Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: How the 'Real Housewives' Reveal Race, Culture and Wealth Issues in L.A. and N.Y.
New York is the city of "self-made hustlers," while Los Angeles is the final destination for the "rich and famous," writes the NBA Hall of Famer.
Were they alive today, I’m sure the great thinkers like Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud and Simone de Beauvoir would all agree: Every burning question we have about American culture can be profoundly answered by watching The Real Housewives. This is particularly true when it comes to understanding the subtle yet significant differences between New York City and Los Angeles lifestyles and mind-sets. A closer examination of the Zen of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and The Real Housewives of New York reveals the major cultural contrasts between the home of the NYC middle-finger salute and the home of the SoCal "hang loose" hand wave.
First, my bona fides for commenting on both cities: I grew up in New York City and spent much of my youth in Harlem, where I played street ball, frequented jazz clubs, got caught in a race riot and spent a summer as a journalism intern, during which I even interviewed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Although I traveled throughout the city and all its boroughs, I felt at home on the streets of Harlem, among the black faces — including the black mannequins in store windows — and the jazz and soul music leaking from transistor radios on the street. Even after my four years living under relentlessly cheerful Southern California sun while playing at UCLA, my dream was to return to New York when I turned pro.
I ended up in Milwaukee, caught between both coasts. The people there were gracious, generous and supportive, but when the opportunity arose to play for the Los Angeles Lakers, I chose Southern California, where I have lived for more than 40 years. I frequently visit New York for business and pleasure but return to L.A. to live my life. Whenever the plane approaches JFK Airport, I feel a buzz of excitement in my chest because I know something unpredictable and spontaneous will happen. When the plane approaches LAX, my whole body relaxes because I know I'll be home soon, among friends and family. The city is soothingly predictable.
It may seem challenging to see any differences between the Real Housewives who represent these two cities. The women are all wealthy, squabble about who owes whom an apology, openly seek beauty rejuvenation treatments, drink a lot of wine and hungrily hunt for ways to alchemize their television fame into lucrative business opportunities from shoes to vodka to toaster ovens. Plus, they are all white, which is odd, since only 33 percent of New York and 29.4 percent of L.A. is white. Last season RHONY wives had a half-Asian, half-Jewish castmember, but she is already off the show. Women of color have their own delightfully entertaining Bravo shows — Real Housewives of Atlanta and Real Housewives of the Potomac — but maybe the lack of color on the New York and Beverly Hills shows is an honest reflection of the unconscious segregation of the upper classes in both cities. Maybe this is a reflection of last year's #OscarsSoWhite problem in L.A. and New York's popular but discontinued stop-and-frisk policy that targeted mostly people of color. Both cities have racial problems they'd rather not deal with, and the Real Housewives also choose not to deal with it. It's not a criticism, just an observation that among the wealthy elite in both cities, there's no one of color they hang out with on camera.
What the Real Housewives don't share is the same attitude toward earning one's wealth. New York is the city of self-made hustlers who are driven to prove themselves in the crucible of merciless competition and high failure rates. L.A. is where people move once they're rich and famous. Sure, the L.A. tar pits are brimming with the melting skeletons of all the Hollywood wannabes who never La-La-Landed on the big screen. But their quest seems more narcissistic than the driven strivers of New York who come for a broader variety of pursuits, not just showbiz.
Although some married into wealth, many of the New York women are self-made. They earned success before fame. Bethenny Frankel is the most obvious success story, having risen from personal chef to head of a multimillion-dollar business. Her success culminated on the show, but she was always the hardest-working woman on either franchise. No matter what you think of Ramona Singer's wacky antics, she didn't shirk the daily grind that built her wholesale clothing and religious jewelry businesses long before going on TV. Heather Thomson ran her own fashion business before TV fame. And Carole Radziwill was a successful journalist and author. They were the ambitious go-getters that define the spirit of New York City.
The women in Beverly Hills mostly married or inherited their wealth. Some had brief acting or dancing careers, but few built businesses by themselves. Many of the businesses they are involved in now are a direct result of their TV fame. Only Eileen Davidson has single-handedly forged her career as an actor. Lisa Vanderpump's restaurant empire was built before the show but financed by her millionaire husband, Ken Todd. None of this means that the women should have taken on careers rather than the infinitely challenging job of raising children, or that what they are doing now is any less important than what they did before TV fame, or that they aren't working hard at whatever projects they are currently developing. It just highlights a difference between the scrappy up-by-the-bootstrappers of New York City and the glamly-come-lately of Beverly Hills.
For me, it comes down to this: If the women on both shows were stranded on a desert island for a year, when the rescue ship came, I'd bet on the cast of New York to be the survivors.
A version of this story first appeared in the April 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.