There’s a long-held adage among reality TV stars. When you see conflict across the room, you run toward it. Career reality stars know showcasing their carefully curated life is work. Identifying conflict, squeezing it for all its dramatic juice and positioning yourself in the center is a skill set that can keep you in the limelight as long as you’re willing to sell your tragedies for fame.
The queen of the craft is inarguably Tiffany Pollard, who turned a fiery appearance on VH1’s Flavor of Love into an entire career. Her best TV moment came in 2016 when appearing on the British version of Celebrity Big Brother. Her castmate Angie Bowie — David Bowie’s first wife — learns of her ex-husband’s death while filming and confides in Pollard.
In a scene that rivals whatever the fuck it is that David Mamet teaches, Pollard seamlessly turns Bowie’s tragedy into her storyline. “David’s dead,” Bowie says, the camera on her. “No, he’s not,” Pollard screams in disbelief. The camera turns to catch Pollard’s reaction. She falls into Bowie’s arms and begins to cry. As the ballerina of reality TV, she dances across the Big Brother set dry-heaving and convulsing.
Eventually, Pollard learns that Bowie wasn’t talking about their fellow contestant asleep in the Diary Room, David Gest. Bowie was talking about her ex-husband. But it’s too late: Pollard has created an iconic TV moment.
While Pollard remains TV’s best creation, a new star has risen to the heights of reality TV. Real Housewives of Beverly Hills’ star Dorit Kemsley is TV’s best antihero. Don Draper and Tony Soprano wish they could be as adored for their conniving ways as Dorit (and her hairstyles).
I came to this realization while watching Real Housewives last month. Walking into a party hosted by co-star (and QVC queen) Lisa Rinna’s daughters, Sutton Stracke, the painfully insecure newest cast member, confides in Kemsley, “I’m going to flip out.” Sutton is worried she’ll run into an ex–business partner and current friend of Rinna’s. Dorit, sensing an opportunity to take control, says in her cold, indiscernible accent, “It’s not the right time to flip out.”
The feared ex-partner doesn’t show up, but Kemsley doesn’t let an opportunity to run the show slip past her. She brings up the exchange later at dinner, greatly exaggerating Sutton’s story. Kemsley erroneously claims Sutton said “freak the fuck out” and was ready to throw hands. This angers Stracke, who must now grovel to defend herself. It also turns Rinna against Strack for even considering ruining a party thrown by her daughters.
So another dinner fight ensues while Kemsley, the instigating mastermind, watches. Not a single hairsprayed strand is out of place.
“She prods castmates with 14-karat-gold tongs and then backs away with the grace of an Olympic ice dancer,” Kate Casey, host of the podcast Reality Life, tells me. If Meryl Streep can get an Oscar nomination for her subpar dinner fights in August: Osage County, Kemsley deserves a goddamn Oscar for her Housewives scene work (Yes, I’m aware Emmys are the TV awards, but Kemsley is serving Oscar-worthy performances and we should change the rules for her.)
Today’s Kemsley, with a penchant for gaudy outfits and a cool demeanor, is a stark contrast to the Kemsley we met in 2016. When she first joined Real Housewives’ Beverly Hills branch for Season Seven, Kemsley was a student in the Lisa Vanderpump School of TV Villainy. “She was paying her dues and getting her permission slip signed to be on the show,” Sarah Galli, host of the podcast Andy’s Girls, tells me.
For her first few years, she did Vanderpump’s bidding, chastising castmate Erika Jayne for going commando at a party and taking the heat of Rinna’s accusations that Kemsley snorted coke at a group function. Kemsley, looking to cut her teeth among the women who hold diamonds, prostrated herself at the altar of SUR restaurant. “Dorit was a great addition to the franchise, but I also truly disliked her,” Galli says.
Her narrative shifted last season when the Vanderpump empire fell. In what has become known among reality TV historians as PuppyGate, Vaderpump was exposed for a history of hazing new cast members by having them do her dirty work and leak salacious stories about the other women to tabloids. Her final straw was feeding Radar Online a story that her former protegée Kemsley gave her dog away to a woman who eventually took them to a shelter.
Kemsley objected to the manipulation. At the Season Eight finale, she told Teddi Mellencamp, Vanderpump’s latest pawn, what Lisa had been doing all along. “She was at her most human and no longer giving permission to these brats,” Galli says.
The star has seemingly found her stride when her world should be falling apart. Kemsley and her husband, Paul (known on the show as P.K.), allegedly owed $205,000 to a business partner for her shitty swimsuit line, Beverly Beach. There’s a cringe video of Kemsley being confronted by a pool for missing money. The couple’s bank accounts were reportedly frozen, and P.K. is allegedly in a lawsuit for not paying back a $1.2 million loan from 2011. They’ve been labeled con artists.
The couple finally addressed their financial woes this season in a confessional (husbands rarely ever get this coveted honor). Kemsley shows up in a zebra-print dress with a black cap while P.K. wears a black sports coat and shirt accented with a 2000s-era necklace.
The Kemsleys readily answer the producer’s invasive questions, so cool and collected they’re even sharing mints on camera. It’s truly a sight to behold. “They look like Veronica and Bullwinkle,” Galli says, charmed by Kemsley’s endearing intolerability.
Adds Casey, “No one can ever address her story inconsistencies or passive-aggressive jabs because she has a gentle-sounding voice and peppers conversations with anecdotes about her young children and love of art and sunshine.”
Kemsley may feel like a shitty friend, but that’s what makes her a talented reality TV star. Most of TV’s best antiheroes, like Tony Soprano or Dexter Morgan, start beloved and end up the least interesting character on their shows. Kemsley managed to do the opposite, growing from unbridled fake Eurotrash (she was born in Connecticut but made living in Italy her personality) to an eccentric dom wife and mom of two.
On top of the fake eyelashes, financial lawsuits, shoddy swimsuits and fight scenes, Kemsley is finding time to design tables at the Buca di Beppo in Encino, California. Buca hasn’t received this much attention since the time. “I can’t wait to get a reservation for two when we’re allowed to go inside with our masks,” Galli says.
It’s telling that in a season when Denise Richards allegedly cheated on her new husband with former housewife Brandi Glanville, somehow Kemsley has reigned as the most interesting housewife. Sorry, Walter White. Kemsley, with her perfect manicure, is the one who knocks.