When one imagines a loft full of New York socialites on a Sunday afternoon, the images that come to mind probably involve tea, polite gossip, perhaps a light smattering of petits fours. But when the ladies brought together on this blustery March day are from Bravo’s The Real Housewives of New York City, the reality is, frankly, a lot less civilized.
”I’m wearing Spanx!” the group’s mother hen, Jill Zarin, 45, shrieks to no one in particular. Natural-foods chef Bethenny Frankel, 38, fields a call from a New York Post reporter seeking comment (or, more likely, dish) about the breaking news that her castmate, model and writer Kelly Bensimon, 40, was arrested four days earlier for allegedly slugging her boyfriend. Kelly, unamused, locks herself in a closet to take crisis calls of her own. (She would later enter a plea of not guilty and has a March 31 court date.) When nutty Ramona Singer, 52, finally turns up — 45 minutes late — she announces to the room that thanks to a recent bout with strep, she’s managed to shed a glorious three pounds. Series outcast Alex McCord, 35, awkwardly stares at her diamond-encrusted heels, while the last Housewife, etiquette-obsessed Countess LuAnn de Lesseps, 43, prances around in a too-too-short coat…and no pants.
Is it any wonder that these women are reality TV stars? The Real Housewives of New York City — which follows the six ladies (and Alex’s polarizing husband, ”seventh Housewife” Simon Van Kempen) as they lounge in the Hamptons, drop thousands on shopping sprees, try to one-up each other on the charity circuit, and gossip relentlessly — is just one jewel in Bravo’s nouveau-riche reality franchise, which has buoyed the network in its brave new post-Project Runway world. With additional Real Housewives series based in Orange County, Atlanta, and New Jersey, Bravo has created the ultimate wish-fulfillment soap opera for our recession-plagued times — one that thrives on wealth, backstabbing, and general ridiculata. ”In one episode, I say something like ‘Yes, I’m sure people are envious of me, and that’s only natural,”’ says Bethenny, who admits to a little embarrassment over that less-than-graceful utterance. ”I wanted to blow my head off. But you know what? I said it.”
The Real Housewives franchise started, appropriately enough, with a little idle chatter: Scott Dunlop, who would go on to produce Orange County, mentioned to Bravo execs in mid-2005 that the moneyed personalities behind the walls of his Southern California gated community, the McMansion enclave Coto de Caza, were ripe for the reality picking. He was certain the social-climbing souls within would air their dirty laundry (dustups, career woes, drug abuse, and the like) in exchange for merely a whiff of screen time.
And so Bravo began work on the first Housewives incarnation — a mash-up of the year’s buzziest drama, Desperate Housewives, and locale, Laguna Beach, with a demented reality twist. When it came to casting, the key was gaining entrée into the community with the right woman. ”You find a couple of people, and then reach out to their friends,” explains Andy Cohen, head of original programming at Bravo. Once the network settled on Kimberly, Jeana, Lauri, Vicki, and Jo — that’s one aging trophy wife, one former Playmate, two insurance-brokerage co-workers, and a twentysomething sexpot — their soapy series was born.