Veuve and tears

The local ladies most likely to emulate the behaviour of their US counterparts.Production company Matchbox Pictures (The Slap, Formal Wars) auditioned two Australian cities, in addition to the casting of six Australian society belles who would bring glamour and catfighting to match that of the original American reality-soap franchise, The Real Housewives of … (insert iconic American locations such as New York, Beverly Hills, LA and Miami).

The winning Australian city may seem an unlikely choice, given her competitor’s international profile as a playground of the rich and famous.

The pressure is now on Melbourne, and her filthy rich, well-preserved fabulous nobodies, to succeed where other US reality transplants such as Celebrity Survivor and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy have failed.

”It was a bold and brave move to do it in Melbourne,” says executive producer Kylie Washington. ”We wanted to give it a classy and layered approach. Melbourne’s the espresso martini whereas Sydney’s the champagne cocktail.”

Cultural commentator and staunch Melburnian Bernard Salt is surprised at the choice of city. He says there is a cultural equivalent to Melbourne in Sydney, but suggests that geographical demographics played a part.

”Sydney’s (wealthy community) is scattered and tribal,” Salt says. ”The Vauclusians don’t like the Point Piperans, the Point Piperans don’t like the Woollahrians. Toorakians are united by their geography, by the river, by Toorak Road. You get a sort of colony down by Brighton, but Toorak is unique, geographically, within Australia.”

Salt predicts Australians will devour this local representation of opulence just as we have dramas and reality shows from suburbia. He says the concept meets both the desire to relate and the desire to marvel at the unattainable.

With a meandering storyline without the endgames or personal journeys towards self-improvement on which most reality shows hinge, Housewives is pure voyeurism.

”People like to watch it to envy, to judge,” Salt says. ”We’re endlessly fascinated with the lives of celebrities and the fabulously rich. It’s about dreaming, ‘How would I handle that wealth? Would I do it this way?’.”

The six identities who will bare their First World problems over Veuve and lobster were approached by Matchbox. It took seven months to cast the show. In property developer Janet Roach; barrister Gina Liano; caterer Chyka Keebaugh; plastic surgeon’s wife Andrea Moss; rock star’s wife Jackie Gillies; and architect’s wife Lydia Schiavello, Kylie Washington found an explosive mix of personalities guaranteed to create fireworks, as well as business-savvy women eager for exposure.

”They were upfront about (their business interests), but we don’t mind, that’s what the Housewives are all about, upselling businesses. We always said to them, it’s not an advertorial for anything, this is a part of your life and it’s fascinating,” says Washington.

In order to sell cosmetic procedures and cocktails, as do two of the Melbourne Housewives, they know they must indulge in histrionics and attack each other at every turn.

According to media professor Catherine Lumby, the spectacle is outdated and offensive. ”It’s a very camp idea,” says Lumby. ”It’s over the top and it announces itself as not very serious. On the other hand, to use the term ‘housewives’ is trading on some really old ideas about women and how they behave and what their identities are. It’s not clever. It’s a banal, copied, dated idea … The women are clearly being asked to perform.”

Washington insists that the talent is as volatile off screen, with nuclear arguments continuing over the phone well into the nights after filming.

Throwing hissy fits has an obvious advantage other than selling facelifts. As reality television blogger Emma Ashton points out, the stars of American franchises are replaced if they step out of the ring. Ashton sees The Real Housewives of Melbourne as soap for a younger generation.

”This is aspirational, it’s conspicuous consumption, it’s drama, it’s pretty clothes and flashy jewellery, which you can see on Dallas and Dynasty and The Bold and the Beautiful, but we think we’re seeing real life,” says Ashton. ”Foxtel has played hardline with these people. They’ve said to them, you’re going to have to give us your families. I’m surprised and pleased that we’re seeing husbands and sons involved in the storylines. We’re seeing what we think is their private lives.”

The time is also right, she says, for the concept to work both for local socialites and their audience.

”If you tried this in Melbourne or Sydney 10-15 years ago, it would have been a complete no-no,” Ashton says. ”It would have been a cultural cringe, but now the cult of celebrity has changed. Who we see in the A-list pages in the social pages each week are not the old money. It’s the new money, the reality TV stars, the soapie stars. That’s the new normal.”

The Real Housewives of Melbourne, Arena, Sunday, 8.30pm.