, is extremely pleasing. Cry for us, Kyle! Gorgeous, sobbing Kyle!
She's a woman who has spent her entire life on TV sets, learning how to harness larger-than-life stories and even grander emotions into artful packaging. She knows how to translate the deepest of pain into a facsimile of tragedy audiences can not only palate, but demand to see more of.
You can't orchestrate how people feel or live their lives, but as anyone who has watched any of the Real Housewives franchises knows, you can control how it is exhibited or performed. Housewives, especially, know what a good, emotional story is and know how to tell it in a way that grabs attention. It’s these things that Kyle Richards, whether she knows it or not, has spent a career finessing, spanning back to when she was just a little girl. It all makes her latest endeavor simultaneously surprising, inevitable, and perfectly suited to her.
She's the executive producer of American Woman, a new Paramount network series loosely based on her childhood. It’s the first time a Bravo Housewife has moved behind-the-scenes of a scripted series, and the first time Richards has taken everything she's learned from a lifetime in front of the camera, from how to tell a story to how to cry pretty, to her new role behind it.
“It’s what I’ve been building up to do since I was little girl,” Richards tells me over the phone when we connect to chat about American Woman.
Premiering Thursday night, the series is set in the 1970s and inspired by Richards’ experience growing up as the child of a single mother amidst the second-wave feminism movement. It’s not purely autobiographical, Richards clarifies several times, but Alicia Silverstone’s Bonnie Nolan is based on Richards’ own mother, Kathleen, and how she handled raising three daughters (in the series it’s only two girls) after divorcing her cheating husband, despite never having held a job.
It’s not touched on in the show, at least not in the first few episodes, but Kathleen responded to her new lot in life by pushing her daughters into show business, turning them into child stars and contributing members to the family’s finances.
Richards booked a recurring role on Little House on the Prairie, had a part in the original Halloween, and co-starred with Bette Davis in The Watcher in the Woods. Her older sister, Kim, who appeared with Richards on several seasons of Real Housewives, starred in the television series Nanny and the Professor and a handful of Disney’s Escape to Witch Mountain movies. Their half-sister, Kathy (as in Kathy Hilton, mother to Paris), also appeared in several TV series.
“I’ve literally been in front of the camera my entire life,” Richards says. “I was memorizing scripts and lines since before I knew how to read.” Even as an adult, she continued acting in bit parts, including 21 episodes of ER as Nurse Dori. John Wells, who was showrunner of the NBC medical drama back then, also happens to be the executive producer of American Woman.
Star in eight seasons of Real Housewives and you start to get a sense of what people assume about you, and what they think about reality TV stars.
Richards knew that people would dismiss her as a narcissist working on a vanity project, and she knew they would all discover they were wrong. “I had it in my mind that people would think that,” she says. But she recounts all her time working in show business. “I feel I had the right to do this. I feel like I know what I’m doing.” At every turn, she says, people were “taken aback” by how involved she was, which made her feel better because she “knew there was going to be judgment.”
Richards was roughly 30 minutes late for our planned phone call. (Teddi Mellencamp would never.) But it turns out that was for a justifiable and, in terms of the subject matter we would be discussing, timely reason: motherhood. She had been dropping off her daughter, Alexia, at the airport for a month-long Eurotrip Richards gifted her for her birthday: Israel, then Barcelona and Mykonos, before Richards meets up with her in Italy.
Rough life, we joke. (Not really joking, though.) Richards laughs. “She graduated college and worked her butt off! I asked what she wanted and she said to travel. I was like, you know what? I had a baby at 19 so I’m like, go do whatever you can before you have your kid.”
If you’ve watched the most recent season of Real Housewives, you know the themes of American Woman, the memories working on it brings up about her mother, her regret that her children never got to know her, and the fact that her sisters, Kim and Kathy, are actively upset that Richards is mining their lives for TV content are all extremely emotional subjects for Richards.
Basically, almost any time American Woman was brought up on Housewives, Richards cried (flawlessly) about that, too.
“I love my sisters very much, and all families go through this. We are absolutely no different,” Richards says when we bring up Kim and Kathy’s displeasure with the series, in a dry cadence that doesn’t telegraph she’s bored by the conversation, per se, but that she’s not telling you anything you don’t already know. On the final part of this season’s RHOBH reunion, Richards revealed that she and Kathy aren’t speaking because of the show. “We’ll work through it. Kim and I are great. So, you know, we’ll work through it. What can I say? I think a curiosity is natural.”
She credits working on the series with helping her to look at her mother through a completely different lens. At the time—she was just a kid after all—it never registered with her what it must be like to raise three daughters after their father, the breadwinner, left.
“My mother was very strong and outspoken at a time when women weren’t supposed to be like that,” she says. “She gave me a checkbook at ten years old and wanted me to learn about budgeting and balancing it at ten! Because she wanted me to know how to take charge of my life and never be in the situation that she was. At the time I was like, oh cool I have checkbooks with cartoons on them! I didn’t realize what she what was doing. And then nobody wanted to take my checks because I didn’t have a driver’s license.”
She laughs remembering how nervous it would make her when her mother would become confrontational, especially given the company she’s chosen to keep these last eight years on Bravo. “Being on the Housewives has taught me to speak up and defend myself and have a voice more than I was comfortable doing before, because if you don’t, you get stepped on, chewed up, and spit out around them!” she says with a hiccup-y chuckle, which becomes the punctuation to most of her answers.
Richards has been developing American Woman for over five years, so the fact that its themes are so timely to current cultural conversations surrounding women and empowerment has taken her by pleasant surprise. “Now all this stuff has unraveled, it’s just so interesting, the timing,” she says. “With the whole #MeToo movement, everything. It’s so strange. We deal with so many of these topics in the show. Even the title, American Woman. This is the year of the woman, and it’s just like the stars aligned.”
Given the feminist pulse of American Woman, we ask her about how those ideas are in conversation with her time on Real Housewives. She’s well aware of how, over the years, the show’s feminist values have been dismissed, particularly when it’s so easy to single out a clip of the women fighting to get one’s point across.
“I think that it’s more of people, when there’s been the arguing in some of the franchises, saying that it’s setting women back,” she says. Richards has an impressive knack for charging into the answer to any question at hyper-speed without skipping a beat, no matter how difficult the question. She saws her way through this one with the same breathlessness.
“But I really don’t feel like that,” she says. “I’m going to speak from our franchise, because I feel like that’s only fair. All the women on our show are incredible women. I think all these women are empowering. They’re all incredible businesswomen. They have solid marriages. They’re mothers. They’re juggling. They’re doing it all. I think all of them are inspiring, honestly. If you look across the board at all these women, I think they’re all inspiring. People say this to me on a daily basis, all day long, on Instagram and Twitter. So that’s what I have to say about that.”
She pauses, to the point that I think she’s done. But she’s just taking a breath: “It’s probably the last thing people would imagine someone to say about the Housewives, but I do think people are inspired by what these women are doing at this time in their lives. And all that they are doing.”
"That's what I have to say about that," followed by a nervous giggle, is something she says exactly twice in our conversation. The second time comes when I ask her about her future on the Housewives franchise. She’s not one to shy away from groaning at a question she’s getting for the umpteenth time, which is actually a fun change of pace in celebrity interviews, and this is certainly one of those queries.
“Everyone has asked me that, and assumes that I’m going to leave the Housewives now because of my other projects,” she says. “Honestly, we never know until the next comes up and is discussed. But I feel very grateful to Bravo and Evolution Media, the production company, because I’ve always had stories I wanted to tell, but people wouldn’t have listened before. Now they listen. I’m just grateful to them. They’ve been really supportive of my projects. That’s not lost on me, and I won’t forget that.
And here it comes: “So that’s what I have to say about that.”
American Woman premieres Thursday, June 7 at 10 pm ET on Paramount.