The pioneers of Bravo’s mega-franchise remember when the Housewives were actually Real
Ten years ago, on March 21, 2006, The Real Housewives of Orange County premiered, and forever changed reality TV. The first series of Bravo’s hit Real Housewives franchise, RHOC is currently in production for an 11th season, which is set to begin airing this summer. When the pilot debuted a decade ago, it kicked off one of the biggest reality TV phenomena in the format’s brief history — not that anybody knew it at the time.
“I did not think it would make it to television,” original cast member Lauri Peterson tells EW. “I thought, ‘Okay, they’ll shoot a few scenes and try to put it together, and just like a million other people that attempted a reality show, it won’t fly and that will be it.’”
She wasn’t alone in that lack of foresight. In honor of the 10th anniversary of the premiere of RHOC — and by extension, the 10th anniversary of the birth of the entire Real Housewives empire — EW caught up with Peterson and her season 1 castmates Jo De La Rosa, Vicki Gunvalson, and Jeana Keough, none of whom ever dreamed that the show would reach its current degree of popularity.
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”I really never thought it was going to amount to anything,” admits Gunvalson, the only original Housewife who is still a member of the current cast. “Reality wasn’t a thing back then,” De La Rosa adds. “It was a very foreign concept to me.” Keough echoes her sentiment, “I don’t think I even knew what a reality show was.”
The first season’s opening credits begin with the foreword, “Seven million families live in gated communities.” The five wives of RHOC’s first season — Peterson, De La Rosa, Gunvalson, Keough, and Kimberly Bryant — all lived in the exclusive gated community Coto De Caza in Orange County, California, and the Desperate Housewives-inspired series sought to examine their lavish lifestyle “behind the gates.”
“The homeowner’s association had big meetings at the club, trying to decide if there was any way they could stop us from filming,” Keough recalls. “They tried to see if they could fight it, and the lawyers would say, ‘No, look, it’s not even a big production.’ Back then we had karaoke boxes and a little handheld movie camera; now, it’s a full-on four-camera shoot.”
How It All Began
Keough’s family provided the inspiration. The Coto realtor and former model, actress, and Playboy Playmate and her then-husband, retired MLB player Matt Keough, hosted a constant stream of interesting houseguests, which caught the attention of their neighbor and close friend, series creator Scott Dunlop. “’You’re like Ozzy Osbourne without the drugs,’” Keough remembers Dunlop telling her. “’I’m going to write a TV show about you guys.’”
“I must have had a screw loose,” jokes Gunvalson about her decision to join the show. She became involved when her son, Michael, responded to an article written by Dunlop in the Coto De Caza community newspaper. “It was going to be about college kids living this privileged life and living behind the gates,” Gunvalson says of the show’s original premise. Michael’s essay included details about his mother, who was both the family’s breadwinner and a hands-on mom. “[Dunlop] read this and thought it was an unusual situation for living in California, because most of the women don’t work around here.”
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Gunvalson and Peterson worked together in Gunvalson’s home office. “The production company came in to interview Vicki’s family and saw me working in the office and basically said, ‘Who are you? What’s your story?’” Peterson explains. “I swear to God, two days later, cameras showed up at the office and they began filming.” Recently divorced, raising three kids, and struggling financially, “I was wanting money out of it,” she says. “I wasn’t thinking fame.”
De La Rosa was only 23 when she began filming the first season after her then-fiancé, Slade Smiley, presented her with the idea. A recent college graduate who aspired to go to law school, De La Rosa was hesitant at first, but “did it for love,” she says. “I kind of [wanted] to look at it as an amazing experience we could do together as a couple, having no idea what it would become.”
For De La Rosa in particular, that first season was an enormously formative experience. “I didn’t even know who I was at 23,” she says. “I was literally growing up in front of America.” The show chronicled her struggle as a young woman who wanted to spend time with her friends and have a career, but whose older fiancé wanted her to be a housewife.
”What did I know about life, about the world, about marriage, about raising kids?” she says. “Nothing.” She drew criticism for her behavior on the show, and while it was painful for her, “if I’m honest with myself, absolutely, 100%, [the critics] were right,” she admits now. “One: I wasn’t ready for marriage, and two: Slade didn’t deserve that. They’re right. But I was being 23, and I was finding myself.”
The Strike to ‘Real’ Success
The show’s viewership grew rapidly; Keough credits the 2007 writers’ strike for its explosion in popularity. “There was no new [scripted] TV on, so that gave us our platform for two years,” she says. “I had the first inkling [of the series’ success] when Jill Zarin called me and said, ‘I’m filming a show called The New York Housewives.’” RHONY launched in 2008; the ninth series in the franchise, The Real Housewives of Dallas, will premiere in April.
“At that time, it was about inspiring women, being a successful woman and managing all I did,” Gunvalson says. “Fast-forward 10 years later, it’s not focused on that, unfortunately — it’s focused more on drama.” Keough, who was a cast member on the first five seasons and has returned multiple times as a “friend of the Housewives,” says production started pushing for the infighting during season 2. “By then, Bravo started to ask you questions about, ‘What did you really think of what Vicki said about this or that?’” she says. “And they would ask you 50 times until you answered it the way they wanted.”
Peterson misses the emphasis on family most. “I just really remember filming with my children. Filming with the ladies, the other housewives, was minimal,” she recalls. Now, “the focus is on the women. And, of course, conflict is always good.” Peterson was a main cast member for the first four seasons and has repeatedly returned as a “friend” as well. “It is much easier to just be a permanent cast member,” she says, “because once you step away and then try to come back into the picture — oh my god, the women treat you horribly.” The competition for the spotlight makes The Real Housewives “like a game of Survivor now,” she says. “They position themselves and find allies. It’s pretty funny, actually.”
Later seasons haven’t restricted the cast to residents of Coto De Caza, and so the opening has dropped its preface about gated communities. For the ladies’ “taglines” — which are now typically punny, sassy, or catchphrase-y little epigrams delivered via voiceover during the opening credits — the first season used lines straight from their candid conversations, including “I don’t want to get old,” as cried out by Gunvalson during her first Botox experience, and “Are the police involved?” from Peterson while on the phone with her son’s school principal.
The taglines aren’t the only things that have become more cultivated. “Now, the women are more polished,” Peterson says. “The first season was very different; it was raw. It was us in a raw form.” Gunvalson agrees: “It was just so organic and natural, and nobody went in with an ulterior motive.” As time goes on, however, “You learn a lot. There’s a big learning curve,” Keough says.
The women made a point not to eat too much on camera (“You look like a cow,” Keough says) and to manage their appearances. “You only show up on camera one time without makeup, and then when you see yourself, you’ll never do it again,” Peterson promises. They are unanimous in their regret for their fashion choices circa 2006. “I have not watched it since it was off the air,” Gunvalson says. “I just know I wore really nasty-looking clothes.” Keough confirms: “Vicki burned her wardrobe.”
“I cringe when I see it,” Peterson says. “I hate my hair, I hate what I was wearing, I hate my makeup.” De La Rosa cites her wardrobe as “the number one thing” she would do differently — especially a certain pink boa and zebra-print hat. “Not my best fashion moment, or my best moment in general, on the show,” she admits.
Where Are They Now?
De La Rosa hasn’t appeared on RHOC since the fourth season, but “it’s always going to be a piece of me and my heart,” she says. “[It] was the beginning of who I am today, and for that, I feel blessed and thankful.” She credits her time on the series for developing her interest in fashion, and she is currently living in Los Angeles, where she is about to launch a fashion, beauty, and lifestyle site, Champagne & Milk, this summer. And if De La Rosa was a housewife now? (She isn’t, but “never say never,” she says.) Her tagline, to replace season 1’s “He’s pretty much keeping me,” would be “Be who you want to be and not who the world wants you to be… But first, coffee.”
Peterson and her husband adopted her son’s baby daughter more than two years ago, so now “my house is filled with plastic — plastic toys, plastic bikes, everything.” Their older children are all out of the house now, so “we’re starting all over, just right when we could see the light at the end of the tunnel.” She doesn’t have a tagline ready (though she admits “I should have prepared for this, because everybody asks me that”), but plans to come up with a good quip about being a parent again.
Keough is still selling real estate and flipping houses, and she’s still living in Coto in a home of spectacular proportions. “I downsized from 8,000 feet to 5,000 feet, 6-car garage to 5-car garage,” she says. “My friends are all laughing; it’s like, ‘This isn’t downsizing!’” All of her children are out of the house, so she’s traveling a lot and having fun as an empty-nester. “My last tagline when I was a Housewife was something about money,” she remembers — season 1’s was “It’s just money, and you can’t take it with you” — but her new one would be: “It’s my time to enjoy life.”
Gunvalson, of course, is still on the show, so her newest tagline won’t debut until this summer. And while the consensus among the other ladies may be that the show isn’t as authentic as it once was, the reigning queen of the RHOC maintains that while she has matured, she has never been anything less than real over the past 10 years.
“I want to have a great-ass time, and I really don’t want to fight. I want to have a great show, and I want to have great friends on it,” she says. “I know my truth, I know I’m a lot of fun, and I know I can produce a great show — and it’s always going to be real.”