Most people in Australia would not have heard of American reality TV sensation NeNe Leakes, and that's a pity. NeNe rode to stardom as the most colourful and outrageous member of the Real Housewives of Atlanta team, and by the recent series 3 the producers had given up all pretence of equal coverage and turned the thing into the NeNe Leakes show. In recent weeks she has continued her controversial reality TV career alongside singing legend Dionne Warwick on Celebrity Apprentice, where she has distinguished herself by engaging in an all-out war against her team-mate Star Jones. The two hate each other, and the ever-outspoken NeNe is not afraid to say so to an adoring media.
How to describe NeNe and her attraction? She is possessed of so much magnetism, so much star quality that it seems impossible to believe that it has taken so long for the world to catch up with her. In her early 40s, NeNe is a statuesque and shapely woman, incredibly beautiful in her own unique and vivacious way. She is loud, theatrical and awfully funny, and has the kind of bitchy streak that has gay men lining up to adore her, and I am certain drag queens lining up everywhere to "do" her.
NeNe's own interest in gay men was established in the very first series of Real Housewives of Atlanta, when she introduced her "gay boyfriend, the primped, surgically enhanced and impossibly stlyed Dwight, who has since become a fixture on the series, love him or hate him (and for most on the show, it's the latter). Throughout the show NeNe is a kind of magnet for gay men, and she responds to queer people with a natural warmth and curiosity that mark her out as a fag hag par excellence. I even love her teasing of the show's faux-lesbian wannabe, Kim Zolciak. It's obvious that NeNe has been around the block, and that is a part of her enormous charm.
The second part of her appeal is her enormous vulnerability - a quality often to be found in people possessed of a larger-than-life personality. Not only is NeNe an orphan child who has been lied to about her parentage, but in the third series her marriage dissolves on camera, exposing the painful smallness and unrelenting heartache that characterise most domestic dissolution. To use the show's parlance, NeNe is "real" and sometimes that reality is painful.
Her flaws extend, of course, to other, more negative traits. She is quick to anger, and her size and loudness make her an unnerving opponent in any confrontation (the execrable Kim referring to her as a "moose" - a cruelly apt summation of her size and gravity of threat). She is also bitchy to the cameras, tearing apart the obvious flaws oand pretensions of the people that surround her.
Karen Valby, writing about NeNe's current vendetta against Star Jones on Celebrity Apprentice, is cutting about this tendency to attack first and regret later. She attributes it to Leakes's underlying insecurity about being a nothing, and her recognition that her ticket to fame and fortune lies precisely in this talent for verbal cruelty. There is a ring of truth to this criticism, though to me it is infinitely more subtle a reflex, and tied up with the aforementioned vulnerability and fear that render NeNe, ultimately, a good and heartful person who is all-too-tenderly exposed to the harsh ways of the world.
And her previous anonymity, her lifelong status as wife and helpmeet and suburban queen merged into the new one of megastar describes exactly the trajectory of most camp icons. Hers is a quintessentially suburban journey, and a bathetic rise to fame and fortune through the vehicle of reality TV, that most despised medium among cultural elites. NeNe's critics do more sneering than understanding, in my observation.
What more can I say but that NeNe is my new goddess, a new quintessence of all that is modern. Her wigs, her expensive lunches, and her perpetual presence in the alternate reality of reaity TV render her an incredible influence on contemporary popular culture. NeNe's exagerrated beauty, fundamental fragility and her barely disguised (but totally unwitting) discourses on questions of race, gender and status make her a true poet and philosopher for the 21st Century.
Hail NeNe, queen of my heart.