Eboni K. Williams on Her ‘Difficult’ Experience on ‘Real Housewives’: ‘The Stakes Have Been Raised Infinitely’

THE REAL HOUSEWIVES OF NEW YORK CITY -- Season:13 -- Pictured: Eboni K. Williams -- (Photo by: Sophy Holland/Bravo)
Courtesy of Sophy Holland/Bravo

Eboni K. Williams — a lawyer by training and a TV anchor and host by vocation — is also the first Black cast member of “The Real Housewives of New York City” since the show premiered on Bravo in 2008. One of five in the cast for its 13th season — along with longtime Bravo stars Ramona Singer, Luann de Lesseps, and Sonja Morgan, as well as Leah McSweeney, who joined the show last year — Williams has injected “RHONY,” as it’s called by viewers, with an urgent political message simply by her presence as a Black woman on the show.

“It just all feels so counterproductive,” Williams said in a lengthy interview with Variety last week, referring to some of the dramatic back-and-forths of the season. “When we all know the thing that we all are really hoping for is some level of resolution.”

So far in this season of “RHONY,” resolution has been scarce. Within weeks of the show’s premiere in May, Williams had been called “angry” by a fellow castmate when she had not been angry at all. In another episode, Singer, a pro-Trump Republican, tried to leave a scene she was filming with Williams in Singer’s own home after the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris when Williams suggested they might find common ground by being happy there would be a woman vice president. The other women appeared to deliberately misconstrue Williams’ need to make sure none of them were aligned with white supremacy. And Williams organized a Black Shabbat dinner to try to foster better relationships between Jews and Black people, an effort for which the rest of the cast has so far not risen to the occasion — to say the least. (That tableau ended on a cliffhanger, and continues during Tuesday night’s episode. “It gets worse, and then it gets better,” Williams said.)

Casting Williams is part of a broader mandate at Bravo in recent years to diversify shows with previously all-white casts, as programming executive Shari Levine discussed with Variety last August. On the “Real Housewives” franchise, Garcelle Beauvais and Crystal Kung Minkoff joined “Beverly Hills” for their second and first season, respectively; Kary Brittingham (who is Mexican American) and Tiffany Moon (who is Chinese American) were cast on “Dallas”; and the freshman series “The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City” had two women of color in the cast from the start. The initiative has certainly sparked some fascinating, productive conversations among the women, but in the case of “Dallas,” the show collapsed in on itself as it came to a conclusion, and Moon was subjected to attacks both on screen and off.

For William off-camera, there has been a deluge of negative headlines in the gossip press, particularly in the Daily Mail, in which she’s been blamed for being “too preachy,” as well as for the season’s low ratings and its reportedly difficult-to-schedule reunion. In one instance that was especially galling to Williams, the Daily Mail questioned her reputation at Fox News, where she worked as a contributor for years, and then was a host of “Fox News Specialists” in 2017. Williams repudiated the story, and during her interview with Variety, she read aloud from an email from her then-supervisor at Fox News praising her; it’s included in full at the bottom of this story, as is a testimonial from Meghan McCain from “The View,” her former colleague at the network.

No, this season of “RHONY” hasn’t been easy to watch at times, especially when the scope of the women’s lives has been so diminished by the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s created a sense of smallness — if not claustrophobia — in the show, where it seems like the cast is trapped in various locations together, arguing (or avoiding arguments, in Singer’s case) about the news of the day. Williams, a longtime “RHONY” fan herself, sees it too, and says the usual rules for “Real Housewives” just don’t apply here: “I think that’s where this viewing experience has been a lot more difficult for the audience. Because the stakes have been raised infinitely this season.”

Williams also talked about how “re-traumatizing” it is to watch the show, whether she shares any “basic principles of shared humanity” with Singer and the “sorority within a sorority” among the “Housewives” of color.

There’s the filming of the show, and there’s the watching of the show. When you finished the filming, how did you feel about your experience? 

Really good. I felt that as a cast collectively we had really made an incredible amount of progress. By way of filming during a pandemic, and for me as the newbie building from-the-ground-up relationships with each woman independently. We got shut down with COVID a couple times; Sonja got sick. But we also had a lot of fun times, and I felt really good about my decision to join this crazy ride.

How did things change when the show began to air? 

I think I wasn’t able to properly anticipate how different this “Housewives” adventure would be from my previous career in television. I’ve been on camera nationally for well over 10 years now from various news organizations and outlets. And the difference was you do a newscast, it’s in the can and that’s it.

This is very different, and I didn’t really calibrate elements such as the re-triggering and re-traumatizing that would happen when you watch it back. It’s only by virtue of watching it back that you kind of see some things you missed in the actual moment. And that compounds the impact of the re-watch. There’s also, I would suggest, even a third component, which is the social media response of the episode. And seeing how your castmates may or may not respond as well. You don’t know until you know.

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Left to right: Leah McSweeney, Eboni K. Williams, Luann de Lesseps, Ramona Singer Courtesy of Heidi Gutman/Bravo

Early in the season, you said on Instagram that you were pulling back for a few weeks. That was leading into the Hamptons episodes when — among other things — Luann called you “angry,” and you had to explain why that wasn’t OK to do. Can you talk about what it was like to watch those episodes? 

Those episodes were really difficult to watch. For some reasons that are obvious, and others that might not be obvious. So the obvious ones were yeah, it was just really hard to see the exchange — what was said. And really to see watching it back what I felt even more strongly about, which was that I had really worked hard to manage my emotion in the moment, and use my words to express what I felt was just a substantive disconnect from Luann around the, to me, very false equivalency of someone’s education and their choice of word vulgarity, we’ll call it. I thought that was a really shitty false equivalency that undermines a liberated, sexually free society and womanhood.

I was like, “Well, maybe I was showing up as more hyper-emotional than I felt inside.” So I made space with that possibility. But all watching it did [for me] was affirm, no, I was pretty calm, actually. So to then see Luann refer to me as “angry,” I was probably more discouraged seeing it back than I experienced in real life. I was really glad to see when she said, “I didn’t say anything about your color,” I was able to articulate the subtext, which is, “You don’t have to. It’s implied.”

All of that was really difficult. I think the subsequent scenes where we were able to sit in The Den of Ramona and discuss the fallout — why it’s unacceptable to call a Black woman angry in that context today, I was proud of a lot of that conversation. I was proud of the listening that all the women did, I was proud of myself.

What’s it like to deal with Ramona Singer? 

I’ll start with just where we are right now. I had dinner with Ramona just a couple of weeks ago, per her request, and I’m always going to be open to that conversation.  I think at this point we know where the opportunities of similarity and kind of light-hearted conversation can be. I think we know much better — both of us, I think — where the limitations are.

We know Ramona is a Trump supporter; she even goes to Mar-a-Lago. Ramona almost left her own apartment when you were there in order not to discuss the election of Biden and Harris. When you’re being filmed, and someone is behaving like that, what are you strategically thinking as you’re experiencing the Ramonacoaster, as it’s been termed? 

It is the Ramonacoaster, as Bethenny coined it so accurately so long ago. Yeah, that was a really tough night. Not because of the difference in who we voted for. I am familiar to some extent — and with those same limitations we just talked about, friendly with — the likes of big, huge far-right personalities. We can name them, we’ve got the tapes to prove it, whether it’s Tomi Lahren, Pat Buchanan or Newt Gingrich or Laura Ingraham. All those people have been on my show when I hosted the “Fox News Specialists,” with two co-hosts. And I’ve had those conversations, Kate, that’s the thing: If anybody has the temperament to have a conversation that starts with any kind of basic minutiae of shared values and go from there, it’s me. I really have walked this walk for a very long time. O’Reilly, Hannity, you name it.

What was totally foreign to me was Ramona’s total hostility to even acknowledge basic truths so that we can kind have a level set where we were as women, potential friends, new friends, even castmates. So that was hard for me, because I don’t know what to do when someone refuses to acknowledge baseline realities. And I think that’s where the impasse really started.

I’ve seen some reaction that says, “If she doesn’t want to talk about politics, she shouldn’t have to talk about politics.” I’m cool with that. But I want to be clear about what politics are. Politics is perhaps your position on the Iran deal. Politics might be one’s position on North Korea acquiring a nuclear weapon, or a tax rate. But we’re talking about basic values of humanity. The equal valuation of women in all spaces and society, for instance. Being committed to disrupting and dismantling anti-Black sentiment in the country. Being committed to disrupting and dismantling anti-Semitism in our country. Being wholly committed to the full liberation of the rights of the LGBTQ+ community in this country. That’s not politics!

I’m not looking to see if Ramona and I agree on North Korea, or mask bans, or anything like that. I don’t care about that. But I’ve got to see if we align on those basic principles of shared humanity. And if we don’t, that saves me time, and really, Ramona time. That’s all.

But do you feel like you and Ramona align on those basic elements of humanity?  

No! No, no, I don’t. And the reason I have to say no, I don’t know, Kate, is because Ramona refuses to give the evidence to let me know that we do.

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Courtesy of Sophy Holland

You wrote a response on Medium to one of Brian Moylan’s Vulture recaps. Can you talk about why you decided to do that?  

I read the recaps. I’d read the recaps before joining the show. Whether I agree or disagree with them, I tend to enjoy the thoughtfulness of them, and the perspective that Brian has as a journalist, and as a fan. And I just felt when I read that recap of the “Harlem Night” episode, it felt lazy. It’s fine if he didn’t like it. But I wanted to challenge some of the phrasing, because it felt inconsistent to who I know him to be as a journalist — who is just more thoughtful than that, and more introspective than that.

How did you feel it was received?  

I think it was received incredibly well. I heard from other “Housewives” in different franchises to say that they really appreciated seeing somebody not just eat it. I think there is this narrative-slash-real-expectation of society that says when you sign up to be on one of these reality shows, especially when you sign up to be a Real Housewife, you’ve got to eat shit. And I don’t really eat shit, Kate. I just don’t.

I also really appreciated Brian’s response. I appreciated the substance of his response, of course, and I was even humbled by some of what he said. But most importantly, I appreciated that he took the time to curate a thoughtful response.

When Bershan Shaw entered the cast as a “friend,” how does that work behind the scenes? The season had already started.  

I’m a woman of precision, Kate. I deal in facts. I don’t deal in speculation. I don’t deal with rumor. So when Bershan started filming with us, I was confused — happy, of course, to see, first of all, more women. Because the show was always better with more women. Obviously, very happy to see another Black woman filming on this show. So I will not even entertain or make space for a narrative that says that I had any hostility towards sharing space with another Black woman on this platform.

But what I was confused about with the capacity in which Bershan was on the show. Because like you said, we were halfway through. And nobody would really be clear about it. I’m like, is this my castmate? Is this not my castmate? And the only thing that was ever told to me was she is not a cast member, she’s not a Housewife. She’s actually not a “friend of” — that was told to me. But then she was filming with us, and that was her capacity. And I said great! And made space for her as such. When Ramona asked to bring her to “Harlem Night,” I was thrilled. I made an extra place setting I brought an extra candle and gift box and was happy to welcome Bershan to filming the evening with us.

The Daily Mail did a horrible hit piece on you. Actually, more than one.  

They did.

I was going to say “How did that feel?” But I assume it felt — 

That felt like shit, Kate. That felt like shit. 

Does the Daily Mail reach out for comment? 

They did. And they didn’t use most of my comments. Most of that stuff was a bunch of bullshit, obviously. And the stuff that wasn’t bullshit was already public knowledge. Like the fact that I have very proudly and humbly spoke about the charge of shoplifting that happened when I was a 17-year-old sophomore at UNC. And everything I learned from that, including going into a fantastic program that I eventually used as a litigator myself to get clients’ charges dismissed so they could keep a clean record.

The only thing that really kind of annoyed me was the absolute lies that were told about my time as an analyst and news anchor and host at Fox News. Because you could ask anybody in leadership there today, and they will tell you I was exceptional while I was there. Trust me, I had to be, Kate. It wasn’t optional. I was exceptional. I was a consummate professional. And I left on very good terms at my own request. I actually left money on the table on my contract, didn’t take a cent with me.

One of the pieces basically implied that you were behind the stories saying Ramona is going to get fired. What’s your response to that? 

I didn’t even read the piece. So I didn’t even know that implication was there. I’d heard that people were saying it was Leah behind it. I don’t deal in background. I’m a journalist still.

I don’t give a damn, Kate. I am just not a pussy. OK? So whatever I think and feel, I just say it plain. And I deal with those consequences. So if I wanted to make a statement about Ramona being fired, or needing to get fired, I’d call you up and I’d say it. I don’t feel that way; I don’t think that way; I’ve never made that suggestion directly, indirectly or in any other capacity.

There’s been a lot of back and forth in the press about the reunion being scheduled and rescheduled. Is it scheduled? 

I was told a time. I was told that we’re having a reunion. I was told what to wear to said reunion.

I saw on Instagram that you and Crystal Minkoff hung out. Is there a community among the “Housewives” of color? 

Yes. And it’s a strong one. Crystal and I just gelled; we’ve got a lot in common that’s really cool and surprising. She and I are also separately close with Tiffany Moon, and I know her and Tiffany are very, very close — obviously being historic first Asian “Housewives” on their respective franchises. I think the world of Garcelle Beauvais. I grew up watching “The Jamie Foxx Show,” and I think she’s so stunning and such an iconic representation of Black beauty, and beauty for a little girl that grew up in the South and didn’t have a whole bunch of representation. Garcelle Beauvais was one of them. So it’s very cool to share space with her.

That sorority within a sorority is very real. And it’s palpable, and it’s very important.

Have you thought about doing another season? 

Again, just that not dealing in speculation thing as a stickler for me. So until there’s a renewal contract to consider, I just can’t really think about that too much. I’ve got a lot of other stuff on my plate. But, of course, when and if that offer to do this again comes, I will give it very serious consideration.

Because of the ongoing anti-racist reckoning, a lot of reality shows that have been predominantly white or entirely white have been trying to be more inclusive — like “The Bachelor” disaster, for instance. Knowing Tiffany, knowing Crystal, knowing Garcelle, what kind of job do you feel like the “Housewives” and Bravo have done integrating the casts? 

I think it’s been good, actually. I think there’s no perfect time. I think everybody agrees it took entirely too long, but here we are.

This is what I think: I think if Bravo and the production company wanted to cast a woman who was Black, or brown, or of color in any way that would check that box, and otherwise culturally assimilate to everything else that was already going on on the franchise, they could have very, very, very, very, very, very easily done that. New York is full of incredible women of color who are dying for this spot that would have absolutely just been happy to be there, and wouldn’t have said a word about anything disruptive — color or otherwise.

I think the fact that they intentionally went out and found somebody who does this work for a living, who’s a trained litigator, who has a bachelor’s degree in Black Studies, who hosts and produces a show called “REVOLT BLACK NEWS” tells us a bit about their intention. I have to applaud that. Has it been easy? No. Has it been challenging? Yes. Do I think it was worth it? Absolutely.

What would your advice be if Bravo about making even more progress within the franchise? 

I think more women! I think it’s not about getting rid of anybody, necessarily. I think it’s more women bringing more perspective and more cushion. With “RHONY,” you’ve got only five of us. Take me out of it, you’ve got four women, three of them are similar generations, similar socio-economic and cultural perspective for at least 30 years together — that creates a very stiff opportunity for what needs to be a really malleable, interesting conversation. Our conversation ends up having a lot harder edge. And that’s even when we get to conversation. The women on “Beverly Hills,” I gotta say, pretty much every last one of them, is willing to have the conversation, is willing to sit with the consideration of “Huh — is it stigmatizing to imply that Black women don’t pay their bills? Huh! Is it erroneous in 2021 to still be sticking with an I don’t see color narrative?”

Despite all of the difficulty and the hurt feelings, has it been important for you to be on the show, and has it been worth it? 

It’s absolutely worth it. I think that this has been a growing opportunity for me personally. I mean, my God, I found my father.

My representation on this platform is really important. It’s so much bigger than me. It’s been fun. I mean, listen, it was COVID. You know, is it more fun when we get to take really big international trips, and kind of lean into the glitz and glamour of “Housewives”-ism? Yeah. And hopefully, that lies in front of us.

Eboni, is there anything I didn’t ask you that you want to say? 

I would say this: To that hit piece and others that have been like it, which I’m talking about the Page Six piece which tried to make a big thing out of me being not licensed to practice law when I haven’t in 10 years.

What those pieces tell me, though, Kate, is that I think we look at Naomi Osaka, I think we look at Simone Biles, I think we look at Sha’Carri Richardson, I think it’s open season on attacking the credibility of elite Black women. I think when people see elite Black women in particular that they can’t intimidate, they can’t shame, they can’t silence in traditional tactics, then it goes to, like, political ops. And it becomes: How do I destroy this individual’s credibility?

And I think that should be called out for what it is, which is a very desperate, anti-Black effort. And I think that it also should cue people to an awareness that says that this particular Black woman, whether it’s me or Simone or Naomi, they’re doing something incredibly important. So much so that the status quo norms will do any and everything to take them down. To silence their voices. Because that’s really the effort. And in a way, that’s a signal — it’s almost a thumbs up from the Daily Mail that says, you’re onto something.

I figured I was. But now that I know I’m onto something, that is only incentive to keep going.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Here is the email from Fox News executive David Clark to Williams that was provided to Variety by her publicist and Bravo: “I cannot thank you enough for making the trek to DC these past many weekends to co-anchor ANHQ from there. You did a superb job and the DC staff has repeatedly expressed their very positive feelings about your performance and their dealings with you. Let’s catch up when you’re back in NY.”

Here is a statement from Meghan McCain, as stated on “The View:” “I actually know Eboni. We used to work together at Fox News. She’s actually, among being the first Black New York Housewife, she was also the first Black woman to host a show in prime time in news. The Eboni I know is an extremely intelligent, hardworking, I mean she was like a very good sparring partner on my old show Out Numbered and I always enjoyed being on air with her. I’m happy she’s bringing diversity and shining a light toward a lot of unconscious bias and just bias and racism and unconscious racism in particular on reality television. This is a woman who could probably run for office if she wanted to. So I’m happy to see her on reality television. I hope she takes that platform and continues on. Because she really is a really, really, she’s always been an interesting voice. It’s nice to see a highly intelligent woman on reality television. Not that there haven’t been as well, but I know her personally.”