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Cover story: Wives, girlfriends wed to reality fame

By Lisa Respers France, CNN
Karen Gravano, Drita D'avanzo, Carla Facciolo and Renee Graziano star in the new VH1 series "Mob Wives."
Karen Gravano, Drita D'avanzo, Carla Facciolo and Renee Graziano star in the new VH1 series "Mob Wives."
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Wives and girlfriends rule the reality television sphere
  • New shows continue to make reality stars of wives and girlfriends
  • Writer says fans bond over the drama on such series

(CNN) -- The funny thing about reality shows built around housewives and girlfriends is that the men who made them such really aren't necessary.

Sure, the men often are present in storylines and some even seem to crave the attention as much as the "stars" of the series (we're looking at you, Simon from "The Real Housewives of New York City").

From VH1's new series "Mob Wives" to the "Real Housewives" franchise, girl power reigns in a subgenre of reality television that has taken the concept of over-the-fence gossip to a new level and into millions of households.

There have been plenty to choose from, including wives of athletes (VH1's "Basketball Wives" and "Football Wives"), wives in different cities (Bravo's "Real Housewives"), the spouses of a polygamist (TLC's "Sister Wives") and even the wives of rock stars (E!'s "Married to Rock").

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But with so many variations, have we reached a saturation point of celebrating those whose claim to fame is being wives, mothers, significant others or sometimes just friends of those women?

Does the cancellation of the Washington franchise of "Real Housewives" and the less than spectacular ratings for the Miami show signal a waning interest in the catfights, broken alliances and trash talking of these shows?

Hard core devotees say no way.

"Housewives are a part of pop culture," said Lori Koff, a writer who runs the blog "The Real Housewives Are Nuts." "The world is full of housewives and girlfriends and we all go through the same emotions."

That sense that viewers may see a little of themselves in the shows is not a new concept, but is one that may be growing in importance as reality personalities rival actors and actresses for fans.

"The definition of celebrity is changing," casting director Doron Ofir told the New York Times last month during The Reality Rocks Expo held in Los Angeles. "Relatability will be the next wave of pop culture."

So audiences eat up storylines such as when "Real Housewives of New Jersey" cast member Teresa Giudice and her husband filed for bankruptcy, when "Orange County" cast member Tamra Barney struggled with a wayward adult son who ran into trouble with the law and "Basketball Wives" star Jennifer Williams coped with the implosion of her marriage.

Even when their circumstances are exaggerated, the shows can still find success.

One of the latest entrants to the crew, "Mob Wives," features the wives and daughters of men said to be connected to organized crime.

The VH1 series premiered to more than 2 million viewers last month and Entertainment Weekly said the "floridly funny, vicariously vicious reality series exerts a vulgar charm. It's like watching a cross between 'The Sopranos' and 'The Real Housewives of New Jersey.'"

But not everyone is a fan of the show, whose cast includes the daughter of infamous mobster turned informant, Sammy "The Bull" Gravano.

"'Mob Wives' may capture the imagination of the 'Jersey Shore' crowd, but will not score any points with Islanders who are fed up with their hometown depicted as the home office for La Cosa Nostra," said the Staten Island Advance newspaper in Staten Island, New York, where the series is based. "In fact, 'Mob Wives' insinuates the Island is a breeding ground for the mafia."

Chrissy Lampkin is one of the stars of VH1's "Love and Hip Hop," which follows the lives of women behind the scenes of hip-hop, including the girlfriends of two rap artists and the ex-wife of a successful producer.

Lampkin, who has dated rapper Jim Jones for more than six years, said she has concerns about the portrayal of women on reality shows, but added that it's time the focus shifted.

"It's always been a man's world and I feel like women have a lane now," Lampkin said. "We deserve to be viewed and respected on a serious level."

Lampkin's series was originally conceived as a reality show about Jones, who proved not to be the easiest subject, she said. Producers liked her personality and decided to explore the lives of women in hip-hop. Lampkin said it can be difficult being famous for just being someone's girlfriend.

"When people walk up to me and say 'That's the girl from the Jim Jones show' I want to correct them," she said. "It's cost me a lot emotionally because I walk down the street and people feel like they know me."

Lori Koff's father worked in television in the early days and she grew up watching stars around the CBS Studio Center. These days she is all about the housewives and girlfriends shows and blogs about several of them.

Fans bond over the drama, Koff said.

"Andy Cohen (executive vice president of original programming and development for Bravo, the home of the "Real Housewives" franchise) says it gives people a license to gossip and, of course, he's right," Koff said. "Women and men gather together (on) blogs and discuss the show and their reactions to what plays out, but they also talk about their lives and form friendships as they follow the shows."

"I also think women like to see how other women 'do it.' How they live their lives, their ups and downs."

Michael Vulpo is a die-hard fan of reality TV and associate entertainment editor at Neon Tommy, a digital news site at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

He said reality shows about wives and girlfriends flip tradition on its head.

"I think a lot of these shows don't portray the typical role of being maternal and obeying their (boyfriends and husbands)," Vulpo said. "These women speak their minds and a lot of times say things we wish we could say."

Viewers form a connection, strengthened by their access to the reality stars on social networking and network sponsored sites, where the women often blog after their shows, Vulpo said.

While there is the train-wreck aspect of watching the women's travails, Vulpo said there is also an element of reality in the shows.

"Bravo, especially, has a way of developing their shows in a way that makes it feel like you really know these women," he said. "Like they could be your friends."

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