Little did anyone know when “The Real Housewives of Orange County” premiered on Bravo on March 20, 2006, that it would change both popular culture and the nature of celebrity. “The Real Housewives” didn’t invent the docusoap format — that distinction goes to MTV for creating “The Osbournes” (2002), “Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica” (2003) and “Laguna Beach” (2004), all of which “Real Housewives” would take lessons from. But “The Real Housewives of Orange County,” which followed life in the Orange County gated community Coto de Caza, and was designed to be a reality TV version of ABC’s smash hit “Desperate Housewives,” took the genre to an immersive, expansive and obsessive new level.
Though the show originated to chronicle the lives of rich women, “The Real Housewives” quickly turned into something else, and has followed cast members as they’ve experienced divorce, addiction, mental health challenges, severe economic hardships, and even illness and death. Along the way, the franchise — which currently has eight installments on the air, has had countless spinoffs over the years and has been replicated internationally — has made stars of cast members Bethenny Frankel, NeNe Leakes, Teresa Giudice, Lisa Vanderpump, Porsha Williams and many more. Andy Cohen — the executive producer of “The Real Housewives” shows, and a former Bravo programming executive — told Variety, “I always thought it was a sociological time capsule of the nouveau riche,” but that real life began to intrude on the show during the Great Recession in 2007 when the real estate crash profoundly affected many cast members’ fragile, if not shady, finances. “This is what was really happening,” Cohen said.
Of late, “The Real Housewives” shows have been reflecting the way we live during COVID — albeit through a fun-house mirror where people who may already be prone to recklessness feel even more confident because they’re being tested all the time. Multiple cast members have tested positive over the past year, which caused “Beverly Hills” and “New York” to shut down production at times. Nevertheless, the COVID-filmed seasons have persisted, revealing some of the stresses of life during the coronavirus. The series is, as always, self-aware: The opening sequence of “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” broke the fourth wall, and showed producers asking about both COVID and Black Lives Matter in interviews with the cast. That isn’t all that’s been on the minds of the “Atlanta” cast, especially since a raucous bachelorette party for Cynthia Bailey, orchestrated by Kandi Burruss, caused quite a scandal, as discussed with Cohen below.
In an interview to talk about “For Real,” his seven-part E! docuseries about the history of reality TV, which premieres on Thursday night, Cohen chatted about the “Housewives,” where the line is between being great TV and getting fired, and filming his late-night talk show “Watch What Happens Live” during the past year.
In the fourth episode of “For Real,” which is the “Real Housewives” episode, the show argues that reality tastes are tied to the economy. Can you talk about that?
You jump into the “Housewives” of Orange County, and the collapse of the housing market, and you see Lynne Curtin being evicted from her house back then, which was just stunning. This was not the story that we were planning on telling in “The Real Housewives of Orange County’ — this was meant to be aspirational lives of fancy women in a gated community. But this is what was really happening. That, to me, was a really stark example of our thesis proving its point.
As the overseer of the “Housewives” franchise, when did you realize that you guys thought you were doing one thing when you started making the shows — and then, oh! This is actually a docuseries about what’s going on in America right now.
There’ve been a few touchpoints in “The Real Housewives of Orange County” that really cemented it. That eviction was really big, because it was, again, reflective of what was happening in the housing market and the economy. I always thought it was a sociological time capsule of the nouveau riche. As I’ve spoken about endlessly, I love soap operas. I was a big “All My Children” fan. And one of the things that attracted me to the idea of doing this show, the real version of “Desperate Housewives,” was that these women all lived in the same neighborhood. Jeana and Vicki lived a couple of houses down, they all literally went to the same tennis club. And I was like, “This is Pine Valley.”
But for me, when it really clicked, and really started becoming like a soap opera was when I found out: “Oh my god, Jeana is separating from her husband! What do the kids think? Is she going to start dating now? What do her friends think?”
These are the reactions you have about a friend or someone you care about. But it’s also the reaction you have when you’re watching “All My Children,” and Erica says, “I want a divorce.” That was a huge moment for me. I was like, “Oh my god! This is a soap opera, this is going to go on forever.” And now, 15 years later, we are still talking about it.
Literally the 15th anniversary is right now. Speaking of soap operas, even on “For Real,” you tried to get Caroline Manzo to talk about why she and her sister Dina stopped speaking.
I know. Always. She says on the show that she doesn’t regret being on “Housewives of New Jersey.” That it was a great experience and it changed her life — but here she’s not speaking to one of her sisters. And it’s partially a reaction to the show. So I think that was important to mention that. And also I never met an opening that I didn’t want to take.
Do you secretly know why they stopped speaking, though?
I think that I have been told, like, three different reasons. Maybe by both of them, maybe by neither of them. The answer is it’s all kind of mush in my brain, and Caroline could have told me in that moment, and I’d be, like, “Oh yeah, right, you told me that.” You know what, Kate, I’ve got a lot of information in my head. And I know that was one of the great mysteries of the world. But if I knew, I’ve forgotten.
Can you talk about your approach to the “Housewives” shows once they were able to start filming last summer in terms of what was going on then?
We were going to approach Black Lives Matter and COVID just through the eyes of our Housewives. If they were affecting our women, then they were going to be on the show. And if you look at “Atlanta,” that’s why the season started as it did. I thought it was excellent.
I mean, “Orange County” was really a bummer, because it shut us down so many times.
It’s so interesting in these COVID-produced seasons, watching people actually have fun. Because God knows I’m not! That bachelorette party on “Atlanta” may as well have happened in another planet. What was your reaction when you first heard about what happened during that party?
Just like everyone else, I was just totally titillated. I couldn’t wait to see it. I was googling Bolo. And I was thrilled. Any time we’ve been able to get our women away somewhere and have some situation that is a semblance of normalcy, then I’m thrilled. I feel like we’ve kind of got away with something, even though we’re all COVID-safe and the whole thing. I mean, you’ll see in the New York “Housewives,” they were actually able to be in the Hamptons together for chunks of time without any issue.
And I do think as much as we want to and need to reflect reality, it is an escape.
I know you’ve talked about this a bit around the Kristen/Stassi/Jax “Vanderpump Rules” firings. But can you share what you think the balance is of cast members who make great TV with their antics and those who cross the line into reprehensible behavior that Bravo can’t get behind?
I think that we’re all figuring it out at the same time. And I think that people love watching outspoken, funny, shocking people on television. That’s been the backbone of Bravo, the people who are in it. Sometimes you love ’em and sometimes you love to hate ’em.
I think just as the line is always kind of moving in the world, we’re all testing the line and pushing the line. I will say I’m especially proud that we were able on the “Housewives” of Dallas to watch Brandi figuring out what she did, and talking it out with the first Asian Housewife. I thought that was really effective. And more effective than saying, “Well, you’re gone.” So I thought that was really interesting.
Was there was a minute when Brandi wasn’t going to come back, but then you all decided it was more valuable to have her have these conversations with Tiffany in front of viewers?
I just think it was valuable for her to have the conversation in front of viewers. And I’m glad that that’s how that played out.
Can you talk about the “Miami” reboot? And that it’s going to Peacock — how did that part work?
It’s in development. We’ve all been meeting with Peacock and talking to them, and there are always conversations about different Bravo IPs that could work on Peacock. And I was very dogmatic that there is a big fanbase for Miami “Housewives” that has been wanting it to be brought back. I see what people are asking for on Twitter, and that’s one of those shows that was a constant.
I think it’s really smart. I think it’s an expansion of the Bravo brand onto Peacock, and I think Peacock will be the best of everything at all of the colors of NBC Universal. And Bravo’s one of them, and this will be a little extension of Bravo. It makes perfect sense to me.
Is it going to be a clean slate reboot for “Miami”? Will there be no —
None of the original women? I think there’s always a benefit in not throwing everything out. I’d like there to be some connection to the past.
What’s the status of “OC” right now, speaking of reboots?
The status of “OC” right now is that we’re just taking a pause. We’re in no rush to get into production. One of the benefits of “Salt Lake City” coming out so strong out of the gate and becoming such a hit is you don’t need to be in such a rush then to get “Orange County” back, because you have more to play with.
And we really wanted to get back in production in “Salt Lake” when it was still winter there. It’s a stark contrast to all the other shows to see them with the mountains and the snow. So we love that aesthetic. But Orange County, Calif., is still fairly locked down.
So that was one issue. There were times in the past where we would say, “You know what? Let’s let the women live their lives for awhile, and see where they’re at. And see where they’re at with each other.” There’s a clear hope from the fans that there’s some kind of shake-up. And I think we’re analyzing everything. I think we just wanted to be really deliberate too. I mean, this is obviously the show that started everything for this franchise. And it’s really important, and it’s important that we keep getting it right. And by the way, I thought the reunion was fantastic! I think, given everything that we faced this season production-wise, it was a pretty good season. I would not say that it was the best season of “Housewives of Orange County.” But given everything we were up against, there were some killer episodes.
You don’t agree.
I feel like it’s been bad for a few seasons, and it makes me sad. The height of Brooks faking cancer will never again be achieved.
Well, listen, my God! Listen: “Orange County” is going to be great.
What has it been like doing “Watch What Happens Live” for this whole year mostly during COVID? Even when you had it?
We’ve been taping it, which is unusual for me, because we are relying on people’s Wi-Fi signals. We have been able to do a lot of things that we otherwise wouldn’t, like we’ve been covering the hell out of “Below Deck,” which we wouldn’t have been able to do in a similar way because the stews are all over the world. So that’s really exciting. And we got Kamala Harris on “Watch What Happens Live” last summer, which I don’t think would have happened because of her schedule. Everything is about a schedule, and if you’re in New York City, can you get to SoHo? That can be a detriment to us sometimes. So that’s been a positive. I don’t love taping it, and I’m excited to have an audience back. I mean, have you been to “Watch What Happens Live” ever?
I haven’t, no.
It’s actually a party. And when you come, the audience is all served alcohol. They have a great time; we’re in a vibe together. I come out and hang with them, and then we bring the guests out. We do the show, and it’s a real communal experience and it’s a real night out for people. I’m anxious to get back to that. It’s odd.
But by the way, I have extreme gratitude for the fact that I’ve been able to do this for this whole year. I mean, I’m, like, stunned.
From reading your books, I have a sense of how you used to divide up your time. What are your days like now during COVID, especially now that you’re a dad?
Ben goes to school three days a week for three hours in the morning. I wake him up, I get him breakfast, I get him dressed. And then on Mondays and Wednesdays and Fridays I take him to school. On Mondays and Wednesdays, I have radio, which works perfectly because I’m alone in the house. I do radio from 10 to 12. I get off at like 11:58, and I race out and pick him up. We have lunch together every day, Monday through Friday, which is great. And then, usually in the afternoon, is when I tape “Watch What Happens Live,” so I’ll leave, and that’s usually during nap time. I put him to bed every night. I’m alone with him every weekend. I have a nanny during the day during the week.
I’m home every night! There’s nowhere to go. So, you know, it’s kind of incredible. I mean, this kid’s going to be very spoiled, and very surprised by what my real life is. Which is way more active. But it’s good — the bonding, and the time we’ve gotten to spend together. And also my perspective of it: I feel more successful as a parent having been able to spend so much time one on one with him, and just be present for him.
This interview has been edited and condensed.