How the Other Half Works: Why We Love Being Voyeurs with ‘The Rachel Zoe Project’ and ‘Flipping Out’

Whether or not it’s the network’s stated agenda, most faithful viewers are aware that Bravo produces reality programming obsessed with aspirational lifestyles. Regardless of geographic region, all of The Real Housewives live lives beyond most viewers’ means and imaginations, the cheftestants of Top Chef make food that aims to be featured in the finest restaurants, and even Work of Art engages in a conversation – one about art – that most people don’t have the time in their days to even try.

But it’s the shows centered on the lives and work of people who are far cooler than viewers – tastemakers in what are primarily service industries – that really capture Bravo’s upwardly mobile flavor. And, interestingly, it’s the shows about watching successful, stressed people work like The Rachel Zoe Project and Flipping Out, which are essentially personality vehicles about driven personalities at work, that are some of the most puzzlingly captivating programs in Bravo’s lineup.

Describing any individual episode of The Rachel Zoe Project or Flipping Out to a non-viewer can reveal the most perplexing aspect of these shows: outside of the viewing experience and presented to the wrong audience, these shows can seem about as interesting as watching paint dry. In fact, there have probably been several discussions of paint drying on Flipping Out. Both shows focus on relatively mundane tasks – finding clothes for famous people to wear and fixing rich people’s homes – but the dedicated viewer, while aware that these episodes tend to be low stakes and low drama, comes back every week. And repeat viewership tends to result directly from the way Rachel Zoe and Jeff Lewis make their industries come alive through the passion they have for their work and through Bravo’s ability to break down the wall between the haves and the have nots.

Bravo’s other unspoken mission statement seems to be to make programming focused on the idea, “Celebrities/Rich people! They’re just like us!,” and The Rachel Zoe Project and Flipping Out have curious relationships to this narrative ethos.

While both Rachel Zoe and Jeff Lewis are well known names in their own industries (and, in Zoe’s case, the tabloids), each show presents the central persona as the owner of a small business who is the brave leader of a small, tightly bonded group of dedicated employees. On both shows, the small teams are pulled together by the talent (and sometimes difficult or obsessive) personalities of their bosses as they collectively fight to stay relevant and keep clients happy in the high-end service industry. And while the hours are long and sometimes the treatment is questionable, the teams stay together because at the end of the day, there’s common love and passion among them. In each episode, regardless of the enormity of the task, it’s Rachel or Jeff and their devoted teams of assistants facing huge odds and pulling off a win, because after all, these people are pros.

In every episode of The Rachel Zoe Project and Flipping Out, viewers are brought into the homes and “cottage industries” that Zoe and Lewis run in order to watch them work on major projects and live their lives while attempting to be massively successful. While viewers get to know these relatable seeming-people (who have a few quirks, of course), the shows juxtapose familiarity and celebrity to keep viewers interested.

For example, in a recent episode of The Rachel Zoe Project, Rachel Zoe, who viewers feel somewhat close to, organizes a fashion show for Haiti at the request of Naomi Campbell. There are at least 98 looks in the show, and the winter snows of 2010 are wreaking havoc on the organization of the event. For most viewers, the details about Naomi Campbell and the fashion show are peripheral. Within the narrative structure of the show, Zoe’s team’s struggle to pull the event off ends up being more interesting than a notoriously temperamental supermodel and celebrities who need to be dressed. The hugeness of the event and the parties involved fade to the background as viewers sympathize with the frustration of trying to do one’s job well – and for a very demanding boss – under highly trying circumstances.

The process of sympathizing with Zoe while forgetting the enormity of the celebrity she’s working with and the ways in which her life is actually nothing like viewers’ is amazing. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with escaping into the world of models, fashion shows, fashion week, and photo shoots during the summer television season, but the way that Bravo is able to cross the barrier between the life of a high stress, high profile professional like Rachel Zoe and make her seem relatable and more like the viewer than a celebrity is a feat worth examining.

Ryan Brown and Jeff Lewis of Flipping Out

The same phenomenon occurs in the case of Jeff Lewis on Flipping Out. Lewis is far less relatable than Zoe due to his issues with OCD and the ways he likes to ruffle the feathers of his employees. Unlike Zoe, who seems like a cool boss to have as long as the job gets done, working for Jeff Lewis – as seen on TV – is like living out the nightmare boss scenario without the buffer of an HR department with whom complaints can be filed. Yet for all his oddities, the punishments Lewis doles out for breaking office rules, and the ways in which his words can sting his employees and friends, on Flipping Out Lewis is actually likeable and sometimes even sympathetic.

Like Zoe, a good part of Lewis’s likability comes from his professionalism and his desire to do his job well. Neither Zoe nor Lewis are ever comfortable with the level of success they have; it’s clear that both think that failure is possible and that resting on one’s laurels (or allowing one’s staff to) is a sure way to set oneself up for ruin. While seemingly financially secure, Zoe, and especially Lewis, are always concerned with maintaining good industry reputations in order to keep their careers afloat. It’s the confidence that they are good at what they do, mixed with the fear that it could all someday disappear, that draws viewers to Zoe and Lewis.

It’s easy to forget that Lewis’s struggles with owning a small business are very different from the average viewers’ when he’s talking about how important it is to maintain good relationships with clients or how much he values customer service. Over the past four seasons, Lewis’s business has transformed from one in which he flipped homes, called all the shots, and trusted his business partner to a completely different model that blends design, investment properties, remodels, and has Lewis making a go of things entirely on his own. Viewers who liked Lewis in spite of themselves in early seasons of Flipping Out have watched him grow a bit: becoming slightly more considerate, learning to work (nicely) with and for others, taking an interest in mentoring and nurturing talent, and dealing with the financial stressors that hit America over the past two years.

Zoe and Lewis work in industries that most viewers know little about. While the majority of viewers do wear clothes and have probably had work done on their homes, the scale of Zoe’s and Lewis’s work is uncharted territory for the audience. While Zoe and Lewis are members of service industries, theirs are the high-level, high-price service industries that serve clients who have the clout and cash to demand amazing things.

Through their reality shows, both Rachel Zoe and Jeff Lewis give us glimpses of upscale lifestyles and the ways in which they make other peoples’ even more upscale lifestyles happen. On Tuesday nights on Bravo, viewers feel like they’re on the inside track with their newfound television friends providing the behind-the-scenes access. While viewers might not be able to afford these services or lifestyles themselves, they can do the most satisfying thing of all – look on and feel like they’re a part of the big celebrity show.