Before he was an award-winning Hollywood screenwriter and producer, Darren Star was just a teenager from Potomac. His dad was an orthodontist, his mom a freelance writer, and he lived in a big brick house where he used to throw basement parties for his classmates at Winston Churchill High School.
Starr wrote his first big hit based on those years, a show about the lives and loves of pretty, privileged students. He wanted to call it “Potomac, 20854.” But Fox executives thought it should be about someplace more recognizable. Someplace like, say, “Beverly Hills, 90210.”
Twenty-five years later, the little Maryland town is finally getting its moment in the spotlight. “The Real Housewives of Potomac,” the latest installment in the Bravo reality franchise, features six women vying to be queen of Potomac’s social set. “Just up the river from our nation’s capital lies a hidden gem — Potomac, Maryland,” reads Bravo’s promotional material. “Its rolling hills, gated mansions, sophisticated prep schools, and exclusive country clubs all serve to keep the area invitation-only.”
But locals say the show is more fiction than reality, especially in its obsession with class, pedigree and etiquette.
“That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard,” says Chamber of Commerce President Adam Greenberg. “That’s not what Potomac is about.”
There are not, as the show leads you to believe, nightly fundraisers and galas in Potomac. People don’t lecture one another on the finer points of dinner seating or the proper temperature of tea. And it’s a pretty good bet that the average housewife doesn’t get called a “THOT” — which stands for “That Ho Over There.”
The real Potomac, for better or worse, is not a hotbed of hair extensions and catty drama. The real Potomac is beautiful, bucolic and (if we’re being honest here) a teensy bit boring.
For most of its history, Potomac was a sleepy suburb in Montgomery County with plenty of undeveloped land and dirt roads. Founded as a small outpost 300 years ago, this was farm and horse country, with the local hunt club dating to 1931.
Ellie Cain, 76, has spent her entire life in Potomac. Her father moved his family there from Washington in the 1930s, and she moved once, from her childhood home to the house next door, when she got married. As the town’s unofficial mayor, she has raised money for her local church and a historic tavern and helped design the Potomac flag: a jumping horse on a green background with yellow stripes. Before developers built up Potomac, riders commonly galloped across neighboring lawns on horseback, and no one raised an eyebrow. That changed with the advent of McMansions in the 1970s: Homeowners were shocked to see horses on their property, and riders were equally shocked that anyone minded.
“I love Potomac,” Cain says. “I’m proud of this community.” Her friends and neighbors are not snobs, which is why she’s horrified by the pretensions of this reality show. “It’s an insult. Absolutely,” she says. “The people are not that way. They’re very thoughtful. We’re just down-to-earth, good people.”
The real dramas center on keeping the place pristine: In the early 2000s, Redskins owner Dan Snyder caused a ruckus when he cut down more than 100 federally protected trees along the C&O Canal near his property. “It just broke our hearts,” Cain says.
Part of the great appeal is living close to nature, says Montgomery County Council member Roger Berliner, a Potomac resident for more than 20 years. “It is beautiful, of course,” he says. “But it’s not a lot different than anywhere else, except it’s more affluent.”
About 45,000 people live in Potomac’s 25 squares miles, according to census data. It’s 71 percent white, 16 percent Asian and 5 percent African American, although all the cast members on the show are black or biracial. (Only two actually live in Potomac.)
But the real common denominator is money. The median household income is $181,000 and the median home value $878,000, making Potomac one of the nation’s richest little towns. There are a few billionaires — Snyder, businessman Mitch Rales, the hotel magnate Marriott brothers — but the vast majority of residents are upper-middle-class professionals or the merely wealthy. RHOP cast member Karen Huger likes to call her husband, businessman Ray Huger, the “black Bill Gates” (although Huger, worth an estimated $40 million, is about $79 billion short of Gates’s wealth).
The town has had its share of star residents (Ted Koppel, Lynda Carter, Sugar Ray Leonard, the Shriver family, and Farah Pahlavi, the former empress of Iran), but the general understanding is that they live in Potomac because it allows them a relatively normal private life, at least on the weekend.
In many senses, Potomac is like the other wealthy suburbs surrounding Washington: lots of white-collar professionals, safe neighborhoods, big houses on big lots. Buyers like the small-town feel, the good schools and the opportunity to get more land than comes with a similarly priced home in Bethesda or Chevy Chase.
The first thing they “want to know is academic testing results,” says Helen King, a Potomac-based real estate agent. The local public schools are among the top ones in Maryland. Potomac may not have more McMansions than McLean or Great Falls in Virginia, but they’re easier to see, especially driving up River Road. There are a few private schools, a number of country clubs nearby, and (despite all the down-to-earth protests) a delicious little soupcon of snob appeal.
Looking for excitement? Not much happening here, which is exactly the way most families like it. Potomac Village, at the crossroads of River Road and Falls Road, has a couple of restaurants, including Greenberg’s popular Potomac Pizza. The first episode of RHOP featured Mix Bar and Grill, which is in Potomac, but the other trendy bars and restaurants featured on the show — Sax, Capella, the Graham — are all in the District.
“Potomac is, ultimately, a bedroom community,” Greenberg explains. “There’s not a ton to do.” The biggest celebration of the year is Potomac Day, an annual parade with local high school bands, a classic car show and a petting zoo. Not the stuff of riveting reality TV.
So why did Bravo producers come calling? “The Real Housewives of D.C.” lasted just one season, torpedoed by the White House party crashers (a cast member and her husband talked their way into President Obama’s first state dinner in 2009, causing a security uproar) and Washington’s general reluctance to scream obscenities in public. But the franchise thrives on wealthy, outspoken women trying to one-up one another, and Potomac has the money and the mansions to make that interesting. Focusing on the small number of African Americans in and around Potomac adds layers of drama about class, race and success.
WJLA news anchor Leon Harris, who has lived in Potomac for 12 years, has seen other “Real Housewives” shows and initially thought this version was a non-starter. “They only seem to work when the women act out irrationally or crazily, so I laughed when I first heard about the idea,” he says. “Truth be told, Potomac is a pretty tame, unflashy place and that’s the way just about everyone wants it.”
But now he has some concerns: “I can’t count how many times I’ve been asked if my wife was going to be on the show — and she’s definitely not.” He understands that a lot of people assume that members of the suburb’s African American community are all associated with the show or hang out with the social-climbing women in the cast. “I’ve wondered about that being a burden for every black kid going to school in Potomac,” he says. “Will every white person they encounter assume they have a mom who does what they do? Will that stigmatize or affect them in any way?”
And will any of those questions appear on the broadcast? Probably not, because reality television isn’t known for self-reflection.
This much we do know: Karen Huger, the designated grande dame/social arbiter of the show, lives in a Potomac McMansion with her husband and college-bound daughter. Charrisse Jackson-Jordan, the wife of former Wizards coach Eddie Jordan, also lives in Potomac. (Eddie is coaching at Rutgers in New Jersey, but Charrisse says that works for both of them.) Model/socialite Katie Rost grew up in Potomac; Gizelle Bryant, a divorced mother of three, and Robyn Dixon, ex-wife of former NBA player Juan Dixon, don’t technically live in Potomac but hang out there (at least on the show).
And the wild card brought in for maximum drama is 27-year-old Ashley Darby. A decade or two younger than the rest of the cast, the Miss D.C. 2011 is married to millionaire developer Michael Darby. She lives in a high-rise in Virginia, which, according to the rules of reality television, means that she doesn’t have the pedigree to be accepted into Potomac society.
But in reality, it’s not a problem, Berliner says. “If that were the case,” the County Council member laughs, “I would have never been admitted.”