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'Real Housewives': Sugar...and vice

Inside Bravo’s growing franchise; how the network created a phenomenon by turning the cameras on four groups (so far) of rich socialites with lots of dirty laundry they’re ready, willing, and able to share

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The Real Housewives of New York City, Alex McCord, ...

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 was scheduled to be in court March 31.) 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.”

NEXT PAGE: A franchise is born in Orange County — and hits the jackpot in New York