The premise of Big Rich Texas, the Style Network's riff on the Real Housewives template that premieres Sunday at 9/8c, is simple: Self-made woman, pageant coach and model Leslie Birkland moves to Dallas and attempts to enter society by joining the exclusive Woodhaven Country Club. It's so simple that the series takes Birkland's decision for granted (after all, the premiere would have no narrative arc without it). Watching it made me wonder why anyone would want to subject themselves to the kind of superficial scrutiny that joining a country club (or pledging a sorority or attempting to sit at the cool kids' lunch table) conjures. The potential for humiliation is great and there are no guaranteed rewards when you put effort into winning over a group of people you barely know and may not end up liking yourself.
In a way, joining any of these reality shows where strangers are thrown together basically for the sake of arguing is a lot like joining an exclusive country club. That makes the narrative of Big Rich Texas either perfectly tailored to its medium or redundant (give us a few episodes and we'll let you know which). People want to be accepted, just like they want to be on TV, but is it worth the headache? We spoke to reality newbie Birkland to get to the bottom of this.
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Watching this first episode, I couldn't help but wonder if there was actual doubt regarding whether you'd be accepted into the country club. There wouldn't be a show if you weren't.
Leslie Birkland: At least I wouldn't be on the show! I definitely did not know. I'm not from Texas. Everyone is so nice that it was hard for me to distinguish if they liked me or not. I'm used to being able to read when someone doesn't like me, and I couldn't because of the way they're raised. This club was different than other clubs. In other clubs, you go, you're known, you pay your money and you're in. This club has a committee so you have to do some schmoozing, which I'm not used to. I got good at it.
It seems like a very stressful situation to put yourself in: You're asking people to judge you and possibly reject you based on who you are.
Birkland: I've been rejected my whole life. Being a model for so many years, I'm used to being rejected. That didn't bother me. I wanted people to like me, though. That's kind of your instinct. Sometimes I felt like I was trying a little too hard.
You enter this wanting people to like you, but you don't really know them. What if it turns out that you don't like them?
Birkland: That's a very good point. It did go both ways. It was a little hard and uncharacteristic of me when I wasn't sure if I liked them. It turned out that everyone was pretty decent to me. Almost. Sometimes.
What was the driving force behind you wanting to join the club? Status?
Birkland: There's the status, but it's also because I didn't know anyone besides my cousin [Connie, who plays a prominent role on Big Rich Texas]. Just getting connected to the Dallas scene and being able to accomplish the things I wanted to in Dallas. It was embarrassing, because I had to call people sometimes and they'd say, "I'm sorry, who is this?" I had to remind them.
I felt bad for you -- what you did was potentially humiliating.
Birkland: Keep in mind, I hadn't really seen my cousin in 20 years. She was also judging me, or at least I got that feeling. My one saving grace was Dr. Bonnie. That woman truly is brilliant and beautiful. We had chemistry, kind of between a guy and girl when you meet someone. I loved this person. I always had her to look to or know that she would have my back.
Bonnie's something of an outcast. Did you relate to that?
Birkland: I did feel that way, though Bonnie grew up differently [than I did]: Her father is a surgeon, she's a doctor, she's brilliant. She grew up in that lifestyle, I didn't. I grew up on welfare and changed my life on my own. To be accepted into a club where class makes a difference and your upbringing makes a difference, I wasn't used to that.
It makes a difference in how people regard you, or how you behave?
Birkland: I'm proud of my background, quite frankly. I know if I lost everything tomorrow, I could start again at the bottom. I don't have the fear that comes with always having money. I'm not ashamed of how I grew up, but I could sense that most of the club members grew up with a lifestyle I wasn't able to enjoy.
Do you think they looked down on you for that?
Birkland: Maybe. They didn't say it, but you know... A couple of things were said questioning how I could relate to things. Like, for example: If I was so poor, how could I know [what] a Porsche was? I'm thinking, I was poor — I wasn't an idiot!
Besides the TV aspect, it still seems weird to me to want to enter an environment like that. Is this just a matter of trade-off? You get the amenities of the club and greater socialization while having to put up with crap?
Birkland: Yes, but it's also educational. It wasn't only them accepting me, it was me accepting them and showing them that you don't have to grow up a certain way to fit in.
I know you haven't watched the show yet — are you prepared to hear people's opinions about you that come out in interview, which you may not have been privy to yet?
Birkland: Yes. There was one time when we were filming when I was at my house and around the corner and another cast member was saying not nice things about me. No one knew I could hear. I thought, "I guess I'm going to have to get used to that."