October 04, 2010 12:00 PM

When Kody Brown flew from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles last August with his family, he encountered a puzzled flight attendant at the gate.”It was, ‘Hello, Mr. Brown. Hello, Mrs. Brown, Mrs. Brown, Mrs. Brown, Mrs. Brown!’ ” says Kody, laughing.

Double-or quadruple-takes are an everyday occurrence for the fundamentalist Mormon, 42, who is married to four women: Meri, 39, his only legal wife (20 years); Janelle, 41 (17 years); Christine, 38 (16 years); and Robyn, 31 (four months). Now the Brown family, including their 16 children (who range in age from 5 months to 16), are bracing themselves for more than just odd glances when their controversial new reality show, Sister Wives, debuts Sept. 26 on TLC.

“It’s actually very scary,” Kody, a Utah-based advertising executive, says of the family’s decision to pull back the curtain and reveal their polygamist lifestyle, which closely mirrors the fictional HBO series Big Love. (While Mormons officially stopped practicing polygamy more than a century ago, offshoot Mormon fundamentalist groups have continued the plural lifestyle.) Growing up in a polygamist family, recalls third wife Christine, “I was raised with fear. We had to be quiet about how we lived.” Adds second wife Janelle, the only one who was not raised in a plural family: “We really want to be open about who we are.”

Which, according to the Browns, is just a normal family. “Everybody is working hard to bring in the dough and put food on the table,” says fourth wife Robyn, who has three children from a previous marriage. They hope to dispel the ick factor most people immediately associate with “plural family living,” the term they use to describe their lifestyle. It’s a team effort to get chores done, supervise the kids’ homework and pay the bills, and the women rely upon each other for support. “Don’t you wish you had a sister wife?” asks Christine. “Every time I tell my friends at work, they’re like, ‘Oh, that’s how you can do it all!’ ”

Meri, Janelle and Christine live in a 5,400-sq.-ft. home that has three separate apartments for them and their 13 children. Currently Robyn, whom Kody wed in a religious ceremony on May 22 (it will be featured in an upcoming episode), lives in a separate home two-thirds of a mile away with her kids. Kody, who leads the family in nightly prayer, doesn’t have his own personal space in either residence. “The tough part is, I need multiple items like a watch or shoes or a belt,” says Kody. “Just recently I realized, ‘That belt is at Robyn’s house.’ So I put on a mismatched belt and went over to her house and got it.”

He follows a jam-packed monthly schedule that chronicles everything from the kids’ school functions to family dinners and date nights with each of his wives-individually and collectively. “I go out with the four of them and waiters think I’m the gay friend,” Kody says, laughing.

Despite the camaraderie, “You walk into each individual home and there’s a marriage,” Robyn says, noting that at times there is jealousy and insecurity among the women. “You have to work together, communicate and be open with each other.” As Sister Wives puts their lifestyle under a microscope, the family is nervous-but confident they’ll pull through together. “We are opening up a society that has not been open before,” says Robyn. “It’s scary to be first, but we expect that the rewards will be worth it.”

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