It’s hard not to examine the choices that lead you to waiting outside in 40-degree weather, standing behind someone holding a life-size cardboard cut-out of Andy Cohen. It’s not that I wasn’t excited about BravoCon—the first-ever three-day celebration of Bravo’s reality programming and the TV personalities (AKA Bravolebs) who fuel it—but I find conventions vaguely traumatizing. Yet the network famous for squeezing every last drop of drama out of a facial twitch promised me a parade of former Real Housewives, so here we are.

It seemed appropriate to start my weekend with Bravo All Stars: OG Housewives Edition, an Andy Cohen-moderated panel featuring former Real Housewives who were there from the beginning of their respective series—Jeana Keough (The Real Housewives of Orange County), Jill Zarin (The Real Housewives of New York City), Caroline Manzo (The Real Housewives of New Jersey), Adrienne Maloof (The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills), Kim Richards (also RHOBH), and Kim Zolciak-Biermann (The Real Housewives of Atlanta). This was the kind of experience I was looking for at BravoCon, a sort of nonsensical mash-up of memorable personalities who were wise enough to step away from the cameras (or who were asked to step away).

But it was also at this panel that I started to feel my first twinge of anxiety. After Andy said (somewhat absurdly) that all the women onstage were exactly who they were when they first started filming their shows, Jeana asked if that went for Kim Zolciak-Biermann, too. At the slightest hint of shade, I felt something bubbling in the audience, a hunger for the discord that defines Bravo’s reality programming to make a real-life appearance. Listen, I’m all for wine-throwing and wig-shifting on TV, but witnessing conflict in person generally makes me want to flee like Kyle Richards at a restaurant in Amsterdam. I wondered about the true meaning of BravoCon—were we here to celebrate these women, or to watch them duke it for our entertainment? (And if it was the latter, would there be enough room for me to hide under my seat?)

The OG Housewives.

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But the Empire State of Wives panel, featuring the women of RHONY—Luann de Lesseps, Tinsley Mortimer, Dorinda Medley, and Ramona Singer—put me at ease about BravoCon at large. That’s not to say there wasn’t any awkwardness—there was some definite tension onstage, which I immediately picked up on as a Libra—but mostly my faves behaved exactly as I’d expect them to. Which is to say that Ramona talked over Tinsley incessantly, and spent an impressive amount of time delivering an impromptu commercial for Amazon Prime, where you can now purchase her skincare line.

And there was darkness, too, like Tinsley saying the show is “realer than real life,” and Ramona’s genuinely chilling declaration that “you can do something horrendous and [the fans] forgive you.” Worst of all, the belligerent drunk woman next to me kept heckling the panel, asking me questions, and trying to get my attention by thwacking me with her hand. (Ma’am, I can hear you when you scream in my ear, I’m just choosing not to respond.) She ended up stumbling out of the theater midway through the panel, shortly after screaming at Dorinda that her boobs looked great. BravoCon attendees—freed from the constraints of their mundane lives and given access to endless $16 cocktails—were going to treat this weekend like a Vanderpump Rules vacation, weren’t they? God help us all.

I began the second day of BravoCon with RHONJ: The Garden State Dishes the Dirt, with New Jersey Housewives Teresa Giudice, Melissa Gorga, Margaret Josephs, Dolores Catania, Jennifer Aydin, and Jackie Goldschneider. There were memorable moments, including eye-opening intel (Teresa revealing that production told her not to do another bodybuilding competition because they thought she was boring when she wasn’t drinking) and pandering (Teresa essentially recreating her most GIF-ed moments, including “prostitution whore” and “is ‘bitch’ better?”).

But things took a turn during the Q&A. A woman made her way to the mic solely to attack Jackie, saying that Jackie refuses to admit she was an obsessed fan of Teresa before joining the show. When Jackie shot back with “Do you have a question?” the woman asked why she’s so pretentious, which, technically speaking, is a question, but clearly a rhetorical one. There was so much about this moment that made me deeply uncomfortable—the desperation of a fan wanting to be part of the drama, and the reinforcement that some viewers don’t seem to understand that the women they watch on TV are actual people. On some level, that discomfort stuck with me all weekend, reflecting my early question of whether BravoCon was intended as a party or a brawl. Having watched every episode of every Housewives series, I should have known the answer to that was both.

BravoCon - Season 2019

Dorinda did…that.

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After the OG panel, I made my way to the Real Housewives Museum, an exhibition of reunion dresses and props (some real, some recreated) that recall notable Housewives moments. On the one hand, it was very silly. On the other, I am a very silly person, and seeing the bunny that Kim returned to Lisa Rinna at a particularly contentious RHOBH reunion was legitimately exciting to me. That’s history, as far as I’m concerned.

Saturday night was the Vanderpump Rules After-Party. BravoCon attendees paid extra for the chance to see James Kennedy’s DJ set and party with the cast of one of Bravo’s most successful Housewives spin-offs. Given some of the behavior I’d observed over the first two days, I was a little…concerned about how this was going to play out. Would the cast really be mingling with a drunken crowd, including some people desperate to rehash TV drama? As it turned out, they would not! For the most part, the Vanderpump Rules folks remained ensconced in an opera box at the Hammerstein Ballroom, waving down at their loyal public like Evita addressing the descamisados from the balcony of the Casa Rosada. I certainly couldn’t blame them—they would have been mobbed if they’d wandered into the crowd—but BravoCon probably shouldn’t have promised (and encouraged people to pay extra for) something they couldn’t really deliver. One party attendee sounded crushed when she asked me if the cast was ever going to come down. But hey, as a compromise, the former and current SURvers grabbed people’s phones to take pics of themselves, should a selfie of Lala Kent on your Camera Roll be a souvenir you would cherish.

Thanks to my press badge and negotiation skills, I eventually made my way into the opera box, where I did, in fact, get my “party with the cast of Vanderpump Rules” BravoCon experience. I will concede that watching Scheana Shay get onstage while James blasted “Good as Gold” made all the subsequent photos of me looking befuddled in the background worthwhile. Also, my two BravoCon goals were to show Kristen Doute my phone background (it’s a picture of Kristen Doute) and to take a selfie with Ariana Madix, and I was able to accomplish both Saturday night, so I probably could have ended the weekend there. But—deep sigh—there was one more day ahead.

By Sunday, the bone-deep exhaustion and growing disdain for everyone around you starts to wear on your body. I started the day with RHOC: The Juice Is Worth the Squeeze, which included Tamra Judge, Shannon Beador, Kelly Dodd, Gina Kirschenheiter, Braunwyn Windham-Burke, and Emily Rebecca-Simpson. Moderator Amy Phillips asked Andy Cohen-style questions, and suddenly I realized I was sitting in the front row of a live reunion. That might sound appealing to you, but again, I am conflict-averse, and watching Shannon and Kelly trade barbs in front of a massive audience was physically painful for me. Is this what BravoCon attendees wanted to see? Maybe so! And I was glad that Amy went for challenging questions over the fluff that other moderators settled for. But watching people fight on TV is a very different experience from watching people fight a few feet away from you, and I learned that you can only sink down so far in your seat before you’re just sitting on the floor.

After the RHOBH: The Real 90210 panel—made supremely boring on account of the fact that the whole cast is getting along—I went home to rest and gather my strength (read: chug a Diet Red Bull) so I could power through the BravoCon finale: Luann’s Countess and Friends Cabaret Show Sponsored by Pepsi. Yes, that’s its government name. Having watched RHONY, I did not expect Luann to be on time, but I didn’t expect her to be an hour late either. The audience grew restless. An impromptu Q&A session—clearly a stalling tactic—got interesting when a woman said she had to get up early for work the next day, and suggested that Lu’s lateness was a sign of entitlement. I began to hear heckling. “You’re not Madonna!” someone yelled. By the time Luann took the stage to sing “Cabaret” at 9:30, the audience already seemed over it.

BravoCon - Season 2019

The Countess brings it home.

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Things only got worse. I’ve seen Luann perform before, so I know that her show is less about her singing and more about her special guests—emphasis on the “and Friends” of “Countess and Friends.” But the people around me were audibly expressing their disappointment after yet another costume change. When Lu returned with a rendition of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” the audience apparently found lacking, one woman heckled, “Step it up, we waited an hour.” As the show went on, people began to leave in droves. Another (far too long) Q&A didn’t do much to mitigate the chaos, especially after a woman dared ask Luann, “Why were you so fucking late?” The true nadir of the night came shortly thereafter, as a man stepped up to the mic, praised Luann, and then said Epstein didn’t kill himself. Is this camp?

As the cabaret devolved into mayhem, I thought about what a fitting end it was to BravoCon. I kept imagining these dichotomies and trying to place the event firmly on one side or the other: Was it about camaraderie or conflict? Was it a well-oiled machine or a hot mess? To say “all of the above” feels like a cop-out, but it’s also true, and frankly those warring sides reflect the two levels on which I have always embraced Bravo. My love is both ironic and sincere, and BravoCon seemed to understand that implicitly. I left feeling exhausted yet invigorated, emotionally drained like I’d just survived the four-part Real Housewives of Atlanta reunion but desperate for news that this would be the first of many Bravo conventions. And given that we all survived the weekend without any broken bones or rogue Danielle Staub appearances, I can only assume BravoCon will be back again next year. I’m in.

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