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Andy Cohen Knows Where Reality TV Needs to Evolve — And Where It Doesn’t

The 'Watch What Happens Live' host on how he came back from seeming "kind of over it," the actress who will never guest again and juggling his 'Real Housewives' empire: "I would only screen a Housewife call if I’m doing something else."

Bravo is, in many ways, the house that Andy Cohen built. Though it’s been nearly a decade since the onetime development staffer was among the cable network’s executive ranks, his hand (and, quite often, his face) can be seen all over its schedule. Between the Real Housewives franchise — the tally is up to 10 shows, each title counting him as an executive producer — and nightly gabfest Watch What Happens Live With Andy Cohen, his is an unrivaled piece of the Bravo pie.

With a talk show, SiriusXM channel Radio Andy and book imprint, the 53-year-old could easily devote his entire career to navigating his own celebrity. But Cohen, who’s also raising a son, now 3, might be kept most busy as the steward of his lucrative reality TV subgenre — and the often complicated women who populate it. “I have this little postcard on my desk at home, and it has all of the Real Housewives cities on it,” says Cohen, who put the first installment (Orange County) on the air in 2006. “I see that as 10 planes we have in the air. You just have to make sure those planes stay at 40,000 feet.”

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Speaking on the phone from his Manhattan home in mid-April, Cohen, THR’s Unscripted TV Player of the Year, opened up about keeping those planes aloft amid scandal (including a suit from former Housewife NeNe Leakes that was filed after the interview took place). He also described what snapped him out of a workplace funk and indulged in a quick round of a WWHL staple: “Plead the Fifth.”

Is today a typical day for you? And what does it look like?

Yes, you could call it organized chaos. I was up with [my son] Ben at 7 a.m. and had two hours with him before I had to do any work. Then, I did radio for the rest of the morning. I am about to watch three potential intros for The Real Housewives of Atlanta‘s new show open and a new cut of The Real Housewives of Dubai. I’m going to work out. I’ll watch some castings. And, obviously, Watch What Happens Live is five days a week — so there are all these creative emails that I need to respond to before the show.

You’re at 10 Real Housewives shows now. Do you worry about oversaturation?

We worried about it way more in the past. When we decided to put two on a week, we were all like, “Oh my God, is this too much?” Any potential tipping point would’ve already happened. I still wake up every morning to people demanding the next trailer for whatever Housewives show is next on deck.

And with the pandemic and the economic downturn, there’s no concern about opulence fatigue?

These shows have always been voyeuristic about the other half. It’s part of the backbone of the franchise. And I think it makes it fun to watch. You see that with The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills — which has, in a weird way, emerged as the crown jewel in recent years. People love watching how these rich women live.

A lot of these women seem to consider you a real friend. Do you feel the same — and does that ever get awkward because you are also their boss?

It’s an unusual dynamic. The ones that I’ve been with the longest are the ones that I have the deepest relationships with. Orange County started 16 years ago. It’s wild to me, the amount of time that I’ve known Luann de Lesseps, Teresa Giudice and Kandi Burruss. Those are people that I consider colleagues. I have great respect for them — but yes, there is that odd relationship. I think it’s gotten a little easier, though. I used to quite literally be in charge of programming at Bravo.

No longer being a suit must help.

I try to be a helpful go-between between them and the network, in the case of contract disputes or things like that. I try to use my knowledge of what they’re going through and how the network feels to try to allay the situation and make it better. But there I am on Watch What Happens Live every night, sometimes being incredibly shady. That’s something that they have to contend with as well.

There has been a lot of production drama on the Real Housewives front, including blowing up the NYC franchise for a reboot and shuffling longtime castmembers to a spinoff. How does that look?

We’re casting the new version right now. There’s not much I can tell you except that the response has been great.

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From left: The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills stars Sutton Stracke, Kyle Richards and Lisa Rinna. Courtesy of Kathy Boos/Bravo

Where does that leave the women you’re considering for a Legacy spinoff?

They’re all kind of standing by to find out marching orders. I think we want to cast the new RHONY before we do anything else.

And on the Salt Lake City version, Jennie Nguyen was fired for a series of social media posts mocking the Black Lives Matter movement. How does that inform casting across reality TV moving forward?

Listen, I think the line is always moving. It’s a challenging time in the universe to create a huge unscripted watercooler show where people are often celebrated for their polarizing opinions or surprising points of view. In terms of casting, trying to get the most real picture of who someone is before you put them on TV has become more important than it ever was. This is all a work in progress. You listen to your audience about what they will and will not accept — or celebrate — in their Housewives.

I assume the audience lets you know on social media.

It’s all social media. How far we’ve come. I remember Vicki Gunvalson not understanding that I couldn’t police the internet for her at the beginning of Orange County. She would send me blog posts and say, “How can you allow this to happen?” I’m like, “I have nothing to do with it! This is the internet!” Twitter allowed the viewers to galvanize and have a voice in a way that they never did.

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Former New York Housewives stars Sonja Morgan (left) and Ramona Singer may return for a spinoff. Courtesy of Heidi Gutman/Bravo

What’s a show that you’re surprised didn’t work?

The first show that I ever produced for Bravo was a reboot of Battle of the Network Stars, but the conceit was that they were all reality stars. It was people from American Idol, Survivor, maybe a couple from Project Runway. Omarosa [Manigault] was a sideline reporter. Richard Hatch competed, so did some women from that plastic surgery show, The Swan, on Fox. And it was just a huge bomb. The Bravo audience didn’t want that on any level. If that had been on E! or VH1, it would’ve been a big hit.

Or, today, maybe Bravo.

Well, we’re seeing that with The Real Housewives Ultimate Girls Trip. People love it. I was worried that it would be a shark-jumpy thing because we would be breaking the fourth wall in every direction. We always tried to avoid acknowledging that these women are on a show. We wanted them to be housewives. But, 16 years later, you can’t do that anymore. The reality is that they’re all on a show, and they know each other.

Your deal with Watch What Happens Live runs through next year. Looking ahead, how long do you think you want to do the show?

I will do it as long as they’ll let me. I love it. I hit a wall in year five, when I was kind of checking boxes for a minute. But I’m just feeling so much energy and excitement for it right now. It feels fresh now that we’re back live with studio audiences and doing live polling. We started a shotski siren the other night. It took us 13 years to figure out we should have a siren for when it’s time for a shotski.

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Andy Cohen with recent Watch What Happens Live guests Molly Shannon and Craig Robinson. Courtesy of Charles Sykes/Bravo

When you hit that wall in year five, how did you course-correct?

Bravo does research on every show. And there was a poll or report where something like 3 or 5 percent of people said, “Andy seems kind of over it.” When I saw that in print, my heart sank. I was so embarrassed. This is my absolute dream job. How dare I? That was all it took. It’s funny because I’ve had long conversations with other talk show hosts that have all been doing this for over a decade, and all of them identified certain points in their run where they felt that.

Who’s in your talk show hosts inner circle?

My team that I go to for advice is Jimmy Fallon, Kelly Ripa and Anderson Cooper. Those are people that I commiserate with about various things.

Speaking of Anderson, you work together a lot — touring together and on CNN’s New Year’s Eve coverage — but you have very different day jobs. How conscious are you about what’s in good humor when he could be, say, going to cover Ukraine?

I know the lines I can’t cross, and he is pretty generous about letting me cross them when I do. But when there’s a war in Ukraine going on, or we’re at the height of COVID, I’m not going to be joking around with him on my social media about stupid shit. I have a decent sense of what I’m dealing with with him, but my directive on New Year’s Eve has always been to have fun. And Anderson wants us to have fun, too. But I often go into a little spiral the next day and I invariably wind up calling him and asking, “Was that OK?”

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Cohen and pal Anderson Cooper co-hosted their fifth New Year’s Eve together for CNN in December. Courtesy of @Bravoandy/Instagram

That’s a common response for a lot of people the day after a party.

When the party is broadcast all over the place, it becomes a little scary!

Speaking of potential line-crossing, I did get a kick out of your boozy diatribe against Bill de Blasio this year. What are your thoughts on New York’s new mayor, Eric Adams?

I want to give him a chance because the city has seen better days. And he’s only been in office for four months. De Blasio … just seeing him dance there in Times Square was a little triggering. I was like, “This is not a time for you to be dancing, Mr. Mayor!”

Before I let you go, let’s play a quick “Plead the Fifth.” Name a past Watch What Happens guest who’ll never agree to be on the show again.

Debra Winger did not seem to be my biggest fan after she did the show. Go back and watch that “Plead the Fifth.”

If you could bring one former Housewife back into the fold tomorrow, who would it be?

This won’t happen because she’s living a totally different life in Australia as a therapist, but it would be Alex McCord for RHONY: Legacy.

Which Housewife who has your cell number do you screen the most?

I would only screen a Housewife call if I’m doing something else. Ultimately, if they’re calling me, they need to speak with me, and I’m going to need to speak with them.

No one abuses the direct line?

I wouldn’t say that!

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in the April 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.