We need to talk about ‘Southern Charm’

She’s always an outrageous hoot in person, but Southern Charm Savannah’s vituperous vixen Ashley Borders has never once taken her clothes off in an interview.
She’s always an outrageous hoot in person, but Southern Charm Savannah’s vituperous vixen Ashley Borders has never once taken her clothes off in an interview.

I DEDICATE most of this space to championing underdogs and calling out inequality, but when it comes to provenance, turns out I’m a snob, y’all.

The other day while I overheard someone say breezily, “I’ve been here six years, so I’m basically from here,” a statement that struck me as so painfully naive I almost broke my face trying to keep my eyes from rolling back in my head.

To understand Savannah means accepting there’s a hierarchy when it comes to claiming it as one’s place of origin. You can grow up here, you can grow roots here, you can even buy your own hotel, but if your daddy didn’t swat sand gnats with Oglethorpe, you ain’t a true native, baby.

I mean, my father-in-law has lived in the same Ardsley Park neighborhood since Nixon was firing special prosecutors and he still defers to Tampa as his hometown.

I know folks still stinging from the outsider status bestowed upon their immigrant grandparents.

I, so obviously not from the South and possibly not even this planet, have only barely gained entrée by marrying someone still remembered as the city’s star athlete three decades later and my willingness to entertain other people’s eccentric relatives at dinner parties.

Like it or not, Savannah has a history indelibly defined by the people who got here first, the ones who etched their names in stone all over the place and set up titanic industries and real estate empires for their future spawn.

Blue in the blood may not guarantee competence or class but it still carries weight, which is fine because someone has to shoulder all the schadenfreude.

Of course, that’s the whole premise of the Bravo Channel’s latest reality trainwreck, Southern Charm Savannah. Many of us have spent the past two Monday nights scoffing out loud at the TV and tossing back a shot of bourbon every time someone said “back at Savannah Country Day...”

For some it’s been worth the liquidated brain cells to see the gorgeous sweeping drone shots of downtown and cameos of local businesses like Smith Bros. Butcher Shop and Lulu's Chocolate Bar, as well as watching three grown women fail at trying to walk a dog.

What I’ve found most fascinating is the shocking amount of you who stay awake into the wee hours to post your outrage about how the show doesn’t represent the “real” Savannah.

How could this cast of petty, privileged, fame-seeking dock loungers possibly portray the hard-working people of our fair city?

Why aren’t there more boiled peanuts?

Lord have mercy, now the rest of the world is going to think we’re all a bunch of drunk racists! (Oops, too late.)

Speaking of which, where are all the black people? There was literally not a single person of color in the first episode except a bartender and the back of photographer Cedric Smith’s head. I’m sure many of the Savannah’s African American citizens could trace their ancestry all the way back to the 1700s, too, though that TV show would hardly be a plucky fun adventure to squeeze in the prime time slot between Top Chef and Tabitha’s salon takeovers.

Let’s be real, dahlins’: We all know by now that reality TV isn’t reality at all.

Sure, most of the cast members of Southern Charm Savannah are legit born and bred-all-the-way-back to Scarlett O’Hara’s curtains, but their onscreen personas ring as hollow as an old pecan shell.

In real life, “recurring guest star” and rabid bowtie enthusiast Nelson Lewis is already notorious for being a cheeky charlatan, arrested in Washington, DC in 2010 for impersonating former Congressman Jack Kingston and later declaring himself the “Minister Plenipotentiary for Artistic Endeavors for the Embassy of the Bahamas,” which sounds like a broker for high-priced exotic dancers.

(Anyone else slur-shout at the screen “You, sir, are no Kennedy!” when he humblebragged that his family has been compared to American royalty?)

Others aren’t nearly as odious as the edits make them out to be. While she may play the part of the vituperous vixen and is always an outrageous hoot in person, Ashley Borders has never once stripped down to her skivvies in the many times I’ve interviewed her about her sustainable fashion designs or her volunteer sewing workshops with Goodwill.

And in spite of his cucumber-wielding and womanizing references, Daniel Eichholz is happily ensconced in a committed relationship. (Nice tushy, though, honey!)

The show’s coquettish doyenne Catherine Cooper claims heritage back to the colonial dames, but I’ve never heard anything about her other than that she kindly lent her family’s Beaulieu plantation (“oh, I hate that word!” she declares dramatically) to chef Meta Adler to help raise money for the Alzheimer’s Association.

But the show’s producers know that good works and monogamy make boring television—Southern Charm is predicated on broad stroke Southern clichés and manufactured bougey drama.

In the trailer for the second episode, we get to hear someone call Savannah “Charleston’s ugly stepsister,” like we’ve never heard it before. Girl bye; at least the star of our show isn’t a coke-pushing former state treasurer. (See? Snob!)

It’s also meant to manipulate us outsiders and Jenny-come-latelys into believing that the bluebloods are worth more than the rest of us. Well, maybe they are, if we’re looking at stock portfolios.

But what I mean is that just because these kids come from the families that were first to stick their toes in the swamp, that doesn’t mean they matter more. We don’t have to take the chum, chumps.

We may never be “from” here, but that doesn’t make our Savannah any less real: The diverse, inclusive community that can always be counted on to show up to potlucks and protests with a covered dish and a smile.

The everyday challenges of finding a parking space, making a living and educating our children amongst the ongoing tangle of poverty, drugs and crime.

The blessed evening breeze as we sit in our postage-stamp sized backyards, enjoying the heady perfume of a trellis sagging under the weight of Confederate jasmine (huh, maybe after we get the Talmadge Bridge renamed, we can start on that.)

None of it has a whit to do with the contrived nonsense some corporate types sitting in a high-rise in Manhattan have concocted for the masses.

Still, I’m guessing a lot of us tune in for the rest of the season for the same reasons we’ll all endure Baywatch later this summer: To see our complicated little city in full color glory, and maybe even catch a glimpse of ourselves on the tay-vay.

But if any bug eyed-Bravo zombie watching Southern Charm Savannah thinks that’s how it actually is around here, I have a Talmadge Bridge I’d like to sell them.


About The Author

Jessica Leigh Lebos

Community Editor Jessica Leigh Lebos has been writing about interesting people, vexing issues and anything involving free food for more than 20 years. She introduces herself at cocktail parties as southern by marriage.
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