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Dissed and tsk tsk-ed

Scott Dunlop's TV series `Real Housewives of Orange County' has lots of locals livid.

April 03, 2006|Lynn Smith | Times Staff Writer

BECAUSE the Orange County rich have more money than the rest of us, they also have bigger and newer houses, cars, diamonds and breasts, according to the new reality show "The Real Housewives of Orange County." The problem is what they don't have, namely, any interest in being perceived as melon-breasted, jewel-encrusted, SUV-driving, margarita-sipping mansionistas. And that means trouble in Coto de Caza.

"I got flipped off the other day," said "Housewives" creator Scott Dunlop, a businessman and actor who had been observing his neighbors in the resort-like development for 19 years before launching the show, his first as a television producer, on Bravo. The series follows five women and their families as they play tennis, play house, and work at getting ahead and staying young-looking.

"I was in the grocery store and a woman I know shook her head and tsk-ed me and looked away," Dunlop added. Even before the show aired, he said he had been likened to Satan and had received whispered threats in midnight calls to his home, a luxurious multilevel place whose pool overlooks a golf course.

He's not alone in being targeted. Kimberly Bryant, one of the featured "housewives" who has been seen working out while explaining that 85% of her female neighbors have had breast implants like hers, said onetime friends have dropped her. On Friday, one of her daughter's classmates brought in a handmade poster that read "I hate 'The Real Housewives of Orange County' " for an assignment. Even one of the teachers at the sectarian private school had taken Bryant's 13-year-old aside to ask if she was ashamed to have her mom on the show, Bryant said.

The series, which has received mixed reviews ("a masterpiece"; "appalling") has crystallized Orange County's identity as home of the nouveau riche and their gorgeous, spoiled children, an image that developed on scripted shows "The O.C." and "Arrested Development," both largely shot in Los Angeles, and hit closer to home with MTV's romanticized reality show, "Laguna Beach: the Real Orange County."

"Housewives" exposes a different slice of the Orange -- the large-scale planned communities, such as Mission Viejo, Irvine and Newport Coast, common to south Orange County. Created all from scratch on rural, single-owner tracts, the communities are less suburban than exurban. And without local history or traditions, the social hierarchies that have arisen are based on a pretty straightforward formula: specific neighborhoods' av-erage square footage. (In one episode, divorced dad Slade Smiley fails to impress a potential client by dropping the name of his neighborhood; the client counters with his own, more exclusive neighborhood in Coto.)

Dunlop said his original idea was to create a scripted/unscripted satire called "Behind the Gates" looking askance at life in Coto, a 4,400-home, 5,000-acre development bordering the Cleveland National Forest. The guard-gated community includes 3,000-square-foot homes as well as 50-acre compounds and gated homes. There are tennis courts, riding trails and two golf courses. According to census figures, residents are 89% white. (Notable exception: Snoop Dogg, who reportedly owns a home there.)

Dunlop wanted to base one character on a real neighbor who works on what he called the "15-15 plan." "He works 15 minutes a day for 15 years and makes over a million bucks a year," he said.

In a way, those who buy into the developments seem to mirror the place itself -- insular, pleasant and obsessed with youth. ("In Orange County, people just don't grow old," notes Lauri Waring, the show's Botoxed divorced mom.) Residents work hard to control their images -- and never so much as when it might appear that their images are controlling them.

Though the characters strike a familiar note, other moms in Coto said they don't like to be associated with what they said were false images. Debra Douglass, 32, president of MOMS (Mothers Offering Mothers Support) Club of Coto de Caza, a support group for stay-at-home mothers, said she doesn't wear makeup to the gym and estimated that only 1% of MOMS Club members have implants. "They portray the women to be very superficial," she said. "Most people who live here are real people raising kids, working hard."

One resident, who did not want to be identified, said the Los Angeles rich are equally materialistic, just not as conspicuous. Status in L.A. tends to revolve more around which private school your child is in, she said. (As in "Laguna Beach," schooling appears to be an afterthought in "Housewives.") Besides, she said, Coto de Caza isn't the richest place in the county. "Newport Coast is worse," she said.

Needless to say, most said they would be watching the rest of the series.

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