"It's All-Consuming": Bravo Producers Go Inside the Process of Making 'The Real Housewives'

Heidi Gutman/Bravo
The Hollywood Reporter's Evan Real with Bravo producers Darren Ward, Bill Fritz, Kemar Bassaragh and Glenda Cox

At the first-ever BravoCon, the masterminds behind the tentpole reality franchise and more shows shared stories about wrangling outrageous talent while discussing the triumphs and challenges of working in unscripted TV.

Nearly 90 reality stars descended upon New York for an epic gathering at the first-ever BravoCon.

The three-day convention held this past weekend — an immersive experience designed for super-fans of Bravo programming — saw more than 50 live events that allowed for interactions with Bravo-lebrities from every iteration of The Real Housewives as well as Vanderpump Rules, Below Deck, Southern Charm and more beloved series from NBCUniversal's reality-driven network. Tickets sold out in minutes and went for anywhere from $300 to $1,500.

BravoCon's robust lineup featured an oversize taping of Watch What Happens Live With Andy Cohen; an aerobics class led by Real Housewives of New York City star Dorinda Medley; The Real Housewives of New Jersey's Teresa Giudice and Dolores Catania making Sunday sauce and meatballs for a rowdy audience; and RHONY's Luann de Lesseps performing her "Countess and Friends" cabaret show at Hammerstein Ballroom.

Interspersed were dozens of panels that included conversations with Housewives and other top-tier Bravo talent, who offered insight about their current on-camera conflict or teased what's to come on their respective shows. But arguably more interesting revelations came out of the panels with the series producers, who lifted the lid on their "all-consuming" roles behind the scenes.

During separate discussions on Saturday and Sunday moderated by The Hollywood Reporter — both titled "The Real Tea With Bravo Producers" — veteran producers of multiple Housewives franchises and other Bravo staples shared stories about wrangling outrageous personalities while opening up about the triumphs and challenges of working in unscripted TV. From reflections on how Southern Charm fits into the current social climate to Garcelle Beauvais' historic casting on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills as the series' first black star, THR rounds up the highlights below.

Speculation that the shows are scripted:

DARREN WARD (The Real Housewives of New York City, The Real Housewives of New Jersey, The Real Housewives of Dallas, The Real Housewives of Atlanta, The Real Housewives of Miami) The shows are not scripted. If you ever try and script Dorinda, forget about it. Dorinda Medley is exactly the way she is on camera as she is in real life! Sometimes when you're in the middle of a scene, there might be a logistical error and you may need to step in because maybe the camera's not where it needs to be. If you step in while Dorinda is in the middle of a scene, she's like, "We don't do this here!" They really take pride in the fact that the show is not scripted. They just aren't. Period.

BILL FRITZ (The Real Housewives of Orange County, The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills) I was on Orange County during season 10 with [Vicki Gunvalson's ex] Brooks Ayers and his "cancer." And I always tell people, "You think I could actually write that and someone would agree to fake cancer on television?" 

The idea of producing a Real Housewives All-Stars spin-off:

GLENDA COX (The Real Housewives of Atlanta) I would die to see it. And I would love to work on it.

KEMAR BASSARAGH (The Real Housewives of Potomac, The Real Housewives of Atlanta) The problem is I don't know how we would choose the women to participate without getting in trouble. I can't be like, "Oh, send Gizelle Bryant from Potomac." Because Karen Huger would call me and be like, "Come on! Why are you sending Gizelle?" If the fans want it [and] if they decide who they want on the All-Stars show, then I'm down for that.

When to break the fourth wall:

FRITZ It helps keep the cast honest. We had a season — and it was pretty early on in terms of breaking the fourth wall — where Vicki Gunvalson went to Oklahoma to see her daughter, Briana, and what was awesome about Briana was that regardless of if Vicki wanted her to talk about Brooks or not, she couldn't help herself, because she didn't like him. And so they finally sat down in her backyard and Briana started talking about Brooks and Vicki started going, "Camera, camera, camera!" And she stood up, walked out and tried to kick the camera guys out. She kept saying "camera" because, as she was taught in earlier seasons, we wouldn't be able to use it because that was considered breaking the fourth wall. She had this amazing fight with Briana, and it was the fight that we all knew they were going to have. We cut it and sent it to Bravo without the "camera" reference at first because it wasn't common to break the fourth wall back then. And the scene was just completely flat. So I told Bravo about all this "camera" stuff and they said, "Just use it." Vicki was so pissed off.

AARON ROTHMAN (Southern Charm) We produced a dating show spin-off of Southern Charm called RelationShep where Shep Rose had a relationship with a producer who was working on the show, and their conversations were so insightful. She had produced the first season of Southern Charm with us, and they had remained friends. We spent a lot of time watching their conversations and thinking, "That's a really interesting way of getting into his head, through someone who knows him really well and has worked with him really closely." I was really happy that Bravo allowed us to do it. 

NADINE RAJABI (Below Deck, Below Deck Mediterranean) In season two of Below Deck Med, there was a love triangle with Adam Glick, Malia White and Wes Walton, our bosun. What we did not know is that Adam and Malia had met prior at a yachting certification course and they came on the boat, and they pretended to meet for the first time. We figured it out, and it played out on the show. We told them they can't hide anything, because the truth is always going to come out no matter what.

The dramatic cast trips:

WARD These cast trips are difficult. It’s morning, noon and night. You wake up with them, they're in the sun, they're shooting all day, they're trapped in a boat, they're drinking. Being on the receiving end of that could cause any of us to have some sort of breakdown. When Kelly Bensimon had her moment on the "Scary Island" episode of New York season three with Bethenny Frankel, I flew with Kelly on the plane back home. She was angry, and she wanted to get back to the city. She wasn't sure if she belonged in the group anymore. That whole experience was very surreal. Something like that sort of stays with you.

LORRAINE HAUGHTON-LAWSON (The Real Housewives of Atlanta, The Real Housewives of Potomac, Shahs of Sunset) When you put them in a house or a hotel, you just know that you're going to get so much content. I remember one trip where we went to L.A. for Atlanta season five. And Nene Leakes was on Glee. She was having a party for the rest of the girls to come to, and they showed up late and she wouldn't let them in. And so we were following this limo going to her house and they were all cranky and hungry and tired. And we literally get to Nene's driveway and she's like, "Nah-uh, turn around and go home!" Kandi Burruss' face the whole time was like, "Really? If I don't get some food, I'm going to kill somebody." So we took them to an In 'N Out Burger and then they were like, "Oh, OK, I'm cool now." They were so happy just to be fed. (Laughs)

COX And, yes, Bravo does pay for the trips.

Seeing their casts go from unknowns to household names:

HAUGHTON-LAWSON Before Potomac premiered, we told the women on the show, "Your life is about to change. You won't have anonymity anymore. You'll be walking down the street and people will be yelling your name. And you're going to be like, 'Who are you? Why do you know me?'" Now everyone knows who they are, and it's changed their entire life. Watching that actually happen is kind of amazing. I think of Porsha Williams, who came onto Atlanta season five, and her husband at the time, Kordell Stewart, was a big football player. He was the big name. He was the one who you knew. And after they got divorced, she ended up staying on the show, and then she grew into this big name all on her own. 

BILL LANGWORTHY (Vanderpump Rules) The day that our cold open [for season eight of Vanderpump Rules] went live, someone tweeted a picture from the maternity ward, introducing their baby to the world: Stassi Ariana Smith, after Stassi Schroeder and Ariana Madix. And I was like, "OK, that's a bold choice." Wait until you watch season eight! (Laughs) We're so proud of the Pump Rules kids. And they're all doing it exactly their own way. When Stassi sold her book, I was like, "We did it!" When Kristen Doute had success with her T-shirt line — it's going to be in all of these major chains — I was like, "We did it!" It took them a little while to understand that we are tracking their stories and we want to see what they do, all of their progression. It's really not just table flips and hair-pulling. 

How Southern Charm has evolved in the current social climate and after Thomas Ravenel was fired from the show (due to an arrest for assault and battery following a 2015 altercation with a former nanny):

ROTHMAN Southern Charm has become a cultural reflection in the weirdest way. I don't know if this is too out of turn, but we started it in 2014 and we looked at these rapscallions in Charleston, South Carolina, and they were these entitled dudes who thought that they ruled the world. Things have changed, and we talk about that constantly. And we think about that constantly. The cultural evolution is occurring at large. It feels like a mirror for all of us — for us, for our cast, for how they look at the world. We've had people leave the show because, thankfully, we are all on the same page.

The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills' historic addition of actress Garcelle Beauvais, the first black woman to star on the show since its 2010 premiere (Beauvais is set to make her reality TV debut alongside fellow RHOBH newbie Sutton Stracke when season 10 premieres in January 2020):

FRITZ I hope Garcelle's casting really does [move the franchise forward], but the key is the organic nature of friendship. Both Garcelle and the other new Housewife, Sutton, know Lisa Rinna. And Garcelle has known Denise Richards. So there's a nice history there that we can talk about and explore.

Garcelle is the actress and she's much more used to being in groups, and her personality is easy to connect with. Sutton lives in this private world. She's from Atlanta, and she was married for a long time but divorced her husband. This is much newer to her, and so what's interesting and what I like about adding new people is the dynamic of the cast. Sometimes they get comfortable over the years, so they're figuring out who these two are and how they fit in. It puts them on edge. We've still got about four or five weeks to shoot, so we're still in the middle of it. So how they're doing is changing on a day-to-day basis.

Dealing with cast members' traumatic moments on camera:

HAUGHTON-LAWSON On this season of Atlanta, you immediately see that Porsha — who had just had a baby with her fiance, Dennis — found out that he cheated on her. And we literally were about to start filming right when that happened, and she was in a place where she barely could get out of bed. She was so upset and depressed, and having a camera in your face for all of that isn't necessarily ideal. But that's our role as producers. We need to have those kinds of relationships with our talent, where they trust us and know that we're going to work with them on how to tell the story. We need them to tell their story, because they're going to help somebody else out there who's going through a breakup, a divorce, the aftermath of a miscarriage or any of these difficult things that we see our Housewives going through.

LANGWORTHY They understand that they have signed up for this, and it's almost like an art project or some sort of social experiment. They're living their lives out loud, and they, for the most part, are willing to be as transparent as possible. When we wake up in the morning, we don't know what's going to happen. And a lot of life happens over eight years. I would say that's where the cast deserves all the credit in the world. If you think it's easy to be on one of these shows, that's incorrect. Sharing the highs and then the lows, where you would never want a camera on you, it's the bravest thing you can do.

RAJABI On Below Deck, we can't go out on the boat and involve ourselves when something really bad happens. Sometimes I just want to go out there and give these guys a hug, because I'm so close to them. That's the hardest thing. You have to stay really neutral and unbiased. You have to actually work on keeping your emotions in check as a producer. They have to rely on each other. But they actually sometimes do want to run to us first, because they trust us. We're family.

The value of not catching everything on camera:

FRITZ You would think that, us as producers, we would love for cameras to be there all the time and catch everything. But the truth is it's more interesting when you don't. One of the core conflicts between Kyle Richards and Camille Grammer on Beverly Hills was a conversation about Hawaii that nobody heard other than Kyle or Camille, and if we had it on recording or had it as a text between the two of them, it would make it just very clear what it was. And there was an entertainment value in always wondering who's telling the truth. It built for seasons with them. It was always at the core of everything they did and how Camille and Kyle interacted.

HAUGHTON-LAWSON On the last season of Atlanta, there was that incident with Nene, Porsha and Kandi in Nene's closet. We did not actually have a camera in the closet. When they went into the closet, the cameraman was actually trying to go in, and we saw Nene grab his shirt to not allow him in there. So when Porsha and Nene were in the closet, it became a she said/she said. Porsha says that Nene grabbed her by the belt. Nene says that she did not. And we presented both sides. Who do you think was telling the truth? As producers, all we can do is present the information and then let you guys make the decision. 

The process of filming a Real Housewives reunion:

FRITZ It can be grueling but also a lot of fun. Those were my first opportunities to work with Andy Cohen. You're always worried, knowing he's fun on screen, but he's also an executive producer, so maybe he could be a jerk? But he was always great and really fun to work with. We work on these shows for so many days and so many hours for so many weeks. It might take 30 weeks to get through a season, and then you hit the reunion and it's just a different kind of show. It's an electric atmosphere and a completely different feel.

One of my favorite reunion moments, where I was just in awe, was the season before Brooks' "cancer." My life is only before and after Brooks faking cancer, by the way. (Laughs) But he came to the reunion and he broke up with Vicki, saying, "It's over." So we had built a set and they had a staircase that led up to nothing. When he said, "I'm done with you, Vicki. This is it. Goodbye," Andy said, "OK, thanks, Brooks." And he walked up the steps that led to nowhere and we were still shooting for 30 minutes and he's standing there just waiting for us to wrap. He didn't want to come down and interrupt the reunion. And we're all just sitting there thinking, "Is he still up there?"

When they know a scene is going to be "iconic" for the Bravo-verse:

WARD "Scary Island," when it was going down, you just knew. Let’s not forget that Ramona Singer's "turtle time" came out of that trip, too! Every time I've mentioned "Scary Island" this week, everybody just erupts in a roar. The Gorgas' christening on season three of New Jersey, too. It's a hard thing to have to sit there and watch and let the cameras continue to roll. But when you're watching kids running off to the side because Teresa Giudice, Joe Gorga and every adult in the room are fighting, you know it's going to be iconic. 

COX The producers who are in the field will get really excited about when something special has just gone down. They'll come to you and tell you. We screen it before, but they might find things we haven't seen, or they might find audio that we haven't heard. I remember about six years ago, Nene's infamous "Pillow Talk" episode, everybody in post wanted to work on that because we knew it was gold.

FRITZ I had the "Dinner Party From Hell" episode with the psychic Allison Dubois in the early days of Beverly Hills. It didn’t take a genius to realize how big that was going to be for the show. But when it was cut together and the editor was playing it in the bay — everyone at my production company, even people who worked on Orange Country and not Beverly Hills gathered around the edit bay to watch. I don't know if anyone remembers, but there was a show at the time called Medium starring Patricia Arquette, and Allison was the inspiration. Camille produced the show with Kelsey Grammer, whom she was married to at the time. When Camille said, "Oh, I'm going to bring my friend Allison. We did a TV show on her," you were expecting someone kind of like Patricia Arquette's character — but she wasn't anything like her!

Bethenny Frankel blindsiding production when she exited RHONY after season 11, announcing her departure to the press before telling Bravo:

WARD We found out when you guys found out. Bethenny chose to approach it in a certain kind of way, which is common knowledge at this point. It was disappointing, but Bethenny is Bethenny. She always did things her own way. That's what makes her who she is.

How producing reality TV impacts their own personal lives:

WARD What personal life? It's a grind. I don't know that anybody realizes the grind unless you have actually done it. It's all-consuming. I love what I'm doing, and I'm so grateful to have been able to do the shows that I have done and continue to work on. But it is all-consuming, what we're doing. Housewives, for me, takes up about 22 weeks of my life each season. I get up, stop going to the gym, take care of the Housewives, answer Dorinda's phone calls every morning, show up to scenes, go to the office and then do it all over again. But I love doing it, even though it does take a toll on our personal life, for sure.

BASSARAGH It is taxing. I actually had a date walk out on me once because I had to take a phone call. But I had to take it, because it was Robyn Dixon from Potomac who was calling me, and she never calls. And he was like, "Oh, so you're working?" And I was like, "I've got to talk to her! She never calls." And, literally, once I was on the phone, he got up and walked out.

FRITZ I know that I'm fully in a show when I go to bed and my dreams are the Housewives' voices and the theme music. I wake up and I'm like, "Oh my God, I've got to stop doing that!" But it just becomes part of your everything. I can't help it.