The Guiltiest Pleasure on Television

Andrew Southam

An inside look at Bravo's "Real Housewives" juggernaut franchise, a big business built on catfights, controversy and the reliably bad behavior of an economic class that rhymes with "bitch."

Would anyone like a glass of wine?" asks Ramona Singer, the petite, blonde and manic star of Bravo's The Real Housewives of New York. It's lunchtime, and the Pinot Grigio-guzzling 54-year-old -- known for her erratic onscreen behavior and unfiltered commentary -- is doubling (not at anyone's request, mind you) as an on-set bartender during an Oct. 17 photo shoot for this publication. Dressed in a tight-fitting, blue satin cocktail dress, she flits around the Hollywood studio, swishing in and out of dressing rooms, offering anyone within shouting distance a taste of "Ramona," the label she launched in 2010.

"It's half the price-point of Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio and tastes better," she says of the six-plus bottles her assistant has delivered, before adding, "Blind-tested!"

Real Housewives of Atlanta star NeNe Leakes (a new player to the wine industry herself) stifles a laugh before turning her attention to more important matters -- like choosing the right six-inch Christian Louboutin heels from a collection an assistant is pulling out of a Louis Vuitton roller bag.

"I made it very classic, so it outlives the show," Singer continues, pouring a glass for a Bravo publicist who reluctantly accepts before offering a sample to Caroline Manzo (New Jersey) and Vicki Gunvalson (Orange County). Both decline, barely looking up from their phones.

Kyle Richards (Beverly Hills) breaks from describing her new book (Kyle Richards: Life Is Not a Reality Show) to stare wide-eyed at Singer, who fluffs her shoulder-length coif and struts through a sea of 25-plus groomers, stylists and assistants, leaving a trail of half-empty plastic wine glasses in her wake.

The scene is a cocktail of uncomfortable and funny, with a sprinkling of car crash on top.

But seriously, what were you expecting? Classy? Regal? Singer and her oft-bleached and Botoxed counterparts haven't helped Bravo create its most successful franchise -- valued by one insider at upward of a half-billion dollars -- by emulating Princess Grace. Frequently foul-mouthed, often catfighting and always self-promoting, the women from the original series (The Real Housewives of Orange County) and its six subsequent iterations (New York, Atlanta, New Jersey, D.C., Miami and Beverly Hills) dominate water-cooler discussions, both virtual and real, by showcasing at times the worst of female behavior. Especially the kind of behavior among a certain class that rhymes with "bitch." 

Yes, these women are rich (or at least lose more money than most people make in a lifetime). Yet the franchise has become a perfect distraction for viewers in the age of Occupy Anything. It's the kind of train-wreck television that Americans, with all their woes, probably shouldn't be watching; but on any given night, 2 million of them -- mostly women ages 18 to 49 -- are glued to one version or another of the multipronged soap opera, ready to blast, blame or bewail the kind of behavior that's left even Oprah aghast. "Literally, my mouth was open," she said last year of watching Housewives. "I thought, 'This is on television?' "

If the Housewives shock and repel critics and cultural guardians alike, the public loves them. The Nov. 6 season debut of Atlanta drew 2.9 million viewers, the franchise's highest-rated season premiere. (By contrast, the fourth-season premiere of AMC's critical darling Breaking Bad attracted 1.9 million.) Bravo has earned anywhere from $35.6 million to $162 million in the past two years alone from ad sales for Housewives, according to Larry Fried, director of SQAD, a media cost data provider.

"Who would have thought that a fairly modest series would be here six years [later] as our longest-running franchise?" says Lauren Zalaznick, chairman of Bravo's parent, NBC-Universal Entertainment & Digital Networks & Integrated Media. "It's beyond incredible. It's absurd."

With Housewives international formats already airing in Greece and Israel, and a Vancouver spinoff to bow in March, NBCUniversal says casting is under way for a Housewives offshoot in France (a make-or-break market because of its broader reach and its potential for greater ad revenue), with Australia's Gold Coast, Asia (Indonesia, Singapore and Hong Kong) and the U.K. soon to follow -- meaning that Housewives would be television's first docu-soap to franchise overseas. Bravo's half-billion-dollar empire could soon be worth multiples of that.

"People want to watch rich girls behaving badly," explains Linda Ong, president of brand strategy adviser Truth Consulting. "The franchise started as a real-life Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous but became this cultural analysis after the economic breakdown. Every town became a sociological experiment, a very real-time reflection of what was happening to the 1 percent."

But drama, not anthropology, keeps the franchise alive. Offscreen, it's had to deal with the shooting of Ashley Jewell, the former fiance of Real Housewives of Atlanta's Kandi Burruss, who was killed outside a strip club in October 2009; D.C. stars Michaele and Tareq Salahi crashing a White House dinner a month later; the crazed trip to rehab in December by Beverly Hills' Kim Richards -- and, above all, the suicide of occasional Beverly Hills castmember Russell Armstrong, whom the series depicted as a cold businessman in a seemingly loveless marriage.

Bravo and the Housewives were savaged in the wake of Armstrong's death, with calls abounding for the show's second season to be canceled. But ratings for its Sept. 5 debut were up 42 percent from the first-season premiere, which aired less than one month after his suicide. (Armstrong's death, so far, has been addressed only in that debut episode.)

Bad taste? Perhaps. But isn't that in keeping with a brand whose stars disproportionately live in McMansions and catfight as often as they shop?

Despite -- or because of -- these controversies, Housewives continues to flourish in the competitive A.D.D. world of reality TV, where even powerhouse Jersey Shore is beginning to show signs of wear and tear (ratings dropped 13 percent to 6.6 million for the fourth-season finale).

Part of Housewives' success lies in its ruthless willingness to replace its stars. Reported contract threats have been met with firings, and prominent stars have made surprising exits -- such as Jill Zarin, whose contract was not renewed at the end of New York's fifth season (see sidebar, right).

Still, Bravo offers each of the Housewives an unparalleled opportunity to develop her own brand. Combined, the Housewives have published more than a dozen books; received product deals from makeup and jewelry to sex toys and alcohol; average well over 100,000 Twitter followers (Atlanta's Leakes has nearly 600,000); and receive an approximate six-figure salary each season (the New York cast is drawing a $250,000 payday for season five) -- not movie-star money, but steady income for people arguably of limited talent.

Bravo has benefited even more. Helped by its other tentpole franchise, the Emmy-winning Top Chef, it has seen profits balloon 122 percent since 2006, from $135 million to more than $300 million, according to SNL Kagan. And the network has done this without dependence on any single producer to sustain its golden goose -- unlike, say, Two and a Half Men's Chuck Lorre or Keeping Up With the Kardashians' Ryan Seacrest. Instead, it doles out responsibility to six different entities. (Only Evolution Media handles two: Orange County and Beverly Hills.)

Notes Zalaznick: "This is probably the only franchise in the world where the franchisees are not produced by the same production company."

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The franchise did begin with one producer, however: Scott Dunlap.

It was 1997, and Dunlap was bored. The former bit-part actor turned branding consultant and entrepreneur was with friends at a private dinner party in Orange County's exclusive Coto de Caza gated neighborhood, listening to them drone on. "You know the drill," recalls the bulky, self-confident 59-year-old, leaning back in a booth at Houston's restaurant in Irvine, Calif. "Everyone was sitting around the table, the ladies blinged-out, talking about family vacations to Tuscany and all bloviating the same thing: 'Our life is perfect.' "

He'd had enough, and blurted out: "You're all going to be dead!"

But when he thought about these friends more, he realized they might be worth studying. His off-color remark segued into his initial Housewives pitch: He wanted to create a short, tongue-in-cheek film reflecting what life was like in the kind of affluent, gated community they all knew so well -- with a twist: "I want it to cover you," he told them.

The short film never got made. But it was the genesis of an idea that, a decade later, would become a pop-culture phenomenon, following an eight-year battle and countless rejections that ultimately, in 2005, led Dunlap to Frances Berwick, president of Bravo (and now Style Media as well), who gambled heavily on The Real Housewives of Orange County.

The executive was on an upswing thanks to a major rebranding of her network. Having succeeded with its makeover series Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Bravo now had set its programming sights on five branches inspired by that show: food, fashion, design, lifestyle and pop culture. After some back and forth, Berwick gave Dunlap license to go into production on an entire series, naming him executive producer. "It was a risky thing to do," he admits with a grin. "Would I have gambled on me as a television producer if I were the network? Probably not."

But the show he proceeded to make was very different from the one Berwick had imagined. With 90 percent of Orange County shot before Bravo saw it, the executive's heart sank when she saw a rough cut, almost causing her to kill the project altogether.

"We wanted something very authentic and they started to film something Curb Your Enthusiasm-esque," she recalls. "It required a whole revision, so we came to a point where we had to decide whether to sink more money into it or just pull the plug." 

She chose the former. After reshooting the first few episodes and an "incredibly, incredibly long edit," she says, the series finally made it to air with very low expectations.

"It was an experiment," notes one network insider. "They weren't envisioning this huge franchise; the network was just trying to depict a lifestyle. They didn't put a lot of advertising or money into it at first."

Then something unexpected happened: The series struck a chord. And not just with any viewers -- with that prized 30-something audience the network was anxious to cultivate. While Orange County's 2006 freshman season averaged roughly 646,000 viewers, the network saw a 47 percent overall increase in adults 18 to 49, with a 34.4 median age -- making Orange, at the time, its youngest-skewing show. 

Bravo quickly upped the series for a second season, but decided to bring in veteran reality producer Doug Ross (Fear Factor, Big Brother), a move that marginalized Dunlap's role, leaving him rich, with a "creator" credit on each episode, but a virtual outsider to the franchise (though he retains an executive producer credit on Orange County).

Dunlap -- not entirely convincingly -- says he has no ill will toward the network that effectively ousted him from the franchise. "My contract's good," he says, glancing down at his soup, his confidence momentarily broken. "I'm happy."

"Scott did a great job at identifying killer cast members," Ross says, "but the network thought with the help of some 'grown-ups' this thing could really blossom."

As the second season began filming, Bravo decided to label Manhattan Moms -- another series it was shooting, about wealthy New York City women trying to get their children into the ultra-competitive private school world -- with the Housewives moniker. "Lauren Zalaznick called and said, 'I'm really thinking about turning this into a franchise,' " says Jennifer O'Connell, executive vp of Shed Media. "[She] asked how I would feel about the show being labeled The Real Housewives of New York City."

Much of Moms already had been filmed when that decision took place, and the cast didn't discover the name change until the first press photos were being shot. "We went to check out the artwork on the computer and it said Real Housewives of New York City," remembers Zarin. "At first we were a little disappointed, to be honest."

Soon after, production house True Media came to Bravo with a similar, Atlanta-based show, while Bravo shrewdly hired Sirens Media to produce a New Jersey version -- and, just like that, a franchise was born. New York premiered in March 2008 and Atlanta in October.

As daytime drama transitioned out of the marketplace and the 90210 generation matured into husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, Bravo unwittingly had stumbled upon television's next guilty pleasure: a vehicle that showcased the lives of a handful of spoiled, consistently imperfect women whose only real distinction was the city in which they reside -- and their unerring ability to behave badly.

With New Jersey's 2009 launch, the franchise reached beyond Bravo's core audience of 30-something women, bringing men and older viewers into the fold. Its success peaked when it drew an astonishing 3.8 million viewers for its second-season reunion show in 2010.

There've been glitches, inevitably -- not least the bikinis that had to be digitally altered when NBC-Universal chose to run four of its series in daytime syndication. "They had to paint larger bikini bottoms on some of the women!" Berwick admits, noting: "Syndication is an interesting beast. It's an older, more conservative audience. Our viewers just aren't at home during the day."

The younger, more advertiser-friendly audience has stayed true, however, even in the face of copycats including VH1's Basketball Wives and Logo's The A-List. That's partly thanks to Bravo's exhaustive casting process and partly thanks to the considerable money it invests. "Bravo has been very supportive of the productions financially," Ross says. "Everyone wants to copy the magic, but so many imitators look gritty and feel scripted."

But isn't Housewives just a little bit scripted, too? Orange County's Peggy Tanous certainly believes so: "We started meeting with producers to discuss storylines," she confesses, maintaining this was behind her decision to leave the series. "I started getting anxiety thinking about all the forced drama that does happen on occasion." Ross concedes that the Housewives are often asked to plan events (read: group seances or $50,000 children's birthday parties), but vehemently denies any staging: "The audience could sniff that a mile away, so why even bother?"

"Honestly, sometimes I wish they would do what I tell them," adds Shed Media's O'Connell. "I wish I had that kind of puppeteering power. But it's the women who ultimately drive the train."

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One of those women is singer. The reality celebrity -- who grew up the oldest of four children in a tumultuous upstate New York family before becoming a fashion buyer for Macy's -- initially was reluctant to take part in the series when she was approached by Shed. Discovered through former co-star Zarin, Singer was running a jewelry line, True Faith Jewelry, with her husband of 20 years, Mario, and both were busy raising their daughter Avery, now 16.

"By age 39, I already had $1 million cash in the bank," Singer boasts, reaching for the closest bottle of Ramona. It's now 3:30 p.m. and the star has changed out of her cocktail dress and back into casual wear: a sweater dress and a few pieces from True Faith (whose name she makes sure to drop). "I said, 'I'm sorry, but no thank you. I don't have time. I don't need to be famous.' "

Recognizing her as a strong character, Shed returned and played to her ego, telling her, "This would be a good platform for your businesses." Singer changed her mind, seeing the potential dollar signs, and signed on in 2008. Since then, she's been a series staple. Her story is emblematic of the kind of casting that has made five of the seven domestic series successes. (Miami premiered to a dismal 1.21 million viewers and it's unclear if it will be renewed; the D.C. women were widely panned, after which that series was killed.) Singer notoriously stirred the gossip-fueled conflict the series depends on by setting up an "accidental" run–in during the show's third season, between the franchise's most famous figure, New York's Bethenny Frankel, and Zarin that led to a meltdown in Singer's Upper East Side apartment.

The most successful Housewives check their self-respect at the door (if not their furs). The more outrageous and divisive they become, the more airtime they get -- and the bigger their following.

That's what New Jersey's Teresa Giudice found. When a season-one party culminated in her flipping over a restaurant table in a fit of rage, the 39-year-old self-proclaimed "Jersey Girl" became the series star. Taking TMI to a whole new level, Giudice was candid about being unable to furnish her 10,500-square-foot, Towaco, N.J., mansion after filing for bankruptcy during the run of the show (she'd infamously dropped $10,000 in cash at a furniture store during the debut season). Her husband opened a humble pizza parlor, but she became the provider, thanks to her Housewives paychecks; her two cookbooks, Skinny Italian and Fabulicious; and weekly magazine deals (one insider says she earns approximately $20,000 per shot; she's appeared on the cover of supermarket staple In Touch Weekly seven times since May 2011 alone).

Frankel remains the reality world's holy grail: Her debut novel, Naturally Thin, became a New York Times best-seller with more than 200,000 copies, and in 2011, she sold her Skinnygirl cocktail line to Fortune Brand's Beam Global for a staggering $120 million.

Singer fantasizes about  emulating her, possibly developing her own show, a dream realized only by Frankel and one other Housewife, Kim Zolciak (Atlanta), who each landed her own Bravo spinoff. "I'm already thinking ahead," Singer says. "Initially I thought I wanted to do something like [advertising executive and TV host] Donnie Deutsch and actually visit companies looking for help. I can't just sit on a couch." Then her mind jumps elsewhere: "I had someone tell me once, 'I can't believe my wife wants a divorce.' And I ask him, 'Well, when's the last time you had sex?' And he says, 'A year ago!' I screamed, 'You haven't had sex in a frickin' year?! What do you think would happen?' "

Finally taking a beat, she stares wide-eyed as her mind wanders, possibly considering a therapy show. She smiles and takes another swig of her Pinot Grigio. "That's what I'd like to do next."

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Like so many of the Housewives women, its most prominent male, Andy Cohen, the Bravo executive who hosts all the reunion shows, has turned the franchise to his own benefit, launching his own TV show. Looking as if he'd just stepped off a sunny golf course, the exec waltzes into the Four Seasons Beverly Wilshire for an August 1 shoot with his Beverly Hills harem. Cohen has the kind of panache that makes him seem more like a best friend than a boss -- that's when he's not glued to his BlackBerry, tweeting to his 570,000 followers.

"I have a deep responsibility to the women," he says. "And I take that very seriously." A key strategist who helped Berwick redefine Bravo, Cohen, who until recently served as executive vp original programming and development, grew up in St. Louis and landed a brief gig as a backup dancer for the B-52s, with dreams of becoming a performer himself, before drifting into production. He worked for 10 years as a segment producer on The Early Show and five years as vp original programming at the now defunct TRIO network until Berwick brought him to Bravo in 2005.

It was his personality -- flamboyant, stylish, quick-witted, openly gay and irreverent -- that helped stamp some of the show's major hits, including its breakout Queer Eye. He's been a critical component in Housewives' success, not least because he calls himself a "super-fan."

And during the network's most serious crisis to date, Armstrong's death, Cohen was among a handful of crucial players who determined how Housewives would proceed. When news erupted that the 47-year-old father of three had hanged himself, it not only sent shockwaves through Bravo and NBCUniversal but through the entire reality-television industry. In the following days, even some castmembers called for the cancellation of the show's second season altogether, says one production insider.

"We talked endlessly," Cohen acknowledges. "In the end, we decided to capture what happened as sensitively as we could." In the current season, Armstrong is the subject of a domestic abuse scandal and is asked to leave a party hosted by Kyle Richards and her husband, Mauricio. With the Jan. 23 finale approaching, insiders say it is unlikely the series will again address Armstrong's passing.

That's just one of the problems Cohen has had to deal with. Camille Grammer embarked on a public divorce from her husband, sitcom legend Kelsey Grammer, during her show's first season, while new girl Brandi Glanville (ex-wife of actor Eddie Cibrian) has already announced her plans to annul her New Year's Eve marriage to manager Darin Harvey. All in all, the franchise has seen 10 failed marriages, two bankruptcies, countless physical altercations, a handful of legal battles, at least one foreclosure -- and, of course, the suicide.

"Look, this franchise is a documentation of a period in these people's lives," Cohen says. "All of these women have stories to tell and some are dealing with some really serious issues." Just how much Cohen will be involved with them moving forward may be the most pressing matter facing Housewives as it goes global.

This month, Cohen's talk show Watch What Happens: Live starts running Sunday through Thursday, competing in the same time turf as late-night giants David Letterman, Jimmy Fallon and Jon Stewart. To make this possible, Cohen has accepted a reduced role within Bravo corporate -- and will juggle that, the hosting gig and writing his memoirs. (He landed a seven-figure advance in August.)

Now in the hotel's Royal Suite, the exec has changed into a crisp, black Ralph Lauren suit and takes a Twitter break to pose for a photo with Lisa Vanderpump's Pomeranian Giggy (who has 42,000 followers of his own). Glanville sits alone, pretending to ignore the snickering coming from Vanderpump's general direction. "One of the girls asked me what I think of Brandi," Vanderpump whispers loudly to Kyle Richards, who is perusing a rack of designer gowns. "And I said, 'Who?' " The pair burst into laughter.

It's this kind of mean-girling -- the good, the bad and the ugly -- that has catapulted an experimental show about Orange County women into a pop-culture darling with, now, a global audience.

 "It's good, clean fun," Cohen maintains. "Its like eating a bowl of no-cal popcorn; guilt-free gossip. You can watch it, you can talk about it with your friends and, at the end of the day, you can feel better about yourself and your life."

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