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Bethenny Frankel on Her New Show ‘The Big Shot With Bethenny,’ Donald Trump and Why She Quit ‘Housewives’ (EXCLUSIVE)

Bethenny FrankelVariety's Power of Women, Arrivals,
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On Wednesday, streaming service HBO Max announced its order for “The Big Shot With Bethenny,” an eight-episode unscripted series in which contestants will compete to work for Bethenny Frankel, the business mogul and former star of Bravo’s “The Real Housewives of New York City.” Frankel, the founder and CEO of the lifestyle brand Skinnygirl, sold Skinnygirl Cocktails to Beam in 2011, but still oversees the rest of the company, which includes products such as shapewear and popcorn. According to the conceit for the new show — the first from a production deal she made last year with MGM Television and Mark Burnett — Frankel will be looking for a second-in-command for Skinnygirl. 

Frankel is no stranger to reality television. She was the runner-up in the Martha Stewart season of “The Apprentice” in 2005, and also appeared on two recent seasons of “Shark Tank” — both Burnett shows. She was the breakout star on “Real Housewives of New York” when it premiered in 2008, on which she went from being a broke natural foods chef to an entrepreneurial magnate. Frankel married on television; had a daughter, Bryn, on television — she eventually went through an ugly divorce and custody fight as well. She also started a philanthropic organization, BStrong, and brought Bravo cameras to Puerto Rico as it struggled to recover from the devastation wrought by hurricane Maria in 2017.

On “Real Housewives of New York,” Frankel was smart, funny, and quotable, which drew her legions of fans. In August of 2019, Frankel abruptly quit the show, telling Variety in an exclusive statement, “I have decided to leave the ‘Housewives’ franchise to explore my next chapter.” 

Here, Frankel discusses that next chapter, telling how “The Big Shot With Bethenny” came about, and why it will be different from Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice,” despite the shows’ surface similarities. And she also discusses — for the first time — what led to her decision to leave the “Housewives.” 

You signed the deal with MGM and Mark Burnett last March. When did you decide that “The Big Shot With Bethenny” would be your first show together?

I’m sort of like an idea hamster. So I had so many ideas for shows, and one of them was to find my successor. The show came out of the need. I’ve always had amazing, young, hungry, aggressive employees, but I’ve really still had to be the one directing them, and teaching them how to fish. I’ve hired different brand managers and presidents; I haven’t really had a person that I felt could live and breathe the brand, understand it, and speak as me, make decisions as me, write as me. 

Maybe I’ll come close. Because the things that are most important to me are passion, drive and hard work. It’s not really about resumes. People that I’ve seen, maybe a busboy or girl, or a cocktail waitress who’s hustling — those are the people that work really hard. And that’s really all I ever look for. 

So long story short, I wanted to find my successor, and I realized that that would be an interesting show. Because the No. 1 question that I get at signings or in my messages is “How can I work for you? I’m obsessed with working for you.” And I think to myself, “Oh, God, be careful what you wish for.” People always say “it’s not personal, it’s business,” but for me, my business is very personal. So the lines are very blurred. And so you will have the opportunity to sit down with people at multi billion dollar companies and talk about brand strategy. But if my dog needs to walk, you’ll walk my dog. There’s nothing I ask anybody to do that I don’t do myself, even now. 

So it really is to find a No. 2 for your company? That just seems like a huge job — someone who will take over for you eventually?

I don’t know about “take over.” Since changing careers recently, I’m spending more time nurturing the people that I’m working with, versus just expecting everybody to know how it should be done and then getting upset later. I’m very involved, and very in the weeds now. And the more I get in the weeds, there are days that I’m like, “Oh my God, why do I have to like write every comma?” Grammar still matters in 2020 to me. And I don’t want to be the one having the biggest idea. If you are the smartest person in the room, then there’s something wrong. So I’d like to find somebody smart in different ways than I am. 

I see! 

There are a lot of comparisons being made to “The Apprentice,” which is literally apples and skyscrapers. This is a lot of comedy. I’ve been on “The Apprentice,” and my friends when I came off were, like, “Why weren’t you funny?”  This is a lot more showing the personal side, and the warts. I’m not pretending my business is perfect, I’m not pretending I’m perfect. It’s showing really the guts of how to be successful in business. 

It’s a different format, and the way that people move in and out of this show is different. I don’t want to give it away, but it’s different. But also I have a multi-million dollar shapewear business, a multimillion dollar microwave popcorn business with Conagra. A very successful, high, high multi-millions of dollars supplement business that’s at Walgreens. So I have these businesses, some of them that have been around for a decade. And the things that really happen, I’m really partnered with HSN, and have a business there. So the things that are really true to this business will be part of the show, versus me just bringing in a random task for everybody to do. 

Right. 

But it’s really my business, and I really need this person. The difference is, that was a show that came first. The show came first, and then him giving them that position came first. But here, it’s really the position needing to be filled that’s the reason for the show. 

The show was announced yesterday. What stage is it at? When will you be going into production, do you think?

So the next step will be I’m going to put up how to apply, the real casting process. And then we will begin shooting in not that long of a time, in the next couple of months.  

You were, as you mentioned, on the Martha Stewart season of “The Apprentice.” But it’s not going to be like that, you’re not going to be firing someone at the end of every episode?

Life isn’t so black and white. We have very traditional partners, and a very serious business when it comes to dollars and cents. But I have a very non-traditional way, in the sense that business and personal are very intertwined. Because the business is me, when you’re the talent and the CEO, things overlap. I want to clarify “The Apprentice” distinction, because a lot of people are saying that. We just happen to be two people that are business people. And that’s amazing show to be compared to, but it is different.

Well, a lot of people blame “The Apprentice” for creating the mythology around Donald Trump that led him to become president.

Those weren’t Trump’s businesses. Trump at that time, I think, had a vodka, maybe a water and suits at Macy’s, if I’m correct. And that can show you that even the president can have brands that don’t succeed. But I’m going into the show with over 10 brands that are succeeding, from apparel, to popcorn, to salad dressing, to supplements — these are all real. So that’s why I think it’s a more authentic version of “The Apprentice,” because it’s really my business. And all these things are legitimate businesses being sold in Walmart and Walgreens and HSN. Real names, like Orville Redenbacher and Conagra. I’m putting my money where my mouth is. I mean, it literally is my real business. So I don’t need to bring in a random partner to make up a task. The tasks are in my life every day. So I think that’s a great distinction and also a little bit of a — you know, a little pinch. Which you guys would probably enjoy. I’m sure he won’t.

Against Trump?

I mean, not against? Because I’d like him to say something, and he probably will. Everyone thinks he’s going to mention it, because he was part of Mark Burnett too, and all that. But you know, it’s not the same. His brand at that time was not where my brand is. Aside from real estate.

Well, at the time of “The Apprentice” premiere, he was basically a bankrupt grifter.

His brand is not where mine is. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’m starting on the show with a brand that’s elevated to a different level than he was, real estate notwithstanding.

Have you ever asked Mark Burnett if there are actual n-word tapes, as has been alleged?

I don’t discuss politics at all with anybody over there. Until we do a political show, we’re not gonna be discussing politics.

You decided to quit “Real Housewives of New York City” via a Variety story. How did you come to make that decision?

I was possibly going back, but I just kept thinking: I discussed it with my boyfriend and my friends on beach walks. Everyone thinks I left because of money. I wasn’t leaving because of money, I was staying because of money. It no longer became this platform to promote my business, because I had done that, and there was more promoting sort of new and questionable businesses than the legitimate ones at this point, if that makes any sense. 

So it wasn’t the platform anymore. It was really the paycheck, which was, you know, astronomical at that point. And so I was staying because of money. And I just thought to myself, a bartender, a high-class prostitute who’s making a lot of money, you gotta sometimes make a move, and just say, “Let me just do what feels right to me.” 

There was some little conversation back and forth that was not financial. And it just was like a sort of just a moment where I said, “You know what? I’m out.” I just was out. And I remember Jill [Fritzo, Frankel’s publicist], who’s on this phone call was like, “Wait, what are you saying? Are you sure?” I had to deal with this, because they were starting to film, and I thought to myself, “I’m out. I’m just out.” And Jill’s like, “Wait, what do you mean? Once you’re out, you’re out.” I said, “I know. I’m out.” 

It’s taken me longer to order a pasta dish than just to decide this. I just was looking for a reason. And I just was ready to do it. I didn’t want to be there anymore. I didn’t want to be there anymore. I mean, honestly — I just didn’t.

I’m a huge fan of “Real Housewives,” and when you and Luann had that fight last season in Miami, it seemed so exhausting and emotional. Like, I think I cried during that scene. Were you just, like, enough with this, I don’t need it?

Well, it’s exhausting and emotional. People across the franchise will tell you they develop anxiety, and it’s very stressful. And that’s not how I am in the relationships that I’ve cultivated over the years. My ex Dennis used to say, “If someone said what that person said to you, I would never speak to them again as long as I live.” You’re in a show environment, and it’s taxing. But sometimes what’s happening emotionally on the screen is also a result of exhaustion. 

I have a real career. So it’s really hard when we’re not covering that what I’m really doing is my career, because I then have to do the show and my real career. So if we’re just showing me having lunches and on vacations, then I’ve got three jobs — because I’ve got to be a mother too. So it becomes really exhausting and taxing, and you get mired in caring about things and people that you just normally wouldn’t care about. There’s a level of gossip, and a level of gotcha — oh, you did that and you cheated and you’re really broke, and you did this. I just was ready. I just felt like I have to kind of really spend my time focusing on business, my daughter, philanthropy. 

You want to just feel good about what you did. There’s no price on sanity, and your mental health and your emotional health. And you can’t pay me enough to just have a hysterical meltdown crying right now. There’s no amount of money that could make me want to sit somewhere and cry over something I wouldn’t normally care about.

Life is not a cabaret!

Yeah, it’s not! 

Where are your charity’s efforts going these days? I noticed you were doing trying to do stuff with the Australian fires.

We raised over a quarter of a million dollars for the Australian fires, and we’ve been distributing that. And we’re still in the Bahamas and in Puerto Rico, because they had a bad earthquake. They keep getting hit. So the relief work is great, because we have places that we invest in, and then stay there long after the headlines fade. 

Do you feel settled in your life right now?

 I feel, like, clean, if that makes any sense. I feel clean, I feel pure, I feel honest. I feel balanced. I feel rested, I feel calm. It does feel different. It took, like, a couple of months to detox from being on TV in that way for 12 years, for a quarter of my life. So it was a great opportunity, it was a great experience, a great platform. I came on as a what I consider a girl, and now I’m a woman and a mother and a business person. So it definitely was a life transition. It was definitely just something that you needed to detox from, and realize that you know, there’s a whole other life that can be a lot more quiet.

This interview has been edited and condensed.