Turn on Bravo or E! on any given weekend, and you’re likely to encounter one of the sprawling families that populate the landscape of American reality TV. Almost as interesting as keeping up with the weekly drama is following the families’ complicated family trees, which almost always hold some fascinating surprises (the Hadids and the Kardashians, for example, are connected through marriage).
Kyle Richards of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills is from one such sprawling family. She and her sister, Kim Richards, are both on RHOBH. Their older half-sister, Kathy Hilton, is a reality TV personality in her own right. Kathy is married to Richard Hilton and is the mother of former reality stars Paris and Nicky Hilton. The sisters’ family life has already been documented on Bravo — but Kyle Richards is further mythologizing their family life by producing a dramedy, American Woman, loosely based on their late mother, Kathy Dugan.
American Woman, which premieres premieres on the Paramount Network on June 7, kicks off with a shocking discovery. Bonnie Nolan (Alicia Silverstone), a mother of two, finds out that her husband is cheating on her. With that, her life as a stay-at-home mom ceases, and her life as a liberated woman of the ‘70s begins. Bonnie explores newfangled notions, like feminism and managing her own finances, with characteristic boldness. She speaks in quotes of empowerment to her two daughters: “Never let a man intimidate you under any circumstances. You always have to stand up for yourself.” Bonnie is bolstered by her two friends, Kathleen (Mena Suvari) and Diana (Jennifer Bartels).
The inspiration for Bonnie’s personality comes directly from Richards’ mother. "My mom really was a woman before her time,” Richards said during the Television Critics Association. “In the '70s, it wasn't a popular thing to be a strong woman. If you were strong and had a voice, you were thought of as a pushy broad where, nowadays, it's like boss lady. It wasn't like that back then."
On Good Morning America, Richards called American Woman a “love letter to [her] mom.” Her sisters, Kim and Kathy, might call it something different. In an interview with People, Richards revealed the rift that the prospect of a TV show about their childhoods has caused between the sisters. Hilton especially thinks American Woman will reveal too much about the women’s upbringing. As a result of the show, the sisters are not on speaking terms.
Richards has been adamant that the show is only partially inspired by her childhood, not directly based on it. "I was inspired by my mom being a single mom in the '70s. It was a crazy, fun, reckless time. But it's not based on my actual life,” Richards told People. That's fair: if American Woman was completely autobiographical, Bonnie would have three daughters, not two. In another interview with Andy Cohen, she clarified, “It’s a fictionalized version of our life, and our mom being a single mom in the ’70s is the jumping-off point.”
If the show were directly based on the sisters’ lives, it might be an even more dramatic show. The sisters were raised in a dysfunctional household, reigned over by "big Kathy," which was Dugan's nickname. According to a New York Times review of House of Hilton, a tell-all book by Jerry Oppenheimer, Dugan "once fed dog food to one of her mothers-in-law; drugged a rival and crushed her ankle in a car door; tried to push her second husband, Ken Richards, down a staircase; and, out of sheer malice, served his daughter Diane a cheeseburger with a screw in it." Dugan pushed Kim and Kyle to become child stars at young ages. On Doctor Phil, Kim revealed she shares her mother's struggle with alcohol addiction.
From these stories, it's clear American Woman is more about a liberated woman from the '70s than about the specifics of big Kathy. For something closer to "reality," you can watch Real Housewives.
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