After a disorienting season 15 — Bravo's first to document the coronavirus pandemic, chronicling the leadup to lockdown and the early weeks of quarantine — the Real Housewives' original franchise got a reset, shedding cast members Kelly Dodd, Elizabeth Lyn Vargas, and Braunwyn Windham-Burke. In this make-or-break moment, the network knew there was only one O.C. alumna up to the job of turning this ship around in the series' 16th season: Fancy Pants herself, Heather Dubrow. 

"It's surreal, honestly," to be back in the Bravo-verse, the SoCal Housewife tells EW ahead of this week's season premiere. "It's so odd to me that I had this secret for all these months, and then it came out and that was a thing, and then we filmed it and then [had] a little respite, and now it's coming out. It's so weird."

The actress, champagne enthusiast, world-class party planner, and wife of renowned plastic surgeon Terry Dubrow first joined the show in 2012, for season 7; she was a main cast member for five years, departing after 2016's season 11, during which she clashed with Dodd (who has acted bitterly on social media — including toward Dubrow — since her RHOC exit).

The season premiere spotlights Dubrow's re-entry into the franchise (including a tour of her 22,000-square-foot home) and introduces the whole cast, which also includes returning 'wives Shannon Storms Beador, Gina Kirschenheiter, and Emily Simpson as well as new additions Dr. Jen Armstrong and Noella Bergener. Read on for more of EW's conversation with Dubrow ahead of what promises to be a dramatic season in the tradition of vintage RHOC.

Heather Dubrow on 'The Real Housewives of Orange County' season 16
| Credit: Tommy Garcia/Bravo

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Tell us about your decision to come back: How do you feel different now, what has changed for you in the last five years that made you feel like you wanted to rejoin the show?

HEATHER DUBROW: So when my daughter Max came out as bisexual a couple of years ago, the outpouring of support and the comments were amazing. I mean, like really beautiful. And that started the shift for me. So when they asked me to come back, I thought, okay, well, why would I go back? You know, it's not about being famous. It's not about the money. It's an amazing platform, but why? And I thought, I have these four kids who are different genders, different sexualities. They're at places in their lives where they're figuring out who they are in the world. And if I can open up some conversations here, not just about them but how we parent, how I handle them, how we navigate these waters, maybe we can start some cool conversations and maybe even help some people. So for me, that's what it was really about.

How did your family feel about coming back to the show?

Well, we had a family meeting about it, for sure. Because obviously when I was on the show the first time, they were babies — Coco was nine months old. The little kids on the show don't participate very much, but at this stage they would be featured more. And I mean, my personal story, aside from what I do work-wise — with my podcast and YouTube channel and the books and the products and all that stuff — my focus is my kids. And they're obviously the biggest part of my life. So that would be highlighted, and they had to be okay with it.

When Bravo approached you about returning, what about their pitch made it an appealing prospect?

Well, I laughed. I laughed, and then I thought about it. The pitch was pretty much what you would expect it to be, which is, "Hey, we'd like to go in a different direction with the show." It's exactly what Andy [Cohen, executive producer] has said: "The show needs a reboot, and we'd like to bring back some of the glory of previous seasons and take it into a different direction," and [they] sort of pitched me to be the conduit to doing that. And when they explained to me the direction of the show and what kind of cast they were looking for, I felt comfortable that that would be a situation that I would be happy in.

Did Kelly's departure make you more interested in returning?

I would tell you that the way that the show was pitched to me and the direction that the show was taking made it seem like something I'd want to be involved in. Look, I was very vocal about when I left the show, I didn't like that direction.

The franchise has evolved so much, and the fandom has too — viewers are so savvy to production and to how Housewives play the game, and things like Not All Diamonds and Rosé and Real Housewives Ultimate Girls Trip have pulled back the curtain further. From the inside, having made a season now, how has that changed the game?

I think authenticity sells. In all phases — I mean, of everything, let's be honest — but when it comes to reality shows, authenticity is definitely what sells. Now, people have complained or talked about the fact that it's difficult to find people to cast onto these shows because it's so huge, because everyone knows everything. What I would say is, there are people out there that are genuinely interested in opening their lives. I think if you have a superfan, it's hard. And I think you'll see when you watch this season that the people that are there and share their lives in an authentic way, you are drawn to and compelled by. And if there's anyone there that is just there to get famous or be a fan favorite, that becomes glaringly obvious too.

How would you describe the dynamic among the season 16 cast?

You know, I had the first party at my house and I thought it was going to be like a big "Let's get to know each other, let the games begin!" And it goes so far off the rails and, like, fractionizes — is that a word? — and completely obliterates this group that I didn't even get to know some of the girls for weeks. Because we were all dealing with the repercussions of what happened at the very first party. It was just insane.

Who among the cast did you connect with? Of course, you already knew Shannon.

Yes, she was the only one I knew. I immediately connected with Gina. I think both being New York transplants, but also there was just something about her energy that I liked — talking about authentic, by the way! I just find her very endearing.

Real Housewives of Orange County
The women of 'The Real Housewives of Orange County' season 16
| Credit: Bravo

The last time you were on the show, your house was still under construction. How did it feel to finally unveil it on RHOC?

We've actually lived here for five years, and this is the longest we've ever lived anywhere; we usually move after three years, for some reason. So I feel like we've been here so long, and it's funny to me that everyone's seeing it like, quote, "for the first time," but I love it. I love giving tours of the house. I haven't watched the first episode yet, and I don't know how much they show. So if you're really into the house or design or anything like that, I actually did a full house tour in segments on my YouTube channel, and we were in Architectural Digest. I get comments from people, from designers, from architects, just wanting to know where I bought things or designed or whatever. I love that.

What do you think will surprise fans the most about this season?

I think people will be surprised, honestly, by all of it, but mostly the beginning. The beginning is just so crazy. And like I said, the repercussions last so long, and I think just when you think you understand what's going on or think you know what's going on, it changes. And the ending is very surprising. I've personally never ended a season like this, ever. I'm curious what people are going to think and where it goes from there.

What surprised you the most about the experience of coming back after five years?

I was surprised how relaxed I was. When I was on the first time, I really didn't want to join the show. Terry signed the contract for me; it was tough for me to go from scripted actress to reality. It was just a lot. Anyway, obviously the landscape of television has completely changed and I… I don't know. I was very, very relaxed. I wasn't worried about what people are going to think about me. I actually didn't care, amusingly enough, what chair I was sitting in at any event. I was just like, "Please just put me in the good light. Let me sit where the good light is."

Season 16 of The Real Housewives of Orange County premieres Wednesday, Dec. 1, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Bravo.

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