reality tv

Real Housewives Helped Heather Gay Actually Get Real

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Koury Angelo

When Bravo first set up shop in Salt Lake City in 2020, it was instantly obvious that this new locale would mean one thing for the Real Housewives canon: mormons. And sure enough, for three seasons now, Real Housewife Heather Gay has been sharing her journey breaking away from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, of which she had been a devout member since birth. Fittingly, it’s also the subject of her new memoir, Bad Mormon, out today.

Rather than a broad look at the sweeping institutional failings of the church, Bad Mormon explores the religion on a more individual level through Gay’s eyes — covering the deep impact church teachings had on her, and her continued struggle to unlearn them. She writes about being taught that her metric of success was a husband and children, how her undervalued business savvy proved to be an asset on her mission trip (“I was a good missionary because I was good at sales”), and how reality television gave her a taste of what living her life for herself, rather than for the church, might actually feel like.

While the temple garments and secret rituals might seem foreign to non-Mormons, Gay’s story and internal battle will likely resonate with anybody who grew up having a complicated relationship with organized religion. “I hope it’s universally relatable to anyone that has ever tried to live authentically and it’s come at a great cost,” she says. And yes, of course, I asked about Jen too.

We’ve seen some of your journey with Mormonism play out on the show. What made you want to dig deeper into it with this book? 

It was a chance for me, without editing, without production, without reality television hanging over my head, to really put my story to paper. And it was important that I did it right because if I was gonna break generations of history and do what I had always feared doing — betraying my pioneer ancestors — I wanted to make sure that no stone was unturned.

This season of RHOSLC, we saw you struggle with being comfortable revealing hard truths in the book. 

I had to wrestle with pulling the veil back for total transparency. A lot of the stuff in the media right now about Mormonism talks about sweeping, weird things, but no one tells it from an insider’s point of view; like what it feels like to be a 21-year-old girl being asked to perform ritual and submit to be a servant for the rest of your life. I needed to tell the truth from my perspective, and that is what I think people are going to be most shocked by and will get the most blowback from the church.

How would you characterize the distinction between your relationship with the church and your relationship with God? Were you able to untangle the two?

I am in the process of untangling it. It’s really difficult to admit that you don’t know anything about God when you’ve been raised to believe that you know everything. I was told I knew all the answers to all the questions, and now all I’m left with are questions. So I’m investigating everything. I feel a deep connection to God, but I don’t have a church to go to. And when religion is your whole life and then it’s gone, it’s hard to say what’s gonna fill those gaps now? Do I have to abandon God because I abandoned the Mormons? And of course the answer is no, but I don’t really know where to go yet.

You say that as a Mormon you felt like you were “performing your reality.” When did you first realize that that was something you were doing?

I think I realized it on my mission. I’d wake up and just go through the motions, turn off my natural instinct, and follow the plan based on the parameters that the church had given me. That was the first time that I felt a part of myself die inside. And then it just got easier and easier to let whatever grated just fall away.

Ironically, you write that you stopped performing your reality when you joined a reality show. How did getting cast on Real Housewives make you live more authentically?

Well, it was the cameras that forced me to. I knew that if there was a chance for me to live authentically, it would take something as monumental as Housewives to push me off the edge of the cliff. With the show, I didn’t have to pretend to be this Mormon mom. I could be something entirely different, but it had to be real. So having cameras holding me accountable was the first time that I couldn’t straddle the fence any longer. It was fascinating to me that I was so much more of a fake person before I got on a reality television show.

In the book, you write about Jen Shah being the missing ingredient that the show needed while they were casting season one — and now we’re at this turning point where she’s on her way to prison. How do you see the show moving forward without her?

It’s a completely different animal. When everything happened with Jen and her crimes, I was tempted to rewrite history, to go back and make myself look smarter and less affected. But I really felt like I needed to honor what it was to become a Housewife and to be swept into this life that I knew nothing of. I also wanted the readers to see Jen running her business and how she was really a mastermind of this. It was this lavish lifestyle that didn’t make sense, but I was dazzled by it. And now knowing that it was all a lie? I just think it’s fascinating to see how quickly we can be dazzled by charisma, money, and personality. I wanted the reader to feel that and to see the behind the scenes of before Jen was a Housewife, and before we found out that this marketing enterprise was all a complete lie — at the cost of a lot of victims that need restitution.

What was your reaction to her sentencing?

I was glad that the sentencing finally happened. I felt like it had been drawn out for so long, but ever since she pled guilty, everything’s really changed. I am obviously not the judge or jury, but I am glad that there’s a chance now for the victims to get restitution and for her family to start to rebuild.

What has been the most rewarding part of sharing your journey so far?

There was this entire community that came out of the woodwork saying, “I see you, I feel you, I went through the same thing.” We as women make all these sacrifices to be a good daughter, to be a good wife, to be a good mother, and we never really consider being good to our own authentic selves. So it was healing and cathartic for sure, to find out that there are other people like me that felt seen by my story.

What do you hope is the number one thing that your daughters take away from this book?

I hope they know how deeply loved they are, and that I’m sorry I couldn’t do it perfectly, but that they feel freed and able to become whoever they wanna be. I hope this book gives them insight into who I was when I was their age, and the choices I made to make other people happy. And I hope they never feel compelled to make choices to make me happy. I will be happy as long as they are true to their inner voice.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Real Housewives Helped Heather Gay Actually Get Real