An unexpectedly great new work of gay literature has come from an unlikely source: The guy who runs the Real Housewives franchise.
Andy Cohen, a former Bravo executive and current host of that network’s talk show Watch What Happens Live, doesn’t have the exalted public profile of Alan Hollinghurst or Colm Tóibín. And yet through radical candor, he’s accidentally created a remarkable book about a specific sort of gay life in the 2010s. The Andy Cohen Diaries, which came out last week, is by no means universal, but it’s an important text when it comes to understanding what it is to be a gay man today.
Cohen writes that he’d been inspired by The Andy Warhol Diaries in documenting his comings and goings each day. But the glamour of Warhol’s Studio 54 era has been somewhat degraded in the intervening years, and Cohen is, indeed, a working stiff: He has to tape five shows a week. He exhaustively documents the YouTube clips he watches (Britney Spears videos, Sandra Bernhard comedy routines), the famous friends he sees (mainly Kelly Ripa, Anderson Cooper, and Sarah Jessica Parker, with occasional cameos by Madonna and John Mayer), and his pastimes (casual sex and weight obsession).
It’s in the latter category that the book becomes resonant and sadder than the author may even realize. Each day is either a victory or a defeat for Cohen, measured alternately in hours at the gym or hors d’oeuvres eaten and drinks consumed. At one point, he meets his goal weight, and then revises that goal weight yet again lower; a litany of fattening foods he is ashamed to have eaten at a party hilariously and tragically includes the addendum “and a Popsicle.”
Many readers might not treat ice pops as a shameful indulgence. And yet many readers aren’t trying to prove their value in a marketplace in which superheroic body proportions win the day. Cohen’s obsession with his appearance — endless documentations of squats and the inevitable “two-hour massage” that follows — are of a piece with a wealthy, urban, privileged gay life that more intellectual or explicitly political novels are loath to expose in such detail. Cohen’s world is not that of most or even of many gay people, but it’s one that really exists and that hasn’t recently gotten this much attention in print.
Cohen’s book is packaged as a passport into the world of celebrity, and he’s gratifying in his say-everything treatment of stars; devoted readers of celebrity gossip will appreciate his lack of patience for fitness guru Jillian Michaels and reality star Kate Gosselin, as well as his attempts to further stoke a feud between Lady Gaga and Katy Perry. This is admirable and befuddling in equal measure: Cohen’s professional life runs on access to stars, access that seems apt to run dry if he stays this candid. It may also mess up his relationships with his coworkers: Cohen, befuddled by a production assistant’s overt masculinity and ignorance of Real Housewives divas, calls the fellow “Straight Pat” until he’s informed that Pat is gay. The universal language Cohen once relied on is gone, though Pat is menschy enough not to ding his boss for harassment.
But in reading his treatment of himself, it becomes clear that for Cohen, saying everything is the only option. And through his treatment of his own love life, one defined by Tinder dates with significantly younger men, a certain conundrum becomes clear. Cohen is at the very tail end of a generation that grew up assuming that socially sanctioned long-term relationships would always be impossible. He’s torn between impulse — a string of twentysomething objects of affection — and what he has very recently learned he ought to be doing, looking to settle down. His adoption of a dog is fairly explicitly an attempt to bridge a gap, to have a family life while still staring at every “very built” guy in his path. A moment where Cohen asks a flight attendant to get him a plane’s passenger manifest so he can look up a “husband material” fellow traveler is played for laughs that belie the darkness. And he forgets the name, anyhow, because he’s so distracted by Madonna’s presence on the list.
The conundrum many gay people face — having been told more suddenly than anyone could have predicted that marriage and family life is not only possible but, indeed, preferable — plays itself out movingly through the pages of The Andy Cohen Diaries. It’s a wearying read at times: Every day a new fixation on a man, and every day a meditation on how Cohen will shed that stubborn body fat. But it’s also valuable insight on what it means to grow older in a rapidly changing gay scene. It’s impossible to imagine Stephen Colbert or Jimmy Fallon, the straight late-night stars significantly ahead of Cohen, writing a book anything like this — and that’s precisely why it matters.