The cast of “The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City.” (Chad Kirkland)
The stars of the latest series in the “Real Housewives” franchise are an assortment of over-the-top, attention-seeking personalities straight out of Bravo central casting.
There’s a tequila entrepreneur who picks up family dinner at Taco Bell in her Porsche. A baby-voiced blond who celebrates her wedding anniversary with a spin on the stripper pole. Oh yeah, and a woman married to her step-grandfather.
Like their counterparts elsewhere in the country, the affluent women of “The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City” thrive on petty drama, conspicuous consumption and regular visits to the plastic surgeon.
But one thing sets them apart: The majority of the cast members are — or once were — members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a religion known for promoting wholesome values rather than rosé-fueled catfights.
The location offers snowcapped mountains as a scenic backdrop and — this is critical — affords cast members plenty of opportunites to wear extravagant après-ski fashion. But as the epicenter of the Mormon Church and a place where the LDS influence reverberates in everyday life, Salt Lake City provides rich anthropological terrain, particularly when it comes to the lives of women who don’t conform to church rules.
While the show includes the usual petty disputes (a feud has already erupted because one woman said another “smells like hospital”), religion is central to the drama in a way that is unique within the “Housewives” universe, where goat yoga class is about as spiritual as it gets.
“It is really surprising how open they are about Mormonism and how it relates to their lives,” says Bravo figurehead and “Real Housewives” executive producer Andy Cohen.
Jen Shah, Whitney Rose, Lisa Barlow, Meredith Marks and Mary Cosby in “The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City” (Bravo/Fred Hayes/Bravo)
“To be Mormon, we are taught honesty and integrity, fidelity within marriage and, most importantly, to watch for sin,” the housewives explain in an opening montage, which shows them behaving in the opposite fashion.
Needless to say, the women of “RHOSLC” aren’t exactly model Mormons: Lisa Barlow converted from Judaism, owns several liquor companies and describes herself as “Mormon 2.0” because of her lax attitude to church laws. Jen Shah was raised Mormon but converted to Islam when she learned about the church’s history of racial exclusion. Whitney Rose was excommunicated from the church after cheating on her first husband. And Heather Gay is a divorcee who bristles at the constraints put on her as an unmarried woman. (Adding to the spiritual melange are remaining cast members Meredith Marks, a Jewish jewelry designer, and Mary Cosby, the couture-loving “first lady” of a Pentecostal church and an early contender for the show’s leading drama queen.)
Producers have not been shy about playing up the Mormon element, frequently using establishing shots of the Salt Lake Temple. Joseph Smith and Brigham Young are name-dropped as often as luxury brands. In a bonus video on YouTube, the housewives answer questions about Mormonism like, “What is a sacred garment?”
For several of the women, the show is a continuation of their spiritual journey. Gay, a mother of three whose ex-husband is from a wealthy Utah family, becomes increasingly disillusioned with the church over the course of the season. (Her tagline: “Just like my pioneer ancestors, I’m trying to blaze a new trail.”)
When she divorced six years ago, Gay says in a phone interview, “I had no version of a future for myself. I didn’t know any single moms who weren’t destitute and depressed and coming to the church for financial assistance.”
If she wanted to date and remain in good standing in the church, she would have “had to follow the same rules as my 17-year-old daughter” — something she was not willing to do.
Heather Gay and Whitney Rose in “The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City.” (Bravo/Fred Hayes)
She no longer adheres to the church’s modesty code, the law of chastity or the word of wisdom, the name for the commandment against substances such as alcohol and tobacco. And she is critical of the church’s stance on LGBTQ rights and women’s equality.
“I go through that transition pretty publicly [in the series]. While my faith still defines me in so many ways, I don’t practice it anymore,” she says. “It is an all-encompassing faith. That’s why it’s really traumatic to leave it. I still feel like it runs through every single thought I have.”
Gay has found a sense of fulfillment by running a business — a med spa offering Botox, fillers and other aesthetic treatments — that capitalizes on what she calls the Mormon pastime of relentless self-improvement.
“We are highly focused on perfecting ourselves emotionally, financially and physically,” she says, and this has a particular impact on women. “How beautiful your home is and how beautiful and well-behaved your children are and physically beautiful you are is a reflection of your moral state. We value beautiful women because it is reflective of their righteousness.”
Mormons “believe that people have the potential of becoming like God,” says Lorie Stromberg, a Mormon feminist and member of a group called Ordain Women, which advocates for gender equality in the church. (Most men in good standing in the Mormon faith are ordained into the lay priesthood; women are not.) “We have this paradigm of perfectionism, and it’s stuck into a highly patriarchal model” in which women are primarily valued as mothers, she adds, to the point that “woman” and “mother” “are often used almost interchangeably.”
Rose, the aforementioned pole-spinner, is a descendant of Shadrach Roundy, one of Joseph Smith’s bodyguards. The pressure to conform to the feminine ideal is what drove her to get married at 19, despite doubts about her relationship. “100% that was a consequence of me trying to be perfect. It’s the architecture from the day you’re born.”
She subsequently fell in love with a co-worker 18 years her senior and embarked on a passionate affair, which resulted in their excommunication and a second marriage that has lasted a decade and produced two children.
Whitney Rose, Meredith Marks, Mary Cosby and Heather Gay in “The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City.” (Bravo/Dan Boczarski)
“I had to mourn the loss of so many friends and family over the years. They can’t understand that I’m in a happy place. We are taught that if you have blessings, if you are successful, it’s because you’re following the rules of the church,” Rose says. Sometimes it’s hard for her too: “I have been out of the church for 12 or 13 years now, and I still have to work on rewiring my brain.”
Rose says she and Gay “dive in deep” about their experiences in the church over the course of the season. They met years ago when Rose hired Gay to take boudoir photos of her. A few years later they realized they were second cousins. (“It doesn’t get anymore Utah than that,” Rose says.)
Some aspects of Mormon culture — particularly the role that women play in the faith — align with Bravo’s brand of aspirational, well-heeled reality TV.
Young, stylish Mormon influencers like Rachel Parcell and Amber Fillerup Clark are popular on Instagram, where they have amassed hundreds of thousands of followers beyond the LDS community by sharing cheerful photos of their adorable children and vast, pristine white kitchens. Salt Lake City reportedly has a higher rate of plastic surgeons per capita than Los Angeles, and a study by Utah Valley University found that two-thirds of Utah Mormon women know someone who has undergone cosmetic plastic surgery.
“There’s never more beautiful people than when you step into the Salt Lake airport,” says Barlow, who was raised in New York and calls herself “Jewish by heritage, Mormon by choice.” “People take really good care of themselves. It’s not about money, it’s about integrity. One prophet said keep your barn painted — like, literally, make yourself look your best.”
The church’s record on race also comes under scrutiny in “The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City,” thanks to Shah. Raised Mormon, she converted to Islam — “As-salamu alaykum, bitches!” she says — when she learned from her husband that the LDS church had a history of excluding Black people. (Black men could not be ordained until 1978.)
It was a difficult choice for Shah, who is of Tongan and Hawaiian descent and still occasionally goes to church with her mother.
“It’s like, could I pick any more diversity? Let’s just make my life as difficult as possible in Utah. We ticked all the boxes.”
“The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City” has what might be the most racially integrated cast in what has been a segregated franchise — the New York City edition recently added its first Black cast member — and part of what drew Shah to the series was the opportunity to show a more diverse side of her community. (Like the other cast members, she was approached about starring in a reality series about female entrepreneurs in Utah and later learned it would be a new “Housewives” spinoff.)
“I felt like I needed to represent that it’s not just Caucasian, blond-haired, blue-eyed women that run successful businesses here,” she says.
With popular shows set aboard luxury yachts in the Caribbean and in Hamptons beach houses, Bravo has has been eyeing the majestic mountains of the West for years. “We’ve cast in Aspen about a million times,” says Cohen, who previously developed another show about modern Mormons that fell apart when participants dropped out.
“I think there’s a lot of mystery about the church and people are intrigued by it,” says Cohen.
Some locals are already displeased. A review in the Deseret News, a church-owned newspaper based in Salt Lake City, warned readers that the show is “full of digs at Utah culture [and] church members … that will make any Utah diehard squirm or even surge with anger.” (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints declined to comment on the show.)
Bravo is not worried about potential blowback.
“I think there will be a lot of people who say this doesn’t represent Salt Lake City or the Mormon church,” says Cohen. “It’s not supposed to. It’s supposed to represent a certain group of friends in that area.”
Gay sees it differently — and hopes that people who feel like they don’t have a place in the church, whether because of their gender, sexuality or marital status, do too.
“For me to go on this show and speak openly about what I think and feel is a huge liability for the church,” she says. “What I really want to do is create a safe space for a lot of recovering Mormons throughout the world.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.