NEW YORK - Peculiar things have been happening this season on The Real Housewives of Orange County.
Gretchen Rossi had a garage sale, Jeana Keough went shopping with her daughter at H&M, and Tamra Barney is now doing her own housework.
This is a dramatic turn from season three, when Barney's husband gave her a diamond Rolex for her 40th birthday, Vicki Gunvalson debated over buying a yacht (she decided against it), and Rossi's fiance gave her a Harley.
"All of them have been very much affected by the economic situation," explains the show's executive producer, Douglas Ross.
This means the downsizing we're seeing on camera is not just for show. A number of the cast members were involved in real estate that's been on a downslide the last two years. And this season, we'll see Lynne Curtin's family get evicted from their Laguna Beach home.
"We try to treat it as gently but as honestly as we can," Ross says. "We happened to have been there with our cameras . . . as part of our normal schedule when they were served the eviction notice. It's one of those great reality TV moments that happened to be caught because we were in the right place at the right time."
Money is a sensitive subject and some people - even reality TV stars - may not want to expose their financial struggles to millions of people. But the housewives don't seem to mind sharing - they even fancy themselves as an inspiration to others in similar situations.
"It helps people across the nation because they realize it's not just them," says Keough.
Barney says the exposure is just her being honest.
"I'm pretty open. . . . There's not too much I'll hide. It was difficult for my husband . . . but the world's in this place right now, and I think people are going to relate to it," she says.
So far it looks as though Barney is right. Ratings for the fifth season have been strong and average about two million viewers an episode.
This could partly be due to the popularity of the Real Housewives franchise in general, which has taken off thanks to over-the-top versions of wig-pulling, table-flipping, and incredible statements from women in Atlanta, New Jersey, and New York, like, "I'm up here, you're down here." Their actions make viewers ask, "Are they for real?"
Perhaps this season we're finally getting the answer: Yes, they are.
While The Real Housewives are compensated for appearing on the show, Keough says it's not enough to support a family. "It's so minimal. It's not enough to make your house payments. It's more like a location fee to keep your house clean."
Keough only filmed three episodes of season five and then opted out of the rest - she said she wanted to focus on her real estate career and her family.
Not all the Orange County ladies are having a hard time paying their bills, though. Self-professed workaholic Gunvalson says her insurance business is doing better than ever.
"When I first started [on the show], I was working out of the house with two employees and now I have a huge office with 10 employees, 700 agents out in the field," she says.
Then there's new cast member Alexis Bellino, 32, who has three children and two nannies. On a recent episode, her husband gave her a 7-carat diamond necklace, just because.
This season, there have been some inconsistencies to the ladies' money woes. Curtin allowed herself to be filmed getting a face lift while her daughter got a nose job. Her husband, Frank, acknowledged the cost of the procedures on camera but said his family's happiness was more important.
Despite the eviction, Lynne Curtin says her finances are improving and predicts that her family will be able to build a house next year.