It is an episode of The Real Housewives and so, just as the sky is blue and the grass is green, a woman is screaming and crying in public. In this instance, it was in the snowy parking lot outside of a Prohibition era-themed cocktail party in Salt Lake City, the surprising location of the most recent installment of the Bravo franchise.
Cast member Jen Shah, in her beaded ball gown with an attention-demanding train, had just finished yelling at her arch-enemy Mary Cosby, who had recently offended Shah by saying she “smelled like hospital.” (Shah had been holding vigil over her aunt who had both legs amputated.)
Across the loud restaurant, Shah was calling Cosby a “grandpa-fucker”—which, well, is at least adjacent to the truth. Cosby had married her late grandmother’s husband, her own step-grandfather, as part of a stipulation to inherit the family’s empire of churches; Cosby and her husband/former step-grandfather have a son together.
And yet it is Shah, the woman who was calling someone else a “grandpa-fucker,” who is fleeing the soiree in a semi-sloshed huff of hysterics, ushered with concern into the snowy parking lot where a fleet of Ubers and black cars are playing a precarious game of Tetris. Guiding the teetering basketcase as she drunkenly navigates snowdrifts in high heels is fellow cast member Heather Gay, the rarest gem of reality-TV personality: a pillar of calm, an audience stand-in and voice of reason, and still a goddamn hoot to watch in her own right.
With an almost serene assuredness—in stark contrast to the bonanza of boozed-up buffoonery staging a circus around her—Gay, in her 1920s-themed dress and Gatsby-esque headpiece, zig-zags the parking lot on the phone with Shah’s husband, attempting to wave him down like an air traffic controller guiding in a plane. It’s then that she delivers what may be the line of the inaugural season of The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City: “You’ll see me. I look like a flapper with cankles.”
If you read the preceding five paragraphs, you’ll know it’s no small feat that, with all that going on, it’s Gay, in all of her centeredness and quick wit, who has become the breakout star of what’s been the buzziest installment of Bravo’s Real Housewives franchise in years.
Gay, who describes herself as “a purebred, pedigreed, pioneer Mormon”—and whose emotional candor about deciding to leave the church is at the crux of her Real Housewives arc—has accepted and embraced that “a flapper with cankles” is now an inextricable part of her identity, as much as being a divorced single mother, successful business owner, and former Mormon.
When we connect over Zoom ahead of Wednesday night’s new episode of RHOSLC (the girls go on a group trip to Las Vegas), she giggles at the mere mention of the now-famous line.
“It was an outtake!” she laughs. Production was around, Shah was inconsolable, and she was just trying to find Shah’s husband and bring a semblance of peace back to Utah.
“I was just doing what you normally do. You try to de-escalate with humor and make some jokes and just let everyone know it’s gonna be OK. I was in mom mode, like, ‘Let’s get her in the car. Let’s get her out. And don’t worry about it. You may be uncomfortable, but I’m a flapper with cankles. It can’t be much worse than that.’”
It’s a testament to Real Housewives’ evolution that the woman whose chief concern is de-escalation, and not concocting more petty drama, is emerging as the new installment’s fan-favorite.
Don’t be misled. RHOSLC contains scenes that belong in the pantheon of Housewives lunacy alongside table-flips, fake-leg tosses, and wig snatches. But there’s something about the confidence and maturity with which Gay interacts with the other, more volatile women in her cast—combined with her self-deprecating sense of humor and, ultimately, humility—that makes her a crisp breath of fresh mountain air in a genre that’s gone scorched-earth with personalities that stoop and pander to base-level drama.
To assign specific Housewives references, she’s got Lisa Vanderpump’s ability to be intimately connected to everyone’s tangled web of dramas while appearing above it all; Bethenny Frankel’s knack for clever-in-the-moment wordplay and one-liners; and the authority and projected intelligence to be the voice of reason without sacrificing her own right to be the goofy life of the party—a Dorinda Medley specialty—all while being clear-eyed and articulate about a very personal, sensitive issue: her experience with the Mormon church, why she left it, and how speaking about the darker aspects of her journey have complicated her relationships with those she loves.
Gay had just wrapped shooting the show’s reunion, which Grand Poobah of Real Housewives Andy Cohen touted as the longest taping in franchise history, and gotten back to Salt Lake City when we connected. With the show’s first season nearing its end and a reunion—easily the most traumatic filming day for cast members—in the bag, we ask Gay if she officially feels like a Real Housewife now.
“I hate to go dark and deep on you…” she cautions, a running theme to our conversation, “but I don’t think I ever even allowed myself to believe that it would really happen.” Initially, she was just volunteering to connect friend and RHOSLC cast member Lisa Barlow with other Salt Lake City businesswomen she knew through her Botox spa business, never imagining she’d be in the running for a TV slot herself.
“I hate to go dark and deep on you… but I don’t think I ever even allowed myself to believe that it would really happen.”
She makes a note to parse that further with her therapist, but manages some introspection about it: that maybe this is why she works on the show.
“I watched all these women over the years and just admired that they had the balls to go and put their life out there, good, bad, and ugly,” she says. “I’ve always had empathy for the women because I’m grateful that we get to escape into their lives. I think I probably feel, subconsciously, a compulsion to just open it up and lean into the bloopers of life because that’s what I cherished about the show and that’s also what I know I’m capable of.”
She laughs: “Like I can’t be Lisa Vanderpump. I’m not going to be feeding swans anytime soon.”
When Bravo announced that the next new installment of its Real Housewives franchise would be Salt Lake City, fans were certainly intrigued… but also confused.
If there is one recurring character that appears in every episode of every city’s version of the series, it is alcohol. In fact, it may be the star of the show. How would a version of Housewives set in a city where the Mormon church—and its moral imperatives that forbid alcohol consumption—has its tendrils in every aspect of life possibly produce a season that feels at all in line with what the franchise is known for? (Which is to say: messy partying.)
And beyond that, while there is an obvious fascination with the intricacies of Mormonism and the social lives of its followers, would Bravo and the Real Housewives franchise, of all outlets, really be equipped to educate and enlighten the country on such a delicate and controversial subject matter?
On the one hand, the more serious story arc is in line with the evolution of Real Housewives, which has, in recent seasons, incorporated difficult conversations about politics, the Black Lives Matter movement, sobriety, sexuality, the pandemic (and, with it, COVID conspiracies), and the responsibility of Black women in the public eye into its otherwise absurd and diverting brand of entertainment. On the other, this is God we’re talking about.
Critics have noted that the RHOSLC cast all currently live lives tangential to the church, though all have deep personal ties to it in their pasts. While some wonder whether it would have been prudent to cast women who are still involved in the religion—Mormon “mommy bloggers” are a niche segment of successful social media influencers, for example—the women are all remarkably candid about how Mormonism impacts almost every aspect of their daily lives.
As Gay explains on the show, her ancestors crossed the plains and settled in Utah. Her Housewives tagline: “Just like my pioneer ancestors, I’m trying to blaze a new trail.” All of her descendants can be traced back to Mormonism, she says. Her three daughters with her ex-husband were all brought up Mormon, too.
Growing up, she was taught to place all of her value in who she married and his connection to the church. So it was like winning the lottery, both religiously and financially, when she married into what she calls “Mormon royalty.” Her ex-husband, who she was married to for 11 years, comes from a family that she says is worth “billions.” His grandfather was Howard Hughes’ driver and “henchman.” When Hughes died, his family inherited a large portion of his estate.
(A business owner in her own right, Gay is no financial slouch. She owns a cosmetic spa chain called Beauty Lab + Lasers that, according to Decider, is worth north of $20 million.)
Gay and her ex-husband divorced five years ago, a byproduct of her increasing disillusionment with the conservative, myopic teachings of the church and the constraints that were put on her as a woman. Discovering how to be an independent woman when her entire life was spent being told that she was nothing without the salvation of the church and her marriage sent her into an existential tailspin, one that she is just now recovering from and talking about for the first time on the show.
When it came time to discuss the Mormon church on camera, “I approached it really cautiously,” she says. “As much as I feel compelled to expose the things that have forced me to walk away from my faith and to teach my children differently, my entire extended family, my entire community, my customers all have one toe in the pond of Mormonism.”
Attempting to characterize what Utah is like to the uninitiated, she explains that most people you meet will either downplay or pretend they have no connection to Mormonism. But spend 10 minutes chatting with them, and you’ll learn that they left the church when they were 15, or their family is still involved, or they consider themselves “Mormon 2.0,” which means they follow lax rules when it comes to indulgence and consumption.
“As much as I feel compelled to expose the things that have forced me to walk away from my faith and to teach my children differently, my entire extended family, my entire community, my customers all have one toe in the pond of Mormonism.”
“I always say, just scratch under the soil a little bit and you can Erin Brockovich it,” Gay says. “There it is, green as a shamrock: Mormonism in the soil.”
At a time of extreme polarization, especially in pop culture, when bad is bad and good is good and nothing is shaded or in between, she was worried how discussing this so truthfully would play.
“How do you address something as nuanced as a religion that has a very complicated history and even more complicated present? At the same time, it’s what created you and what has informed every decision in your life. Not just, you know, who to pray to. What clothes to wear. What college to attend. Who to marry. Where to live. What to study. What children to have. How to raise your children. Every choice was under this umbrella of a faith that I was walking away from and that my family and community were still entrenched in.” Every lapsed Mormon has lingering scars of the teachings that inform how they talk about leaving the church. She could have gone on Bravo and taken the PR approach, delivering innocuous answers that she’s been trained to give about the faith and its teachings in order to avoid exploiting the fascination in the religion and creating unnecessary discord.
“But that’s not the truth,” she says. “There’s a reason I’m walking away from the church, and there’s a reason I want to teach my children differently. And it’s because there are fundamental flaws in the doctrine. While I would love to stay in the culture and be embraced by my community, at the same time I am deeply passionate about being unflinchingly honest about how damaging the doctrine is to the LGBTQ community, to single women, and to women in general. And our history with racism. That’s all real and that’s all true. You can spin it positively, or you can just say it’s ugly, it’s bad, and let’s stop.”
Her awakening came about two years ago, she says, when she felt she was failing at her attempt to “toe the line” for her children: distancing herself from the church because of her fundamental disagreement with its teachings, but still wanting her daughters to belong in the community. But as they got older, she couldn’t reconcile lying to them anymore. She was losing respect for herself, and they were losing respect for her. On the show, she speaks openly with them about it for the first time.
When I ask what the reaction has been to her talking openly about leaving the church, she doesn’t mince words: It’s been rough.
“I’m definitely a Benedict Arnold,” she says. “The thing that makes it the most uncomfortable is that I live with the people I used to go to church with every day. My Uber driver was a man from my congregation that I had sat in Sunday School lessons with. My daughter’s friend’s moms are women who feel offended by the fact that I’m on the show and saying the things I’m saying.”
What she has to keep telling herself is that she’s saying these things because they’re true. Because they’re her experience. And it’s not helpful to spin them in a positive way. “I don’t want to apologize for that. but I feel sympathetic and I feel ashamed. And I feel compelled to apologize, constantly.”
We talk briefly about how all of this fits in with the new identity of Bravo series and Real Housewives, which has cast members speaking openly about their experiences with Black Lives Matter. Fans have begun to hold stars accountable for their political opinions and social beliefs. What she’s doing isn’t exactly in line with that socio-political discourse. But she is articulating in a remarkable way what is a very sensitive relationship to religion and a fraught journey to assert her own independence and worth.
“For better or worse I have influence because I have followers,” she says. “I have followers because I am crazy and unstable and make food jokes. I don’t have followers because I am smart or important or know how to navigate this. I am as overwhelmed as everybody.”
“So I want to absolutely be an advocate for the things I’m passionate about,” she continues. “But I also feel like everyone deserves the right to change the channel and not have their, you know, ‘flapper with cankles’ Housewife spouting off about their political views—be they the same or different from you.”
Maybe this is another case of Heather Gay’s humility: her inability to understand that, after this first season of RHOSLC, fans will likely follow the flapper with cankles anywhere she goes.