Mean girls, beware: Kelly Bensimon is coming after you. The model, sometime-writer and star of "The Real Housewives of New York City" launched a bizarre anti-bullying campaign this week, starting with a so-called public service announcement posted to YouTube on Thursday. In the 36-second video (seen below), Bensimon claims that she was a victim of "systematic bullying" on the show's tumultuous third season, which just wrapped.
"Four against one is never okay," she says, a curious smirk on her face. "Whether you're a 4-year-old or a 10-year-old or a 40-year-old woman, being bullied or ganged up on is never okay." She has also taken her war on bullying to Twitter; on her account, which Bensimon seems to use mostly to engage in petty battles with her online detractors (example: "@amacdebaca there is no 8am flight home from st johns to new york. get the facts straight") she's started to mix it up with some socially conscious tweets: "Growing number of Teens are using rhythm method for birth control. Practice safe sex, use a condom," she declared yesterday; "practice safe sex and don't bully" was her cogent message the day before.
To call Bensimon's insincere crusade "dangerous" would probably be overstating her cultural influence; still, her campaign is, at the very least, a tad unseemly. What she calls a "PSA," I call a desperate attempt at PR spin and a shameful victim act that would make Sarah Palin blush. This season of "The Real Housewives of New York City" has featured breathtaking amounts of bickering, culminating in a now-infamous three-episode trip to St. John. Bensimon's behavior on the trip was, to put it mildly, erratic and the viewing public has taken notice: if you type Bensimon's name into Google, search suggestions include "Kelly Bensimon crazy" and "Kelly Bensimon breakdown." Clearly, Bensimon's got an image problem, and her PSA is a transparent, ill-conceived attempt to salvage what's left of her reputation.
But worse than Bensimon's lack of sincerity is the cheap parallel she draws between her situation and the plight of actual bullying victims. Bensimon is an already-wealthy woman who is compensated generously to appear on a reality television show with people she probably wouldn't want to hang out with otherwise. Most people would consider this a strange--and possibly unhealthy--way to make a few extra dollars, but it certainly doesn't constitute abuse. Bravo producers may have encouraged Bensimon's trip to "Scary Island" for the sake of ratings (it worked) but her presence there was entirely voluntary. During the trip, Bensimon was treated to catered meals aboard a private chartered yacht and at a behemoth seaside villa, yet she complained to New York that "I wasn't able to go get a coffee; I couldn't go for a run. I was on this small boat and this house, and I was so incredibly confined and I was being hated on, and there was no way for me to get out."
There is the added irony that Bensimon--who was arrested last year for assaulting her boyfriend--is the one who might be fairly accused of unkind behavior. In the same episode in which she claimed to have been bullied, Bensimon called castmate Bethenny Frankel, whose father had just died, a "hobag" and relentlessly mocked her job as a natural foods chef. When she wasn't fighting with the other women, Bensimon was making non-sensical allusions to "satchels of gold" and Al Sharpton.
We all know reality television is edited in a manipulative fashion, and "The Real Housewives" is surely no exception to the rule. But her behavior was, by any rational measure, totally coo-coo and more than a little mean; the episode has prompted (totally unverified) speculation that Bensimon was on drugs or possibly experiencing some kind of mental breakdown, though she insists the episode was a "nervous breakthrough." Bensimon might have been more convincing if she used her bright blue armchair to speak out against the exploitation of reality television, rather than to compare her plight to that of abused teenagers.
The video is especially ill-conceived at a time when real bullying--and its tragic effects--have been in the spotlight. The internet and cell phone era have helped this unfortunate teenage ritual to flourish, as in the case of Megan Meier, a 13-year-old driven to suicide by cyber-bullies. Meanwhile, old-fashioned face-to-face bullying continues unabated. Last month, Massachusetts became the 42nd state to enact anti-bullying legislation after the high profile suicide of Phoebe Prince, a 15-year-old high school freshman who killed herself after her classmates--whom she also called "mean girls"--allegedly subjected her to constant harassment. A year earlier, 11-year-old Carl Walker-Hoover, who'd been mercilessly teased and called "gay," hanged himself. At the same time, laws against bullying in the workplace are gaining steam--but also meeting with resistance from some business owners.
If Bensimon were sincere in her quest to stop bullying--and not just trying to elicit sympathy--she might have issued some more substantial advice in her video. Her suggestion to bullying victims? "Remove yourself," she says. Unfortunately for most victims, that's a little harder than asking a producer to get you on the next flight back to New York.
Follow Meredith Blake on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@meredithblake