Summer House star Stephen McGee looks back on reality TV recovery
In the corner of the Bowery Hotel Lobby, surrounded by antique sofas, large rugs, and a wood-beamed ceiling, Stephen McGee is working away, planning his next big celebrity wedding.
"The last few years, I've just been recovering from—I wouldn’t say trauma—but it is a life-altering thing," McGee tells me as he finishes his coffee.
McGee starred in the Bravo network’s reality television series Summer House. The show, which follows a group of New Yorkers spending weekends in the Hamptons, premiered in January 2017 in a crossover with the cast of Vanderpump Rules.
When McGee was first approached about possibly being cast on Summer House, he was thrilled by the idea of working on a television project with a group of friends.
"It started out as true friends," he said. "I think that’s what made it something really special."
Summer House is unique in that it generally only films on weekends. While production crews follow the drama with cameras, whatever they miss is recorded Big Brother-style with cameras and microphones capturing every moment 24 hours a day.
But since the cast was made up of friends, a lot of the breakups and make-ups took place off-screen during the week—a practice producers were quick to shut down.
"In season one, we were very naive," McGee said. "I remember one time, we were all in this big fight when we left on Sunday, and we rolled back up to the house on Friday, all smiling and happy. The producers are just like, ‘What the fuck are you doing? You can’t do that.'"
That was a big learning curve for the cast: leaving their conflicts in limbo until the camera could capture the resolution for viewers.
"We got a little better about it, but then it was awkward because these people are your friends," he said.
Looking back on the first season of Summer House, McGee says he felt like an ancillary character early on, due to the fact that his relationships with his castmates were still relatively new. He’d only known them for six months before they signed on the dotted line to make a TV show.
As filming continued, McGee began to learn not to take everything personally and not to hold a grudge because, at the end of the day, it’s a job.
"People often ask me, 'How much was produced on the show?’ And I'm like, ‘Well, not a lot because we produce ourselves. We're not idiots. We know what people want to see. We know what works.'"
As a gay man on Bravo, a network known for its Real Housewives franchise, McGee wasn’t expecting to be the face of diversity on Summer House.
While McGee was encouraged to be himself and exude authenticity while filming, he quickly learned that being yourself on reality TV means staying within the bounds of and conforming to what producers want you to be like.
From the get-go, McGee made it clear to producers that he wasn’t doing Summer House to play the stereotypical gay cast member other reality television programs are known for.
That straightforwardness helped build a camaraderie between McGee and the show’s producers.
But what Bravo viewers don’t understand, he explained, is that the executive producers, editors, network, and production team are all working in separate bubbles, meaning what producers might be on board with often clashes with what the production team is expecting out of the shoot.
"There’s no crossover between the people who are there filming with you and the people who are editing the show. They don’t speak," he said. "They get their notes, and then the editors answer to other people—it’s not the same thing."
Coming onto the show, McGee was cognizant of the ways he could be tokenized by production as a gay man in a cast of straight counterparts. That self-awareness helped him break through, particularly while filming season two.
"I think I ended up getting a lot more footing in the cast, but I do think that there wasn't necessarily a space at that time to have a gay lead on that show," McGee said. "There were some very specific conversations, some very specific things said to me that let me know that my place on the show was not as a lead."
It wasn’t until McGee left the show that he realized the opportunity he received was full of smoke and mirrors.
"I felt like I had something really big taken from me," he said. "But after a few years, I realized it’s a lease opportunity. You don’t have any control over when the landlord is like, 'You've got to move out.’"
During a recent interview with music producer Mark Ronson, the Uptown Funk songwriter gave McGee a profound piece of advice. Ronson told him that even when the projects he truly believes in flop, if it’s something he really believes in, it'll still be worth it.
"It’s when you conform to what you think people want, the success is not valuable," Ronson told McGee. "It doesn’t matter how successful you are, if you’re not being yourself, there’s really no value behind it in the long term."
Leaving Summer House
Following the airing of season two, Bravo announced a mass exodus of the cast, letting half of the cast go ahead of season three. That list included McGee and the Wirkus twins.
"When we left the show, it was very difficult," McGee said. "I was young, I was just finding my place. I was also receiving all of this very positive feedback from Bravo, so it was a big surprise for me."
Lauren Wirkus and Stephen McGee the night they found out they were let go from production.
McGee was blindsided. He says the network was pitching other projects with him and expanding his presence outside of Summer House. But all of a sudden, it was radio silence.
"[Bravo] has a policy, which is to not communicate with people," McGee explained of those who have been put "on pause" by the network. Bravo executives don't fire cast members or cancel shows; they simply put them on hold, as Dorinda Medley of The Real Housewives of New York City knows all too well.
That meant that his relationships with producers were effectively over.
While McGee maintained his relationship with the Wirkus sisters, he admitted it was awkward trying to keep in touch with his friends whose contracts were renewed and whose lives revolved around the show.
"People often draw their own conclusions when you leave or anything like that," McGee explained. "It's pretty much in the network's narrative how they want to portray anything."
Initially, co-star Danielle Olivera, who debuted in season two, was among those who wouldn’t return as series regulars. The fan favorite, on the other hand, would make a surprise return and continue to star on the show, filming season seven in summer 2022.
"I didn’t want to know what was happening when I was talking to Danielle," he said. "But I also knew on the other side that it’s all-consuming when you’re filming, and like, what else could Danielle talk to me about?"
Distance also grew between McGee and now-married couple Kyle Cooke and Amanda Batula, with whom he said he had the biggest issues by the end of his run on Summer House.
Stephen McGee poses with former Vanderpump Rules star Stassi Schroeder and Summer House co-star Kyle Cooke.
"Looking back on it now, it should not have been [them]," he said.
But in classic Summer House style, a Vanderpump Rules cast member would help reunite McGee with his old friends.
When Kristen Doute came to the Big Apple to film Andy Cohen’s late-night talk show, Watch What Happens Live!, she helped reunite McGee with Cooke and Batula.
"We met at this little dumpy bar in the West Village after a blizzard," McGee said. "I apologized, and they apologized, and it was like old times."
After running into each other last summer, McGee and Olivera have rekindled their friendship too.
"There are some people who I have reached out to, but they don't want to talk to me, and that's fine. Each person goes through their own thing," he said. "I think for me, in terms of the relationships and the wrongs I felt like I did, looking back, I've done everything I can to right them. So I think moving forward is really the only thing for me."
‘Opportunities don’t keep coming’: McGee on taking nothing for granted
McGee’s most memorable moment on the series came late in the second season, when he returned home to Alabama to ask for his parents to accept his sexuality. While they show their love for him, they shield themselves with their religion to reject and condemn his identity, alienating their son on national television.
It was a scene that resonated with so many LGBTQ viewers struggling to be accepted by their families. Unfortunately, McGee’s friends and co-stars couldn’t understand.
"I think for them, they just assumed I'd go back to being who I was before, but that's not possible," he explained.
Now, five years later, McGee’s relationship with his parents has grown much stronger.
"When they saw it on the show, it was very hard for them," he said. "There was some time before we were even communicating again because it just took time to process, which is totally fine. We’re in a great place now."
Looking back, McGee’s biggest takeaway is all about valuing the opportunities he's been given.
"During that time, I took a lot of those things for granted," he said. "I used them. I disregarded them. And it took me a long time to get those opportunities back because, for whatever reason, my big head thought they would keep coming and coming—and opportunities don’t keep coming. Friends don’t keep coming. A career doesn’t come to you."
It took a few years, but with lessons learned, McGee feels like he’s finally got his groove back.
"I’ve got a great career, I have a great group of friends, and I have great opportunities that are happening," he said.
But he has a cautionary tale: "If you let it fall by the wayside, it’s a very hard thing to pick back up."
The Blueprint is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.