'Real Housewives': How fame became part of the franchise

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Image Credit: Michael Lavine/Bravo

When The Real Housewives of Orange County premiered in 2006, the show was nothing more than a harmless look at the lives of wealthy women living in a gated community in Southern California with their families. The show was a response to the popular ABC series Desperate Housewives and America’s growing love of reality TV at the time. People became so invested in the scripted TV characters that it was easy to get invested in their real-life counterparts because they were so similar (you know, aside from all the murder on Wisteria Lane).

But as the years went on, the series expanded to different cities across the country and grew in popularity, and the housewives became household names. And the fame that has resulted from being a cast member on the show has gone from a nice perk to part of the plot.

With The Real Housewives of New York City about to premiere its sixth season, how will the show be different now that Ramona Singer’s recent separation from her husband has been blasted all over the internet? Or how will Teresa Giudice continue to film The Real Housewives of New Jersey now that she has pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges? The authenticity of reality TV is an endless debate that doesn’t need to be started, but how real can NeNe Leakes be while filming Dancing With the Stars, just as Beverly Hills housewife Lisa Vanderpump did last year? The series has always been about women in high-power positions who make tons of money, so we’re not talking about the countless charity events and parties that these women show their faces at. But it’s when the drama and conflict on the show only results because you’re on the show that make The Real Housewives less and less real — regardless of plastic surgery.

Also, some housewives have joined the series with some fame already under their belts. Beverly Hills’ Kim and Kyle Richards both enjoyed successful careers as child actors, but were better known as Paris Hilton’s aunts when they were cast on the show. Atlanta’s Kenya Moore was Miss USA 1993, and Joanna Krupa was already a very successful and famous model before landing her Miami housewife title. But did you know who Bethenny Frankel was before the premiere of The Real Housewives of New York in 2008? Unless you watched Martha Stewart’s one season of The Apprentice, no, you didn’t. Remember when she was on the cover of Forbes magazine just three years later? Exactly.

Let’s take a deeper dive into the New York ladies. The first season showed the women in their already-glamorous elements, from the Countess LuAnna to fabric queen Jill Zarin. They would have believed they were famous before the show had started filming. The first season has very little drama in it, actually, and is more just an observational take on how these women interact with each other and go about their daily lives. Well, once the first season aired and the stars became more and more popular, the show changed. In the season 2 premiere, an interview that Jill gave to the New York Post upsets housewife Alex McCord and her husband, Simon. Now I don’t know about you, but the New York Post has never asked me to comment on my friend’s parenting skills, so I can see why this would be weird. The second season showed the other housewives, including new girl and crazytown resident Kelly Bensimon, all embracing their newfound fame more. LuAnna wrote a book on etiquette, Bethenny began to really develop the now-mega Skinnygirl brand, while Ramona started her own skincare line. I’m sure some of these things may have naturally happened if cameras weren’t rolling, but I don’t think all at once. As the series continued, the fame that the show created for the women was what began to tear them apart. In the third season, Bethenny finds a gossip article about her relationship with Jill and later is upset when her pregnancy gets leaked on PerezHilton.com. Having your pregnancy leaked all over the internet is definitely not a real housewife problem. The clash with Jill over Bethenny’s rising fame ultimately ended their friendship.


Staying close to the city, the New Jersey housewives have taken fame to a different, almost dangerous level — and most of those roads lead directly to Teresa Giudice. Before appearing on the show, the mother of four had been a stay-at-home mom after a successful career as a fashion buyer at Macy’s. Giudice reached instant viral acclaim for her table flip seen ’round the world on the first season. Since then, Giudice has written three cookbooks, launched her own brand of bellinis called “Fabellini,” her own haircare line named after daughter Milania, and appeared on The Celebrity Apprentice. Oh yeah, and just last week she and her husband Joe both pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges and could face up to two years in jail. Giudice is probably the best example of how fame has changed the housewives and how it directly affected what we see on TV. In the beginning of the third season, conflict arose between Teresa and her sister-in-law and new castmate Melissa Gorga because Teresa thought Melissa was trying to copy her and steal the spotlight. Well, duh! And when Teresa called Caroline Manzo “1/16th Italian” in her cookbook Fabulicious, it started an argument that still isn’t over today. Teresa’s behavior began to change and not only did the audience see it, but her castmates did too. Concern turned to resentment, which turned to anger, and Teresa’s fame blinded her from seeing most of it. Not surprisingly, the show is going through some major cast changes for next season. Also not surprisingly, Giudice (and Gorga) will still return.


Beverly Hills is complicated when talking about fame, because it’s what defines the city. Camille Grammar, former wife of Frasier star Kelsey, was an original housewife on the show and publicly saw her marriage fall apart by the end of season 1. Yolanda Foster’s husband, David, is one of the most successful music producers of all time, and fame is nothing new to them, or really to any of the other Beverly Hills housewives. Of course, Lisa Vanderpump competed on Dancing With the Stars, but her successful businesses already gave her notoriety before the show. But in the current season, Lisa has become the target of the other women after Brandi Glanville accused her of trying to bring tabloids claiming Kyle Richard’s husband Mauricio had cheated with them on a trip to Palm Springs. The jury is still out whether Lisa actually did this, but at the root of the conflict is a magazine that published a story about a reality TV star that became a story on the reality TV show. Doesn’t that just seem a little wacky to you? No one wants to hear you talking about your problems of being on a reality TV show — especially on the reality TV show.


On a serious note, the fame that a show like Housewives brings can also destroy someone, as we saw in season 2 of Beverly Hills with the suicide of Taylor Armstrong’s husband, Russell. Armstrong killed himself after filming had finished on the second season and just weeks before it premiered. The series showed Russell as an uncaring husband with money and anger issues that could sometimes become violent. When Camille Grammar accused Russell of hitting Taylor while the cameras were rolling, he threatened her with a lawsuit and isolated Taylor and himself from the rest of the group. By the end of the season, Taylor had separated from Russell. It seemed the combination of bad business deals and the public awareness of his failings as a husband and father is what tragically took Armstrong’s life.

Armstrong’s case is the unfortunate extreme, but being a Real Housewife isn’t all champagne and caviar and Watch What Happens Live tapings. These women must deal with the added complexity of being famous for just being themselves. You can ask Kim Kardashian — it’s a lot harder than it looks. Whether the camera is filming their life at that moment, the housewives must always be on, because in theory if everything we see on the show is real, they should never be off. Of course, through editing, that’s not always true, and that’s when we see Kim Zolciak throw her mic at the cameramen while storming off in an episode of the Atlanta series. At that moment, the fame took over and she had enough — that is, until she started filming her own separate spin-off.

So let’s see what happens this season with the New York housewives. If we are lucky, the show won’t be distracted by itself and simply show a group of diverse and powerful women interacting. Or else we may get another version of “Money Can’t Buy You Class,” because unfortunately, fame can buy you an unnecessary recording contract.


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