Two Bad Mormons
The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City star Heather Gay’s new memoir, Bad Mormon, hit uncomfortably close to home. So I asked her about it.
When The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City premiered in 2020, Heather Gay was an immediate fan favorite for her self-deprecating wit and everywoman relatability. But there was another reason I felt drawn to the beauty entrepreneur and divorced mother of three: Like her, I had spent the first decades of my life as a faithful member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We share a number of milestone experiences: growing up in Utah, preaching the gospel as missionaries, and graduating from the strict, punitive Brigham Young University. (I even had pioneer ancestors dating back to 1856, just like the ones Gay proudly referenced in her Season 1 tagline.)
And just like Gay, I also grappled with a painful, yearslong process of breaking with ancestral tradition and leaving the church. In her new book, Bad Mormon, out now, she blows that process wide open. Reality TV memoirs are a cottage industry with varying degrees of literary merit, but Gay’s book has major stakes: In tracing her journey from aspiring housewife to capital-H Housewife, she writes about Mormonism’s sacred rituals in manner that is not only grounds for excommunication in the church but also risks ostracization from the entire community she held dear for so long. Leaving the church was a leap she says she couldn’t have made without Bravo’s cameras, which offered a chance to start over that was equal parts thrilling and terrifying. “There was no gray area, no in between,” Gay, 48, writes in the book. “You could choose Hollywood, but you’d have to give up heaven. You can’t have both. With cameras in my face, my hand would be forced in one direction or the other.”
Below, Gay opens up rediscovering herself outside of the church, how Mormonism still informs her life, and where she stands with her castmates.
What surprised you most while you were looking back at your life through this book?
There’s so many things that came up for me, but I think it was seeing this theme throughout my life that I hadn’t really had the perspective before to recognize: who I’d been born to be and how I suppressed it, suppressed it, suppressed it, to the point that I denied it to even myself. The delusion level of just wanting so badly to belong and to be accepted that I didn’t recognize this other, authentic self that wanted to get out.
So it just feels like a celebration. When I did the audiobook recording, I was able to read the whole thing and see it with a perspective of “You were there all along. There you were, like the ruby red slippers.” I had the power all along. It was different than what I felt for the majority of my life, which was shame for who I was, rather than honoring that resilient spirit that somehow survived and now feels like the luckiest girl in the world.
It reminds me of a line in the book that stuck with me so much, I’ve sent it to several friends. You wrote, “The capacity to shut off an entire part of yourself is a terrifying thing. Even more thrilling and terrifying is the capacity to do it well.” You did that trying to live up the standards of righteousness and perfection that make a “good” Mormon, and that’s what I did for so long, too, being gay and closeted at BYU.
It doesn’t work. There’s no way to fix it. There’s no way to make it make sense. And there’s no way to feel accepted in that environment. You have to change who you are, and your brain just snaps into “There’s something wrong with me, and I have to kill that part of myself in order to survive.”
It is us turning off everything that makes us feel alive in order to fit in. And I think that’s maybe not just for us as Mormons, but [something that’s] relatable to a lot of people.
I had a visceral physical reaction reading the chapter in your book about the temple ceremony, which marks the entry into adult religious life in the church. My heart was pounding and all of the alarm bells were going off in my head because you put things explicitly on the page that, as a member of the church, you know you are never supposed to talk about or reveal. How did you decide to really go there?
I made a million decisions when I was writing the book, but there was a moment where I [realized I had to] tell my story from my perspective. And there was no way to tell the experience of the temple as a young girl going through it without saying some of the words I had to say and describing some of the weird handshakes I had to do and some of the weird formations I had to make with my hands. I mean, you can’t say, “And then I went through the temple, and it was a little bit weird!”
That would’ve not done justice to the girl who experienced it, swallowed it, accepted it, and said “It must be spiritual, it must be from God, and I must be evil. Whatever my inner voice is telling me is from the devil. Of course it’s from God, because it’s so weird. What human could make this up?” And the fact that we were so into it? They could’ve asked me to do just about anything, and the stakes were so high that I would’ve said yes.
I distinctly remember when I went through the temple before my mission. I had gone through the Sunday School class called Temple Prep. I had sat down with my parents the night before. And even as I crossed the threshold for the first time into the temple, I remember thinking, “What if they sacrifice a live animal or something?”
Right? Same as me! We go in knowing nothing, and then we leave, never speaking of them again.
And you have to go through the temple first before going on a mission or getting married. So if you don’t go through with it, then it affects all those really major, public milestones.
Yeah! What young bride is going to say “I’m going to give up on my marriage and my husband, the love of my life, because this is too weird”? Or you’ve had your missionary farewell — everyone’s given you money and scriptures, you have a calling that God’s chosen for you. You’re not going to say “No, this death oath is too much, I’m going to opt out now.”
I feel like the gravity of that is something readers without a connection to Mormonism won’t fully grasp. We’re taught our whole lives that your eternal salvation is on the line if you talk about the secrets in the temple.
And yet, here I go talking about the secrets. I keep trying to tell people in my life, like my assistants and my publisher, my editor: There is going to be a visceral reaction to the secrets I'm revealing in this book. And we’ve seen a little tail of it — the church is suing me for trademark infringement for using the title Bad Mormon. And so that alone is an alarm bell that there’s stuff in here that isn’t good. But I don’t think anyone realizes that even my best friends, who’ve been going to the temple weekly for their entire lives, have never spoken to me about these rituals that I put on paper. And now they’re in a book by a Housewife. That’s far-reaching, so it’s terrifying. I think the fallout is going to be something that I can’t even imagine — because I would be too afraid to continue [if I could].
Yet you did it.
What’s going to happen? You tell me. What are your parents going to do if they see me? Are they going to spit on me? Are they going to turn the other way? You know what I mean?
Totally. When I left the church, I moved to New York. I imagine it’s hard to leave the church in the way that you have and still stay in Utah and continue to be surrounded by the community and the culture every single day. How have you coped with that?
It’s this double-edged sword. Real Housewives of Salt Lake City gave me something colossal enough to tip the scale, to give me the courage to walk away and rebuild my life. It had to be something totally big like that in order for me to do all of this because it’s so difficult. I'm surrounded by it. Salt Lake City has given me this second chapter in my life, so it’s like the poisoned well. I can’t leave. And my identity is so wrapped up in it. That’s kind of why the book is called Bad Mormon: Just because I don’t go to church anymore, you can’t pull the Mormonism from me. They can’t pull it away from us: our childhoods, our families, our history. We’ve already given up so much of our identity. Don’t make us give up all of our memories too, because we’re both. We grew up that way and we became who we are today. You’re a bad Mormon, man, just like me.
We spend our whole lives being taught that you can never succeed once you leave the church. Yet, here you are, being blessed with all this “worldly” success. You’ve arguably become one of the most famous people at the moment to be associated with Utah and Mormonism. How do you grapple with that dichotomy?
I am having more success not being a Mormon than I ever had being a Mormon, and we know what our family and friends would say: That it’s not real success, it’s not real happiness, it’s just the devil fooling you. And so in this community, what I’m accomplishing has no value. No one acknowledges it. No one talks about it. It’s like the elephant in the room. They ask me, “How are you keeping busy?”
And I want to be like, “B*tch, have you seen Ultimate Girls Trip? Below Deck Adventure? Real Housewives? I wrote a book. I’m going on tour.” But I just have to play along. That mind game, it doesn’t leave you, but I know how to dance around it. I had my Bad Mormon sweatshirt on the other day and a neighbor came over, and I pulled my hair over the logo. And it’s like, “I think she got the memo already!” But it never leaves. [Laughs] My business partner — she had left the church, had her records removed — told me she had on a tank top when a neighbor came over. It was July, but she grabbed a turtleneck from the coat closet and put it on. She would rather answer the door in a turtleneck in July than in a tank top in front of her Mormon neighbor. And I feel that internally.
How has the show and all the experiences you’ve gone through over the past few years helped you reawaken those parts of yourself? Because for me, it’s very much a constant, ongoing process, and I can’t imagine doing it with so many eyes on you.
It’s messy. It feels like the second chapter, the second adolescence. And I’m making poor choices and good choices. I’m trying to lift myself out of the shame spiral, but it’s an ongoing process. I am grateful that Housewives gave me the opportunity to explore it because I had no palatable future. I was hopeless and just plugging along, feet on the cold tile floor, doing what I needed to do to be a good enough mom that I didn’t screw my kids up anymore than I already had by being divorced and being a loser. [Laughs] So I just hope that Housewives will continue to hold me accountable to this new person I’m becoming. And what greater way to do it? For someone that felt invisible for so long, it’s OK to have visibility and feedback, good or bad. It really is. I’m grateful every day that I have this opportunity to meet people that I would never get to meet, people that have shared experiences and shared trauma, honestly.
I do want to ask you some Housewives-specific questions: In the book you write about your time at BYU, where Lisa Barlow is the first Housewife who shows up in your story. How well did you really know each other in college? Would you have categorized yourself as friends?
Lisa set my very best friend up with her husband, but she was also in that pivotal scene in the book, where I had started my first business making rock watches [and selling them at BYU]. Her very best friend helped me do that. So we were always peripheral, whether she was aware of it or not. She denies it. [In the past], she said she knew me from BYU, so her narrative has changed quite a bit. We didn’t know each other well enough to have any receipts, and that’s probably all that matters.
The dynamics within the cast really changed significantly this season. Which falling out do you think is more likely to get patched up first: yours and Whitney’s or Lisa’s and Meredith’s?
That’s sixes! [Laughs] But I would put money on Lisa and Meredith because Whitney’s and mine isn’t really a patch-up. I think we’re moving in different directions, and I just don’t see a way forward right now. I don’t think she does either. I think that it was pretty fun between Meredith and Lisa at the end of the reunion when Andy brought out their birthday cake, so we’ll see if there’s some opportunity there.
Do you see any world in which you and Lisa can form a real genuine friendship?
Didn't Jasmine sing it best? [Singing] “A whole new world…” Of course. I'm a girl who never thought in a million years that I'd be on Housewives and write a book. So why would I say that in a million years, Lisa and I couldn't be best of friends? I mean, people change every day, and I'm changing every day. And she's always going to be the same, so… [Laughs] But I have hope.
What would you need from Whitney at this point for “Bad Weather” to be back in the forecast in the future?
I would need to see her be authentic in a television space. Because as long as we’re on television, I just don’t see how we can navigate a relationship with any trust. But I think being off camera would probably be safer waters. That’s the dynamic. It’s the circumstances that have created the distrust, and those circumstances aren’t changing if we’re both filming.
There’s a lot of me that thought “I don’t want any conflict.” But the truth is, I have more certainty in my life than I ever have had about the type of people that I’m going to allow in. I compromised and accommodated my whole life, and I’m sorry that it’s happening now and that it’s on TV that I’m suddenly having boundaries.
Fans will see you, and Whitney, next on the third season of The Real Housewives Ultimate Girls Trip. What can you say about your experience on that trip?
Revealing. It revealed a lot of stuff about myself and a lot of stuff about my friendships, and a lot of stuff about the other Housewives that I loved getting to know. I formed a lot of new friendships. It was exciting. It was sad. There was drama. There was laughter. And I think it’s going to be a great show.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.