“Watch What Happens Live With Andy Cohen” is a rollicking talk show on Bravo. Its host, Mr. Cohen, is the network’s in-house yenta and debate moderator among its many warring reality TV personalities.
Typical topics of conversation in his delightful, boozy clubhouse used to include whether the guests have had plastic surgery and whether they would burn outfits they wore in the 1990s. But since it’s 2020, Mr. Cohen grills his guests on whether their castmates are practicing safe coronavirus hygiene.
“Which housewife was most guilty of not following proper social distancing guidelines?” Mr. Cohen recently asked Shannon Storms Beador, of “The Real Housewives of Orange County,” a show in its 15th season that follows the travails of six mostly blonde women as they live, laugh, love and throw wine at each other in Southern California.
Ms. Beador replied, “Kelly Dodd,” and Mr. Cohen said, “I’m stunned!” his voice dripping with faux shock.
Ms. Dodd — who now goes by her married name, Leventhal, on social media — has been skeptical about mask wearing on Instagram, and when several of her more than 900,000 followers challenged her, she snapped back: “it’s not a pandemic anymore!! Did you read the CDC numbers!! My platform isn’t to be a sheep [sheep emoji] my platform is to be an independent thinker!”
Ms. Leventhal is not the only reality star to be criticized for her coronavirus hygiene, or lack thereof. Big Ed of “90 Day Fiancé” on TLC was taken to task on social media for cozying up to fans without a mask. Kristin Cavallari, the star of “Very Cavallari,” which recently finished its final season on the E! Network, was slammed for taking a luxury trip to the Bahamas in mid-March, after parts of the United States were put on lockdown.
But Ms. Leventhal does stand out for her very vocal skepticism of masks, and longtime viewers have noticed, with some podcasters and fan pages boycotting the new season of her show in part because of her spread of coronavirus misinformation. (The Times tried to contact Ms. Leventhal for comment through Bravo, and the network said she was not available.)
In a comment about masks, she wrote: “i hate them and only wear them when i need to walk into a restaurant or supermarket. how do you feel about being a beautiful sheep.” Some of Ms. Flicker’s views go far beyond an opposition to masks. She has also used QAnon-related slogans on social media and has posted misinformation about the source of Covid-19.
If you have made it this far into the article and are not already an obsessive fan of reality TV, you may be thinking: Who cares what these people say about coronavirus? But there is research that shows the health-related behaviors of reality stars can affect viewers’ behavior, and now that these personalities have popular social media platforms, their claims have an unmediated reach as we hit another peak in coronavirus cases.
With the caveat that we don’t really know the impact of mask wearing from influencers because the pandemic is so new, “reality TV research has been linked to health behavior for the past couple of decades,” said Mark Flynn, an associate professor of communication and media studies at Emmanuel College in Boston. Mr. Flynn has published research on reality stars drinking, smoking and sexual activity, as well as the impact of social media on body image.
There’s also evidence that celebrity endorsement of a discredited link between vaccines and autism has contributed to much more skepticism of vaccines among Americans. It’s also possible that, currently, “these media figures might have an outsize role” in altering our behavior, said Kristen Elmore, a research associate at the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research at Cornell University.
That could be because in-person interactions with friends and family, who are typically influential in our health choices, are curtailed because of the pandemic.
What’s more, viewers can see themselves in reality stars and influencers in a way they don’t with actors on scripted television or movies, even if the reality stars’ lives are more gilded and their houses are supersized.
“Maybe they’re not like me, but they’re still real people,” Mr. Flynn said. And we are watching them live through the coronavirus, just like us. The virus has made an appearance not just on various Housewives franchises, but also on “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” and “90 Day Fiancé.”
Brian J. Moylan, who recaps the Real Housewives franchise for Vulture and wrote an essay about the impact of the pandemic on Bravo shows, believes that reality TV fans exist on a spectrum of sincerity and irony, and the earnest fans are the ones at risk. “I think there are some fans who are very sincere in their fandom and love Kelly Dodd, and they want to be a housewife and have all this drama and have this affluent lifestyle, and they might think: ‘Kelly Dodd’s not wearing a mask and she has a point,’” he said.
But it’s possible that watching reality stars who are spreading virus misinformation get pilloried by commenters and their castmates may be beneficial. Reality show cast members and influencers are what academics refer to as “super-peers,” which means we’re watching them try out risky and outrageous behavior we possibly haven’t experienced ourselves, and seeing what the response is, Mr. Flynn said. If the response is bad, earnest viewers may be deterred from copying them.
“I think that if these characters modeled good behavior, or at least indicated they were concerned about mask wearing and the virus, that would have a positive effect on viewers,” said Peter Christenson, an emeritus professor of rhetoric and media studies at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore.
There has been a lot of good behavior by housewives, too. “The Real Housewives of New York City” filmed an in-person reunion episode, and “all the women tweeted their looks with accompanying masks,” Mr. Moylan said. “It showed people ‘we can be safe and be stylish and bring the housewivesey-ness of it to the pandemic.’”
Mr. Cohen, the Bravo impresario, has also been a beacon of good science, chronicling his own case of the virus in March and pushing back on misinformation during reunions and on “Watch What Happens Live.”
Though there have been reports of filming suspensions because of coronavirus exposures during new seasons of Bravo reality shows, “the health and safety of our cast and crews are our top priority,” a Bravo spokeswoman said. “Our shows have resumed production with comprehensive health and safety plans.”
Of course, our current president is a former reality star, and his messaging on mask wearing has been muddled. As Mr. Christenson pointed out, the president’s rallies, where many maskless Americans congregate without practicing social distancing, are like a reality show unto themselves. “Trump is holding all these in-person events, but they’re also on television, so the effect of that is magnified,” he said.
The politicization of mask wearing is an issue that is playing out both on our screens and in our homes. Mr. Christenson said that reality TV is like “a fun-house mirror”: an image of us as a society, but one that is distorted. You may want to get off this carnival ride, but it doesn’t seem like it’s stopping any time soon.