Less than one minute into the premiere of Charleston-based reality show Southern Hospitality, someone describes the setting’s atmosphere as “a Vegas nightclub with a Miami hotness.”
This is interesting in two ways. First, it’s devoid of meaning in a way that’s challenging for that number of words. And second, it frames Southern Hospitality for what it is: a show that’s trying to be everywhere but where it actually is, Charleston. But let’s take a step back.
I remember a time when I knew nothing about Charleston’s first big reality hit, Southern Charm. I became familiar with the show on April 4, 2016. I know this date because I was a City Paper reporter at the time and the following day we published the first installment of the “Confessions of a Southern Charm newbie” series. It did quite well. The Washington Post accidentally shared a link to one of my recaps in a tweet about Mormon baseball players.
But I’m old now, and the world continues to make new things that I don’t understand. Southern Charm begat another spinoff, Southern Hospitality. The show centers on the staff of King Street’s Republic Garden & Lounge. I was always amused by that name. As if folks are going there to enjoy the flora.
The cast is young and uniformly beautiful — like mannequins in the Euphoria wardrobe department that come to life at night. I think part of the attraction of Southern Charm was that the producers were selling it like the veil was being lifted on the genteel Southern aristocracy. Southern Hospitality does away with the merest attempt at pretense and just has a bunch of young people constantly tally how much sex they are having. Like, to an absurd extent. They’re like little erotic accountants. One cast member describes having sampled a “buffet” of women. I want to thank him for not letting the pandemic relegate sneeze guards to the dustbin of eroticism.
What would Dante say?
It’s interesting comparing Southern Hospitality to its predecessor. Southern Charm focused on the concept of people failing to hide their messiness behind a veneer of gentility and wealth. Southern Hospitality has everyone immediately putting their intimate business on front street, while staying on the grind 24/7. Neither is better.
It’s the illusion of Southern propriety masking dysfunction versus being a clout-chaser who trades it all away for more Instagram likes. One is a barbed tongue ready to drop a “Bless your heart” at a moment’s notice. The other is not caring what anyone says about you because all that matters is you’re the subject of the conversation. It’s old Gossip Girl versus new Gossip Girl. But how do you capture this level of drama and debauchery without a script?
I spoke with an inside source who asked to remain anonymous about what it was like on a Southern Charm set. This person recalled shoots starting at 10 a.m. with stiff drinks being poured for the cast. The source said it was common to get cast members and extras intoxicated to ratchet up the tension, and those not willing to go along with the party were left out of the show.
This source’s statements are backed up by a 2018 Charleston County court complaint alleging that the makers of the show “created, permitted and encouraged Southern Charm plotlines” that focus on alcohol and sexual encounters. The claimant alleged that alcohol was made available during filming and that anyone appearing on Southern Charm was required to sign agreements stating their understanding that while on camera they may expose information of a “personal, private, surprising, defamatory, disparaging, embarrassing or unfavorable nature, and that [their] actions and the actions of others participating in the program may be embarrassing or of otherwise unfavorable nature that may be factual or fictional.”
How are these shows impacting Charleston’s reputation?
After learning more about the Southern Charm’s on-set atmosphere, the remainder of Southern Hospitality’s first season felt like watching revenge porn broken up by commercials for adjustable mattresses. What effects could this be having on Charleston’s broader reputation?
Wondering if reality shows can impact a city’s appeal, I spoke with Dr. Steve Litvin, a College of Charleston professor whose research interests include consumer behavior and tourism impacts. According to Litvin, reality TV can be a tourism driver, but it also can be a double-edged sword.
“People like to visit places people like to live,” Litvin said, quoting former Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. “If the image the show gives of Charleston is that people really enjoy living here, that becomes an attraction for visitors.”
But here comes the bad part: What if Charleston doesn’t live up to the heightened version depicted in these reality shows?
“We learn in basic marketing that satisfaction is a function of perceptions and expectations. These reality shows certainly elevate the expectation of what people are going to see when they get here and how the beautiful people live,” Litvin said. “When they get here and find that it doesn’t live up to the fiction of the reality show, there’s a sense of disappointment.
“People end up not liking Charleston as much anymore because it wasn’t the Charleston they were expecting to see.”
Fortunately, Charleston is also home to its fair share of quality scripted programs, such as the locally filmed Righteous Gemstones. Perhaps these fictionalized shows do a better job of capturing the region’s true essence.
Writer and historian W. Scott Poole, a periodic City Paper contributor and College of Charleston professor, has always had an incredible ability to examine popular culture through the real-world events that inspired it. He’s also a Gemstones fan, which he says interests him in part “because it does work to actually center itself in a place — Charleston — and not a Charleston-like setting.”
Despite this, Poole is reluctant to say that either the reality TV version of the Lowcountry or the fictional version are doing a good job of showing the area as it is — in part because both Southern Charm and Righteous Gemstones are so “intensely white.” To its credit, Southern Hospitality does a better job of presenting a more diverse chorus of voices, even if they are so often unharmonious.
Charleston reality shows’ legacies
So what is Charleston’s reality show legacy? Southern Hospitality is wrapping up its first season as Southern Charm is filming what will be its ninth, but what does this mean for the city? To find out, I reached out to writer, historian and archivist Harlan Greene to ask whether he thinks these shows might one day serve as a representation of Charleston at the time they were filmed.
“It’s my belief that they will serve as relics of our time, but not necessarily of our city. It will reveal our (instant and evanescent) celebrity culture, our desire for youth, our need to be entertained and our prurience — in spying on the love life of young men and women,” said Greene. “Can’t you see a documentary 20 years from now looking back on what engrossed Americans on television at the time?”
Greene suggested that it might be interesting in the future to note that Charleston was deemed of enough interest nationally to be the site of these series. It could serve as a tribute to the city’s high profile, but Greene would prefer that such attention come for what Charlestonians are doing in regards to issues beyond celebrity culture — such as racism, resilience and resurging homophobia.
There is one last point to keep in mind when you watch these reality shows that offer a somewhat exploitative view of Charleston. It’s understanding that the reality being sold is one that’s manufactured.
“I do think we need to distinguish between the actors and the stage they strut and fret and emote upon. Yes, there might be a Southern accent or two, and people might eat local delicacies in local restaurants: Just because a soap opera is set in Charleston, or a romance novel evokes the city as its background, does not mean it’s a Charleston tale,” said Greene. “Go to the Barbie Museum and you will see a Malibu Barbie, a space Barbie and a Queen Elizabeth Barbie. But you are not in Malibu, in space, or Buckingham Palace. It’s just Barbie.”
Dustin Waters, a former City Paper staffer, lives in the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area.
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