Unlike so many of her peers in the keeping-up-appearances business, Jen Shah loves to talk about just how much help she requires to function. In December 2019, a day before she was scheduled to report for her first day of shooting the debut season of the Bravo reality series The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City, “I was running around at home with my 20 assistants,” she tells me over the phone a year later, only mildly exaggerating. “My housekeeper from New York flew in, literally flew in, and was helping organize my closet. She fell off a ladder and had to go to the hospital within, like, two hours of arriving in Utah. So, that was crazy. My assistants were scrambling to hire closet organizers because she got hurt and sprained her ankle!”
Anyone who has watched Shah in Real Housewives can likely envision every part of that story with ease: the closet necessitating a ladder, the platoon improvising on the fly, Shah’s sunny retelling of something a little bit sus. (“Never a dull moment!” is how she sums up that day.) A bombastic mother of two who describes herself as a “fabulous, successful businesswoman,” Shah wears extra-strappy stiletto heels in the wet winter snow, commissions Tongan dancers for someone else’s birthday party, and refers to her husband, a former lawyer and current assistant on the Utah Utes football staff, as “Coach Shah” as if she were a defensive back suiting up for the big game. She has people who do her makeup, restock her tampons, and fill her “furry fanny pack” with snacks for a day on the bunny slopes.
She hurls drinks and throws hands and has never met a lovely gathering that isn’t worth storming away from, in furs and in tears. She is, in other words, an instant classic caricature in the sprawling Real Housewives canon: outlandish in a somehow earnest way, prone to escalating tense situations, rocking her shamelessness as if it were a bold lip. And living in a reserved place like Utah—where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints physically and culturally looms, and such demonstrative personal volatility is broadly frowned upon and the domestic is considered divine—Shah tends to stand out.
Which is why one of her assistants, Shah tells me, is specifically tasked with being “the homemaker”; her duties include things like baking cookies and putting out pumpkins when seasonally appropriate. There have been times, Shah says, when she harbored some guilt about such outsourcing. She mostly places these feelings in the past tense—Coach Shah gave her a pep talk, which helped—but it’s hard for anyone, even her, to remain impervious to the conspicuous efforts of some of her neighbors.
“Especially here in Utah,” Shah explains, “I’ve got every frickin’ mommy blogger out here cooking, baking, sewing the Halloween costumes. I’m like, OK, I’m a big piece of shit!”
While I can’t quite relate to the whole closet-ladder/hospital saga, on this topic I tell her I know exactly how she feels. I may not live in Salt Lake City, but I do live on the internet. And so for more than a decade I’ve absorbed and observed, with ever-shifting ratios of envy to eye rolls, the content from some of these online women to whom Shah refers: the many outwardly serene, creative, and ambitious once-bloggers-now-influencers located in (or proudly from) Utah who are forever out there tending to their homes, their “littles,” their corporate sponsorships, their obliques, and often their faith with an air of lucrative, well-lit, DIY competence.
I’m not alone: An essay by Emily Matchar titled “Why I Can’t Stop Reading Mormon Housewife Blogs” ran in Salon a full 10 years ago. In 2017, Allure correspondent Alice Gregory went to Utah to figure out “Why So Many of Your Favorite Beauty Personalities Are Mormon.” When Bravo’s reality pooh-bah Andy Cohen announced in the fall of 2019 that the newest Real Housewives franchise would be filmed in Salt Lake City, local culture writer Meg Walter reacted by musing: “If the term ‘influencer’ wasn’t born here, it was certainly made prominent by the fashion and mommy bloggers with their OOTDs, room reveals, and sponsored posts. Really we’ve all been watching The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City play out on Instagram for the last 10 years.”
But as the actual first season of Real Housewives of Salt Lake City aired over the past three months through its finale on Wednesday night, it featured none of these frickin’ mommy bloggers—to borrow a term of art—much to my initial surprise. This is a reaction that Cohen seemed to be going for: In 2019, he told BravoCon audiences that “I think you’re gonna be really surprised, intrigued, and titillated by the group of women we have chosen.” Shah’s fellow castmates include a tequila slinger, a definitely-not-a-swinger, and a woman married to her step-grandfather at her late grandmother’s (disputed?!) request. Far from being a look inside the lives of active Latter-day Saint women, the series follows characters who are either unaffiliated with the church or distanced from it in some way. I’m neither moved to envy these women nor even to roll my eyes at them, really; I’m just here to enjoy them.
This season’s Real Housewives may appear to have little in common with some of their fellow niche-famous local moms. They may be more openly willing to engage in a little light apostasy for our viewing pleasure. But they are also in some sense performing their own wildcat version of what so many real housewives in and of Utah have been doing, often with the church’s encouragement, for years: finding new, innovative ways to document and distribute their stories and selves to the world, skeptics be damned.
“We’re inundated with images of perfect Instagram squares of beautiful women who seem to really be killing it as moms and homemakers and craft people and volunteers and fashionistas and working out,” says Heather Gay, another Real Housewife, in a phone conversation, “and I mean, it’s inspiring, but it’s also intimidating.” These perfect Instagram squares have websites with names like Mint Arrow and Barefoot Blonde. They have children called Arrow and Samson. Some give shout-outs to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints right there in their social media bios. Some are sisters, like Emily Jackson (age 32; four children; 399,000 Instagram followers) and Rachel Parcell (just turned 30; three kids; parlayed a blog called Pink Peonies that she started in 2010 to chronicle her wedding planning into more than a million followers on Instagram and a clothing line at Nordstrom). Those two, along with their two other sisters, were once referred to as “the Mormon Kardashians” by their friend, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy’s Tan France.
Even the women who aren’t currently Utah-based—Arizona and SoCal are popular satellite hubs among them—maintain significant ties to the Beehive State: They grew up there, or they went to Brigham Young University, or they got married in the Mormon Temple in downtown SLC, or they first established their online presence specifically to give life updates from afar to their large families back home. “Here we go … we’ll see how long this lasts …” Naomi Davis wrote in 2007 under the first blurry-imaged post on her blog, then titled Rockstar Diaries. Thirteen years and five children later, she has nearly half a million followers on Insta.
“Utah and Mormons still have a really outsized influence on the mamasphere,” Kathryn Jezer-Morton, a writer and PhD candidate at Concordia whose research focuses on the evolution of “mommy” blogs from the confessional to the monetized, tells me over FaceTime. This can be linked to both the church’s past and its present: “Before there were bloggers, there were scrapbookers,” she says, a practice that was highly encouraged within the ancestry-obsessed faith. “Mormons documented their families really assiduously.” Blogging was a natural extension of that forte. And from the church’s perspective, an e-diaspora of internet-savvy young people getting engaged and married and pregnant and pregnant and pregnant made for some pretty attractive and high-engagement social media outreach about LDS living. (The church’s official website even has tips for how to best “share online.”)
Gay says it wasn’t that long ago—a couple of years, maybe—that she used to rule over her three daughters’ digital feeds like a paranoid tyrant. “I used to guard their Instagram,” Gay says, “like it was a personal billboard of their morality, their character, and my parenting.” That last part was key. Gay’s hypersensitivity, as she terms it, stemmed from not wanting to be judged—by her friends and her frenemies and her family and the parishioners she’d grown up alongside in the LDS church in and around her native Utah—over the level of virtue in her daughters’ selfies. “I had a rule, like, if I saw them with their tongue out, they lose their phone for a week,” she tells me.
Things have changed ever so slightly since then. Gay is now someone whose life is a personal billboard, viewable by anyone. She co-owns a business called Beauty Lab + Laser that has its own “15-Minute Botox Parking” spots, the mission statement “all the best and no BS!,” and promotional T-shirts that say LIFE IS SHORT. BUY THE LIPS. The same woman who once patrolled her kids’ phones with nervous discretion now says things like: “I’d fuck a grandpa, big deal!” with a winsome shrug on TV screens worldwide.
Raised, educated, married, and divorced in the LDS church, Gay is now in the midst of “blazing a new trail,” as she says in her Real Housewives opening credits tagline. (She hasn’t totally rejected the faith; in the Real Housewives finale she is characterized as “a non-practicing Mormon.”) This is a process that involves incrementally distancing herself from some of her most elemental beliefs—particularly, she says, the ones surrounding her roles and responsibilities as a wife and mother. Sometimes this means speaking up, and sometimes it means staying mum. This summer, when one of Gay’s teenagers posted a photo of herself that would have been immediately ixnayed in the past, “I had to rock myself to sleep not to shame her and make her take it down,” Gay says, and rock she did. “It’s something I’m trying to work on as a mom,” she says. “It feels like, OK, I’m not Mormon anymore.” These are the kinds of words that are music to a reality producer’s ears.
Since the inception of Real Housewives of Orange County in 2006, Cohen’s reality series has featured dozens of women, from New Jersey to Beverly Hills, who flaunt great fortunes of murky provenance and/or possess personalities that are by turns lavish, comedic, and abrasive. Cohen first and foremost tends to seek out idiosyncratic locations with a vibe all their own—Miami, Jersey, Dallas. But what feels new and different about Salt Lake City is the extent to which that tried-and-true Real Housewives formula attempts to create dissonance with the common perception of the local culture, rather than amplify them up to 11. (If it’s extremist polygamy you’re looking for, in other words, you won’t find it here; check out this British documentary.)
“We developed a show at Bravo years ago that was not a Housewives that was set with a lot of Mormons and wound up falling through,” Cohen told People in September. (Bravo declined to share further information with me about that project.) “So I’m really glad we’ve got some active Mormons, we’ve got some lapsed Mormons, but Mormonism is a character and through line in the show.”
Gay is not the only Real Housewife whose relationship with the church falls somewhere between the nonexistent and the fraught. Some of the six women practice different faiths: Meredith Marks is Jewish, while Mary Cosby leads the Pentecostal congregation that she says she inherited from her grandmother on the condition she marry her step-grandfather, as one does. Others are former members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Shah says she converted to her husband’s religion of Islam once he informed her about her former religion’s history of racism, both in doctrine and practice, while Whitney Rose left the Church when she got “unofficially excommunicated” over an extramarital relationship with an executive at the multilevel-marketing business where she worked. (Reader, she married him.)
Lisa Barlow, who grew up in New York before attending BYU at the same time as Gay, may be the lone satisfied LDS member of the bunch. She calls herself “Jewish by heritage, Mormon by choice,” drinks the obligatory Big Gulps of Diet Coke, and has said her conversion began when a missionary knocked on her family’s door back in New York. Yet she confidently maintains an interpretation of LDS scripture that is as bespoke as her tailoring. She owns a tequila company and describes herself as “Mormon 2.0,” which she explained to US Weekly means “I’m not checking all the boxes, and I don’t really fit in that square.” Of her parenting style toward her 16- and 8-year-old sons, she says that what she lacks in domestic command she makes up for in entrepreneurial spirit. “Listen, I may not be great at making hot dogs,” she tells viewers, “but one thing I am good at is inspiring my children to build things.” (By “things,” she is specifically referring to their new family project: a line of turmeric-containing men’s grooming products called “Fresh Wolf.”)
Real Housewives of Salt Lake City may relish its drone shots of Temple Square and its choir-of-angels soundtrack, but there is no talk of family home evenings or LDS missions. Instead, there have been decidedly non-worship-like settings, ranging from a speakeasy-themed event to a “hip-hop golf” party featuring a twerk/worm dance-off to a “trance state is the bomb” hypnosis sesh in a creepy Las Vegas mansion. (Shah stormed out of all three.)
There was season-long drama involving, at various times, a double amputation; a dozen surgeries to remove odor glands; the phrase “hospital smell”; a diss comparing a couture gown to a Christmas tree; and lots of long, glittering nails pointed in the direction of heavily made-up faces. At a “Met Gala”–themed luncheon attended only by the Housewives, Cosby narrated the history of the drink they were offered as they arrived via a sad red carpet. “You’re drinking Dom Perignon 2003,” she said. “In 2003 there was a heat wave; 5,600 people died, and it made the best grapes of all time.” Everyone gets the water-into-wine parable they deserve.
In the winter of 2007, a 79-year-old elder in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints stood before a room of college kids and encouraged them to blog. Dialogue and inquiry among Mormon thinkers was already thriving online, and had been for years. There was the co-ed consortium of early-to-mid-aughts online writers, some of whom originally met on America Online, who referred to themselves en masse as “The Bloggernacle.” There were the young, enthusiastic women like Davis and Stephanie Nielson of NieNie Dialogues who had already fired up their less dialectic and more diaristic Blogspots. But Elder M. Russell Ballard sought youthful reinforcements. “We all have interesting stories that have influenced our identity,” he told students at a Brigham Young University satellite campus in Hawaii in a speech titled “Using New Media to Support the Work of the Church.” “Sharing those stories is a nonthreatening way to talk to others.” Apostles are the original influencers, when you think about it.
At the time, the church was in the midst of weathering an intense period of national scrutiny. Leaders sought, as ever, to better differentiate themselves from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS), the extremist and polygamist movement that had been formally cast out of the mainstream church a century ago but whose reputation remained both stubbornly attached and also constantly in the news. Jon Krakauer’s 2003 book Under the Banner of Heaven told a horrifying story of how faith can curdle into zealotry and even murder. The HBO show Big Love about contemporary polygamists premiered in 2006, the same year Warren Jeffs, the real-life abusive leader of the FLDS church, was arrested. Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign drew renewed scrutiny toward his religion. “We are living in a world saturated with all kinds of voices,” Ballard told the students in 2007. “Now, more than ever, we have a major responsibility as Latter-day Saints to define ourselves instead of letting others define us.”
It wasn’t the first or last time the church had faced a reputational challenge by encouraging the production of wholesome storytelling content. One yearslong promotional effort called “I’m a Mormon” sought to combat misconceptions about members of the church, prompting New Yorker writer Rollo Romig to reminisce in 2012 about a series of PSA spots that had run on TV throughout his childhood in the ’70s and ’80s for the same reason. That award-winning campaign, which was called “Homefront,” consisted of small, sorta-cryptic vignettes of domestic life and low-stakes moral reckoning. Romig quoted a Homefront producer who discussed the success of the effort. In surveys conducted before the spots began airing, respondents had been asked what came to mind when they heard the word “Mormon.” “The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the Osmonds, polygamists, racists,” the producer told Romig. “Those were the top four answers. After seven, eight, nine years of Homefront airing, when you asked the same question, the no. 1 answer was always family.”
It was this kind of outcome, just on a slightly smaller screen, that Ballard sought with his remarks. “Most of you already know,” he said, “that if you have access to the internet you can start a blog in minutes and begin sharing what you know to be true.” Of course, as any fan of reality television can tell you, what someone thinks they know to be true can be a dynamic and disputed thing indeed. If the rise of the connected internet enabled the devout to more efficiently spread their good word, it also gave a platform to the doubters.
Over the years, something of an arms race has ensued. In response to recurring criticisms about the LDS church and faith that were cropping up on late-’90s Mormon forums on AOL, for example, a group of posters created the “Foundation for Apologetic Information Research,” or FAIR, to more formally clap back. (The organization still exists as “FairMormon” today.) One of the earliest and most influential personal blogs of the Y2K era, called Dooce, was written not by a gentle Latter-day Saint but rather by a salty Salt Laker named Heather Armstrong who was more than happy to discuss how she’d bolted from the LDS church immediately upon graduating from BYU. In 2005, a tech-forward and ultimately controversial church member named John Dehlin, who had left his job at Microsoft in Seattle to move to Salt Lake City, launched a still-running podcast called Mormon Stories in which he interviews people—so many people—who are in the midst of critically assessing their faith and their relationship to the church. In 2018, Dehlin was formally excommunicated for breaking with church doctrine and, according to a letter explaining the decision, for having “spread these teachings widely via the internet to hundreds of people in the past.”
These days, depending on where you click around online, you can find multiple rabbit holes of testimonials, struggle, humor, and support at sites like /r/exmormon on Reddit, where people gather to vent about the “TBMs” (True Believing Mormons) in their lives but also to commiserate about the clueless questions and jokes they still get about their upbringing from people outside the faith—a.k.a. “nevermos.” (There are also subreddits for both /r/mormon and /r/latterdaysaints, but they have only a fraction of subscribers.) You can also trip over the disturbing wasp nest that is #DezNat, short for Deseret Nation, an amorphous and alarming hashtag where trad dogma meets edgelord sensibilities and religious memes. (Dehlin and Jeremy Runnells, another vocal church critic, are two frequent targets.) You can feel soothed by the smooth beauty of Parcell’s and Jackson’s influencer content, or you can be one of those commenters who consistently harangue them about how on earth they can fit their temple garments under those tight-fitting clothes. And you can stream, and then discuss, those kooky gals on Real Housewives of Salt Lake City. The program may feel like a novelty act, but that doesn’t mean it lacks a plot.
“If you listened to an hour of Mormon Stories a day,” Dehlin tells me in a phone call about the podcast that ultimately got him kicked out of the church, “it would take you five years to conquer.” While not everyone who Dehlin interviews on the podcast plans to leave the faith altogether, what they pretty much all have in common is that they are very much questioning aspects of what they’ve been taught about the church. Gay tells me that the first time she heard about Dehlin’s podcast, not too long ago in the grand scheme of things, she was warned by her Beauty Lab business partner Dre Nord that she might not be ready to listen to it just yet. After all, she’d grown up being taught “to absolutely not look at anything critical, anything ex-Mormon,” she says. “Like, that was worse than porn. Once that got in, you could never unsee it.”
Over the past two months, however, Gay and Nord have made three appearances on Dehlin’s show, fleshing out their parochial and at times problematic upbringings and giving voice to their ongoing existential doubts. And just as Gay hadn’t expected to ever find herself on Mormon Stories, Dehlin tells me that two things surprised him when he watched a little Real Housewives.
The first was recognizing someone he’d known growing up in Texas in the 1980s. “I played basketball against Justin Rose,” he tells me, talking about Whitney’s husband. “He was kind of a bad boy, you know, by Mormon standards. I remember him liking rap.” (Rose’s older brother, David, was cocaptain of the University of Houston’s famous Phi Slama Jama basketball team, playing alongside Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon, before coaching at BYU for decades.) But beyond the unexpected connections, what threw off Dehlin the most was that the show, while outwardly absurd and occasionally shocking (despite his excommunication, Dehlin says, “my sensibilities are still very, very Mormon”), nevertheless managed to highlight a number of meaningful issues and topics that he finds relevant to LDS life and sees all the time in his work.
“I kept a Google Doc,” he says, and scans his list. Alcohol. Swinging. (“I have close friends, very close friends that swing.”) Substance abuse. (The story line involving Whitney Rose helping her father battle drug addiction was one of the season’s most resonant.) Superficiality. Faith. Marital conflict. (“I could spend every hour of every day counseling married couples.”) Polygamy. Porn. (In one episode, when Barlow jokingly pop-quizzes her teen son on the most important tenets of the church, the teen says: “Thou shalt not smoke, thou shalt not do anything bad.” When his mom asks what’s considered bad, his response is: “Looking at porn.”) “They really have hit a lot of the big ones,” Dehlin says.
These same topics occasionally surfaced in the Mormon blogosphere too, though it was more rare to see them. Natalie Lovin, an early LDS blogger who went by the name of “Nat the Fat Rat,” ultimately split with her husband and left the church, posting all the while, though she eventually faded from the influencer circuit. Corrine Stokoe, who runs Mint Arrow, very publicly shared her husband’s struggles with a pornography addiction. There have been heartbreaks and roadblocks shared around the blogosphere and on the ’Gram, for sure. But by and large, the vibes on most LDS influencers’ feeds tend toward the positive.
Which is understandable! And yet, for TV purposes, not exactly propulsive. Essentially, “they’re running catalogs,” Meg Walter, who lives in Utah and recaps and podcasts about Real Housewives, says about the parenting, fashion, and fitness influencers in her midst. “I don’t think it’s fair to expect them to be showing us their real lives when they’re running a business.” Kathryn Jezer-Morton compares the pressures on some of the influencers and momtrepreneurs she has studied to those of “a 1950s housewife, jacked up”: Not only is it a ton of work to keep up the always-pleasant exterior, but many readers, whole forums full of ’em, are eager to locate cracks in the foundation. “People are always then trying to catch you in a lie,” Jezer-Morton says. “And you’re kind of vulnerable to accusations of fakery, which—of course it’s fake!” (In the FAQ on Davis’s website, one of the listed questions is: Is Life Really That Perfect? In the answer, Davis writes: “a saying i love, ‘comparison is the thief of joy,’ has never rung truer than in the blogging world.”) In 2019, Armstrong reminisced to Vox about how things had changed since she first began blogging two decades ago at Dooce: “Being an influencer today means sharing picture-perfect moments, and that is not what I signed up for.”
There isn’t much at all that’s picture-perfect about Real Housewives of Salt Lake City, thankfully. (“Really sweaty” is how Jezer-Morton describes it, with genuine respect in her voice.) For Bravo characters, the institutional mandate is not about being immaculate, which is freeing in some ways and harrowing in others. The institutional mandate is less Pink Peonies, more Jen Shah, whose voice over the phone when we speak grows faster and more agitated in the exact same way it does on the show, an ascending spiral of accusations and affront. Her target is, blessedly, not me, but some of the women she’s encountered in Utah who won’t tell her whether or where they get their work done.
“And they’re like, ‘Oh no, I didn’t do anything,’” she says, and I can hear her shaking her head, maybe even pointing a manicured finger into the air. “You just pulled a Kylie Jenner!” she says. “You woke up this morning with a whole new face! You know, I have eyes here!” Viewers do too, and there’s something particularly watchable about programming that acknowledges the doubts and indulges in the drama of its characters in a similarly straightforward way. All that sweat and mess is the point.
Like all thriving ecosystems, Real Housewives is an iterative environment. Disruptive newcomers are occasionally introduced to the fray. Poisonous flowers are plucked. Some beings thrive in the shade; others wilt if they aren’t constantly in the light. While Cohen has confirmed that the Salt Lake City series will be back for a second season, it’s always possible that the cast might be shaken up on the margins.
Cosby appeared less and less in the show over the course of the 13-episode season, drawing speculation that she (and her Imelda Marcos–esque closets) might wind up phased out altogether. Or perhaps another character will feel so irreparably insulted over the course of the upcoming three (!) reunion installments that they’ll flounce. Maybe fashionista and tech wife Angie Harrington, a once-rumored Season 1 cast member who ultimately appeared for about 10 unmemorable seconds in Episode 12, will get more future air time. (One thing is for certain: It’s unlikely we’ll see auxiliary “friend of” character Sara McArthur Pierce again after photos of her at the Capitol building riot on January 6 led Rose to publicly denounce her on Instagram.)
And in my dreams, the clouds and the brands will align and we’ll get a real-life frickin’ mommy blogger, and a look into what it actually, logistically takes to be a modern LDS tastemaker tasked with appearing professionally and perpetually blessed. For now, we have women like Gay, who in many ways may be a more interesting version of all of those things: a divorced mom navigating life with three daughters, a dogged business owner who built her image-based company in large part through Instagram, a woman whose search for higher meaning in this life and the next is as complicated as it is sincere. Her personal Mormon story may not be the one that the LDS church wants someone to be telling, but it’s illuminating to hear.
Influence, like Andy Cohen, works in mysterious ways. When I ask what switch flipped to make Gay start questioning the church’s teachings, she mentions the Hulu adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale. As she watched the series and listened to the wealthy caste of fundamentalist women talking about how glad they were not to have jobs so they could tend to their homes and gardens, she realized she could hear herself in their words. “When you’re resonating with the villains,” she says, “you take a really good, hard look at what you believe.”
I tell Gay I have a tangential TV rec: Mrs. America, whose real-life character Phyllis Schlafly was part of the inspiration for The Handmaid’s Tale’s Serena. Gay tells me that she’s seen it, and that she was particularly taken aback by one moment. Blink and you’ll miss it, but there’s a scene in which a Schlafly ally named Georgia Peterson of Salt Lake City brings a bus full of women to a convention to join the fight against women’s lib. “Georgia Peterson was in my congregation,” Gay says urgently. “She went to church with me. I named my daughter Georgia after her—well, she influenced it. She wore a hat to church on Sunday. She was this amazing, trailblazing politician woman. I didn’t see that she was all of those things … but for the wrong side.” Sometimes the stories you thought you knew best are newly illuminated by another perspective.