The below editorial features the opinions and views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of #escYOUnited as a whole, Eurovision or the EBU.
It was the dropped c-word heard around the world – in 2016, Kelly Dodd helped reinvigorate an American reality television franchise by mercilessly laying into cast mates Shannon Beador, Tamra Judge, and Heather Dubrow. And the latest season of The Real Housewives of Orange County will probably feature more outbursts, though hopefully not too many because as a fan, you have to hope that your onscreen reality idols mature and achieve some level of peace.
But do you remember the time when The Real Housewives sought to grab attention not by eviscerating “snarcastic” husbands of new cast-mates (as Dodd did with Emily Simpson’s husband Shane last year), but by trying to embark on a music career? Sure, a few from other Real Housewives franchises are still trying it in 2019 (Ashley Darby, Luann De Lesseps, and Milania Giudice), but there was a “classic” period from around 2008 to 2013 when Real Housewives unleashed several singles of varying quality. And by varying quality I mean the songs were either “terrible but oddly endearing” or “terrible and irredeemable.”
Please note, I do not count Real Housewives of Atlanta’s Kandi Burruss in any criticism of Real Housewives music as she had a music career of her own and won a Grammy writing one of the most important songs of the 1990s, as well as being part of a top drawer R&B act herself in the 1990s.
Anyway, as The Real Housewives of Orange County Season 14 kicked off this week, lets look at an American writer and producer who managed to dip his toes in both The Real Housewives and the Eurovision pools. Spoiler alert: With much sadness as we just talked about the great Kandi Burruss, it’s not her.
It was however meant to be that someone with Todd in their name would be writing songs for The Real Housewives, however artist, producer, and writer Bryan Todd is not related to Burruss’s husband Todd Tucker. Nor is he related to Ken Todd. You may remember Ken as the elderly gentleman time traveler from the 1980s who props up a half-dead pink-clothed dog and calls supermodels “stupid” on occasion in his role as husband to Lisa Vanderpump on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.
Bryan Todd was born on March 1, 1973 in Cincinatti, Ohio, and after graduating from Temple University in Philadelphia, by way of the Navy Seals, moved to Los Angeles to seek out fame as a recording artist. Todd earned a reputation as being a multi-faceted artist who didn’t just have a voice and a stage persona, but who also played piano and keyboard, and also set about learning everything he could about working in the music industry from songwriting to production (where “Fly High” from South Korean boy band Shinwa was his first credit) to pop music promotion. That earned him the attention of Warner / Chappell, and in 2004, Todd took the suggestion of colleagues to move to Sweden. Todd recorded and released several singles, including “Wherever You Are” and “It’s the Way.”
“It’s the Way” was a minor hit in the United States, hitting Number 14 on the Billboard Dance charts. But because of Todd’s knowledge, work ethic, and songwriting skills across pop and country, Todd began being recruited to write and produce songs for other artists. But before Todd dabbled in The Real Housewives and Eurovision, he got a lot of success writing and producing for a different pop culture phenomenon with a rabid fanbase – The Disney Channel crowd.
Todd had some success producing “I Could Get Used to This,” a 2007 cover of the Veronicas’s song from 2005 and performed by Indiana, Pennsylvania teen pop punk band Everlife. Sticking with youngsters with a point to prove, Todd wrote and produced “Over It” for Ashley Tisdale’s debut album “Headstrong.” Tisdale was looking to grow up from her days as a teen star on Disney Channel’s The Suite Life of Zack and Cody and playing Sharpay Evans on the High School Musical franchise.
A lot of money and effort was thrown at Tisdale’s debut album, including contributions by Diane Warren, lyricist of Eurovision 2009 United Kingdom entrant Jade Ewen’s song “It’s my Time,” and many more that we’ve covered before. And it worked, as Tisdale’s album debuted at Number 5 on the Billboard 200 album chart. The album’s lead single, “Be Good to Me,” was co-written by Joacim Persson, the Swedish writer and producer who has had incredible success over the years at Eurovision, including Bulgaria’s Eurovision 2016 Number 4 “If Love was a Crime” and Eurovision 2017 Number 2 “Beautiful Mess.”
In the meantime, Bravo TV was looking to spruce up its line-up. The network had some initial success with its Top Chef franchise and the first run of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, but in 2005 it was still mostly known for fine arts and independent movies and content. That’s when executive producer Andy Cohen pitched an idea to take advantage of the reality television format but add the feel of soap operas with rich characters as seen in shows like Dynasty or Desperate Housewives. Instead of obvious old money spots like New York City or Miami or Beverly Hills – whose turns would come – Cohen and producer Scott Dunlop opted for the nouveau riche Republican dominated gated community stronghold of Coto de Caza in Orange County.
The location choice, the casting, and the timing proved to be inspired as The Real Housewives of Orange County was an immediate hit on Bravo TV, though not without a large volume on unfavorable reviews and for showcasing aspects of these ladies’ lives that went beyond their luxe lifestyle and the superficial socializing. Sure, it is interesting to see how someone like Vicki Gunvalson operated in the usually male dominated world of insurance, and operated well she did in terms of policies originated before working and earning licenses for other insurance and financial planning products. But it is really the turmoil in Gunvalson’s love and family lives that keep people coming back, whether to empathize for her horrible choice in men after her marriage to her Season 1 husband failed, or to see what villainous shenanigans she gets up to in spreading rumors about fellow cast-mates or interfering in other people’s lives.
Season 1 debuted in March 2006 with Gunvalson being joined by Kimberly Bryant, Jo de la Rosa, Jeana Keough, and Lauri Waring. One of the more cringeworthy storylines of Seasons 1 and 2 was the implosion of de la Rosa’s engagement to her fiance Slade Smiley. Below is a selection of key moments from their relationship. Be warned, neither de la Rosa nor Smiley come off looking good, with her coming off as an immature brat who couldn’t handle being domesticated by a fossil fifteen years her senior and with kids. And Smiley especially looks bad with his obnoxious “I’m rich” gloating and crude commentary to and with his friends about his personal assistant, who he passive aggressively hired because de la Rosa didn’t fancy being a stay at home nanny.
Things really began taking off drama wise when the financial crisis of 2008 hit – note that de la Rosa in the clip above took a job with Countrywide Financial, a mortgage lender that exploded spectacularly due its underwriting standards being somewhere between “none” and “does the applicant have a pulse?” The world of big houses in gated communities and expensive cars was not immune from the crash, with one Housewives cast member’s daughters receiving an eviction notice in 2010.
de la Rosa left The Real Housewives of Orange County at the end of Season 2, and immediately moved up the I-5 to Los Angeles to try make a career for herself in the entertainment industry. Smiley, though no longer engaged to de la Rosa, was still for some reason involved in her life, but mostly as a lamprey hanging on (while simultaneously funding) the shark seeking the limelight. Lamprey, friend, and financial support, whatever you want to call the relationship post-breakup, it was odd.
First up for the couple was the first spin-off of a Real Housewives show in 2008 called Date My Ex: Jo & Slade. This was at the time when VH-1 was churning out reality dating shows like Flavor of Love and Rock of Love with Flavor Flav and Bret Michaels, respectively. Neither one of those had their exes floating around the house like an old man’s fart, which is what Date My Ex: Jo & Slade did. The premise is that Jo is looking for new love, and every week Jo picks a group of men to stay at Smiley’s house every week and chooses one after a series of dates to remain at Smiley’s house while the other two get booted out. Smiley also got to watch the dates on camera and comment to the guys about them, which ends up being awkward as Smiley is a terrible judge of character and himself has no game beyond “I got money, toots.” Additionally, his critiquing one contestant in particular for only wanting to date de la Rosa to be on television is beyond rich.
This show is so depressing, the Wikipedia editor who tried to summarize the show gave up on episode descriptions after the third and no-one else who’s done Wikipedia entries – including myself who did a detailed 2,000 word article on Black Lace on ESC United that only my mother and a bricklayer from Turkmenistan read – bothered to pick up the slack.
However, around the same time and as part of boosting de la Rosa’s profile, de la Rosa recorded an album called “Unscripted.” And most of the gruntwork on her debut album was done by Bryan Todd, who was producer, co-composer, and also played piano and provided backing vocals. The lead single was “U Can’t Control Me,” an odd choice to release at the time of Date My Ex: Jo & Slade, where de la Rosa’s dating destiny is being partially controlled by Slade and Bravo TV.
Full disclosure: I did not listen to the full album, mostly because I do not wish to stick my head in a gas oven. However, the few songs I listened to are not Todd’s worst work, nor is it the worst Housewives single. “U Can’t Control Me” is one of those pop songs with a bit of guitar to make it “edgy,” but there are some production choices that are baffling. There are several random “what” and “uh” and “yeah” dropped in by a male backing vocalist as well as some tweaks to de la Rosa’s vocals. “Letting Go” is a piano driven ballad that showcases the limits of de la Rosa’s vocals. She is not the strongest singer, though Todd for the most part does well to work around her limitations. de la Rosa did not have a follow up album, and though she will never be a Kandi Burruss, she was not a laughing stock like The Real Housewives of DC’s Michaele Salahi. And for that she should thank Bryan Todd.
After a few years of more composition and production for Disney teen artists and American Idol artists, we get to the reason we are here today: TWiiNS.
Born on May 15, 1986 in the rural village of Hronský Beňadik, twin sisters Daniela and Veronika Nízlová both embarked to university to study music industry management at Comenius University of Management. The education worked and for the next decade after their graduation the twins, performing as TWiiNS, recorded four albums and hosted their own TV show. It was only a matter of time before they’d take aim at Eurovision, and they got a first run as background dancers to Czech Republic’s 2008 entrant Tereza Kerndlova and her entry “Have Some Fun.”
Did the juries and the televoters want to have some fun at Eurovision 2008? Evidently not as Kerndlova came in 18th out of 19 in Semi-Final 2, failing to qualify for the Grand Final. TWiiNS continued to grow their career, and had a successful dance single called “Boys Boys Boys” in the summer of 2010.
TWiiNS decided to take a stab at Eurovision themselves, and recruited Bryan Todd to write and produce their Eurovision 2011 entry for Slovakia, “I’m Still Alive.” Todd, having much better singers and dancers to work with than de la Rosa (no, TWiiNS did not qualify for Eurovision by working at one of the world’s most infamous mortgage mills), decided to go with a ballad.
In a way, it is reminiscent of de la Rosa’s “Letting Go” musically and lyrically, and though de la Rosa is a far more limited vocalist than the Nizlova sisters, “I’m Still Alive” feels like a wrong choice and Eurovision 2011 was probably the wrong year for a bubbly dance pop act to be trying a ballad. TWiiNS actually did not do too bad, as with a bit of luck they would have edged into the Grand Final. TWiiNS came in 13th in Semi-Final 2, but only 6 points behind 10th placed legendary Moldovan punk-rockers Zdob si Zdub, with Bulgarian legend Poli Genova and Belgian a capella group Witloof Bay (whose lead vocalist Nicholas Dorian conducted Belgium at Eurovision Choir 2019 this past weekend) sandwiched in between.
Though as Wiwibloggs’s Willie Lee Adams said in his review of “I’m Still Alive” at the time, “[T]hat’s what makes their song “I’m Still Alive” so puzzling. It’s a saccharine ballad about inner strength and perseverance–and a firm departure from their repertoire of hits that includes “Boys, Boys, Boys” and “Slip of the Tongue.” Gone are the sultry lyrics. In their place comes a vapid chorus that suggests self-reliance will set you free.”
A woman letting go of Slade Smiley as lyrical inspiration for a Eurovision entry is a depressing thought, so I am not going to accuse Todd of recycling, but you can’t but feel that this was a lost opportunity for Slovakia given the talent involved. Especially since TWiiNS shortly after Eurovision managed to do a song with hip hop star Flo Rida called “One Night Stand.” This was in 2012 at the height of Flo Rida’s career when he was tearing up the Billboard Hot 100 with “Whistle” and “I Cry” and “Wild Ones.” Say what want about Flo Rida, but “One Night Stand,” like most of his songs, is fun, even if the dubstep breakdown dates the song somewhat.
And it is at this point that we circle back to The Real Housewives of Orange County. I am sure a few of you were confused by the featured photo and I started talking about Jo de la Rosa, who is not in that photo. Now much to the detriment of my sanity, I have seen every season of The Real Housewives of Orange County, and this choice of photo was deliberate as Bryan Todd’s career loops back around to this show, but this time to Gretchen Rossi, who joined in Season 4. And like light to flies, Rossi brought Slade Smiley back with her. It seems to suit Slade Smiley better bleeding out the eyes, holding onto lies to make the truth, but it also makes for entertaining reality television even if he would do anything to be on television and you can’t stand that stench of desperation. (We’ll ignore his relationship with Real Housewives of Orange County’s Lauri Peterson for this article as she did not record a single written and produced by Bryan Todd.)
As she entered the franchise, Rossi was a handbag designer who was married to Jeff Beitzel, 24 years her senior. Now I ain’t saying she’s a gold digger, but her messin’ with a wealthy old fella was a major plot point of her introduction to Season 4. And shortly after Beitzel’s death from cancer in 2008, Rossi began dating Slade Smiley and guess who decided she also wanted a singing career? And what a coinkidink! Bryan Todd wrote and produced her single “Revelation.”
Remember when I said “U Can’t Control Me” was not Todd’s worst work? That would be because this song is. The Internet seems to want to bury “Revelation” as this “live” clip at The Shark Club in Costa Mesa, Orange County is probably the “best” version I can find. The Shark Club was one of those sports bars that convert into dance clubs that populate Orange County, and though I have seen many lip-synched songs performed at places like this, the guys dancing alongside Rossi are the most bored looking I’ve ever seen. Blond gum-chewing guy in checkered shirt guy shuffling alongside a Zachary Quinto look-alike to Rossi’s right and a Scott Conant look-alike to Rossi’s left are indicative of the level of effort put into this. Still not the worst Real Housewives song, though. On the plus side, if you ignore the Cylon production applied to Rossi’s vocals, you’ve got a half-decent club banger.
After doing work with famed Christian singer Michael W. Smith, Norwegian indie artist Fjora, and American Idol finalist Daniel Gokey, Bryan Todd landed back in the Eurovision camp indirectly by writing and producing for Eurovision 2016 winner and Senator Joseph McCarthy impersonator Jamala and her song “Solo.”
And just as Kelly Dodd reinvigorated a franchise, I hope we get to see Vidbir reinvigorated and Ukraine back into the Eurovision fold in 2020.
Which Real Housewife’s music career do #YOU appreciate the most? Which Real Housewife would #YOU like to see at Eurovision? Let us know in the comments, on social media, or in our forum.