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06.09.10

Judgment Day for Real Housewives

The bizarre third season of The Real Housewives of New York City has ended. Anna David talks to its stars about the insanity that occurred—and about the show’s future.

"I called it right in the beginning," declares Ramona Singer. "I said it was going to be a very tumultuous season so you'd better put your seatbelts on."

Singer, the fiftysomething blond Pinot Grigio lover, is one-sixth—possibly one-seventh, though no one will say for sure—of The Real Housewives of New York City, one of four Real Housewives franchises (with two more on the way) that has kept Bravo in the epicenter of our cultural conversation. While the other versions of Housewives have their can-you-believe-she-just-did-that moments (a certain New Jersey table flip comes to mind), it's safe to say that what transpired on the third season of New York made all previous dramatic television moments feel tame in comparison. Its finale was last week; the season drew an average of 2 million viewers; and the first of two reunion episodes airs on Bravo tonight at 9 p.m.

Bensimon shows scenes to her kids as examples of “what not to do.” “Look, it’s a show about mean girls,” she says. “Most of it isn’t nice.”

While Singer has a tendency toward embellishment, her statement doesn't actually even do justice to what we saw—primarily due to the antics of Kelly Killoren Bensimon, who was either the breakout or breakdown star (when it comes to The Real Housewives, it can be difficult to tell the difference).

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Bensimon—a former model, magazine editor, and the ex-wife of photographer Gilles Bensimon—joined the show in its second season, when she was presented as somewhat flighty and prone to semi-hysterical outbursts (usually directed at fellow castmember Bethenny Frankel). In Season 3, though, Bensimon took her emotions to new heights during a trip the ladies took to St. John, allegedly to celebrate Singer's impending vow-renewal ceremony to her husband, Mario.

But love and Mario were a mere blip on the trip, mostly because of Bensimon's epic meltdown, which involved repeatedly chastising Frankel for calling herself a chef when really she's a cook, declaring the chef/cook a "ho bag" for having had one-night stands, and offering now-infamous non-sequiturs relating to satchels of gold and Al Sharpton. This caused something of a flurry on the Internet—was Bensimon on drugs? Suffering from previously undiagnosed mental disorders? Reacting to ideas that had been planted in her head, pre-trip, by Housewives Jill Zarin and Luanne de Lesseps?—and spurred Bensimon to release several videos, including a PSA about bullying, that were seemingly meant to tell her side of the story.

Bensimon sounds thrilled with the results. "My bullying video has gotten over 80,000 hits [Note: 69,399, but close enough]," she says. "I've realized I have a voice I didn't know I had. Mock it or love it, I'm making an impact." As for what happened in the Virgin Islands, "I wouldn't do anything differently," she declares. "If you push me to the boiling point, I'm going to scream." Her take on it is that "it was like a school trip, but instead of having friends or a teacher I could go to, I had igniting producers."

Despite her convictions and bravado (she proudly announces that Episode 11—the meltdown episode—is the most downloaded iTunes show "and that's awesome"), Bensimon is well aware of the fact that her behavior wasn't altogether exemplary. Though she didn't watch the show before she joined the cast, and doesn't "sit down on Thursday nights with my popcorn" now, she shows her scenes to her kids as examples of "what not to do." "Look, it's a show about mean girls," Bensimon says. "Most of it isn't nice."

Weeks after the episode aired—and months after it was shot—the other ladies don't seem as clear as Bensimon about what, exactly, happened. The only point they all agree on is that what we viewers saw was nothing compared to what actually happened as it unfolded.

"It was something no one expected," says Alex McCord, the Brooklyn-dwelling graphic designer who found her own voice this season. Her theory is that Bensimon "gets uncomfortable quickly so that whenever her threshold is crossed, she does something childish to shut the conversation down, whether it's talking over people or throwing out random attacks or talking nonsense." (Bensimon's take on that? "I think Alex is in desperation mode," she says with a sigh. "She's doing and saying things that are out of character to stay on the show.")

Of all the women, Singer is the one who seems the most concerned with Bensimon's state of mind. "I was frightened by what I saw," Singer says. "I didn't let the cameras follow me but when I found out Kelly was leaving [the island], I called Jill and asked her to meet Kelly at the airport to make sure she was OK." (At this point in the interview, a publicist piped in to say that conversations about what goes on behind-the-scenes aren't permitted—odd, since production comments weren't a problem before this point.)

For her part, Frankel says that the Bensimon incident was "unsettling," but that she wasn't "totally surprised." As for what's actually going on behind Bensimon's ever-tanned skin, Frankel gives an audible shrug. "How could I possibly know?" she asks, not unkindly. "I'm not a doctor and even if I was, I'm not sure I could say." Frankel does speculate, however, that being on the show "isn't good" for Bensimon. "I think she's like a caged animal acting out," Frankel concludes.

For all that Frankel professes that the show is stressful for all of them and that "I had moments this season where I thought, 'There's no way I can do this,'" it has been undeniably good for her and she knows it. "So many amazing things have happened to me since I started working with Bravo," she says, referencing the success of her Skinny Girl label, her New York Times bestselling diet book, her new show, Bethenny Getting Married?, which premieres tonight after the reunion episode. She's also fallen in love and had a baby. "Maybe," she says, "it's like walking into a casino when it's hot."

Clearly not all of the women have had such favorable rolls of the dice. While Bensimon does damage control, the rest of the ladies are seemingly trying to make sense of the tumult. McCord believes the separation in the group is between the women who work "and for whom the show is a side gig" and those who don't. While Singer pooh-poohs this theory, saying that she gets along with everyone, she also lets it slip out that "Jill was the girl in high school who was never liked and wasn't invited anywhere and she still has a chip on her shoulder about it."

Zarin's transition from mother hen to passive-aggressive instigator was, Bensimon disintegration aside, the major theme of the season. Andy Cohen, Bravo's senior vice president of programming (and reunion referee), immediately shoots me down when I tell him that I heard a well-sourced rumor that Zarin had become so difficult between Seasons 2 and 3 that they considered firing her.

But Cohen remains tightlipped about who, exactly, is coming back next year—because, he claims, they simply haven't decided yet. A rumor about McCord and her husband Simon Van Kempen being axed, which ran in The New York Daily News in February, was squashed by Cohen almost as soon as it surfaced; and no one will say a word about the not-quite-seventh housewife, event planner Jennifer Gilbert, who appeared on the show this season, but was not officially cast as a regular.

Even Frankel's future hasn't been made clear despite her spinoff show. "Never say never," she says, "but do I want to walk back into that situation with my new, perfect, pure-as-the-driven snow baby? At this moment, I would say no."

No matter who reconvenes, it's safe to say that, like rival sororities or high-school cliques, the ladies will remain divided. While Cohen shrugs off McCord's analysis of the reasons behind the two Housewives factions—"Jill considers herself someone who works," he says, despite the fact that I hadn't attached any specific names to Alex's theory—he also promises that the does-Jill-work meme, along with Bensimon's ideas about "systematic bullying," will be featured prominently in the "more dramatic than any so far" reunion episodes.

And he's happy to speculate further about the divisions. "You could say it's the blondes and Bethenny versus the brunettes," he opines cheerfully. He pauses. "Then again, who knows? The camps can change when the wind blows."

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Anna David is the author of the novels Party Girl and Bought and has written for The New York Times, Playboy, Details, Cosmo, and Redbook, among other publications. Her most recent book, Reality Matters, is an anthology of essays that she edited about reality shows (including, of course, The Real Housewives of New York City ).