Mansions. Yachts. Celebrities with golden tans lounging poolside. Host Robin Leach’s foghorn baritone showering viewers with “champagne wishes and caviar dreams.” This is the fantasy Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous peddled for more than a decade beginning in the mid-’80s, when Ronald Reagan reigned, the economy soared, Wall Street was cool, and hippies who’d grown up to be yuppies conspicuously consumed. An advertorial for capitalism disguised as a lighthearted broadcast newsmagazine, the syndicated series fit nicely into TV schedules studded with glittery soaps like Dynasty and Dallas. Early episodes found Brooke Shields on safari, Siegfried and Roy lounging with their menagerie of big cats, and Tom Jones showing off a telephone booth from his childhood neighborhood that he paid to transport across the Atlantic.
Lifestyles was an instant hit. By 1985, Leach was regaling the New York Times with anecdotes about viewing clubs: “We get letters from them: a group of people in Redondo Beach, Calif., get into tuxedos, or their hot tub, and hire maids and drink champagne to watch the programs.” Over the years, the show would profile icons of opulence from Joan Collins to Donald Trump. And when reality took over TV in the early 2000s, its influence exploded. In addition to spawning successors like MTV Cribs and VH1’s The Fabulous Life Of, Lifestyles shattered taboos around flaunting one’s net worth and opened the wealth-porn floodgates. These days, as the gulf between the rich and the poor keeps growing, reality shows that revel in the luxury of high-end real estate, cosmetic surgery, and well-to-do housewives just keep flowing out. —Judy Berman
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