Right when we thought the gap between the rich and the poor in America couldn’t get any wider, E!’s new reality show, “#RichKids of Beverly Hills,” has drawn a diamond-encrusted line in the sand between the mega-wealthy and, well, the rest of us.
Inspired by a popular Tumblr blog, Rich Kids of Instagram, the show follows five uber-rich, selfie-obsessed 20-somethings as they spend their way around one of country’s priciest zip codes. It was an instant hit, drawing more than 5.5 million viewers and garnering 37,000 Twitter mentions, making it the third-most talked about topic when it premiered last Sunday.
Of course, not everyone has stars in their eyes for the young cast. Like the “Kardashians” and the “Real Housewives” before them, the “Rich Kids” are already feeling the wrath of public opinion.
While promoting their show on “Bethenny,” disgruntled audience members took to the mic to question the show’s values, calling them out for promoting materialism and bragging about wealth they hadn’t earned.
For their part, the rich kids say they fully expected the backlash. Cast member Morgan Stewart, who takes selfies like it’s an Olympic sport, was in the middle of reading a fresh stream of Instagram comments telling her to get a nose job when we spoke with her this week.
“Putting yourself out there in an arena and showcasing how fortunate you are, I think, rubs people the wrong way," she said. "I'm really happy with the way the show's panned out and the more people watch the more they will relax with their negativity. You can take the Gaza Strip seriously. They don't need to take this reality show that seriously."
The high cost of high expectations
Convincing viewers that they're more than a bunch of kids running around spending their parents’ money will be an uphill battle, especially given the way it's been branded by E!, a network that has all but perfected the recipe for reality TV starlets.
“The title of the show is a little bit stressful for all of us,” Stewart said. “I think it’s made us live up to a lot of things that we aren’t 100% comfortable with putting out there. It’s not like we’re five kids that just don’t have any goals and have nothing to do or nothing to work for.”
Other cast members include Stewart’s boyfriend, Brendan Fitzpatrick, 25, a mini-real estate tycoon; Roxy Sowlaty, 25, a self-proclaimed “Persian Princess” who was “cut off” by her parents and is starting an interior design business; Johnny Drubel, 25, who’s an accomplished songwriter; and Dorothy Wang, 25, the "FunEmployed" daughter of billionaire Chinese retail magnate Roger Wang.
Of the five, Stewart, who doesn’t have a job outside the show, may have the most to prove. She took a stab at college life, spending a year studying communications at a local community college and another year at Pace University in New York, but eventually dropped out to move back home. After bouncing between gigs in event planning and personal assisting, she started a lifestyle blog in 2010, where she writes about — what else? — her life in Beverly Hills.
If all goes according to plan, “#RichKids” will be her ticket to a steady job and, hopefully, a career on camera. “I’d love for the blog to translate into a series of books or maybe a talk show,” she said. “I feel like [the show] is the most natural way to get there.”
Fitzpatrick is one of two cast members who supports himself financially. At 19, he sold his first house for $15 million and earns “in the millions” as an agent today. In defense of their public image, he said he’s driven by his parents’ success more than anything else.
“Growing up that way, with ‘no’ not being heard very often, is 100% what motivates me to work 10 times harder on my own,” he said in a phone interview. “I want to sustain the same lifestyle I’ve lived all my life. When you’re paying those bills on your own, you work pretty hard.”
Sowlaty cautions viewers against taking everything they see on the show seriously. In one of the premiere’s most talked-about moments, she drops half a million dollars at a department store as easily as most people would order a Big Mac.
“I think people are going to be like, oh my God, she spent $500,000, but in reality I was buying furniture for my client,” she said.
Sowlaty, who earned a degree in design from Parsons in New York, said her parents warned her that they would stem her limitless cash flow after she graduated.
“When I was little my dad always said, ‘you’re never going to work for anyone else. You’re going to work for yourself,’” she said. “When I graduated from Parsons, he said ‘I love you, but the best thing I can do for you is cutting you off financially.’”
“Cut off,” however, means she can still live at home, keep her Range Rover, and pocket $1,200 in spending money a month, but she argues that she’s focused on making her business just as successful as her family’s.
“All I want to do is provide myself with all I’ve ever been given and more,” she said. “I’m not gonna settle for a mediocre life in any way.”
The young and the idle
Career aspirations aside, there’s no getting around the fact that these kids are coddled and just a tad self-obsessed.
Twenty minutes into the show’s first episode, we see Wang lounge on a bed surrounded by designer handbags, zip around on a private jet, and pop bottles of Dom Pérignon in a penthouse that probably cost more to rent than most people’s mortgages.
Stewart, whose father made his fortune in the construction business, talks (disingenuously?) about being embarrassed by the number of selfies she posts to Instagram all while being styled by a hair and makeup team before a night out. Tracking her Instagram commenters “has made me even crazier than I already am,” she says.
While Wang, Stewart and their posse of glitzy pals brag about growing up with limitless credit cards and whine about trivial tasks (opening a bottle of wine, cooking dinner at home), their less well-off generational cohorts are struggling. Millennials have now suffered double-digit unemployment rates for over 70 consecutive months, according to a new report by Young Invincibles, an advocacy group. If you want to talk about “reality,” it might make more sense to follow 20-somethings who are juggling three part-time jobs to pay down student debt.
Jean Twenge, an associate professor of psychology at San Diego State University and co-author of “The Narcissism Epidemic — Living Entitlement,” says shows like “#RichKids” have contributed to something of a new American dream.
“These shows make narcissism seem normal, laudable, and glamorous and you get this upward comparison in terms of wealth and material possessions,” Twenge said. “Not that long ago, we couldn’t observe this type of wealth as easily as we do now. ”
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