‘I Was So Embarrassed’: Crystal Kung Minkoff Slams ‘Real Housewives of Beverly Hills’ Eating Disorder Jokes

·9 min read
Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty/Bravo
Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty/Bravo

When does a cliffhanger cross the line?

It’s a question some viewers of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills want to know.

Last week’s episode ended with “to be continued,” Bravo’s oft-used dramatic signal to the audience that a cliffhanger of drama would continue. There are numerous times this has been used successfully to engage the audience in heightened drama—on The Real Housewives of New York City alone it was shown during a meltdown in the Berkshires, the nearly-capsized Boat Ride from Hell in Cartagena, and when Luann de Lesseps discovered it was, in fact, about Tom—but the recent dramatic embellishment on RHOBH landed differently, because of the topic on hand.

Beverly Hills Housewife Crystal Kung Minkoff had opened up on the show about her struggles with bulimia and body dysmorphia. And over the last two episodes, Minkoff was approached with questions and comments from her cast that could be deemed inappropriate to direct to someone with an eating disorder.

During an episode titled “The Weight of Words,” Kyle Richards asked Minkoff whether she binged and “threw up.” When Minkoff responded with apparent discomfort, Richards replied that, because she had also experienced disordered eating in the past, she had the right to ask questions. “Because I know.”

Later on, at Sanela Diana Jenkins’ holiday party, Erika Girardi (or Jayne, unless you’re serving her with legal documents at LAX), asked Minkoff for additional graphic details, and appeared to advise her that laxatives were a helpful way to contribute to weight loss. Minkoff’s reaction, as seen on camera, was shock.

And then, the closer: Girardi pointed to a chicken tender being offered by a waiter and loudly (and drunkenly) told Minkoff that this was not something she was allowed to eat.

End of ep.

The next week picked up with that moment, replaying Girardi’s joke. And then… nothing “continued.” Minkoff walked away, embarrassed, which made the edited framework of that interaction feel all the more cringe-worthy as a result.

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The Housewives franchise has often emphasized moments of awkwardness and vulnerability for the greater good (drama), often crossing lines as it does. But using a cast member’s potentially life-threatening mental health condition for dramatic effect, multiple times, felt exploitative. It could also further stereotypes about eating disorders with far graver consequences than Girardi’s crass attempt at a joke.

In an interview after the most recent episode of RHOBH aired, Minkoff told me about the discomfort she felt during the scene. “I felt embarrassed. Like suddenly the show didn’t exist, and I just felt embarrassed. There’s a feeling of embarrassment being on the show, the idea of being filmed. And then, you know, I got made fun of, as a child, for being chubby. That’s how it felt.”

I also recently spoke about the seriousness of ED conversation with Dr. Samantha DeCaro, director of clinical outreach & education at the Renfrew Center, “the nation’s first residential eating disorder facility, a pioneer in the treatment of eating disorders,” and the place where New Jersey Housewife Jackie Goldschneider was assessed for anorexia during the last season of her franchise.

I asked DeCaro about the impact of food restriction jokes directed at someone with an eating disorder.

“Any joke about eating disorder symptoms, or any joke about an eating disorder, really trivializes such a serious matter,” she said. “Eating disorders are the second deadliest psychiatric disorder in the DSM-5, second only to opioid overdose… Not only does it trivialize what that person is going through, but it also goes against what that person is trying to unlearn in their recovery. And one of the things they’re trying to unlearn is this idea that certain food is not OK, and that they have to micromanage what they eat, and micromanage their weight.”

Minkoff also said that after Girardi mentioned laxatives, she shared why that thinking was dangerous. “It was very uncomfortable for me. Because when she mentioned the laxative, I actually explained that my best friend suffered from that. And I’d discovered that later and she didn't know it was an eating disorder. She had always known about mine… And then I found out she was doing that. And I was like, you know that’s a problem. So I explained that story.”

While a confessional of castmate Garcelle Beauvais criticizing Girardi’s comments was included in the episode, editors left out Minkoff’s response, which could have educated Girardi and viewers about the dangers of laxatives as a way to purge.

Minkoff also said that she told the cast their questions were triggering. “I said to them, this is starting to feel a little too graphic for me,” which the audience also didn’t see. Including pushback could have shown viewers that Minkoff set boundaries around inappropriate questions and remarks. Especially as Richards and Girardi seemed to believe their past allowed them the right to push forward.

While Bravo has included contact information for eating disorder support onscreen at the ends of recent episodes, choosing to also include Minkoff’s responses could have been another effective way to use the network’s platform.

Minkoff is not the first Housewife whose eating disorder journey was shown on Housewives. Jules Wainstein shared her struggles with bulimia on RHONY Season 8. Goldschneider’s decision to pursue treatment for anorexia was a focal part of Season 12 of RHONJ (even as cast member Teresa Giudice engaged in body-shaming jokes against another cast member, Margaret Josephs).

While some of Minkoff’s cast members have previously shared their own histories with eating disorders—including Richards and Lisa Rinna’s daughter Amelia Gray Hamlin—because eating disorders are so varied, no one person’s experience is the standard. The cast’s inability to create space for Minkoff’s story furthered the divide. As Minkoff shared, “I’m so used to people not understanding... That’s why I pull away.”

That fissure became clear during conversation about body dysmorphic disorder. When Sutton Stracke walked in on her in a state of undress during a cast trip to Lake Tahoe last season, Minkoff used the word “violation” to describe her distress, which was met with near-unanimous disapproval by the rest of the cast. Instead of a conversation around why she felt upset, the cast focused on what they perceived as an inappropriate use of the word.

Minkoff says the cast’s lack of empathy and interest in her story last season may have contributed to the current environment.

“In Tahoe, I opened up. It could have been a conversation, of explaining ‘violation’ and my eating disorder, and me diving into an educational moment. But it was not done like that…And it wouldn’t have spiraled to what it was. But it doesn’t work like that. I can’t control it. It’s a show….Had it been like an opportunity, that it was encouraged to talk about, that could have been the learning moment, then. And I would have been happy to open up about it. I was like, ready. I was like, ‘OK.’ Because I needed them to know. It felt very intense how they were treating me.”

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The show’s construct pushes for uncomfortable conversations, according to Minkoff. “It’s the experience of the show. There’s an expectation that I’m going to ask people questions and they’re going to ask me questions that are far more invasive than normal, because the show is designed to hear your inner thoughts. So maybe these are questions that many people have wanted to ask me. Right? That they didn’t because of politeness, or etiquette.” But with conversations about eating disorders, invasive and potentially triggering questioning is precisely the wrong methodology. Including language like, “Did you throw up?”

As DeCaro noted, “I think that question, I would imagine, could be experienced as intrusive to someone who is struggling with an eating disorder. There is a lot of shame and embarrassment and if someone is opening up to you about their eating disorder, I would really encourage that person to really just listen.”

For Minkoff, “it’s very, it’s so deeply embedded in me. Those words are very hard to say. So I just would never say those words…I find other words that make me feel more comfortable. So when people are like, asking me directly, ‘Do you do that? Throwing up?’ I’m like, ‘Ugh, you guys. This is a lot. I’m an open book. But try to be a little more gentle.’ ”

Should eating disorders be treated differently than other moments of cast insensitivity played out for dramatic effect? How is this any different from on-camera conversations about Yolanda Hadid’s chronic health condition, Kim Richards’ battle with alcoholism, Denise Richards’ sexuality?

For Minkoff, treating ED insensitivity as typical Housewives drama would feel unnatural. “I got a lot of comments like, ‘Why don’t you fight back? Where’s Crystal’s clapback?’ I’m like, this is not something you ‘clap back’ at. This is not, like, you’re making fun of my clothes. This is so deep and painful and rooted in, like, my view of life and my view of myself. It’s not frivolous, that I’m going to ‘clap back’ at you. I’m just going to walk away and protect myself, and that’s all I can do.”

“I have to protect myself when it comes to this. Because when the show is over, I still have my eating disorder.”

And Bravo has a highly watched season of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, one that is offering a window into the complicated reality facing people whose eating disorders are not treated with the seriousness they deserve.

To be continued?

Assuredly.

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