CHARLESTON, S.C. – For the last few years Charleston has been getting the sort of high praise it has not seen since before Reconstruction.
Travel & Leisure and Condé Nast Traveler have named it the best city in the United States. Bon Appétit has declared Husk, the pride of its trailblazing food scene, the third-most important restaurant in the country. Its Spoleto music festival has been called by the Wall Street Journal “a world-class event in a first-class setting.”
Finally, it seemed, Charleston was getting its long-deserved due as an international capital of refined culture and distinctive taste after shaking the degradations of the Civil War, Hurricane Hugo and Borat – the “Da Ali G Show” character who blew through the society circuit here with an indelible display of lasciviousness several years ago.
Then, Bravo came to town.
More specifically, its reality show “Southern Charm.” The network billed it as a peek into the “notoriously closed society of Charleston” starring “a group of the city’s most charismatic gentlemen and their Southern belle equals.”
The actual show, which made its debut in March and has its finale Monday night, with an average audience of roughly 1.1 million viewers, has drawn a different description locally.
“A pop culture smear on the Holy City,” Charles W. Waring III, the publisher of the small and civic-minded newspaper the Charleston Mercury, called it in an interview, channeling the prevailing view of many longtime Charlestonians.
The series, a showcase for a higher-end display of “Jersey Shore”-style debauchery, is so reviled in certain quarters that it has spawned Hate Watch sessions here and wherever displaced Charlestonians gather. Some, including Charleston’s longtime mayor, Joseph P. Riley Jr., refuse to watch it altogether, although he says he receives reports. Friends and relatives of would-be cast members have virtually threatened to disown them – that is, when not haranguing them with that most basic question, “Why?”
Bravo does not get what all the fuss is about.
“Everyone in this cast loves Charleston,” said Kathleen French, the Bravo senior vice president for current production. “They love their town.”
But it is not their love of the city that is being questioned; it is what they do on national television in their beloved city that is.
Try: The 51-year-old former state treasurer Thomas Ravenel (who was forced from office in 2007 after a cocaine-related felony conviction) drunkenly beds a much younger woman in a one-night stand that turns into something more only after a pregnancy scare (the 21-year-old – a Calhoun, no less – proceeds to sleep with another cast member and have an apparent intimate encounter with yet a third); a 45-year-old bachelor, Whitney Sudler-Smith, informs his mother he may soon depart the large, historic house he shares with her for his own “stabbin’ cabin,” better suited to his amorous adventures. This happens only after mom mildly complains about the late-night “trail of women” he brings through (“Just as long as they walk upright I’d be happy,” she explains). In one precious moment, the cast member Jenna King likens a string hanging from a pair of jeans shorts she is trying on to that of a certain feminine hygiene product.
Throughout, the cast members relay that this is just how people are in this town. At times they curse so much that the television bleeps like a car alarm.
“It is not at all what we expect of our children,” said Martha Whaley Adams Cornwell, a local artist and civic leader whose Charleston roots date to well before the Revolutionary War. She was sitting in the garden her mother made famous in the memoir “Mrs. Whaley and her Charleston Garden.” Her mother, now deceased, also started the junior Cotillion dancing school, a social fixture where even now “girls wear gloves” and “are taught to look into an adult’s eyes” along with their male dance partners, she said.
Riley said his primary concern was that the program was showcasing “the polar opposite” of the civic spirit driving the renaissance here. “Decadence didn’t build Rome; it destroyed it,” Riley declared during an interview in his City Hall office. “You build a great city and a robust economy by having people who wake up early in the morning with a clear head and a clear conscience and get to work and try to help each other.”
The show was the conception of Sudler-Smith, 45. A Virginia native living in Los Angeles, he came to know Charleston after his mother, Patricia Altschul, bought an estate here. Fresh off his ambivalently received 2010 documentary “Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston,” about the fashion designer, he immediately saw his opening for a show that would “deconstruct the myths of the old South but do it in a very funny assertive way.” His inspiration was Ravenel – an outrageous sort who says one should have the right to do cocaine in the privacy of his own home even as he professes to be running for the Senate. Ravenel is precisely the kind of unrestrained character a reality show needs to thrive.
In an interview by phone – Bravo would not have it otherwise – Ravenel said his family pressured him to drop out. The Ravenels are one of the city’s oldest families. His father, the former congressman Arthur Ravenel Jr., is so beloved that a major bridge here is named after him. “There are those mostly from old families – of which I’m a part – that, you know, the whole idea that someone would air their dirty laundry in public is unacceptable,” he said. “There will always be those types of people.”
He compared his critics with the “Gone With the Wind” character Ashley Wilkes, an equivocating Confederate officer whose Old World sense of etiquette becomes a broken compass after the war. “I’m not going to sit around and listen to what Ashley and his ilk are saying about me.”
The show has produced at least one positive outcome – a baby, from the coupling of Ravenel and his now 22-year-old paramour, Kathryn Calhoun Dennis. No wedding date has been announced.