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Inside 'The Real Housewives'

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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.

Fans didn’t put the show on their social calendars right away, however: Orange County launched in March 2006 to little fanfare and averaged a paltry 600,000 viewers in the first season. But the network stuck with it, and by season 3, viewership had jumped a hefty 114 percent. Sensing a potential franchise, in late 2007 Bravo decided to repackage another in-development show, Manhattan Moms (which had already been cast with Jill, Alex, et al.), to fit under the Housewives umbrella. It felt like a gamble — ”We didn’t want to do anything that was going to damage the O.C., the mothership,” says Bravo general manager Frances Berwick — but the move paid off. Season 1 of New York, which premiered in March 2008, drew one million viewers, and its second act is averaging 500,000 above that.

After that pair of successes, the marching orders at Bravo were simple: more! But not just more of the same. The next iteration in Atlanta, which debuted last October, wholly embraced the essence of the Southern metropolis, serving up a music-star wannabe (Kim Zolciak) and wealthy sportswives (Lisa Wu Hartwell and DeShawn Snow, who is being replaced by Grammy-winning songwriter Kandi Burruss for season 2). Atlanta‘s reunion drew a series-high 2.8 million viewers, which is especially notable since it was a freshman spin-off. While Housewives‘ audience doesn’t quite match the 3 million average of Top Chef, the franchise accounts for three of Bravo’s top five shows, alongside Chef and Shear Genius.

The latest spin-off, Real Housewives of New Jersey (debuting May 12), takes place mere miles from its New York cousin but might as well be worlds apart, as it focuses on five tough Italian-American women — three of whom are related, guaranteeing family theatrics. And though Bravo won’t give specifics, Berwick says they’re always doing ”loads of casting” in different cities that could yield a new Housewives incarnation. While rumors point to Dubai as a future location, Berwick is coy: ”We’ve certainly done casting in Dubai, but that’s not necessarily Housewives specific.” (Real Sheiks? Bring. It. On.) With four hives in place, the series is poised to debut a new episode every week for one year, ensuring a flow of fresh drama most networks would kill for. Production is in full swing almost continuously, as each 7- to 12-episode season takes approximately three months to shoot. It’s a sacrifice the Housewives are willing to make. ”They’ve done some editing this year which I feel has been a little bit unfair to The Countess,” says LuAnn, in her trademark third-person style. ”But I hardly notice the cameras anymore. It’s not much of a hindrance at all.” Adds Ramona, ”Clearly, I have no problem being myself in front of the camera — I’m as raw as can be!”

There’s plenty of drama left to pack in the six episodes leading up to New York‘s May 5 finale. Expect an epic showdown between single ladies Bethenny and Kelly; Jill hosts a swanky Fashion Week bash; and we’ll finally get the big reveal of Alex and Simon’s renovated Cobble Hill brownstone, which was in a rather sorry state last season. Silex, as they’re sometimes known, have emerged as the series’ love-to-hate-’em couple, thanks to their social-climbing, faux-grandiose ways (e.g., vacationing in hoity-toity St. Bart’s…during hurricane season). Simon shrugs off the controversy he engenders. ”In time, people will forget the minutiae of the show,” he says, sitting in a suite at the Hotel Chandler, where he works as general manager. ”If we can spin this to be more than our 15 minutes, we will.” (The duo, who have two young sons, are writing a book about child rearing.) Alex and Simon are less complacent about the vicious online postings about their home and family. ”The comments about our children are the only thing that really get me,” says Alex, choking up instantly. Simon reaches for his wife’s hand in a fierce, almost practiced manner, and simultaneously brushes away the tiniest tear, possibly forgetting that cameras aren’t rolling. While Bravo has yet to greenlight a third season of the show, the pair (like the rest of the New York cast) say they would likely take another whirl in front of the cameras, if asked. Announces an earnest Simon, in battle-tested tones, ”In the immortal words of Edith Piaf, I regret nothing.”

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