Victoria Gotti has the looks of a live-action Barbie -- the peroxide mane, the plasticine figure. She even has the right accessories, including a vulgar house only an eight-year-old girl could love.
The star of A&E's new reality series Growing Up Gotti is the princess of a darker sort of tale, however. Daughter of Mafia boss John Gotti, Victoria was mob royalty until her father and ex-husband Carmine Agnello wound up in jail for tax evasion and racketeering (and, in her father's case, murder). Now she makes her living as a celebrity-gossip columnist for Star Magazine, tries to mother the herd of uncouth wildebeests that are her teenage sons, and -- as her new show attests -- peddles the second-degree notoriety that comes from being a real-life Carmela Soprano.
As she pads past the baroque flourishes, archways, gazebos, and 42 surveillance cameras that make up The House That Too Much Money and Too Little Taste Built, Gotti sounds mournful. "I live with a ghost," she broods, "the ghost of my marriage."
The manse is haunted by those memories, she declares, so it's time to put it on the market.
So begins the tale of a second adolescence. Reality TV these days seems to be divided into two main phyla: the sadomasochistic fare that sprang from Survivor, and the juvenile soap-opera stylings gifted us by The Real World. As Gotti struggles to free herself from daddy's image and sort out the perils of dating, it becomes clear that Growing Up Gotti falls squarely into the second camp -- it's the reality show as bildungsroman.
Gotti's two main psychological dilemmas come to a head in the refreshingly well-structured first episode. Her magazine decides to send her on a novel assignment: go on a few celebrity dates and report about them. Gotti heads off to a matchmaker, seeking someone who is sensitive enough not to pre-judge her yet strong enough to not be intimidated by that famous Gotti name. Dark hair would be nice, too.
Gotti winds up with a bald guy.
The outing is a total fiasco. Gotti has an exquisite, explosive blend of hair-trigger sensitivity and utter humorlessness that makes for a fantastic reality-show subject but a nightmare date. Her shiny-pated beau flubs early, insinuating that Gotti might be rather spoiled.
“Do you also think I go out and kill people?” she snarls, before she savages him completely. “You're kind of sure of yourself, but I'm not sure why.”
On the way home, she offers her date's limo driver “a thousand dollars if you take him to a ditch somewhere and roll him out.” As much as she wants to leave that Gotti legacy behind, it sure is convenient for threatening those who get on your bad side.
Gotti has a similar love-hate relationship with her house. As she and her realtor walk through the mansion, marks of decay are everywhere. The pool has a nasty sludge at the bottom, complete with the skeletal remains of a broken lawn chair. When Gotti tries to open the pool-house door, the doorknob falls off.
”I sure am gonna miss this place,” she muses. “The house you live in is still your own.”
As for the future of the Gotti family, it's a grim one from the looks of the next generation. The toxically moussed trio -- “my angels,” Gotti calls them -- stampede through the house, kicking each other and bellowing in a thick, teenage patois. My viewing partner was bewildered.
“They need subtitles for those kids,” he said. “They don't even speak English.”
When they do manage to make themselves understood, they have nothing nice to say. Their mother's announcement that she will start dating provokes howls from the sons. She yells right back, waving her big, square, French-manicured nails around like a lioness' claws.
“Twenty-four seven, I'm the man of the house,” she declares. “I'm not asking nobody's permission.”
In the very next episode, however, she winds up cutting the boys' meat and lamenting the absence of her father after a fight with eldest son, Carmine.
“It's times like this, I wish my father was alive,” she says. “Nobody ever gave him any lip. Boys fear another father figure … there's that intimidation.”
Gotti is a familiar figure, a sort of Mafia Scarlett O'Hara -- beneficiary of an unsavory, romanticized legacy, a brashly outspoken, hardscrabble heroine trying to make do without the men who made her world, without the trappings of her dollhouse or her shattered fairytale. Gotti's just as bullishly immature as that Gone With the Wind character as well, and that's what makes this crass, but riveting, show so fascinating. “Growing Up Gotti” is an apt title indeed -- and not just for the sons.
Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect senior correspondent.