Africa: Why is everyone obsessed with reality television about the rich and famous?

By Wilfred Okiche
Posted on Friday, 29 April 2022 17:23

Real Housewives Of Lagos photo (facebook)
Real Housewives Of Lagos photo (facebook)

From Netflix’s Young Famous and African to the Real Housewives franchise powered by Showmax, what is the obsession with the lifestyles of the rich and messy?

“I got married to a billionaire…Poor people can’t stand that,” says Carolyna Hutchings, one of the stars of The Real Housewives of Lagos – the newly launched version of the popular American reality television franchise – a salvo she fires in the trailer promoting the Nigerian adaptation.

Hutchings, a socialite and one time Nollywood star is one of a dynamic group of well-heeled women who make the swankiest parts of Lagos their playground in the show.

From fancy lunch dates to strategically staged intervention sessions, Hutchings and her costars (including another Nollywood actress and a fashion stylist to the stars amongst others) find interesting ways to gossip, create drama, embark on massive ego trips and flaunt their privilege.

This kind of crass, problematic behaviour must be off putting to audiences, right? Wrong. According to Showmax, the streaming service owned by Multichoice, which licences the famous franchise from NBC Universal, audiences cannot get enough.

The first episode of The Real Housewives of Lagos, which launched in April, was a hit, setting a new record for the highest number of first-day views on Showmax in Nigeria. This tracks with the streamer’s experience launching local adaptations of the franchise in South Africa. The first season of The Real Housewives of Durban broke all previous first-day viewing records on Showmax when it launched in 2021. The show is now streaming in 50 countries across Africa.

Clearly, there is an in-built fascination for wealthy people behaving badly.

To appreciate the early success of The Real Housewives of Lagos is to understand the kind of glamorous chaos that the franchise sells. Starting in 2006 with The Real Housewives of Orange County, the new reality series inspired by hit scripted soap operas like Peyton Place and Desperate Housewives followed a group of wealthy middle-aged housewives living fabulous lives in a gated California community.

Adopting a mix of formats like confessional interviews and live social interactions, the housewives would dish out the most interesting and scandalous parts of their lives. The Real Housewives of Orange County was a huge hit and inspired replicas in 10 other American cities. Internationally, the success has ballooned as well with the Real Housewives franchise operating in 21 cities, including Lagos, Durban and Johannesburg.

‘A side of Africa we don’t see enough of on TV’

Candice Fangueiro, Showmax’s head of content, explains the international appeal of the franchise and the reasons it translates successfully for an African audience. “For superfans of The Real Housewives franchise, it’s all about the drama and the opulence, the fabulosity of the characters. Are they friends or foes? Do they have the same kinds of problems that regular people have?” she tells The Africa Report via email.

There is also the question of representation as the local adaptations offer viewers familiar – and occasionally relatable – versions of characters who are just as ‘unhinged’ as those in the American shows. Fangueiro says: “The African editions show us a side of Africa we don’t see enough of on TV – it’s more than dinner parties and fashion labels; you will see the cast wearing traditional outfits, sharing local dishes, talking about culture, customs and family.”

The Netflix original series Young, Famous and African – a global hit for the streamer – is billed, even if superficially, as also showing a different side to established depictions of the African continent, particularly in the global north. The show borrows heavily from The Real Housewives structure in that it follows a retinue of wealthy, jet setting African superstars as they camp out in Johannesburg and do things that such people do.

The Africa depicted in Young, Famous and African is one of opportunity and extravagance. Some of it is unrelatable – a South African actress cum socialite has her teenage daughter live in a separate apartment next door to her -, while plenty of it is pretty familiar: gossiping, backbiting, romantic entanglements. Either way, the relentless drama makes for compelling television that easily triggers water-cooler moments and Twitter trending topics.

Even for the stars who participate, the show has been a boon. Nigerian actress and celebrity wife Annie Macaulay-Idibia, buoyed by her rising profile after participating in Young, Famous and African, confesses that she is now “…at the peak of my career!” Celebrities participate in these shows for different reasons: some of them are looking to launder questionable images, others are hoping to kickstart troubled careers, while a section of them seem grateful for the paycheck as well as an opportunity to be seen by an increasingly global audience.

For The Real Housewives of Lagos star Toyin Lawani-Adeshayo, who is herself no stranger to television – having starred in her own reality show Tiannah’s Empire in the past – it represents an opportunity to set the record straight. The infamous stylist and businesswoman tells The Africa Report: “The world does not see your true character online. They just read the narrative that the blogs sell to them about you. Instagram is all about the glam, but no one understands the hard work that goes into what you do.” She says: “Being an entrepreneur is a difficult job but I would love to show people how I juggle it. I would love for them to see the dedication behind every win they see.”

But what is in it for the audience and why are shows like these so popular?

‘Access to the lives of famous people’

Anita Eboigbe, an Abuja based journalist and managing editor of HumAngle media, breaks down her observations garnered from years of covering reality television programming. “The reality television industrial complex has gone through several cycles. The singing competitions that came out of American Idol gave viewers the power to be part of some lucky person’s come up. Then Big Brother brought about the micro-obsessions with the lives of ordinary people. With the Kardashians and the Real Housewives, it is about access to the lives of famous people. The shows give people access that they would otherwise not have, and this starts to breed entitlement,” she tells The Africa Report.

This fascination with watching privileged people and living vicariously through them as they make the same mistakes – sometimes even worse – is its own heady feeling. Watching them struggle at random stuff tends to reinforce a shared humanity. In some twisted way, the aspirational element to the shows then allows for punching up, a phenomenon that can at least be considered less problematic than punching down. It is easier and ethically more acceptable after all to make fun of people who are already successful.

A lot of these shows want to mimic what we have seen somewhere else.

The American influence on the reality television programming in Africa has been unmistakable and while a lot can be lost in the translation across cultures, some things when done with specificity and insight, can be gained. “A lot of these shows want to mimic what we have seen somewhere else,” says South African critic Thabisa Ngcobo before registering her impressions of the cultural representation on the popular Mzansi Magic show The Ranakas  – also streaming on Showmax. Ngcobo says: “I remember watching the protagonist go through her Sangoma initiation. It is something very sacred and a lot of South Africans related to that. There is authenticity in the show and I was pleasantly surprised.”

Authenticity means different things to different people though. For Lawani-Adeshayo, The Real Housewives of Lagos is important because despite the furor about the catfights and the drama writ large, the show offers an important feminist perspective. It documents the lifestyles and experiences of successful Nigerian women as they seize their agency and get things done.

For anyone seeking even more reasons as to why The Real Housewives of Lagos has become must-see television, Lawani-Adeshayo chalks it down to her participation. “The show has me, the king of all queens – and of fashion – in it,” she says.

No surprise there. She is a real housewife after all.

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