Inside the Real Housewives industrial complex: Bravo's biggest stars reflect on the ultra-successful franchise

October 04, 2018 at 11:00 AM EDT

Ten years ago, a star was born. With an outsize personality, excessively quotable one-liners, and unwavering confidence, Nene Leakes confessionaled her way into the hearts and minds of television audiences. The Real Housewives of Atlanta debuted Oct. 7, 2008, kicking off her reign as the premier reality star and further cementing the undeniable (and looming) takeover of Bravo’s soon-to-be biggest franchise.

Unlike their Keeping Up With the Kardashians predecessors, Leakes and her RHOA costars — Sheree Whitfield, Kim Zolciak-Biermann, and Kandi Burruss included — didn’t get their start in Hollywood. They entered the small-screen fray 2,000 miles away in Georgia, with a mostly innocuous view of reality television.

“I just decided to do something that dealt with television,” Leakes recalled to EW. “I didn’t really know what I was signing up for — I was just going with the flow.”

Atlanta joined the Bravo family as the third Housewives franchise, after Orange County and New York City, and was followed quickly by New Jersey. While today’s reality stars sign on because of the attention and press it will bring them, Leakes’ (claimed) naiveté wasn’t as unique in the late aughts.

“Living in New Jersey, I was in a little bubble,” explained Teresa Giudice, who admitted to EW that she didn’t watch reality TV. “I was really a housewife, and what was important to me at the time was being a mom.”

The franchise’s acceptance into the larger culture came in waves and fueled quite a lot of parody at the outset — skits on The Tonight ShowSaturday Night Live, and even Sesame Street, and a rather pivotal moment at the 2009 Emmys. A montage of the year’s best televised moments featured RHONJ’s banquet-flip-heard-round-the-world, much to the surprise of Giudice (the chief table-flipper): “To be on the Emmys, that’s a big deal.”

At this same time, Andy Cohen, Bravo’s then-vice president of programming, began to see a similar rise in his career trajectory. He became VP of talent and development in 2011 and stepped down a few years later to focus more on his own on-camera work. Watch What Happens Live originated as a 12-week web series and quickly became Bravo’s late-night juggernaut, where Cohen’s unfiltered enthusiasm allowed celebrities and Housewives to co-mingle. He has since surpassed his Housewives-specific fame — with a SiriusXM channel, a hosting gig on Love Connection, and even an Entertainment Weekly cover — but still credits his success to the OG Bravo crew.

“Without the Housewives I don’t think I would have this public persona,” he told EW. “I would be a very happy TV producer.”

Cohen himself has a rabid fan base, many of whom credit the producer for gifting them with the best entertainment they’ve consumed in recent memory. For his part, he credits that entertainment to one simple fact: It’s unscripted.

“It’s real,” he said pointedly. “At one minute they could be fighting about a toaster oven cookbook and another minute they’re fighting about the election.”

As such, the franchise has weathered plenty of controversies in its decade-plus on air, but back in the early days they were ill-prepared to predict the fallout from a certain dinner party. In November 2009, inaugural D.C. housewife Michaele Salahi and her then-husband, Tareq, crashed a White House state dinner, managing to walk past two security checkpoints and shake hands with President Barack Obama, some of which was captured by Bravo cameras and aired on an episode. The Real Housewives of D.C. quickly disappeared after one season.

“When the FBI is looking at raw tapes of your show, the chances of a big corporation wanting to renew it are not high,” Cohen told EW of the scandal.

Two years later the network again faced backlash, after Russell Armstrong, estranged husband of Beverly Hills cast member Taylor Armstrong, committed suicide. Bravo was accused of sensationalizing the couple’s controversial — and occasionally abusive — relationship and financial woes for ratings. Cohen denied any claims of mishandling back then and maintains his stance today. “I don’t think it’s fair for the franchise to be judged on two things that happened,” he said. “If anything, it shows that in real life, sometimes real f—ed up things can happen.”

Nene Leakes’ foray into Hollywood stardom hasn’t been spotless, either. She was fired from a comedy tour after telling a rape joke in 2017, and she clashed with her fellow hosts of E!’s Fashion Police. She eventually made her return to RHOA after a two-year occasional hiatus, and told EW she was excited to be back — and with a lucrative salary to boot.

“It’s not like we’re making pennies over here,” she said. “We make as much as actors on [scripted] shows.”

The Housewives have also become notorious for bringing in money outside of their Bravo paychecks, and it’s standard for cast members to propel their onscreen notoriety into promotion of their own brands and products. Casts of the later additions to the franchise, like Dallas and Potomac, enter the business with that exact trade-off in mind.

“I’m going to give up [my family’s anonymity], then I need to get something in return for myself,” explained Gizelle Bryant, who represents this second wave of Bravo first ladies.

The trade-off for Bryant is EveryHue Beauty, a makeup line she co-founded in 2016 and that currently sells in Target stores. Orange County’s Lynne Curtin debuted a cuff line, while Atlanta’s Sheree Whitfield has her eponymous She by Sheree clothing line, and who could forget Lisa Vanderpump’s restaurant conglomerate (which now includes SUR, which averages 4,000 customer per week according to management, Pump, Villa Blanca, and the newest Tom Tom)? Perhaps most famous of all the Housewives-adjacent products are — what else? — the booze: Bethenny Frankel has made it her mission to ensure that no one forgets she is the founder of Skinnygirl, and Ramona Singer, Lisa Vanderpump, and Sonja Morgan have also joined the boozy fray.

As a producer, Cohen tries to balance women shilling products with those showcasing their lives, but Bryant, for her part, sees her time spent on EveryHue as an investment in her success after her Housewives run ends. “If you aren’t trying to do something that’s going to benefit you after you’re off the show, then I think you’re really not using it to your advantage,” she said.

As the franchise as a whole enters its second decade on air, Bravo seems to be embracing a dual persona, of sorts. Spinoff series starring younger casts, like Vanderpump Rules, are rising in the ratings at rapid speed, and social media is helping cast members gain rabid followings which seems to bring a new dimension of drama and competition to our screens. While Cohen told EW that there is “no one star” in each city, the desire to be the Lauren Conrad to MTV’s The Hills, if you will, is getting stronger and stronger.

Housewives of Atlanta, it is my show,” Leakes told EW pointedly, noting that she was the first cast member hired and that she suggested the casting of Zolciak and Whitfield after a meeting with a female producer at Leakes’ Georgia home. “Had I not sat in the living room and did that interview with that lady drinking that wine, there would not be this show.”

Cohen didn’t refute Leakes’ statement, but rather let us realize what we already know: That the show is better when the Housewives feel in charge, and that producers tend not to check their egos. What he did say was something that, in ever the Andy Cohen fashion, seemed to get right to the heart of this show’s enduring success and fandom:

“We like women who love themselves.”

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