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'Shahs of Sunset' puts Iranian-Americans in reality TV spotlight; successful, gay and proud
LOS ANGELES (AP) ' Reality TV's life lessons tend to be at least as synthetic as the shows themselves.
Say you were intrigued by Snooki's problem-solving approach, if one existed, to drummed-up crises on "Jersey Shore." Translatable to the actual world? Nah.
But there is a narrow exception with "Shahs of Sunset," the latest contribution to the genre, debuting 10 p.m. EDT Sunday on Bravo.
Featuring glossy, high-living members of the Iranian-American community in Los Angeles and Beverly Hills, the series has the requisite fixation on materialism, personality clashes and people whose mantra is "more."
But it also has Reza Farahan, 38, who bills himself as a rarity: A gay man who refuses to bow to what he says is entrenched anti-gay prejudice in his native country and among many Middle Easterners living in his adopted one.
Farahan is brassy, funny and defiantly honest.
"I have an important message, all the bling and Mercedes aside: I'm an openly gay Persian man. According to the president of the country I was born in, I don't even exist," he said in an interview.
In a 2007 appearance at Columbia University, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was asked to explain the execution of gays in Iran. He replied that "in Iran we don't have homosexuals like in your country."
Same-sex relations are punishable by death in at least five countries, including Iran, and human rights groups estimate about 4,000 gays have been executed since the Islamic revolution in 1979.
Farahan, a real estate agent, said he was inspired to do "Shahs of Sunset" by an online project, It Gets Better, that's aimed at inspiring hope among youngsters who are bullied because they are gay or are thought to be.
"It compelled me to want to have and use this platform to talk about myself and show how I live my life. My family loves me, my friends love me and I'm really supported," a possibility for others like him, Farahan said.
Bravo and the show's executive producer, Ryan Seacrest (the "American Idol" host who is amassing growing credits as a Hollywood heavyweight), say the series is intended to amuse, not educate.
But entertainment has the potential to do more, and "an important component of any successful TV show is relatable storytelling," Seacrest said.
"Reza's personal story is an inspiring one on many levels. I think it's wonderful that he wants to share his story," he said in an email responding to questions.
"Shahs of Sunset" has attracted pre-air scrutiny because it's giving rare attention to those of Middle Eastern ancestry, or at least one small L.A. group.
("All-American Muslim," a TLC series about Muslim families living in the Detroit area, ended in January after one season in which a conservative Christian group called for an advertiser boycott and the show's ratings faded.)
Besides Farahan, others in "Shahs of Sunset" include Mercedes Javid, described as a 30-something, luxury real estate agent and "known party girl," Sammy Younai, 35, a Beverly Hills developer and man-about-town who builds lavish homes for fellow Iranians, and Golnesa Gharachedaghi, 29, who is supported by her father, ready to marry well and claims a hatred of ants and "ugly people."
Some of the circle are Jewish, some are Muslim, and all were raised in the area after their parents fled the revolution that turned Iran from a monarchy into an Islamic republic.
Other than touching on the friends' shared roots, the show is "absolutely apolitical," said Bravo executive Frances Berwick. The intent is to create a "portrait of how this particular group of friends lives" and to do it in an entertaining, sometimes even comedic way, she said.
The pals are seen mixing work with Rodeo Drive shopping sprees and club-hopping, not somber discussions about whether Iran is developing nuclear weapons.
"We feel the audience is going to fall in love with these personalities. They're super fun and charismatic, and that's what we're portraying here," Berwick said.
Seacrest, who said the project offered a chance to explore a "tight-knit community full of people who have really embraced the American dream," said he respects early concerns expressed by some Iranian-Americans over the portrayal.
But he said he hoped they will see it as a diversion and "not social or political commentary."
As for the candid Farahan, he's unapologetic about how he and others emerge in "Shahs of Sunset."
"I don't mind being stereotyped as materialistic," he said. "Middle Easterners have many stereotypes, and materialism is one of the better ones. We're usually viewed as evil terrorists, so if you're going to stereotype me I'd prefer it be because we love gold and Mercedes instead of Uzis."
EDITOR'S NOTE ' Lynn Elber is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. She can be reached at lelber(at)ap.org.