'Real Housewives': The Guiltiest Pleasure on Television

 Andrew Southam

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.' "

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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).

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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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