Bravo’s The Real Housewives franchise has been on TV for 15 years, and is now a cornerstone of the reality TV landscape. There have been 10 American shows with more than 20 spin-offs between them, plus more than a dozen international versions. The template it created has been copied repeatedly, including by Bravo.
A new book, The Housewives: The Real Story Behind The Real Housewives, by Vulture recapper and Real Housewives historian Brian Moylan, goes deep into the franchise in a book the publisher calls “a table-flipping, finger-pointing, halter-topping VIP journey through reality TV’s greatest saga.” In this excerpt, read about how the shows’ production companies assemble a season—and produce their casts, to find out just how real or fake it is.
“The $100,000 question is, is it scripted?” says Ana Quincoces from Real Housewives of Miami. “I don’t think it’s scripted, but things are planned. If these women and I would normally not hang out together, like seriously, you could not pay me enough money to hang out with them.” She says she was put into some situations she wouldn’t have been in otherwise, like when costar Lea Black got a lap dance from a little person or hoisted herself on a stripper pole in a party bus.
Not to contradict Ana, but the real $100,000 question isn’t whether or not the shows are real. There is a level of documentary that can’t be made up—marriages, divorces, rehab, lawsuits, ill-advised music careers. However they play out, these are real events happening in the lives of real women. I think the $100,000 question is: How produced are these shows? When lives get turned into story lines, how much of it is reality, how much is for the camera, and how much is it manipulated in post?
To answer this, we need to go to the troops on the ground: the producers, field crew, sound technicians, camera operators, story producers, editors, production assistants, and various other freelancers who make any Real Housewives show happen. The network (and Andy Cohen) gets a lot of credit for the franchise, but none of it would be possible without the hard work and sacrifices the producers and other crew undergo—of their time, their social lives, and mostly of their sanity. They are the unsung heroes, and while their tactics may be shadier than the bottom of the Grand Canyon at sunset, they’re doing it to give us what we want.
Every season of The Real Housewives starts with the executive producers sitting down with all the women who have been contracted for that season and asking them what they have going on in their lives. They’re looking for any special events— weddings, monumental birthdays, baby showers— and general developments, like if they’re launching a new business, getting a new job, or otherwise changing their lives.
This is so that producers can find the “story line” each woman is going to have over the course of the season. Some arcs emerge from real life whether the Housewife wants them to or not, like Luann de Lesseps’s arrest in Florida for assaulting a police officer and subsequent probation and court-ordered sobriety, or RHOP ’s Karen Huger dealing with the IRS coming after her husband for $5 million in unpaid back taxes.
Other story lines are essentially emotional, like preparing for a child to go off to college or trying to broker peace between a Trump-loving son and his liberal-leaning half brother. (We see you, Tamra.) Then there are the story lines that are entirely created, like when RHONJ ’s Melissa Gorga tried to find her long-lost sister (who never materialized) or tried to have a fourth baby (which also didn’t materialize).
Others are a combination of the two. RHOD’s Cary Deuber says that before the show’s third season, she and her husband, Mark, a plastic surgeon, hired a laser technician and decided to open a laser clinic to do cosmetic procedures. “Mark said to me, ‘Why don’t you run the laser center?’ ” Cary, a registered nurse, says. “I said, ‘Well, why don’t I … I could do that for my story line.’ ” But unlike a twinkle in the eye that doesn’t turn into a baby, Cary actually did (and still does) run the laser center.
In this sense, there is a difference between the producers producing the women and the women producing themselves. Many of the cast members, like meddler in chief Lisa Vanderpump, learned how their shows worked over the years and who they wanted to be on-screen. Some, like Bethenny Frankel and Eva Marcille, had been on reality television before Real Housewives and knew how the game was played before even showing up. Couple that with the motivation for wanting to stay on this cash cow, and that’s a pretty healthy incentive to make sure that your story line is fresh and the drama is flowing.
In their initial cast meetings, producers also delve into group dynamics among the women. They want to know who each woman is speaking to, who she might be mad at, and who she might have been hanging out with during the off-season. They’re trying to get a sense of where filming is going to go over the next couple of months, which is up to the executive producers (or EPs) and the showrunners to compile.
After about a month of chatting with the women and charting out the season, the showrunners have to provide their first document to Bravo. “You turn in something that’s called a show bible,” says a high-level producer who has worked on a number of Bravo projects. This is “an actual fifty-page document that literally outlines every woman, every story they have, and the direction we think they’re going to go.” The details even specify the scene work required to shoot everything.
As you might expect, “it never follows that.” While the showrunner might lay out in the bible how two women are the best of friends, that could all change with the smallest slight at a party. Likewise, a Housewife on the outs with the group might find herself forgiven and reembraced contrary to what the bible might have planned out. “It’s kind of dumb,” the producer says. “I don’t know why they still have us do it. But it’s a requirement.” The showrunner stays in charge of the bible throughout the season.
Filming begins with each woman’s personal story, so whatever we’re going to be following that season has nothing to do with the rest of the women, like Erika Jayne preparing for her role in Chicago on Broadway. These stories often involve filming in the women’s homes, which is easiest, as crews are familiar with (and allowed in) the space. For personal footage or, say, a lunch between two of the women where one is maybe or maybe not going to apologize, one of the season’s three film crews is sent.
A crew consists of two camera operators, a sound technician, and a camera assistant. While their talents seem mostly technical, the best camera operators and sound technicians have a sixth sense for what producers are going to want. If someone is wearing an outfit that’s sure to provoke comment, they know to get full coverage. They’re also poised to capture not just the action but the reaction shots that will be useful when the episode is assembled. I hope that whichever camera operator thought to shoot a man clutching both the sweater wrapped around his neck and a martini glass while the RHONY women bickered at a Newport restaurant got him- or herself a raise.
Crews need to be hypervigilant, even while off the clock. During the RHONY season 5 trip to St. Barts, when the camera and sound techs were on a break, Luann de Lesseps chose to phone her friends about hooking up the night before with a pirate who looked exactly like Johnny Depp. She spoke French in hopes that no one in the crew would pick up on the conversation—but coincidentally, one of the sound technicians was French and kept his headphones on during his break. He immediately flagged the cameramen and the producers to capture the call, much to the Countess’s dismay and our endless entertainment.
The women get no say in what makes it on the air. Just ask Denise Richards, who sent those cease and desist letters to keep the rumors of her affair with Brandi Glanville out of the season. Or Vicki Gunvalson, who requested that production remove the footage of her collapsing in tears when she learned, on camera, of her mother’s death. Or Teresa Giudice, who tried desperately to ax a scene in which her husband, Joe, is on the phone talking to another woman and saying, “Here comes my bitch wife. She’s such a cunt.” All three women were ignored.
Producers love to exploit a hot-mic moment. Think back to season 9 of RHONY when Carole Radziwill has a conversation with Luann’s friend Barbara Kavovit (who would eventually be cast as “a friend of,” but at the time was a mere civilian). They are at a charity event and Barbara admits to Carole, when there isn’t even a camera trained on them, that she thinks Luann’s marriage to Tom D’Agostino is a big mistake.
Turns out she was right, but it was plenty embarrassing at the time.
Along with camera and sound, each of the three production crews on a season comprises about ten people. The leader is a field producer who juggles both ends of the shoot—what is being said and how it’s being shot. She makes sure everything that will be needed in post is shot on the day, including restaurant interiors and exteriors and B-roll around the area. Between them, the three crews can capture multiple events in a day: Kyle Richards and Teddi Mellencamp going to a workout class at the same time as Lisa Rinna meets with her daughter’s modeling agent, say, while Lisa Vanderpump shills high-end dog toys at Vanderpump Dogs.
Producers sometimes use “beat sheets” to break down things to be addressed in a scene. This isn’t a script but an outline of topics; for instance, if it’s a scene between Sonja Morgan and her mysterious backers in her fashion line, the beat sheet might include things like, “Talk about whether or not the fashion show is successful,” or “Plan for the upcoming meeting with Century 21.” Everything Sonja says around those topics are words from her own mouth, though, and on-screen, there’s little way to tell which were the prescribed topics to discuss and when Sonja was just shooting the shit.
Could you even imagine trying to keep Sonja on script? In season 12, Luann tries to get Sonja to rehearse with her for an appearance in her cabaret show. “I’m not excited about rehearsing with you,” Sonja tells her. “I’m impromptu, okay? I don’t need to do a rehearsal with your team.”
“But this isn’t impromptu,” Luann counters. “It’s a rehearsed show. Look, there’s a script.” Sonja does not care and never shows up for rehearsal.
Everyone I talked with denies that the shows, unlike Luann’s cabaret, are in any way scripted, so much so that I have to believe them. One producer who worked across a number of shows for more than a decade says, “I have never worked on a Bravo show where anything is scripted like that, where we tell people what to say and what to do.” This is, of course, not the case for productions like The Hills or Selling Sunset, where scenes are so blatantly created you almost admire the balls they have for calling it reality.
“Every single episode you’re planning for at least one ‘tent-pole event,’ ” says a former field producer. These are the events where the cast comes together. Several crews converge to film store launches, backyard barbecues, and charity dinners. If none of the women are throwing a suitable event over the episode’s time frame, production may organize a group outing to an escape room or some other gathering for all the women to attend.
These are the events most planned in advance, but they’re also the least predictable.
Who could have foretold that Erika Jayne wouldn’t wear panties under her dress to a party and that Dorit Kemsley and her husband would notice, sparking an entire season’s story line? Something tells me that season’s bible didn’t include “Pantygate,” as fans call the event and the resulting aftermath.
Beat sheets for tent-pole events are much looser, as producers let the conversation take its natural path. The rules for mandatory attendance are also loosening a bit. “If a certain cast member wouldn’t naturally be there because they’re not talking to somebody, then they don’t have to come,” one producer says. “Why force them all to be together if they’re not really in that place?” For some events, this makes sense, but mostly I feel like the women are best when they’re all together. (Also, isn’t it kind of their job to have to hang out with each other?)
There’s still a cost to saying no, whatever the rules. Ana Quincoces says, “There were times when the producers would call me and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to go to [castmate] Joanna [Krupa’s] bachelorette party in Vegas and the girls are going to get in the hot tub and they’re probably going to take their tops off.’ And I said, ‘How about no. Does no work for you? Because I’m going to go with no.’ And I didn’t go, and they hated me. Those producers hated me.”
How, exactly, do the producers get what they want out of a scene? Well, it’s a little bit like being the animated devil on the shoulder of a cartoon character, driving them to do what they want to do but maybe don’t have the guts to do otherwise. It’s sort of like being a chaos agent, but instead of making anarchy, they’re making a story line.
“If I was out to dinner, sometimes the conversation could be about potty training for two hours,” Kristen Taekman, former Real Housewife of New York, says. “The only time production ever came in to intervene with me, they would say, ‘Kristen, listen. No more potty-training talk. I just wanted to remind you, remember last night when this and this happened.’ ”
Lisa Vanderpump used another example in a 2014 article in The Observer. “Imagine a friend is always late and you don’t say anything. [The producers] say, ‘OK, don’t just say what you’re thinking to us, say it to your friend.’ And then that becomes something that ignites a situation.”
One producer explains it like this: “When I’m in the field producing a scene, I’m thinking about what the audience is going to think. For instance, they might think, ‘Okay, so Lisa Vanderpump is obviously lying to these women. It’s just obvious the way her body language or her story is not adding up.’ The audience might think that and wonder why nobody is calling her out on it.” They say it’s the producer’s job to get in there and ask the women why don’t they say something if Lisa is, hypothetically, lying. (And we all know Lisa does more than hypothetically lie.) “It’s just encouraging the women to think larger than just in that moment, what is really happening.”
The production companies have different levels of comfort with just how involved producers should get in a scene. Producers who have worked for more than one company told me that the Evolution shows (RHOC and RHOBH) are relatively hands-off, letting the action unfold as it would naturally. In the Truly Original shows (like RHOA and RHOP), by contrast, producers intervene in the middle of scenes. They might go as far as pulling aside a woman in the middle of a group dinner to suggest that she push someone harder or make her point of view clearer. They’re still not telling the Housewife what to say or how to feel, but they do goad her to think and process outside of the action. This might explain why RHOA and RHOP tend to be more explosive and careen from drama to drama, where RHOBH can spend an entire season fighting over whether a rescue dog was returned properly.
The anomaly is RHONY, where producers are reportedly very hands-off, maybe even more than on the Evolution shows—but they can afford to be. The cast is professional and always brings it. When you can have an entire scene of Sonja Morgan narrating what she is going to pack for a weekend trip and have it be funnier than most Saturday Night Live sketches, why would you tamper with genius?
The behind-the-scenes details continue in Brian Moylan’s The Housewives, which was published May 25, 2021, by Flatiron Books. Buy the book on Bookshop.org, on Amazon, or wherever you find books. This excerpt is copyright 2021 Brian Moylan, and is used with permission of the author.