[12 January 2009]
“She is a legend in rock’n’roll and television and a role model for modern women everywhere.” So goes Ricki Rachtman’s introduction of Sharon Osbourne for the reunion episode of Rock of Love Charm School. The show, which aired 4 January, brought together 14 women for Headmistress Osbourne’s “very special charm academy,” women who are also alumni of Bret Michaels’ Rock of Love.
Part of VH1’s suite of finishing school programs (along with Flavor of Love Charm School, From G’s to Gents, and Tool Academy), Osbourne’s pledges to transform these “rocker chicks.” Charged with drinking, burping, fighting, smoking, and partying too hard, the women—including French stripper Angelique (whose soliloquies are translated in cutesy subtitles), Vegas stripper Heather, and porn star Brandi C.—are supposed to come out the other end of the academy as proper middle-class consumers.
Of course, the game is rigged. The show exploits the students’ multiple dysfunctions (substance abuse, low self-esteem, bad taste) as entertainment, and the network is happy enough to bring in still more of the same sorts of chicks for Michaels’ new show, Rock of Love Tour Bus. On the first night, Rachtman told the contestants they would be able to “chart [their] growth… and celebrate the victory of one lucky woman who entered the show farting and cussing and left it clutching a check for $100,000.”
As standard as this set-up may be, this version of Charm School makes somewhat ironic use of Osbourne, presenting her as a model of decorous womanhood and elite class. The reunion episode made news because Osbourne poured a drink on contestant Megan Hauserman when the inebriated Hauserman said she was only famous because of her husband. Amidst cheers for Osbourne and jeers for Hauserman, security swooped in, Hauserman was hauled off the stage, and she later went to the hospital and filed a police report. Her reward for her drunken display? Her own VH1 reality series, Trophy Wife, wherein Hauserman will try to fulfill her titular dream.
For her part, Osbourne was merely enacting her own brand of business. As showcased repeatedly on The Osbournes, she is more than willing to curse or muscle out anyone. The new show’s website lays out her pedigree: “Daughter of legendary manager Don Arden and wife of the Godfather of Heavy Metal, Ozzy Osbourne, Sharon has spent over 50 years fully emerged in the chaotic world of rock and roll, juggling the roles of mother, wife, manager, roadie, fan, and promoter.”
Adding makeover counselor to that list of accomplishments, Osbourne here represents the combination of ideals the show highlights in its opening credits: class pretensions (mansions and champagne) and rock-style salaciousness (the cast members appear in Catholic schoolgirl outfits, playing guitars). The savvy Osbourne went along with the ruse of the premise, asserting, “I did think the majority of girls were just there to be on TV,” but some did want to “learn something.”
As fierce and independent as Osbourne sounds, she also reinscribes some vicious gender stereotypes about women as sex objects—as when she mentored eventual winner Brandy M., getting her into the Playboy mansion and encouraging her to have a boob job. And she gleefully contradicted the show’s admittedly weak support of good manners per se, as when she reprimanded Megan. “They can fuck with me,” she explained, “I don’t give a shit. But not my family.”
Osbourne’s own status as standard-bearer is surely complicated. She urges the girls to “have it all,” that is, to find the men of their dreams, but also to own their own businesses and be independent. Brandy M. called her a “second mother” who made her value herself for the first time, while bellicose Lacey (kicked out for her relentless verbal attacks on other cast members or even innocent passersby) said, “I totally respect this woman. You go for what you want, you’re a go-getter and are ambitious, you don’t put up with anybody’s bullshit, but you find a balance, which is important.” This “balance” message is certainly a garbled one, but Osbourne’s troubled and troubling iconicity illuminates the difficulties women still face in navigating stereotypes within a patriarchal entertainment industry.
But for all that context, the text here is clear: cat-fighting followed by familiar pseudo “self” work, tears of self-realization provoked by self-help experts. Rachtman announced that the women who were kicked out of the house “refused to change.” Yet the changes the others make, beyond expressing some newfound self-confidence, are superficial: they adopt new clothing styles and new language. Indeed, beyond social etiquette and table manners, many of the weekly challenges focused on how to make and consume fashion and accessories. Runner-up Destiney was even offered an internship with Clarke’s Jeans and spent her reunion airtime hawking her own clothing line.
Amid the Cinderella-like aspirations, we heard ever-so-briefly about the women’s real struggles (homelessness, poverty, abuse, addiction). But rather than address those structural issues, the show left us with some pat neo-liberalism. Through VH1’s corporate largesse, the women can trade in their bad taste and misery for consumer agency and a new middle-class lifestyle.