Robin Leach, who died Thursday at 76, blazed a new trail in our celebrity- and wealth-obsessed culture.
His idolizing of “champagne wishes and caviar dreams” wasn’t entirely new in American pop culture. But Leach’s “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” which ran between 1984 and 1995, gave that impulse a new expression.
Leach shamelessly showcased the decadent trappings of people whose lives seemed so different from the viewing audience that they may as well have been aliens, from those who outfitted a massive limo to accommodate a hot tub to the “$50 million palace in the sky” private jet of a Saudi businessman.
“Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” was among other pioneers of reality TV. There was “Real People,” which ran from 1979 to 1984 on NBC. Then “The Real World” in 1992 gave rise to countless similar documentary-style reality shows.
But “Lifestyles” was all about luxury and, viewed through today’s sensibilities, utter gaudiness. The show’s ethos was a product of its time, premiering during an era of heightened materialism reflected elsewhere on TV, in “Dallas” and “Dynasty.” But, unlike those fictional series that showed your life could still be miserable despite your riches, “Lifestyles” made such opulence seem aspirational with no downsides.
Fascination with wealth, Leach said in a 1990 interview, is “eminently healthy. The American capitalist system offers the chance at the best of what there is. And ‘Lifestyles’ keeps banging home the values of the good life. The idea is, work hard and you’ll be rewarded.”
He added: “The audience sees it as fun and entertaining. The audience also learns something – that capitalism, though not perfect, is the best system. The Russians are learning that now. We say it’s OK to better your life. We say that the American dream is still alive and well.”
“Lifestyles” had a broad impact because it ran in syndication. Depending on where you lived, you may have had the chance to catch Leach in action several times a week. In 1990, according to the New York Times, Leach’s shows were airing on 168 stations and 22 overseas markets. (He also started the program “Runaway with the Rich and Famous”)
To Leach, his approach wasn’t journalism but “reality programming” that he believed influenced overt journalistic approaches to television interviews. “Every time I watch a (Barbara) Walters special,” he told People in 1987, “I see her walking with a famous person through their home. It is the same thing we do on our show.”
After “Lifestyles,” the proliferation of cable TV, from stations like E! to MTV, allowed for even more look-at-these-crazy-rich-people TV.
“All of a sudden they had complete schedules to fill in, and I think they took one look at what Robin Leach had been doing in the olden days, and they realized, forget an entire genre, you could based an entire station on this,” said the pop culture scholar Robert Thompson of Syracuse University.
“If ones does a 23andMe analysis of the Kardashian shows or ‘MTV Cribs’ or any number of other kinds of programs on TV, I think very much the report would come back that Robin Leach is your father, or grandfather,” Thompson said. “That show has its fingerprints all over other things.”
In later years, Leach looked back at “Lifestyles” as subtle in comparison to such shows.
“Now you have Kim Kardashian having her private area waxed on camera,” he told the New York Times in 2014, reportedly “with a shudder.” He then added: “Disgusting.”
Even reality TV competition shows had foundational principles similar to those on Leach’s series; for instance, the “The Apprentice” was predicated on the image of Donald Trump as a very successful and rich businessman.
And it’s no longer just television celebrating such over-the-top lifestyles. The internet and social media have become perfect platforms to meet the public’s apparent insatiable thirst for this kind of gawking. Kylie Jenner can flaunt her cars on Instagram without waiting for a TV show to show them off.
“I don’t think that the rich should be attacked,” Leach told The Washington Post in 1985. “There’s nothing wrong in being rich. There’s a lot of things that rich people might do that are not right with the world, but there’s an awful lot that they do that we don’t know that they do.”
That’s a sentiment that may sound very 1980s, but take a look at our pop culture today, and it feels eerily familiar.