Entertainment

‘Real Housewives’ is modern pop art to Sutton Stracke

As is the case with so many, this time of year is a complicated one for Sutton Stracke.

“My father committed suicide on Dec. 23. His funeral was on Dec. 26,” she told me.

Almost two decades ago now, but it cannot help but put a haze over things still. “It brings it up,” she shared — just one reason she’s learned to speak out boldly about mental illness, and why on Instagram recently she pointed to resource groups that might be helpful to people suffering during the holiday season.

This particular week churns feelings of loss, for sure, but also memories for another reason: she gave birth to her boy, Philip, one of her three children, on Dec. 31. (He turns 18 this year and had plans to jump out of a plane, she said!) Asked what it was like having a New Year’s baby, she laughed: “It was an emergency C-section. I don’t remember a lot of it!”

Other memories track much more easily for the 50-year-old, who emerged as a fan favourite on “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” this past year in what was a marquee, cannot-look-away season. Seen as something of a truth-teller on the series, and favoured for her screwball charm, the southern-fried socialite — in Toronto a few weeks back for a fashion pop-up held at the in-the-know Cabine in Yorkville — shifted to telling me about her mother. Who is, of all things, a psychotherapist.

She worked mostly with veterans, many of them dealing with the consequences of the Vietnam War. “My mom did something interesting, that I am just realizing,” Stracke started to say. “She was one of the first therapists to do video therapy; she would have her patients act out their past, their issues, so they could watch it back.” When I asked, naturally, if her mother was always analyzing Sutton as a kid, she answered back, fast and with a knowing beam: “Always.”

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Given the predilection for video therapy, I was additionally interested: does her mom ever offer up opinions about the show, especially given the fact the Real Housewives live on she-said-she-said psychodrama, those ever-changing Darwinian dynamics in a peer group? Manna for a shrink, no? “The only time she vocalized” in a big way, Stracke said, was re: Stracke’s tension with fellow Housewife Crystal Kung-Minkoff (a simmering conflict last season that turned into a teachable moment about race).

“‘You have to stop letting her get to you,’” her mother told Stracke. “‘Just stop. Because your perspectives are different.’ She helped me relax. We both needed to relax to get to know each other.”

In person, Stracke has a resolutely relaxed charm. Also, she’s even more girlish than she appears on TV, a kind of ticket-taker-at-the-country-fair disposition. The more I spoke with her, the more I learned about her peripatetic life: growing up in Augusta, Georgia (“During the Civil War, Sherman burned down a lot of things, but he did not burn down Savannah because his lover, who was from Augusta, lived in Savannah,” she side-noted); living in New York during Sept. 11, which really shook her, and eventually prompted a move to South Kensington in London with her young family (“We went long enough for me to move my baby piano”); a move back across the pond to Orange County and finally L.A., where her marriage shattered.

Also: her deep lifelong love of dance, which she first took up as a young girl but which reached an apex when, during that stint in New York, she worked for the legendary Merce Cunningham, one of the greatest choreographers of the 20th century. He was known for a new grammar of dance on camera and for his collaborations with visual artists. Working for him? It engendered a social scene in which “I was hanging out with Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns,” Stracke mentioned.

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From modern dance to reality TV! It might seem like a stretch, but she finds parallels: On the show “you have to respond in the moment, like dance. Also, in terms of pop art, I feel that the show is very strange … but it is modern pop art.”

Yes, I wager if Warhol was alive now, he would for sure be musing on the Housewives. Painting them. Obsessed with the idea of artifice and the modes of female presentation on all these shows.

“Life imitating art imitating life imitating …” we both trail off.

These days, Stracke is parked in the median between her socialite world (she has been a fixture at fashion shows in Milan and Paris for years; casually now name-drops art-world friends like legendary art dealer Jeffrey Deitch) and also the highly clamorous fandom of the Housewives (the Beverly Hills franchise recently turned into a quasi-true crime series when fellow Housewife Erika Jayne and her husband, Tom Girardi, found themselves in a Madoff-like legal storm this past season). But it is a place where she finds herself increasingly comfortable.

Busy these days shooting the upcoming 12th season of “RHOBH” and with her eponymous fashion boutique in L.A. — plus a new cashmere line on the horizon as well as an entertaining book she is working on — Stracke said this, ultimately, about her experience doing the show: “You learn a lot about yourself: watching yourself back, watching the way the women see themselves, how the audience is reacting …”

Ever her mother’s daughter, she added: “Like in therapy, you have to be vocal on the show.”

Shinan Govani is a Toronto-based freelance contributing columnist covering culture and society. Follow him on Twitter: @shinangovani
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