There will be very little that's real about "The Real Housewives of D.C."
That, of course, is stating the obvious, especially after Thursday night's premiere. Folks who live in Orange County, New York, Atlanta and New Jersey -- the heretofore settings of the franchise's shows -- will quickly point out: Hey, that's not where I come from, I don't know these women, nothing at all is real about any of it. But this is Washington, D.C., home to the White House and Capitol Hill, referred to by the Georgetown-K Street-Embassy Row set as the "most powerful city in the world." It's not just any city, Washingtonians like to say, it's the capital city. As Andy Cohen, Bravo's senior VP of original programming, told The New York Times: "It seems that in D.C., proximity to power is what defines you."
But in my five years living in D.C. and reporting for The Washington Post, the disconnect between what I thought I knew about Washington and the Washington that I got to know -- walking around the city's neighborhoods, riding the bus and Metro, interviewing long-time residents -- was so jarring that I continually wondered, as I do now, if the label "the most powerful city in the world" was nothing more than an insult. A cruel tease. Most powerful? To whom, exactly?
There were so many things I did not know about "The Real D.C."
I did not know, for example, that D.C. is a historically black city. "Chocolate city," it's called. Though many African American residents are educated and well-off, struggle in all forms -- economic, educational, emotional -- is a daily existence for many who live across the Anacostia River, in the city's poorest wards.
I did not know that D.C. has a sizable and pioneering gay population. Before the rowdy Stonewall riots in New York City, which jump-started the gay rights movement in 1969, members of the Mattachine Society of Washington, a gay rights group led by Franklin Kameny, put on their Sunday best (men in three-piece suits, women in dresses and heels) and picketed the White House carrying signs that read "Homosexual Americans Demand Their Civil Rights."
I did not know that tax-paying residents of the capital city -- "the most powerful city in the world" -- had no vote in Congress. D.C. is ably and honorably represented by Eleanor Holmes Norton, who can speak from House floor and serve and vote in committees but is not considered a full member of Congress. Hence the license plate tag, "Taxation Without Representation."
And I did not know that, nearly 30 years after we first heard of the disease, D.C. is home to the highest HIV/AIDS rate in the country. At least 3 percent of the city's adult population is HIV-positive, a figure that far surpasses the 1 percent threshold that constitutes a "generalized and severe" epidemic. That's a statistic that rivals the HIV epidemic in developing countries, including Haiti and Senegal. In the years that I've reported on AIDS in Washington, the human faces behind the sobering numbers anchored my understanding of "The Real D.C." AIDS, after all, is about sex, about drugs, about homophobia, about sexism -- about issues we, as people, shy away from.
A series of Washington Post stories inspired the feature-length documentary, "The Other City," which premiered at this year's Tribeca Film Festival and SILVERDOCS Festival. Directed by award-winning filmmaker Susan Koch, a D.C. area native, and produced by Sheila C. Johnson, the multifaceted businesswoman and philanthropist who's also lived in the D.C. area for many years, the film will hit selected theaters this fall.
As I read article after article about tonight's premiere of "The Real Housewives of D.C," I couldn't help but think of J'Mia Edwards, one of the D.C. residents featured in the film. J'Mia, a mother of three, found out she was HIV-positive two weeks before her 25th birthday. Soon to be evicted from her apartment, and lost in a tangled and inefficient bureaucracy, the film follows J'Mia as she looks for housing and grows into an activist. She's got other worries. AIDS is the leading cause of death for African American women ages 25 to 34. In 2010. In the age of Michelle Obama. J'Mia, who is black, is 29.
"I've heard of the show. I saw it in the news somewhere," J'Mia told me on the phone yesterday. "But are the women really from D.C.? Like the real D.C.?"To us, "The Other City" is "The Real D.C."
NOTE: "The Other City" will screen in Washington, D.C. and New York City theaters beginning Sept. 17, and in Los Angeles beginning Sept. 24. For more information, visit TheOtherCity.com, follow us on Twitter and be a fan of our Facebook page.