Los Angeles Times
Bethenny Frankel is the first to admit that she’s done well for herself on reality TV.
The former star of “The Real Housewives of New York City,” who once struggled to pay the rent on her small Manhattan apartment, used her spot on the Bravo reality series to tirelessly promote a cocktail business she sold for a reported $100 million. She left the show, starred in a spinoff, then returned to the mother ship a few years later, to the delight of fans. Now a reality TV producer in her own right, Frankel has arguably gotten more out of a role on a basic cable reality TV show than anyone not named Kardashian or Jenner.
Yet Frankel has also become one of the most scathing critics of Bravo, “The Real Housewives” franchise and its executive producer, Andy Cohen. This summer, shortly after members of the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists went on strike, she began posting on social media about the need for reality TV performers to form a union and push for improved pay and working conditions.
Those initial salvos have blossomed into a movement that Frankel, ever the enthusiastic marketer, has anointed “the reality reckoning.” She has teamed with powerful attorneys Mark Geragos and Bryan Freedman to launch an investigation into reality TV working conditions and has gotten support from SAG-AFTRA for her efforts.
On her podcast, “ReWives,” she has conducted long, probing interviews about the perils of Bravo celebrity with her former “RHONY” co-star and estranged best friend Jill Zarin, former “Real Housewives of Atlanta” star NeNe Leakes and Raquel Leviss, a cast member on “Vanderpump Rules,” a spinoff of “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” whose affair with co-star Tom Sandoval became a social media obsession this spring.
Though she is not the only reality TV star to call for reform in the industry, Frankel is the best known. And, for better or for worse, she’s also the best at getting attention. But her visibility has also invited criticism from some Bravo fans, who think her campaign is driven by resentment rather than altruism, and from activists and organizers who see her, a wealthy white woman, as an ineffective emissary for a worthwhile cause.
Since leaving “RHONY” for the second time in 2019, Frankel has continued to develop projects for Bravo, including a series about women in suburban Connecticut that is no longer moving forward. In a phone call ahead of BravoCon, a fan gathering held in Las Vegas last weekend, she noted that she is acutely aware of the perception that she’s now biting the hand that fed her — and that she stayed silent while the arrangement worked in her favor.
Frankel said she was sometimes troubled by — and even voiced concerns about — the situations she faced during her time on “RHONY,” like the famous “boat ride from hell” that she and her co-stars endured on a chaotic trip to Cartagena, Colombia. But she didn’t understand how widespread the problems were within the reality TV industry — or that change was possible — until recently.
“I just didn’t realize it because I was in it,” she said.
Frankel, who founded a disaster relief initiative that has provided aid to people in Ukraine, expresses ambivalence about her newfound role as a reality TV Erin Brockovich. She said has no desire to become a union leader, a la Fran Drescher, the SAG-AFTRA president. “That’s why I don’t run for office,” Frankel says. “I don’t want to be part of any bureaucracy. That’s not my personality.” Instead, she adds, her focus right now is on “spreading a message about systemic change” and acting as a conduit for people who believe they were wronged by reality TV.
“My goal is to effect change. It’s already happened,” she said, citing ongoing conversations with SAG-AFTRA about reality TV labor conditions and NBCUniversal’s recent push to strengthen workplace guidelines on its unscripted shows. A Vanity Fair expose that Frankel participated in this week cast producers of “The Real Housewives” in an unfavorable light. (A representative for Bravo declined to comment on Frankel’s claims about Cohen or the network.)
Over the course of a freewheeling conversation last week, Frankel shared her candid thoughts on the state of reality TV — especially “The Real Housewives” — her controversial role as an industry whistle-blower and Cohen’s place in the Bravo universe.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Q: I think you’d be the first to say that you’ve benefited from from being on reality TV and working with Bravo in the past. So what made you start to question it?
A: When I started on reality TV, I just wanted to be successful. I wanted to be recognized. Many of the women that come on [“The Real Housewives”] have either been cheated on or gone through a bad divorce or their marriage is crumbling, and this feels like it’s gonna save them. They take this opportunity, and they’re excited. People care about what they’re saying and doing. It’s a gift.
I was grateful to what I call “the realm.” While I did play a part in negative speech toward other women on television and other things that we all do to win at the game, I did think about when something was wrong.
When Kelly Bensimon left “Scary Island” [a notorious cast trip to the Virgin Islands in which Bensimon behaved erratically] … I remember thinking she’s never coming back … They can’t have her back on the show after what we all witnessed. Sure enough, she was back days later.
Every time a line was crossed, I always knew something was wrong, just like women on casting couches [before #MeToo]. I knew it was wrong. Just like everybody knows what’s wrong, but they have no power because you’re in the machine. I left the machine because it was toxic and gross. But I was still gross because, yes, I was still talking to somebody about doing a show [at Bravo]. Because I could operate and manipulate the machine because I had so much power. That may not be popular, and no one wants to hear that. And people want to rewrite history and say in the comments, “When you are no longer profiting off of Bravo, you want to take the whole thing down.” I left multiple times and walked away from shows because I have money and I don’t mind rocking the boat.
I didn’t plan to do any of this. I only mentioned it because of the actors’ strike. It was like, “Wait — what the hell? They have a strike? Why would [reality stars] not want a union?” I’m still on billboards in Australia and deals are still being made every day from something I signed when I didn’t know that there would ever be a streamer. It was f— “Little House on the Prairie.” We’re still exploited — with memes and GIFs and YouTube and all the videos. So why wouldn’t we have a union?
Q: Has this changed your view of any fellow reality TV personalities?
A: I started seeing people differently. I started seeing Nene [Leakes] as a Black woman. I ended up reconnecting with Jill Zarin, who had [her husband’s] funeral [become part of a storyline on an episode of ‘RHONY’]. I saw people who have made mistakes but also been exploited, like [former New Jersey housewife] Danielle Staub [who was called a “prostitution whore” by co-star Teresa Giudice in a scene that went viral]. [Former Beverly Hills star] Brandi [Glanvillle] is a woman who came in having been cheated on [by Eddie Cibrian, her ex-husband at that point]. She was vulnerable. Those are the punching bags. The Danielles, the Brandis — they are the ones getting beaten up. They want the money, they need the fame. So they’ll do anything. Those are the easiest ones to control.
Andy Cohen is provoking women to trash each other on “Watch What Happens Live” … He gets richer while these women kill each other.
Q: How would you describe Andy Cohen’s role in all of this?
A: It’s fascinating that no one at Bravo has ever reached out to say, “What can we do? We want to make a change.” They are just running scared, and they’re trying to plug up holes in a boat that’s taking on water, not unlike the boat we were on in Colombia.
This is basically the entire culture at this place, across all the shows. Individual women have individual special relationships [with Cohen]. Andy himself said [in a New York magazine story] he’s the father and the boss to these individual women … He makes everybody feel really special. And he doesn’t cross those relationships over. He doesn’t hang out with me and NeNe together. Everything is very compartmentalized, and that is very cult-like to me.
Q: How does the “reality reckoning” fit into everything else you have going on right now? How much time are you spending on it?
A: I would say maybe 25% of my work life is being currently spent on this, and sometimes I wonder, “Why are you doing this?” But I can’t abandon these people now. They want justice. They don’t want to see this institution thrive this weekend at BravoCon.
Q: What do you see as the most pressing issues that need to be addressed by the industry ? Residuals obviously are a big one. What else?
A: There needs to be health insurance. There needs to be proper human resources, and the investigations need to be independent, not internal. Children need to be compensated. If you look at [former “New Jersey” star] Dina Manzo’s daughter’s social media, she’s talked about how it kind of ruined her life and, as an adult, she’s still living with what she did on television when she was a kid. There need to be workplace guidelines for people, the same way that everybody had to do it for COVID.
The whole thing is the upside down. You shouldn’t be excited when someone’s stealing or going to jail or an addict starts to drink again. There has to be a line. It has to be exploration, not exploitation of people’s lives.
The scene with Kelly and [me], “This is me. This is you.” It was one of the most iconic scenes in “Housewives” history. There was nothing that you would have to call HR [about] and it was wildly entertaining. What’s going on now is nothing short of disgusting. The ones who need the gig get chewed up and spit out because they can’t walk away. The ones who can walk away usually don’t get exploited the same way.
Q: A lot of people are sympathetic to the idea of a union and reform of reality TV but are skeptical about your role in all of this. What do you say to that?
A: I didn’t ask for this. You can be skeptical, but it wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for me. Sorry I invented the wheel but it’s rolling your car. I apologize. That’s what your car is driving on.
Q: Where do things stand in terms of a possible union and your conversations with SAG-AFTRA?
A: They actively call us all the time to say, “What can we do? How can we help?” I’m shocked. They want these people to sit down with them — the big guns, the Hulus and the Netflixes and the Amazons. It’s like the five families, effectively. But I’m not going to be running a union. I’ve been giving people the help they need. So many people want to talk because their story has just been soundbites for the press. They just want someone to once and for all hear their story.
Q: Do you think you’ve played a part in some of the worst parts of the genre?
A: From a workplace [perspective], I’m not entirely sure. On my own show [“Big Shot With Bethenny”], there were people in my house and it was freezing and we were outside at two o’clock in the morning … I never really thought about how the sausage gets made.
I would go on “Watch What Happens Live” knowing “OK, I’m gonna whore myself out because I’m going to promote my product and answer these questions, and for the next two weeks, I’m going to be abused by the media in clickbait.” But the thing is, Andy never got dirty. We all got filthy in the name of promoting what we’re doing and because we’re excited to be asked and excited to sit in the first seat.
Q: What role do the fans play in this? Are they part of the problem?
A: I would say 75% are like, “I keep feeling more disgusting watching this.” The ratings reflect that. Maybe 15% to 25% don’t want you to take their junk food away. They may also feel miserable about their own lives, and seeing other train wrecks makes them feel better. But if you took cigarette smoking off television because it wasn’t good for people and you didn’t want to glamorize it, you should take off people emotionally abusing other people because it glamorizes that too.
Q: People have compared Bravo and “The Real Housewives” to the NFL or professional wrestling — a popular pastime that can be brutal on the players. Do you think it’s possible to keep the shows entertaining but make them more humane?
A: I do, because of the scene with Kelly I told you about. I think the line has been crossed because [now] it’s low-hanging fruit. It’s bad producing: Why not just have somebody do something outlandish that we tell them to do because it’s less work?
It’s like any other business. You can make a garment in a cheap manner … You can make good television in a creative manner or you can just do a botched job.
Viewers have had an unprecedented pandemic, wars, more natural disasters worldwide than they can even keep up with. There’s an appetite now for a different type of entertainment. This is a real reality reckoning. It’s absolutely happening. I’m already affecting change. To the people who don’t think I should be leading this charge — too bad. Apply for the job.