Monica Garcia was always a different kind of Housewife.
Even before the events of the Jan. 2 finale of Season 4, the latest addition to “The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City” set herself apart from her new colleagues. Bravo’s biggest franchise is an ode to the nouveau riche and their tasteless McMansions, but Garcia wore her working class bona fides with pride. Her entry into the franchise was not as a “friend of” or peer to an existing cast member, but a former assistant — infamously, one of many — to Jen Shah, now a convicted felon serving time in federal prison. In her first episodes, Garcia openly discussed her struggles as a single mom and called out costar Lisa Barlow for her materialism. She wasn’t another tequila magnate with a $60,000 ring (Barlow) or a boutique owner bankrolling her son’s monogrammed sweatpants (Meredith Marks). She was a working person, just like you and me.
The finale’s events take that populism to an entirely new level. As it turns out, Garcia isn’t just like the average Bravo fan, watching catfights from their couch and tweeting their thoughts to total strangers. She is a Bravo fan — though anything but average. Garcia is now unmasked as the co-proprietor of the social media persona Reality Von Tease, an account with just a few thousand followers across Twitter and Instagram. To look at Von Tease, the (now, largely scrubbed) page is indistinguishable from the legions of “tea” accounts aggregating news items and gossip tidbits about their favorite reality shows. The “Salt Lake City” women still seemed to recognize the account by name, indicating Reality Von Tease was already familiar to them as a particularly pernicious troll even before the Bermuda trip.
That excursion, the crew’s first international getaway since Shah lost the ability to leave the country, had been jointly organized by Garcia and Heather Gay, a collaboration that would soon turn deliciously ironic. It was Gay who received a phone call, teased in the premiere, allegedly confirming Garcia’s connection to Reality Von Tease, and Gay who gathered Barlow, Marks and Whitney Rose on the beach to plot a confrontation over dinner, a meeting only revealed in flashback after the dinner was already underway. Presented with Gay’s evidence (“RECEIPTS! PROOF! TIMELINE! SCREENSHOTS!”), Garcia quickly caved. “Even Gossip Girl couldn’t stay Gossip Girl forever,” she shrugged in testimonial.
Garcia’s presence on Bravo brings the cable-channel-turned-unscripted-powerhouse even further through the looking glass. Fifteen years in, the Housewives franchise and the greater Bravoverse are thoroughly in their postmodern era, where the fourth wall is just a state of mind, and meta storylines abound. “Salt Lake City” has now escalated this trend to previously inconceivable heights. It may not be sustainable past this crescendo. It may erode the already rickety foundations of a highly produced narrative. It is definitely the result of some heinous interpersonal conduct. But it’s also extraordinary, brain-breaking television.
In a sense, l’affaire Monica is the inverse of the so-called #Scandoval, the “Vanderpump Rules” explosion that set the previous high water mark for Bravo twists. That spectacle sprang from the painfully, undeniably personal barging into its stars’ public lives, breathing desperately needed new life into a relatively stagnant show. “The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City,” by contrast, has never lacked for drama. (See the aforementioned prison sentence.) But the Garcia reveal represents a wholly different dynamic: that of the ecosystem surrounding “Housewives” breaching the increasingly permeable barrier between entertainer and audience.
To watch “The Real Housewives” has always meant to suspend one’s disbelief. It’s standard practice for performers to deploy euphemisms like “our group” to avoid acknowledging that they’re coworkers on a television show, not an organic circle of friends. Lunches take place in suspiciously empty restaurants; producers occasionally appear on screen or even influence the story — remember Michael Darby and the cameraman on “Potomac?” — but always disappear before long. Sometimes, the artificiality is part of the fun. One season into their tenure, the newly minted “Real Housewives of New York” still feel like a random group of women impersonating capital-H Housewives, an archetype they all understood from years of watching other women impersonate, and then become, Housewives. And, in all likelihood, engaging with accounts like Reality Von Tease.
With a year-round schedule of new releases, Bravoholics (the official and technical term) never lack for viewing options, but they can and do supplement the shows with podcasts, subreddits and social media fan pages, the vast majority of which are unauthorized. After the initial shock, one of the most gratifying aspects of the “Salt Lake City” finale was the confirmation that said Bravoholics include Bravo stars themselves. “Don’t act like every single one of you wasn’t constantly watching and DMing that page,” Garcia scoffed in confessional, complete with screenshots of Angie Katsanevas responding to Reality von Tease. “You were our biggest fans!” The argument wasn’t much of a defense against an accusation of cruelty, but it was a telling look into the mechanics of reality stardom, and one that makes intuitive sense to viewers. Who wouldn’t give into the temptation to engage with some spirited discourse about their own lives?
Another peek behind the curtain was Garcia’s candid description of the vetting process as “auditioning to be friends” with the incumbent Housewives. The truth is that Housewifery, like acting, is a skill — one that Garcia has in spades, whether naturally or from observing Shah firsthand. The quippy one-liners, willingness to overshare and quickness to anger and make up all make Garcia a valuable contributor to the story, up to and including her latest transgression. The irony is that Garcia may have flown too close to the sun; the same exploits that made for one of the most sensational scenes in “Housewives” herstory has likely put a permanent wedge between Garcia and her castmates. Housewives can forgive (or more likely, be contractually obligated to ignore) far graver sins, like Shah’s defrauding the elderly or Mary Cosby’s alleged misconduct toward members of her congregation. But Garcia’s online attacks may hit too close to home, or risk turning the story into a snake eating its own tail: a show inspiring social media posts about the show, which in turn become material for the show.
Headed into Tuesday’s reunion episode, the first of three, Garcia’s future with the franchise remains uncertain. (She has a prime place next to Andy Cohen in the seating chart, a document “Housewives” Kremlinologists love to put under the microscope, but there’s no official word yet on the cast for Season 5.) There are also plenty of logistical questions, from what Bravo and/or Garcia’s castmates knew and when to the identity and involvement of Garcia’s co-conspirators, who ran Reality Von Tease as a group account (according to Garcia). But what we know only amplifies Garcia’s pre-existing arc. Even on paper, an assistant taking over her boss’s semi-glamorous job after playing a role in their downfall has the makings of an “All About Eve” remake. Now, Garcia is an on-camera avatar for every Bravo viewer who’s ever project themselves onto the action. Even if she ends up banished from “The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City” itself, she’s already exploded our notions of who a Housewife can be.