What ‘The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City’ Got Right About Utah—and What It Got Wrong

Published on November 12, 2020

Bravo’s The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City had its premiere this week, bringing Housewives‘ fans to the snowcapped mountains of Utah for a mix of the cocktail-hour drama that the show is known for and an introduction into Utah’s predominating Latter Day Saint culture. I’m from Utah, and watched the show’s premiere with a careful curiosity into which direction it would go, as well as what it might get right or wrong about my home state.

As a native Utahan I can say that, when the show was announced about a year ago, one of the primary local concerns was that it would either lean too heavily into local LDS culture or not at all. Either end of that spectrum would have missed the dynamic of what it means to live in Utah entirely, so the show would have to find some middle ground to be both entertaining and authentic—and avoid offending members of the church.

Living here you’re either part of the religion or you’re not, but you’re never fully out of it—and there is no denying that the state’s LDS population contributes, in large part, to our local culture. However, leaning too far into it would have made a mockery of it entirely—serving not as a defender of the religion but as a satirical look at its members. Mormons also don’t drink (or at least they’re not supposed to), so a Real Housewives cast full of sober women would have been pretty boring according to Housewives‘ standards. Obviously LDS women do fight and can be catty about it—no one group of people is a monolith—but they’re just not drunk when they’re doing it, and that’s what fans of the show love to see.

The show did find its middle ground in representing what it means to live in a community predominated by a single religion while managing to show its diversity as well, but it likely did so at the expense of its LDS viewers. At the start of the premiere we first meet Jen Shah, a Park City housewife that grew up Mormon but transitioned to Islam when her husband, University of Utah football coach Sharrieff Shah Jr., pointed out to her that the LDS church did not allow Black people to participate in much of the religion until 1978.

Shah, who credits her husband and their two kids as being her reason for not participating in the church, also mentions that she is of Tongan descent. An estimated 25% of the Tongan population in the United States lives in Utah (which is more than Hawaii), so Shah’s heritage represents a small nod to one population that doesn’t often attention outside of our local community. For the show’s creator Andy Cohen to have included this tells me that Real Housewives put its research into Salt Lake City.

Next I want to point out that much of the show, despite being called the Real Housewives of Salt Lake City, actually takes place in Park City. Much like the 2002 Olympics, this obnoxious fact is often overlooked by those unfamiliar with the area. When we’re greeted with aerial shots of ski slopes, Jen’s ‘Chalet’ (no one here uses that word), and Meredith Marks’ ultra-modern home, what you’re actually looking at is Park City—a small ski town about 30 miles east of Salt Lake City.

It’s close enough, but Parkites are quick to point out this distinction mostly because Park City is less populated by members of the LDS church and more populated by ski bums and wealthy transplants from California and New York. This makes it relevant, since the show seems to be representing more of that population and less of Salt Lake City’s LDS folk.

Where the show does put a focus on the LDS church (members will be quick to correct you—they are separating themselves from the name “Mormon”) is in Lisa Barlow and Heather Gay. In the show premiere, the two women discuss the distinct differences in how their experiences in the LDS church shaped them to this day. Barlow is a New York-native while Gay is a born and bred Utahan, but both attended Brigham Young University—the definitive Ivy League of the LDS world, located in Provo, Utah.

The first episode of the show puts a lot of emphasis on Gay’s ‘good girl gone bad’ reputation after her divorce, while Barlow defends her decision to own several tequila brands despite being an allegedly active member of the church. Both women emphasize the church’s focus on modesty. Gay, who owns a medical spa, points out that LDS church members believe that perfection is attainable—something she believes helped carve the success of her business. Meanwhile Barlow is quick to point out that, when she and Gay were in college, Gay seldom adhered to BYU’s strict code of ethics.

In short, this is not a show catering to members of the LDS church that want to see their community well represented on national television (the local Deseret News pointed out that the show got the facts wrong when it announced that the church has 6 million members, about 10 million short of its global 16.5 million). This is a Real Housewives franchise, and although the show clearly did its research in finding a somewhat diverse cast to show that Utah isn’t entirely populated by white, LDS people (castmember Mary Cosby is a Black woman that runs a Pentecostal church, but is married to her late-grandmother’s second husband), it definitely won’t be embraced by the church either. Local non-church members will likely welcome the show for taking place in their home state, but beyond that it caters more toward the ex-LDS (what locals might call “Jack Mormon“) community and those, like myself, that were never part of it to begin with than it does the active church members.

Julia Sachs is a former Managing Editor at Grit Daily. She covers technology, social media and disinformation. She is based in Utah and before the pandemic she liked to travel.

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