The women are in good spirits, but the meal veers, as it often does in the Real Housewives universe, into a melodramatic, meme-able argument. This particular spat is between Wendy Osefo, a newbie to the Bravo series, and Ashley Darby
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The women are in good spirits, but the meal veers, as it often does in the Real Housewives universe, into a melodramatic, meme-able argument. This particular spat is between Wendy Osefo, a newbie to the Bravo series, and Ashley Darby, a veteran. Earlier in the day, Osefo and Darby clashed over Darby’s decision to bring her infant son on the girls’ trip. Osefo, who also gave birth recently, has left her three children at home.
At dinner, Osefo refuses to do what many Housewives have struggled with, historically, and what a castmate prods her to do, presently: apologize. Instead, she and Darby start squabbling anew, their manicured hands flitting and jabbing in front of their faces as if to swat away flies. Osefo, wearing a snakeskin-printed dress and gold Yves Saint Laurent earrings, delivers a line meant to be a direct hit: “People like you don’t call me Wendy. People like you call me Dr. Wendy. Address me correctly, sweetie.”
“Dr. Wendy” tends to adopt a lecturing tone with her castmates, perhaps because in her professional life she delivers actual lectures. She is an assistant professor in the School of Education at the Johns Hopkins University, where she’s taught since 2016.
During the three seasons that Osefo has been a Housewife, her day job has stayed mostly off-screen. But her identity as a highly educated professor at an elite institution suffuses Osefo’s interactions with others. She has mentioned her “four degrees” so much that she now sells a “4°” baseball cap on her website. (It’s $29.99.) On her inaugural season, her tagline — the snappy self-spoken summary of each Housewife’s personality that plays at the beginning of episodes — was, “The professor has arrived, and class is officially in session.” Osefo and the show, now in its eighth season, will return to screens November 5.
To point out the obvious: It’s unusual for any professor to star on any reality show, let alone for a Johns Hopkins professor to star on a Bravo series. The university’s image is closely aligned with world-class research, public health, and Covid-19 tracking. The Real Housewives’ image is closely aligned with promotional alcohol, plastic surgery, and sequins. One imagines the reputational mismatch is uncomfortable, at least for Hopkins, the far more buttoned-up of the two brands.
“It’s a very weird juxtaposition,” says Evie Psarras, a media researcher who has written about Real Housewives. The job of a Housewife is to “perform and cultivate an amped-up, reactionary persona,” Psarras writes in a scholarly article. Women are cast on the show if they “live glamorously, are entrepreneurial, confrontational, dedicated to looking good, and open to having emotional breakdowns on camera.” That is not a description one would apply to academics (at least not to many of them).
Yet viewed through a different lens, Osefo’s embrace of reality television makes a certain sense. She has bristled against academe’s expectations of how she should comport herself. A part-time political commentator, she has also longed for greater visibility, and the genre’s big promise is eyeballs — some episodes of The Real Housewives of Potomac attract more than a million viewers. Cast members gain a platform to become whatever they want: an author, an influencer, a beverage entrepreneur, a booty work-out video star. “She’s going to grab that by the horns and go use the opportunity, right?” says Psarras. “In that sense, I totally get it.”
Osefo — who declined to be interviewed for this article and, through a representative, called my reporting efforts a “malicious campaign” against her — depicts herself on the show as an ambitious multihyphenate who does not like to be put in a box. In her sophomore season, a couple of Osefo’s castmates question her boob job and Brazilian butt lift, and a perceived personality change. Osefo’s new self is different from the “Professor Wendy” personality she originally displayed, one Housewife tells her.
But Osefo refuses to be pigeonholed. She tells the women that she can be a professor, a commentator, “and I can booty pop and twerk.”
To a scholar, there’s something “thrilling” about the franchise’s confrontational nature, says Samantha Viano, an assistant professor at George Mason University and one of several academic Real Housewives die-hards I interviewed for this story. Though professors, too, are subject to constant criticism, it’s often passive and anonymous, via peer review and student evaluations, Viano said. There’s no direct airing of grievances. Whereas on Real Housewives, if someone says something critical or nasty, “they actually confront the person and get to have it out.”
Each season or so, a new Housewife is injected into the existing cast. She must perform a high-wire act: Insert herself into ongoing drama while establishing a persona that resonates with watchers, ideally by coining a few marketable phrases. The women battle with each other for status within the show’s hierarchy, says Constance Lindsay, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Osefo’s “entrée into the battle was, ‘Well, I’m the educated one here,’” Lindsay says.
As Osefo tells it, her professional striving was predetermined by her heritage. When she was 3, her mother moved her and her sister from Nigeria to North Carolina. Her father later joined them but soon left the family. In his absence, “wagging tongues started predicting our doom,” Osefo writes in her memoir, Tears of My Mother: The Legacy of My Nigerian Upbringing. (It’s blurbed by Amy Chua, the self-branded “Tiger Mother” and provocative Yale law professor.) But her mother, whom Osefo depicts as controlling yet fiercely caring, rejected that prophecy. She told Osefo and her sister that when they grew up, they’d become “a doctor and a lawyer.”
“Our job was to chase success,” Osefo writes. “Nothing else was acceptable.”
To fulfill her mother’s destiny for her, Osefo enrolled in law school, but she did not finish. She worked on a master’s degree at Johns Hopkins and thought about what she really wanted to do with her life. She saw herself on television talking about the news, like Isha Sesay or Joy Reid. But who would listen to her?
“The thought dawned on me,” Osefo writes. “I could get a PhD.” A doctorate would both satisfy her mother and stamp her as someone worth taking seriously. She chose the public-affairs program at Rutgers University at Camden. The coursework there “was about being a public servant and engaging with people in need,” she writes.
Gloria Bonilla-Santiago, who directs the Community Leadership Center at Camden, chaired Osefo’s dissertation committee. She describes Osefo as driven, disciplined, and opinionated. She stood out from other graduate students because she dressed impeccably. “My struggle with her,” Bonilla-Santiago says, “was in making sure that she saw herself in this work.”
Initially, “I didn’t think she was going to stick with me,” Bonilla-Santiago says. But she “proved me wrong.” Osefo has said she defended her dissertation while pregnant with her second son, becoming, according to her Bravo page, the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in public affairs/community development. (Rutgers-Camden did not respond to repeated requests for comment.) Her research examined parental involvement at the LEAP Academy University Charter School in Camden, a public charter pipeline that Bonilla-Santiago shepherded into existence and is managed by the center she directs. (Asked about that potential conflict, Bonilla-Santiago said that though she created LEAP Academy, the schools are operated by other people and that Osefo collected data “independently of my engagement.”)
In the midst of her studies, Osefo, who’d worked a couple of prestigious jobs outside academe, was hired at Goucher College, in Maryland, to be the inaugural director of a new master’s program in management. There, according to Osefo, she was routinely disrespected and isolated because of her race, a familiar experience to many Black faculty and staff members who work on majority white campuses.
“How many times would a white professor assume that I work in the facilities department and ask me to fulfill a housekeeping service ticket?” Osefo wrote in an article for Nonprofit Quarterly. “How many times would someone read the sign outside my office door that states Director and then proceed to walk into my office and ask to schedule an appointment with the director as if I were the receptionist?”
Osefo also craved a bigger platform than Goucher. She wondered, she writes in her book, “Who will find me here?” So when she saw an ad for a position at Johns Hopkins, she applied. Though in a one-on-one interview during Osefo’s first season on Potomac, a castmate calls her a “tenured professor,” she is not. The position was for a non-tenure-track job in the School of Education.
Becoming a professor at a university “as prestigious as Johns Hopkins is not for the faint of heart,” Osefo writes. Still nursing and not wanting to call attention to her status as a mother, she wore breast pads during her all-day interview so that she could avoid pumping or leaking through her white shirt. She got the job.
At Hopkins, Osefo continued talking about the challenges of being Black in white spaces, according to a list of her presentations. She also founded an organization called The 1954 Equity Project LLC, which, through the “Osefo Equity Framework,” works with school administrators to “co-create equitable solutions” for underrepresented students, according to its website, which also sells branded merch. (Maryland public business records say the LLC’s status was forfeited in 2018 for not filing a property return. The organization’s Instagram page last posted to the grid in 2021.)
Johns Hopkins decorated Osefo for her work with the university’s Diversity Recognition Award, in 2017. And the university’s name bolstered her credibility as an expert, she writes in her book. Once she was there, she got more offers for speaking gigs and TV news interviews.
As her visibility increased, Osefo writes, “I could feel myself emerging from the shadows, and my true self taking shape.”
Which raises the question: Why would Osefo, a couple years into her teaching career at Johns Hopkins, agree to become a Housewife?
In Osefo’s telling, she’d never watched Potomac when someone approached her about meeting with the series’ production company. But she liked the idea of celebrating Nigerian culture on the show. She also thought her personal story would resonate with viewers. In addition to showing them how to juggle having multiple jobs and the pressures of being “first gen,” she writes in her book, she could demonstrate that not all female professors “walk around in tweed blazers and knee-length skirts.”
Of course, there were other reasons to say yes. “The fame doesn’t hurt,” says Brian Moylan, a Real Housewives connoisseur who wrote a book about the franchise. “The attention is nice.” So is the money. In his book, Moylan reports that while Housewives earn comparatively little at first, they can rake in much more as time goes on, around and sometimes exceeding $500,000 per season. A longtime star on The Real Housewives of Atlanta reportedly signed a contract worth more than $2 million last year.
It also seems Osefo was already considering a move away from academe. Her memoir is bookended by scenes in which she grapples with telling her mother that she wants to take a break from her job at Johns Hopkins.
“It’s not like I woke up one day with the dream of being on reality TV,” Osefo writes. “... I prayed to God to give me MSNBC. But He gave me Bravo.” And who was Osefo to say no to God?
If anyone were to say no, it’d be Johns Hopkins. Setting aside the tone and subject matter of Real Housewives, Osefo’s position at Hopkins is full-time, and the filming schedule can be demanding. I reached out to Christopher C. Morphew, dean of the School of Education, to learn more about discussions with Osefo pre-Bravo but did not hear back. A university spokesperson said in an email that there is no set time limit on faculty members’ outside activities, and that those commitments are reviewed under university policy. In an interview with the news outlet Insider, Osefo indicated that university administrators were OK with her appearing on the show and that their attitude was: “She has academic freedom. If this is what she wants to do, that is fine.”
During Osefo’s first season, her status as a professor is center stage. She introduces herself to the camera while a degree count appears on screen. She tells a castmate during a playdate that when her children act up, she and her husband, a lawyer, put them in the home office and make them look at the degrees on the wall. (“Do they even know what a degree is?” the castmate asks the camera. “I guess she’s starting early.”)
In arguments, Osefo occasionally wields her credentials as a rhetorical weapon. When a fellow Housewife, Gizelle Bryant, tattles that a costar shaded Osefo behind her back, Osefo rattles off her own accomplishments. “I don’t need your résumé,” Bryant quips. Later, Osefo informs the bad-mouther, Karen Huger, that “it’s an accomplishment for a Black woman to have a Ph.D., so you shouldn’t be making light of it. You should be lifting it up,” and points out that Huger did not “even have one degree.” Neither do lots of Americans, Huger tells Osefo.
Osefo proves herself a worthy Housewife by stretching the disrespect into a multi-episode arc. At a lunch, she tells the women — who by now have grown tired of hearing about this affront — that while she was pursuing her doctorate, there were many times she wanted to stop. “If you read all 170 pages of my dissertation, my first page, I dedicated to my family. My father passed away while I was writing it. I had two of my kids while I wrote it,” Osefo says. “So, I say that to say — no, my degrees are not who I am but goddammit, I earned them shits.” (One cannot currently read all 170 pages of Osefo’s dissertation because access has been restricted “at the author’s request,” per a Rutgers’ webpage.)
Initially, Osefo, or, more accurately, the persona Osefo embodied, struck Carlotta Berry, a professor at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Indiana and Potomac-watcher, as arrogant. But over time, Berry says, Osefo has shown more dimensions of herself. Viewers have seen her lovingly parent her three children, struggle with stress-induced hair loss, take a spin on a party bus stripper pole, profess that she wants to become “the Black Martha Stewart,” and host a “Nude Interlude” party to celebrate her new breasts, which she nicknamed “Happy” and “Ness.”
In Potomac’s most recent season, Osefo has stopped talking so much about her degrees. Her tagline is now: “I’m a Nigerian queen with no time for mean.” Her life at Johns Hopkins is not brought up much at all.
That is, until the fight.
Then, Thornton chucks her drink in Osefo’s face, essentially shifting the dispute into overdrive. Over the next six minutes, both women are restrained by a production security guard. Osefo calls Thornton a “crater-face bitch” — a reference to her acne scars. Thornton swings her purse at Osefo. As she leaves the restaurant, Osefo makes an expletive-laden threat.
At the end of the episode, a disclaimer flashes on the screen: “The Johns Hopkins University has no involvement with the Real Housewives of Potomac.”
Not so, according to Rosen, who said in an email that the university had asked Bravo to put a disclaimer in every episode that mentions Osefo’s status as a Johns Hopkins faculty member. The university does not know about content before it’s aired, Rosen said, nor does it review the manner in which Bravo uses the disclaimer.
But the disclaimer has not appeared in every episode that mentions Osefo’s job, so it fueled fans’ curiosity. Academics from other universities have been known to ask about her when they run into Hopkins colleagues.
I, too, was curious how Osefo’s coworkers and others at Johns Hopkins viewed her star turn.
In August, I reached out to her for an interview and followed up a week later when I did not hear back. I also contacted many of Osefo’s colleagues in the doctor of education program. (Only one professor, Henry M. Smith, ended up speaking with me. Smith, who’s never watched the show, said he enjoys working with Osefo and that her students love her.) In late August, Osefo declined my interview request. I asked via email if she could recommend any current or former colleagues and students for me to interview.
Two days later, someone representing Osefo emailed to demand I “immediately cease and desist in your malicious campaign to harass, defame, and disparage Dr. Osefo at her place of employment,” and that I stop contacting her colleagues. If I did not, the representative said, Osefo would have claims against me “for defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and violation of her right to privacy.”
In her interview with Insider, she maintained that the fracas with Thornton had not affected her reputation at work. Asked if any of her superiors had commented on the episode, Osefo said, in part, “I’ve actually been told about the amount of restraint I showed.”
To labor as a Housewife means to accept a smorgasbord of difficult working conditions. For one thing, it’s an accepted fact of the reality television genre that producers pry into — and many would argue prey upon — its stars’ vulnerabilities, in pursuit of an entertaining product. “The show is not there to help you or do you favors,” says Moylan, the author. For another, while the show’s contracts can become very lucrative, being a Housewife does not automatically lead to booming business success. The Real Housewives universe, The New Yorker recently noted, is “littered with failed business ventures, tax liens, and bankruptcies.” When a Housewife leaves the show, it can be difficult to convert those rock-star television ratings into genuine interest from the masses in one’s life and therefore one’s hawkable wares.
And ultimately, “there’s no such thing as tenure in Real Housewives,” Moylan said, “You can be gone like that.”
Increasingly, there’s no such thing as tenure in academe, either, as more of the professoriate is made up of contingent faculty members such as Osefo. It’s a system often criticized for a similar sort of exploitation: keeping skilled workers on short-term contracts. Academics, too, must comport themselves in certain ways to stay in their colleagues’ and their bosses’ good graces. At a university, that means being collaborative and not ticking off the wrong people. (“I’m more likable now than I will be in the future,” post-tenure, Lindsay, the UNC professor, told me.) On Real Housewives, that means showing up to film on time and dishing it out as much as you can take it.
Osefo has expressed discomfort not necessarily with the unequal labor practices of higher education but with its narrow-mindedness. “When I’m in academia, I have to orate or command myself in a different way because that’s the space I’m in. And it sucks. I hate it,” she told HuffPost last year. “I just want to be Wendy, but society’s not ready for Wendy.”
At a recent event at Howard University, in Washington, D.C., the audience was ready for Wendy.
Osefo was appearing alongside stars from other Bravo shows on a panel hosted by the Black news outlet The Root.
In front of about 50 students and community members, the moderator asked the stars about the stigma that comes with being a Black woman on a reality television show, especially considering the panelists all came on their shows “as something.” For example, “Dr.” Wendy. “How do you manage those boxes?” the moderator asked.
It was a question tailor-made for Osefo. At first, she says, she received a lot of negativity from people who questioned why a professor would even put herself in that environment. But she drew a distinction between the self that people see on Bravo and the self who teaches at Johns Hopkins. On the show, “you guys are seeing me with my girlfriends. You guys are seeing me at home,” Osefo says. “You’re not seeing me in the work environment.”
And she seems to like it that way. Osefo tells the audience that being a Housewife allows people to see the different facets of her identity. Onstage with impeccable makeup, wearing a hot pink dress, she looked the part.