When Reality TV Collides with Reality

First, a confession: I like to watch reality TV. Not all reality TV, not often. (I wish I could say, as I would about a junky magazine, “I saw it at the hairdresser” or “ . . . while I was waiting in line at the supermarket.” But no — I sit in my living room, turn on the TV, and choose the station. I take full responsibility. Though I do also use the time to fold laundry.)

The show I’ve gotten hooked on lately is called “Giuliana and Bill.” Giuliana and Bill are on TV because they are famous for being on TV — she as a host of E! News and he as a winner of “The Apprentice.” Their eponymous reality show, about the ups and downs of their marriage, is a marvel of glitzy minutiae. Giuliana and Bill are just like us, only with a lot more Hermès accessories. They bicker; they smooch; they argue about what to have for dinner; they host New Year’s Eve in Times Square. It’s “reality” — life’s big and little moments, carefully staged to seem breezy and spontaneous. But what has hooked me on the show this year is that “reality” has suddenly collided with reality: Giuliana’s diagnosis of breast cancer.

Giuliana and Bill started as a show about newlyweds who wanted to have a baby. But the couple wrestled with infertility, and an IVF pregnancy ended in miscarriage. Before proceeding with another round of fertility treatment their doctor insisted on a mammogram.

Breast cancer was diagnosed last October; and after Giuliana’s lumpectomies failed to produce cancer-free margins, she and Bill had to decide what to do next.

We saw them sitting by their pool talking about different treatment options. Further lumpectomy, followed by radiation and frequent mammograms? Or a double mastectomy? The latter would be a more extreme measure, but would allow Giuliana to live without fearing breast cancer. She could have reconstructive surgery, but she worried about disfigurement. Would Bill still find her attractive? “I don’t care what you look like,” he said. “I just want you around for the next 50 years.”

Wait a minute — “I don’t care what you look like”? Spoken between a couple who’ve made a career and a fortune in the fake world of reality TV? Even if it was a staged scene that re-created and compressed several weeks’ worth of off-camera conversations, the moment was huge — and real. It was a repudiation of glitz and glamour, of the spray tan and waxing and makeup and manicures and designer clothing which Giuliana, albeit in a good-humored self-mocking way, has always lived by. She loves this stuff, and her job is to make us believe that it matters; and here is her husband saying that it doesn’t matter. It’s as if he’s telling her privately, in front of us, that it’s all bull; we know it’s bull, but now we know that they know it’s bull.

We worry about what we look like, and what we might look like in the future. All of us — women and men. We get old. We gray; we sag; we wrinkle. We get sick and choose among various treatment options that may scar or distort our bodies or affect our sex lives. What we want our partners to say ­— and mean — is “All I care about is having you around.”

“Giuliana and Bill” is dizzying in its multiple layers of real and fake, public and private. In a recent episode, they slipped away from the cameras to make a private phone call — which they made upstairs in a hotel room, in front of the cameras, on speakerphone.

It’s no great surprise that such a public woman would have “gone public” with her breast cancer story, and she has done a lot of good with her frankness, encouraging other women to get checked. But her husband’s “I don’t care what you look like” is a public service message, too. When Bill said those private words to his wife (and to several million people sitting on their couches folding laundry), I had the fantasy that he was saying something important and lovely that really is — or really should be — true.

Joan Wickersham is a writer who blogs at her personal site. Her columns frequently appear in the Boston Globe where this piece was first published.

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