04.06.10

Real Housewives' Unlikely Villain

Jill Zarin of Real Housewives of New York City has seemed a bit evil this season—she talks to Doree Shafrir about her rift with Bethenny Frankel, upping the drama, and her new book.

On The Real Housewives of New York City, Jill Zarin has taken on the role of no-nonsense Jewish mother, someone who is fiercely loyal to her friends and family but unrepentant about cutting someone out of her life if she feels she's been wronged. This season, the Bravo show’s third, opened with news of a seemingly intractable feud between Jill and Bethenny Frankel, the Housewife who's seen perhaps the most dramatic transformation over the course of the series—going from a single woman unlucky in love trying to get her "SkinnyGirl" nutrition business off the ground to a bestselling author with a serious boyfriend. Jill and Bethenny used to be best friends. Now they seem to be sworn enemies.

Jill, too, has changed since the show debuted in March 2008, then the second in the Real Housewives franchise, after Orange County. She hasn’t gotten divorced, like Countess LuAnn de Lesseps, whose husband was cheating on her with a much younger, Ethiopian model, and she hasn’t gotten super-famous like Bethenny. But she and her husband Bobby, the owner of a Manhattan fabric store, have both slimmed down and glammed up—Jill got a breast-reduction last summer, going from, she says, a size 32G to a 32DD—and she seems to revel in her new life as a Famous Person. Still, the way that all the Housewives have changed has left its mark on the relationships among the women; the jealousy, backstabbing, and cruelties that have been on display this season make Mean Girls look like Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.

“We were told, in no uncertain terms—and I wouldn’t say it’s affected me, but it’s affected some of the other girls—that if they didn’t bring it on, they wouldn’t be holding an apple,” says Jill, referring to the promotional shot where each Housewife is holding an apple to represent the Big Apple.

I'm at the Regency Hotel in Manhattan for breakfast with Jill—along with her sister, Lisa Wexler, a lawyer and radio host; and her assistant, Darren Bettencourt—to discuss her new book, Secrets of a Jewish Mother: Real Advice, Real Stories, Real Love, which she wrote with Wexler and their mother, Gloria Kamen (who's been known to offer her own brutally honest advice on RHONY).

Their book, set to be released on April 15, is 300 pages of no-nonsense—if traditional—advice on everything from dating ("Just because he isn't perfect doesn't mean he won't be perfectly right for you. You're not perfect either. If you want unconditional love, go buy a puppy") and appearance ("A good figure, lovely hair and clear skin guarantee that you are a pretty person to the rest of us, even if you may worry that your nose is crooked or your eyes are small") to money ("Money may not buy you love, but it buys a nice diamond ring and a lovely wedding"). The overarching theme is—if you're Jewish—how to marry a nice, smart Jewish guy, settle down, have kids, keep your figure, and make sure he's not too stingy. It's advice targeted, mostly, to women like them.

But the conversation keeps veering back to Bethenny.

Some people love their grudges. They love holding on to them. They nourish them with bitter commentary, and they nurse their grievances like they would feed a bottle to a starving infant. We all know people like that. Eventually, those people end up with lives that are like very small rooms. There is no space for anyone else to fit in.— Secrets of a Jewish Mother.

The first chapter of Secrets of a Jewish Mother is about friendship, and in it Jill briefly details her relationships with each of the current Housewives (LuAnn: "We will be lifelong friends"; Ramona Singer: "My relationship with Ramona is at times awkward and surreal"). On Bethenny, Jill writes, "I'm not sure what will happen with our friendship. But no matter what, I will always love Bethenny."

On last week’s episode, Bethenny called Jill while LuAnn was at Jill's house. Jill put her on speakerphone, and when Bethenny asked if anyone else was with her, Jill responded that she was with Darren and "a few friends." What follows is a scene that could be said to define the season, with Jill being portrayed as an evil meddler who’s unwilling to forgive Bethenny, who seems to be reaching out to her to try and patch things up.

"This is where they sort of set me up," Jill tells me.

It's the day of the first night of Passover, and Jill has ordered a waffle—"dry and crispy"—as her last piece of chametz for the next eight days. She is wearing a tight black dress that modestly exposes her famously reduced breasts, and a necklace with large black stones; her long reddish-brown hair is perfectly blown out. "LuAnn comes over to my apartment to hang out and sleep over. We sit on the couch, we talk for an hour about her divorce, about what she was going to do with the kids. You don't see one word of that. Then what you cut right to is, the phone rings, and it's Bethenny. And I had no idea she'd be calling."

I ask whether it was the producers' idea for Bethenny to call Jill because they knew she was with LuAnn.

"That's exactly what I thought," says Jill. But what we see on television is Bethenny getting out of a car and deciding, seemingly spontaneously, to give Jill a call. So there were cameras on her as well.

Jill continues. "Now, normally someone calls from their house, from their living room. She gets out of the car and makes this phone call to me on the side of a street with a camera crew. They completely set me up. I had no idea she was calling. I wasn't prepared. And with this whole thing going on with Bethenny, I had actually—because my memory is so bad, I had written down notes, like a cheat sheet. Anyway, she calls me on the phone and I said, let me put you on speaker."

The scene was edited to make it look like Jill put Bethenny on speakerphone because she—evilly—wants LuAnn to hear both sides of the conversation. "I didn't put her on speakerphone because LuAnn was there. I put her on speakerphone so the camera could hear her voice," says Jill. "But now, looking at the show, I realize why she said what she said. Because she knew she had a camera on her. She said to me, 'Why'd you put me on speakerphone?' Now, I didn't know there was a camera on her, so I'm like, 'What are you, a fucking moron?' I put her on speakerphone because we're shooting a TV show."

The Golden Rules of Friendship: "1) Be there. 2) Apologize when wrong. 3) Forgive. Let it go. 4) [Do] not cross the line. There are a few no-nos even a close friend can't forgive."— Secrets of a Jewish Mother

The day before Jill and I met, Bethenny had married her boyfriend, Jason Hoppy, at the Four Seasons restaurant in Manhattan.

I ask Jill if it had been an emotional day, particularly since she hadn’t been invited.

"Yeah, absolutely," she says. "It was a tough, tough day. But you know, I kept busy."

"You guys were so close that first season," I say. "You were always hanging out at Bethenny's apartment."

"I don't want to get into this," Jill says, and her eyes well up with tears.

"Awwww," says Darren.

"I'm sorry," I say.

"Milestones. People like to be invited to milestones," says Jill, sniffling.

"You know, I thought that with all the bullshit that a wedding still meant something," says Lisa. "But this wedding was just as much about her career and her television show"—the wedding was filmed for her upcoming spinoff show, Bethenny's Getting Married, also on Bravo—"as it was about her personal life, sweetheart," she says to Jill. Lisa, 3 1/2 years Jill's elder, has suddenly shifted into older sister mode. "And she felt that if she invited you, with all the cameras there, maybe there would be drama that she didn't want to have. See, it would be one thing if it was a truly private event, but this is not a private event. And then all of a sudden the cameras are on Jill, taking the focus away from her big day. I understand why, in this circumstance—"

"Then she could have said that," says Jill.

"She could have. And she could always make up with you privately," says Lisa. "But I understand why, as a public event, she might not have wanted to detract—"

"She didn't want drama," Jill says. The tears have stopped.

"That's what I mean," says Lisa.

"I don't blame her," says Jill. "I sent her flowers. I called."

"So you've done everything you can?" I say.

"You have no idea," says Jill.

Before asking forgiveness from God, we must ask forgiveness from our fellow men and women. We even have to do it three times, just to make sure. If we are not forgiven after the third time, then the sin is on them—because what else can you do?— Secrets of a Jewish Mother

The Real Housewives of New Jersey featured a woman who, it was revealed, was a former stripper and drug dealer's girlfriend; the season culminated in a knock-down fight in which one of the Housewives overturned a table at a fancy dinner. Atlanta was also notable for its fights, which sometimes ended in hair-pulling (or, to be more precise, wig-pulling).

That’s a lot to live up to. And according to Jill, the producers explicitly told the New York Housewives that if they didn’t step up the drama, they’d be cut from the show—like the sweet, but boring, DeShawn Snow on the Atlanta series, who was cut after the first season. (And does anyone remember Orange County midseason replacement Quinn, the evangelical Christian with the huge breasts? She was quietly gone before the next season started.)

"We were told, in no uncertain terms—and I wouldn't say it's affected me, but it's affected some of the other girls—that if they didn't bring it on, they wouldn't be holding an apple," says Jill, referring to the promotional shot where each Housewife is holding an apple to represent the Big Apple. "There was a lot of pressure to bring on drama—this coming off New Jersey and Atlanta."

Nonetheless, Jill denies that the scenarios on the show are fake—though they can, at times, be contrived. Or at least, their drama is heightened.

"I'm not going to say anybody told us how to act—it wasn't a script," says Jill. "But when you're sort of told, 'If you don't bring it on, you're not going to be holding an apple in the commercial,' some are more threatened than others. In other words, for me, I love doing the show and I feel very comfortable that I have a secure place there."

(Andy Cohen, Bravo’s senior vice president of original programming and development, emailed a response to Jill’s charge: “We cast outgoing people who we know are going to be fun to watch. We never tell people what to do or say—we just want people to be themselves. The women who ‘hold the apple’ are all outgoing, driven women, which is why they are on the show in the first place. All the drama you see is real and completely brought on by their own personal interactions with each other—you can't make this stuff up!”)

Later, Silda Wall Spitzer, the wife of disgraced former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, walks by our table on her way out of the restaurant. "She's so nice," Jill says, smiling as Spitzer walks by.

"The other ones upped the ante to a level of drama that is not interesting to me," says Jill. "And some of us gotta work for a living, for God's sake."

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story stated that Lisa Wexler is five years older than her her sister, Jill Zarin.

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Doree Shafrir has contributed to The New York Observer, The New Yorker, Slate, and The Awl, and is the co-author of Love, Mom. She is a former editor at Gawker. Her Web site is www.doreeshafrir.com.