Shahs and the City
Setoodeh, Ramin, Newsweek
Byline: Ramin Setoodeh
They're rich, Persian, and getting their own show. Meet the cast trying to change how Americans think about Iranians.
In 1984, when Asa Soltan Rahmati was 8, her parents decided to flee their war-torn home in Iran. They told her to pack her favorite toys, but she only remembers bringing a rock she had found near her grand-mother's house. Her family escaped to the slums of Hamburg, Germany, where she learned to speak English by listening to Michael Jackson and Public Enemy. When she was 15, her family immigrated to the United States and landed in a small one-bedroom apartment in Beverly Hills, so that Asa could attend a good high school. She went to class dressed like a teenage rock star, with gold hoop earrings, sneakers, and miniskirts.
Soltan Rahmati, now 35, calls herself a "conceptual artist." She uploads her music videos on YouTube; one of her hits, "FessenJoon," refers to a famous Persian stew made from pomegranate syrup and walnuts. "My videos get around," says Asa, who compares herself to Lady Gaga and M.I.A. "I get pulled over by Persian girls who want to take pictures of me. We don't have any people that are out in the public, that are living outside the box." Asa is among the six Persian-American stars of the new Bravo reality series Shahs of Sunset, one of spring's most buzzed-about TV shows. Shahs may have an odd title (none of its cast is actually royalty), but it possesses an even stranger TV lineage. Its producer is Ryan Seacrest, the same man who unleashed the Kardashians upon us.
Then again, maybe the concoction is so strange it's actually brilliant. Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, hundreds of thousands of Iranians have immigrated to Los Angeles, giving the town the nickname "Teh-ran-geles." Many of them live in lavish apartments, drive fancy cars, and splurge on designer clothes. But Seacrest says he was less intrigued by Persian wealth than the community's close-knit ties. "The great thing about a show like this," he says, "is that it promotes something I believe in, which is friendship and family. We like shows about that."
The Shahs cast members have known each other since their days at Beverly Hills High School, and now that they are in their mid-30s, they still act like cliquish teenagers. GG, the girl who refers to herself as the Persian princess, nearly falls over in her Louboutins when she fires a gun at a shooting range. Mike (the guy with the abs) and Sammy (the guy with the belly) claim to be million-dollar real-estate moguls. MJ dotes on her two Chihuahuas--they have their own stroller and Facebook pages. Her gay best friend, Reza, loves Gucci, Prada, and the catchphrase "Hello, we're Persian!" Everybody picks on Asa. And yes, they scamper up and down Sunset Boulevard.
In other words, it's a lot like Bravo's hit reality franchise The Real Housewives. But as strange as this is to admit, it's also perhaps the most normal depiction of Iranian-Americans I've seen in mainstream entertainment. Growing up as the son of Iranian immigrants, the only time I glimpsed Iranians in pop culture was the abusive husband in Not Without My Daughter--or the Middle Eastern terrorists on 24. …