When Vicki Gunvalson began filming The Real Housewives of Orange County nearly four years ago, she would allow the camera crews into her home when she was wearing sweatpants and had thrown her hair up into a messy ponytail. She shared real, sound friendships with the majority of her fellow four castmates. And she had no idea that the way she acted on television—occasionally shouting out her signature rallying cry “Woo-hoo!” or indulging in one too many cocktails at a bar—could negatively affect her insurance business.
Things have changed. She burned the entire wardrobe she wore on the first season because she didn’t like how she looked on television. She now maintains what she describes as “working relationships” with the fellow Housewives. And she seriously considered not returning to the show for its fifth season—which premieres Thursday on Bravo—because she feared it was harming her real-life business.
“He did not want to come back this season, and I did,” Tamra Barney said about her rift with her husband. “He’s very private and conservative. We’re having a lot of financial problems, and he just didn’t want to expose that. You could see the frustration on his face when we would film.”
"I almost lost a very large client of mine—a $2 million client—because he Googled me and said he didn't like what he was seeing on the TV show," Gunvalson, 47, told The Daily Beast. "I never tell my clients I'm on the show, and I hope they don't watch it, truthfully. They're over 65. They don't understand—this.”
This, of course, is The Real Housewives of Orange County, a reality-TV show that follows women who lead extravagant lifestyles in one of the country's most affluent regions. But as the economic climate has shifted, so too has the focus of the show—leaving some of the Housewives facing some very real problems that go beyond scoring the latest designer bag.
“We have to buy into these characters, and if they’re going through a rough patch right now, I think it gives you more reason to root for them,” said Andy Cohen, senior vice president of programming for Bravo, which launched the program back in 2006. Since, other Housewives franchises have been spawned in New York, Atlanta, New Jersey, and soon, Washington D.C. The Orange County version saw its highest ratings ever during its fourth season, averaging 2.2 million total viewers, according to Bravo.
The upcoming season doesn’t stray from addressing the ladies’ financial woes—to a point.
In the first episode, Jeana Keough, a 52-year-old former Playboy playmate and real-estate agent, asks her 17-year old son, Colton, to help her make sure she doesn't make frivolous purchases. She admits she's bad at budgeting and has never had to think before spending money.
"You get your check and you're like, 'Money! Ahh! I gotta go buy something!' And you'll run to Nordstrom's as fast as you can," Colton says, rolling his eyes.
According to Bravo, Jeana’s divorce and a down real-estate market have prompted her to quit the show to focus on work full-time. (She will only appear on the first three episodes of the upcoming season.)
But reports circulated over the summer that Jeana was opting out of the show not because of her job, but because Bravo refused to up the ante on her salary.
“I just didn’t feel appreciated by the girls or the network,” she said when reached by telephone. “There’s a lot of work that is involved—it’s an all-year-round thing with all of the shooting and the press, and it wasn’t enough.”
Money has also eroded the friendship between Jeana and Vicki, the only two original remaining O.C. Housewives. This season, the ladies find their friendship flailing after Vicki denies Jeana’s request to borrow some cash.
“I would have been borrowing money for a week when I didn’t want to pay a $200 late fee for something and she knew I had a check coming,” Jeana explained over the phone.
“With Vicki, it’s all about Vicki, but I’ve always forgiven her because she’s got issues,” she continued. “She had a tumor in her ear and she’s had nine brain surgeries. She once told me she came home and they took out a full cup of matter. She’s high-functioning and she keeps her house immaculate, but her people skills are a little strange.”
But at a discussion with the ladies in late October in the lounge of the palatial St. Regis Monarch Beach Resort, all appeared cordial in the group. The six Housewives had arrived at the tony hotel and spa perched over the ocean in Dana Point, Calif., for a day's worth of interviews, armed with Louis Vuitton duffle bags full of potential outfit swaps and makeup supplies.
In other words, their physical appearances were not indicative of serious financial troubles.
Tamra Barney, 42, was wearing what appeared to be expensive resort-wear: a flirty pink dress that lifted and pushed her large fake breasts together. Her platinum blond hair looked like it had been professionally blown out and her skin darkened to a golden brown at a tanning salon. Her cellphone, which she was clutching in her lap, was bedazzled with hundreds of shiny white crystals.
"Looking good, working out, tanning, the nails, the hair," she sighed, describing her weekly upkeep.
Meanwhile, the expansive two-story home in Ladera Ranch that Tamra has owned since 2005 has been foundering in a down real-estate market for a year since it was listed for $1.6 million. (In July, the home was relisted for $1.149 million as a short sale, and she recently received three offers on the home that her bank is considering.) A few months ago, she let both a nanny and a maid go to save cash. And she's been arguing a lot with her husband, Simon, a luxury-car salesman.
“He did not want to come back this season, and I did,” she said, admiring her manicure. “He’s very private and conservative. We’re having a lot of financial problems, and he just didn’t want to expose that. You could see the frustration on his face when we would film.”
Of course, things aren’t all doom and gloom in Orange County these days.
We’ll still see the ladies receiving pricey jewlery from their husbands, buying their daughters nose jobs, and heading off for luxe vacations to Rome and Turks and Caicos this season. Meanwhile, the New York Housewives each reportedly rake in upward of $30,000 per episode—so one assumes the Orange County women are making a comparable amount. (Bravo declined to “verify any financials.”)
And, the Housewives say, the show has helped to boost their income in other ways—they now get approached almost weekly to put their name on a new beauty product or clothing line.
“You really have to pick and choose because you can’t be a product whore," said Tamra. “But I’m doing an infomercial for a skin-care line, and I’m making a lot of money off of it."
“If you’re in insurance, you stay in insurance,” Vicki added.
“Honey, you’re going to spill that coffee, you talk with your hands,” Tamra cautioned Vicki. "And you're doing the jeans line."
Vicki shrugged her shoulders. She has launched a denim line, Vicki Lynn Jeans, is working on a book, More Than a Housewife, and is also launching her own insurance school, Coto University.
Lynne Curtin, the 51-year-old who is still paying off the facelift she recently got, has her own line of leather cuff bracelets decorated with crystal crosses or peace signs that sell at high-end boutiques like Fred Segal. "I think I get a lot of pity sales," she said. "Like, 'Oh, we better help her and buy a cuff from her' because they see me having a hard time."
This year, camera crews happened to be filming at Lynne’s home when she was served with papers warning her of an impending eviction. As such, her storyline will show her moving out of her rental home due to a disagreement with her landlord over a security deposit. She is going to court next week to settle the scuffle.
Despite the financial issues she has been battling, Lynne said she thinks viewers still imagine she lives a charmed life.
"You know, people are freezing their buns off in Mississippi, and look at us living this glamorous lifestyle," said Lynne. "It's like the Beach Boys, 'California Girls.' You know that song?"
Amy Kaufman is an assistant editor at The Daily Beast. A former reporter for The Wrap, she has also written for the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times.