Published May 2010
Lynne Curtin is parking her BMW, hoist- ing her shoulder bag, clippity-clipping in high heels through an Aliso Viejo parking lot. From this Starbucks, where she’s inbound for a nonfat soy latte, she’s really the way those women look on “The Real Housewives of Orange County.” Big mop of hair. French manicured fingertips carefully extended. Mighty cleavage. Hot-pink top.
Appearances aren’t everything, though, even in Orange County. As her fans know, Curtin’s on-camera life wasn’t easy last season, and, close up, it still shows: Before she’s even seated, she’s pitching her signature line of cuff bracelets. Her house keys lead to a nearby condo complex. The heels are from Loehmann’s (not Neiman Marcus), the jeans from Nordstrom Rack (not Kitson). And that top? “TJ Maxx, $29.99. On sale.”
Times have been harder than they appear, even here, even for reality-TV stars. “It’s a misconception that we’re all these rich housewives, and we all have maids. Well, everybody else might—but I don’t,” she says, whipping out a jeweled cuff (only $130 online) for me to check out. “I scrub my own floors.”
That was not supposed to be her reality when Bravo hired her. Curtin came to “Housewives” in 2008 on the recommendation of two friends with connections to another reality show. She was supposed to be the tanned, toned wife of a successful contractor, the leisurely beach mom. Instead, she became a nationally televised poster girl for the Great Recession.
As last season ended, she, husband Frank, and their two teenagers were fending off eviction. Court records show that, even in their new, cheaper rental condo, they have been late with the security deposit and rent. “Never did I think they’d be showing what happened this past year—the economy turning, Frank losing two big jobs.” She sighs. “When I got into the show, things were good.”
Of course, in a county where “keeping up appearances” could be the official motto, what is ever as good as it seems? Even now, it’s hard to tell the lucky from those who are latched for dear life onto a line of credit. Only the closest of close-ups reveals our real lifestyles, which, for the record, aren’t so leisurely, even for housewives. (A 2008 U.S. Census estimate found that nearly 70 percent of O.C. women under retirement age were working, or trying to.) Under our spray tans, we’re just like the pioneers before us, hustling from recovery to recovery.
Curtin grew up in a military family, spent part of her childhood in Orange County, and moved back at 18. Frank, she says, is from New Jersey. Neither has a college degree. They met in Laguna Beach in their early 30s, she a waitress and jewelry designer, he a construction worker. They had kids quickly and followed his work, as people do in construction. At one point, when he fell ill, she worked as a spa aesthetician. They have no 401k, she says, and have rented for most of their adult lives. Five years ago, they got into a speculative real estate deal, which collapsed with the economy.
Now, she says, they’re living on her TV paycheck (which she won’t disclose other than to say it’s somewhat less than the $30,000 an episode said to be paid to more senior “Housewives”). That, plus sales of her Lynne Curtin Designs. “It’s all me,” she says. “Frank’s working for me—well, he has a small job right now. But we’re using my money to pay everything.”
So the woman who was never rich and no longer is a real housewife now must make it work on this TV series about rich housewives. Appearances must be kept up, or else. But when the going gets tough here, the tough get clippity-clipping.
Curtin hauls a sample case of handbags and jewelry from the trunk of her Beemer. “Next year’s going to be my recovery story. I’m this close. I feel it right now. I’m on the brink of success.”
Illustration by Brett Affrunti