Christine Quinn doesn’t just make an entrance, she grows the entrance from seed, harvests it, slow cooks it and then brings it to the table on fire. For example: the opening of season four of Selling Sunset, the real estate reality show on which she was cast as the villainess. She arrived at a multimillion dollar LA mansion wearing a sheer black mesh gown beneath a blazer with sharp extended shoulders, heels the height of the Hollywood sign and, instead of a handbag, hanging from a chain, a miniature diamanté chair. A chair! She had white-blonde hair down to her thighs. She looked like an evil Lana Turner. She was nine months pregnant.
Regular viewers (of which there were many, many thousands after Netflix launched the show at the beginning of the pandemic) had switched on to bathe in the cold glamour of the showiest reality show yet. Part office drama (nobody is here to make friends), part property porn (the value of a house flashes on screen before we enter, along with the commission our heroines will earn), this was the rolling story of the Oppenheim Group, an agency run by a pair of bald, buffed identical twins and staffed by a team of shit-talking Amazonian real estate agents, of which Quinn had the sharpest nails, heels and lines. Over five seasons, while her character transformed from a cheeky Mae West type to sociopathic Cruella de Vil, dashing from one low-stakes cat fight to the next wearing a single Gucci glove, viewers’ obsession with her grew. And then, she quit.
Her entrance today is, well, modest. She’s Zooming from bed in a Parisian hotel room and rather than coiffed icy glamour, she’s giving Goop-ish Gwyneth, with expensive skin and a loose black T-shirt. “I do like glamour, which to me means a continuous expression of freedom – RuPaul says we’re all born naked and the rest is drag. I love to dress up and bring the fashion and bring the humour and the wit, but,” she says, a little chasteningly, “that’s not all of me.” Which is one of the reasons that after season five she left the brokerage and, having launched a new real estate company with her tech-entrepreneur husband, is today promoting her first book. “It was a chance for me to really write my narrative, have my own story be told without editors deciding they wanted to clip me down to just an eye roll.” The title: How To Be a Boss Bitch. I read the book on one of those rare hot afternoons when men take their tops off outside Tesco and girls lie sprawled on grass verges with very sweet drinks. Chapter headings range from “It Costs a Lot To Look This Cheap” to “Mind Your Vagina” with the epilogue “Steal the Show”. It was a kind of heaven.
“I’ve combined a lot of manifestation tips,” she says, “and we have quizzes, so you find out which archetype you are.” (I got mostly Bs “a creative boss bitch”). “And I intentionally designed it so that you walk into a bookstore and say, ‘OK, that’s a book I want to read. I feel that way. I want to live my unapologetic life,’ even if you have no idea who I am.”
Quinn, now 33, grew up in Texas, with Catholic parents who were so strict she wasn’t allowed to watch TV, which meant her cultural points of reference growing up were old films, like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, that she’d watch at her grandma’s house. She was diagnosed with ADD at 12, and sent to “special” classes, before enrolling in an alternative school for kids who were struggling. “My classmates were certified geniuses,” she stresses in her book. “These kids were running drug rings at 15.” On her 17th birthday she was arrested when a teacher found weed in her bag, but rather than coming to pick her up, her parents let her sleep in the cells for three nights to teach her a lesson. She left home soon after. In a recent Vogue interview she was surprised to hear herself admit that, despite lying on her résumé for years, she only has an 8th grade education. She broke down crying, on her yacht with full staff and three-storey water slide.
“Money, to me, means freedom,” she says. “I grew up in a very restrictive environment. I didn’t even know what sex was until I was 16, I thought you got pregnant from kissing. So I needed freedom in order to survive. And that came from me making my own money and being able to be in control of my life.” She spent some time in a relationship with a sugar daddy, but left when she realised he was tracking her movements, and without her own credit card her power was ebbing. One piece of advice she imparts to readers is: “Spend his money, but make your own.” which she frames loosely with a fizzy kind of politics. Another lesson she gives is about manifesting: “If you think it and believe it, it will come to you.” The first thing she manifested, through “journaling, vision boarding and visualisation” was a Louis Vuitton handbag – later it was Hugh Hefner’s big glass house. She discusses her thoughts on life, her American dream, with such sensible charm that it’s hard not to get swept away with the tides of it, into the infinity pool and whatever violent riches lie beyond.
“After season one of Selling Sunset, I received an influx of messages. And along with very hateful ones, there was a large portion of people who were like, ‘How do you learn that confidence?’” And what did she tell them? “It was something that over the years I accumulated, through people not understanding me. Years of being told no, and that I wasn’t good enough. So it came from this fire inside me, knowing that anything was possible.” This was when she was trying to find work as an actor and model, her biggest break being the first victim in Shark Night 3D. “I was getting doors slammed in my face left and right. But I just felt in my bones, ‘If I’m getting no, I’m asking the wrong person.’ I came from this small town in Texas where, if you say you want to be an actress or model, or even in theatre, you’re shunned.” What did she want to be? “I just always wanted to be myself. I wanted to be entertaining. I wanted to inspire people, I wanted to make people laugh. I wanted to make people feel something.” Having moved to LA, she was working in real estate to support her acting ambitions, but when the creator of reality show The Hills saw her and the other “hot chicks” working at the Oppenheim Group, Quinn was catapulted to fame. “It was everything I’d been manifesting since I was a little girl.”
But, “Fame means responsibility. A responsibility to be open about plastic surgery, diet plans, how you’re living your real life. A lot of people want to see this glamorous lifestyle, but it’s not always glitzy.” She wants them to realise, “I’m not here because I got lucky. I’m not here because I fell into this, or came from money. I’m here because of hustle. I worked my ass off. But,” and she briefly dazzles, “everyone else can do it, too.” Her attitude reflects that of one of her idols, Kim Kardashian, who recently urged women to “get your fucking ass up and work,” resulting in much scandal. Sometimes though, the Quinn hustle sounds vaguely hellish. “I have this innate ability to keep moving. I thrive under chaos and pressure.” She’s a Libra, she says, head to the side as if that explains everything. “And even if there’s a situation that might not be peachy keen, I’m able to just keep going and then kind of reassess later.”
Nine months pregnant, she was on the red carpet nominated for an MTV “Best Fight” award with a co-star, when her waters broke. The birth was traumatic – both she and the baby almost died. “And I was back filming Selling Sunset a week after an emergency C-section. I was emotionally distraught. On top of being in so much physical pain, I could barely walk. But I was getting pressure from production to come back to work. And if I don’t film, I don’t get paid. That’s the way the world works.”
Soon after season four aired, with that fabulous diamanté chair bag and Quinn’s swaggering baby bump, stories circulated that she was faking her pregnancy. That, along with an increased amount of online abuse at the time, and claims of being a bad mother, means she’s keen now to dispel those rumours, giving an insight into the absolute nuttiness of filming reality TV. “I don’t watch the show because I know what happens in real life. So I didn’t understand at first where all these fake pregnancy surrogacy rumours were coming from, but I realised it was because they edited things completely out of order. I shot a scene where I was pregnant, upside down doing yoga, but they showed it after I’d had my baby. Another time they wanted me to be pregnant in a scene, because they needed to go back in time, so they stuffed me with a pillow. They want to get their narrative across at the extent of other people’s lives.”
Whole series arcs centred on her falling out with her colleagues, a typical scene featuring Quinn marching into a hushed room in some dangerously iconic outfit where a selection of tanned women list the ways she’s lied to them. “There are moments where me and the girls are actually having fun, laughing, but they don’t show that. There’s a scene where [Quinn’s ex-friend] Mary got a promotion. What you saw on screen is not what happened. I went over and gave her a hug. I was like, ‘I’m so proud of you,’ and for the first time in a long time we understood each other. And that’s not what you see. You see an office of people rolling their eyes, then me walking out. That’s not how it happened.” They’d shoot for, she thinks, around four hours for a lunch scene, which would then be cut down to 36 seconds. “So I’d encourage people to realise that, you know, even though it’s somehow considered an ‘unscripted’ show, you may not be seeing the full picture.” She was told from the beginning that she’d been cast as the villain, “But, you know, I accept a challenge.” Fed lines in season one, “I didn’t realise I could say no. So that was my first mistake.”
Watching Selling Sunset is a complicated pursuit. It’s no coincidence, perhaps, that it became so popular during the pandemic – it’s best watched in bed through the chiffon curtain of Covid, when your capacity to question the money exchanged (at a time when the world outside was struggling to eat) and the grown businesswomen’s battles (over ex-boyfriends, or something someone maybe said at a lunch) is compromised by fever or Fomo. The houses all look the same, staged to a bleachy gleam, their pools blue under a white sun, an expensive purgatory. The effect is narcotic and pleasantly anaesthetising.
The season four finale was set at a typically glittering party, where the women wore dresses apparently woven from hair and steel and their inconceivable heels sunk slowly into the grass, and on the horizon all the buildings they’d sold quietly cracked into the night. Christine made one of her entrances; the women glowered into their slimline cocktails. “The producers threw me into that scene – they told me it’s going to be easy, you’re just going to talk to [ex-friend] Heather. But it’s an entire group of seven women trying to gang up on me. I was just like, ‘I literally just had a baby, he’s sick right now, I don’t want to be here.’ You have to understand the amount of hormones that were in my body on top of postpartum depression.” They got their scene.
How has it affected her ideas of reality, I ask. “Well, the producers have six full-time story boarders that I know of. And that was back when my husband and I got married,” in a $1m “gothic wonderland”-themed spectacle – Christian Richard, her groom, had sold his last business for $65m cash. “It was their job to create narratives. So the women have definitely been amped up and told things that aren’t necessarily true, which is why they act the way that they do, but…” she shrugs. “I love reality TV, it’s the production company I have the problem with. And I think they have a lot of questions to answer.”
How did it affect her mental health? She exhales meditatively. “I don’t even know where to begin. It’s something that I deal with every day. I was powerful and they didn’t want that narrative.” Instead of showing her leaving the Oppenheim Group to start her own business at the end of season five, viewers saw a scandal involving a real estate bribe. “They wanted the narrative of me being bullied out and doing something wrong.” She’s angry – which works, when promoting a book about bitches.
“To be a bitch today means to unapologetically speak your mind. To say things that may be unpopular, but you know are right. It’s not a negative connotation, it’s something that should be embraced and shouted from the rooftops. And if someone’s calling you a bitch, you know you’re doing something right. Being a bitch goes hand in hand with being extremely hardworking – women get chastised in the office for speaking up. So I really wanted to rewrite that narrative.” For a long time, she writes, “I lived in the blank space” of the Christine the show had created. The production company fired her once, for telling the press what was faked, including the property listings producers had fed her, but they apparently rehired her when it was clear she wasn’t just carrying a baby, she was carrying the show.
Though it’s no shock that reality shows are scripted, it is a surprise to hear, at a time when reality producers have come under fire for playing with their mercurial stars’ mental health, how little time she says they gave her complaints. “They really didn’t care. They said, ‘Read your contract. You waived all rights.’ The contract says they have the ability to produce fiction. There’s nothing I could do.” For all the fun she had and the fame she’s found now as Bitch Barbie, the girl boss we all deserve, one who stamps over six nice girls to get to one good sale, “I was part of a bigger machine over which I had no control. We were brainwashed robots,” she says, turning her profile towards the light, “and I’m just so happy to be free.”
How To Be a Boss Bitch by Christine Quinn (Ebury, £16.99). Buy a copy for £14.78 at guardianbookshop.com
Photographer’s assistants Kendall Pack; David Ardill; John Batchin; production assistant Kylie Govinchuck; stylist Kat Gosik; styling assistant Makayla Pirghibi; styling intern Nicole Johndrow; hair Laura Rugetti; assistant hair Sienna Watson; using GHD Hot Tools and Fekkai products; makeup Gilly Estrada
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism