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Wendy Osefo Is Our Patron Saint Of ‘Cool Nerds’

Wendy Osefo … excuse me, Dr. Wendy Osefo, Ph.D. … is smart.

Not just because of her famed four degrees. Or because of her careers in political punditry, academia and now hosting with her new YouTube show. But because she’s done the work. She’s a dutiful daughter of Nigerian heritage, and literally wrote the book on it. It’s why her choice to not just enter but stick it out in Bravo’s “Real Housewives of Potomac” — engaging in what I call “high-stakes femininity” (more on that later) — is so interesting.

The popular show, now in its eighth season, follows the lives of well-connected women in the Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia area (a.k.a., “the DMV”). This current season has taken a turn for the ridiculous as Osefo has begun to butt heads with the show’s newbie and sole other Nigerian-American cast member, Nneka Ihim, who inserted a problematic storyline involving “voodoo,” implied witchcraft and “shrines” that has dragged on for more than five tiresome episodes.

The viewers mostly hate it.

Shamira Ibrahim, who recaps the series for Vulture, summed it up like this, “All of this is very disappointing, and I am not looking forward to seeing it continue to play out.”

But none of this was new for Osefo.

“[Before joining ‘Housewives,’] I was under the impression that these people knew they had these issues, and it was exposed,” said Osefo in an interview with HuffPost. “What I didn’t know was if you don’t have issues, one will be created for you.”

For Osefo, rumors on gossip blogs became storylines, no matter how flimsy: from made-up murmurs about her husband having a “side baby” to accusations that same husband was flirting simply because he’d “smiled” at people, thus earning him the title “Happy Eddie.”

(A good sport, Osefo and her husband laughed off these allegations, and then turned the moniker into brand of marijuana he’s selling.)

Gossip — of the real and mythological kind — is currency on “RHOP” in the same way it was at your local high school, where the popular clique is scrutinized by both the plebes and each other. In fact, think of how in high school, things like “good grades” or “punctuality” may not have been valued very much, but things like having a boyfriend, a hot body, and the latest designer digs did. This is the junior varsity version of “high-stakes femininity.”

Meanwhile, the housewives are players in the pro football network of “traditional” (or retrograde) feminine values and practices. Think of femme personhood reduced to its most basic, oft stereotypical tendencies. Jealousy. Cat fights. Shade. (Or good ol’ fashioned “insults.”)

Wendy and Eddie Osefo with Karen Huger in Episode 4, Season 8 of
Wendy and Eddie Osefo with Karen Huger in Episode 4, Season 8 of

Wendy and Eddie Osefo with Karen Huger in Episode 4, Season 8 of "The Real Housewives of Potomac."

In the world of “Real Housewives,” and especially on “Real Housewives of Potomac,” everything is reduced to a woman’s man/clothes/house — the three most prized possessions on a franchise named for being a woman, who is also a wife, and has a home — either what she has on her own or with her partner. Digs are thrown at things like “renting,” looking “tacky, overweight, and/or unattractive” or being “single and childless,” which feels antiquated in how the real world actually operates. 

That’s definitely how high school works or used to work, as films like “Heathers,” “Easy A” and “Mean Girls” can attest. You could be banished for things like “being perceived as promiscuous” or “being perceived as a prudish bore” or, in my case back in the 1990s, wearing Payless no-name tennis shoes instead of Nikes.

“When I was coming on the show, I was like, man, some of these women — not on my franchise, but on other franchises — they’re like, multi-millionaires. They have these multiple homes. They do all of these things, and where am I in my life? I didn’t come with a silver spoon in my mouth. Nor did I marry a gazillionaire,” Osefo said. ”He was in law school and I was getting my Ph.D. We were in school together. We came up together. And I was like, what do I have to offer this show aside from being the first Nigerian housewife in franchise history?”

What she had to offer was something rarely seen in our youth or on“Housewives” — a “cool” nerd.

“One thing that I wish I always saw growing up was a nerd. I wish I saw a popular nerd to let me know it’s cool to read books,” Osefo said. “Because sometimes even when I watch what my kids watch, it’s like you’re either popular or you’re a nerd. Media always portrays it like it’s one or the other. No, you can be a popular nerd. And for me, that’s what I was.”

Growing up, Osefo was a nerd at home, but a popular girl in school. This duality served young Osefo well in navigating the treacherous waters of teen girlhood, but over time, it became problematic, as she found herself balancing two very different identities. 

“I was part of the cool girls, but I always did my work,” Osefo said. “I was the cool girl, but I never hung out outside of school. Not because the opportunity wasn’t presented, but because I never even got the chance to get the opportunity to be presented,” she said, referencing her strict mother.

“I navigated it by being two faces in a weird way. Like, we’re cool, we hang out, we talk about stuff. I go home, I do my work. I go home, I watch ‘Jeopardy.’ I go home, and I am focused on what I need to do.”

Much like high school, to survive this “Housewives” world, women like Osefo have to ask themselves: Am I an attractive, dainty yet demanding diva who may or may not be an expert at literature but can swiftly and succinctly “read” another person? Do I go for a pop of color in a monochromatic look? Can I glue on my lashes and apply a winged eyeliner with efficiency? What’s the inside of my home like, if I have a home… or four homes?

If I am thrown to the proverbial wolves of high-stakes femininity (aka the world of beauty pageants, prayer circles, women’s media and fashion, sororities, Lipstick Alley, “ladies who lunch” and “The Kardashians”), do I return leading the pack, as “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” alum Lisa Vanderpump once said?

Or do I become dog food? 

It’s just a different game at this level. But Osefo is no fool. She can play it.

“I said to myself, ‘No, I’m not going to stay here and talk about having million-dollar homes,’” she said. “But what I will talk about is my four degrees, because what I know to be true is while you guys might have financial currency, I have educational currency, and yours will leave you when you are six feet under. I will take my brain with me when I’m six feet under, so my currency actually has more weight than yours. So tote your cars, tote your money. I’m toting my degrees.”

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