07.06.10

Has Real Housewives Gone Too Far?

Real Housewives of New Jersey now revolves solely around unhinged ex-con Danielle Staub—she tells Anna David about her “meaningless” enemies and being in the Bravo “family.”

As anyone with even the vaguest knowledge of reality television’s existence can attest, scandalous people–think Puck, Spencer Pratt, Richard Hatch, and New York of Flavor of Love fame—make good TV. It’s a simple paradigm, really: shameful situations, starring shameless people, tend to produce off-the-chart ratings.

But Danielle Staub (formerly Beverly Merrill) leaves all previous scandal-makers in the dust. A review, if you will: The Real Housewives of New Jersey mother of two has reveled in her stripper (nee burlesque dancer) past, admitted to being a nymphomaniac on television, and starred rather happily, it would seem, in one sex tape (the other she starred in, apparently, not so happily). There’s also the matter of her arrest for kidnapping and drug possession (she pled guilty), her alleged work for an escort service, and the fact that she brings two-bit criminals like Danny Provenzano onto a network that prides itself on featuring the world’s “ affluencers.” (She’s also supposedly hooked up with Don Johnson, an act which isn’t technically illegal but potentially should be.)

Staub insists that the network hasn’t ever wavered in its support for her. “Bravo has never judged me for anything,” she says. “I’m part of their family. I’m a Bravo-lebrity. There’s never been a ‘How could you?’ questioning day.”


Danielle Staub performs "Real Close" on Watch What Happens Live.

“I realize now why all of this happened,” Staub says in a telephone interview. “It was so that I could help people. I speak for equality. Love me or hate me, people are listening.”

It’s not only viewers who have been shocked by the barrage of outrageousness that is Danielle’s past (and current) life; those who work in reality show production are also surprised. “I had a moment of disbelief watching the show,” says Candace Smith, a model, actress, and lawyer who was on Survivor: Tocantins. “And the sad part is that this is the direction where reality TV is heading. It’s saying to kids out there, ‘Yes, you can do drugs and be a prostitute, and then have a single out and be featured on a show.’”

So is it morally irresponsible of Bravo to bestow fame on Staub, or is a network's sole responsibility to try to guarantee their “ best June ever?” Hysterical comments on various websites about what a danger Staub is to the other housewives may abound, but it’s probably safe to assume that camera surveillance–and the knowledge that whatever happened off camera would be dissected to death on air–will likely keep Staub from following through on any of her off-hand threats.

The general perception is that people featured on reality shows go through extensive background checks, but those are typically reserved for competition shows. On Survivor, says the show's former casting director Sarah Monson, production companies can spend roughly $800 to $1000 on vetting each person who makes it to the finals. “They also get a thorough psychiatric evaluation where if the psychologist has an inkling that they’re going to be unstable, they’re sent home,” says Monson. But producers on a show like Survivor know that they’re throwing a bunch of disparate personalities together in a jungle and forcing them to fend for themselves under potentially desperate circumstances. In other words: the likelihood of participants going off the rails is greater. “It’s different with The Real Housewives,” says Monson. “They’re just living their lives so they don’t need as much regulating."

When asked about the Housewives screening process, Andy Cohen—Bravo’s Vice President of Original Programming and Development and Watch What Happens Live host—says, "Look, they’re not living together. We talk to their families. We try to be as responsible as we possibly can."

Still, the bar for what’s considered acceptable to televise is, increasingly, “a real issue,” says Alec Shankman, a former talent agent for reality producers and personalities who now runs the TV show casting website gotcast.com. “They want as much personality as possible,” he says, “but they don’t want the liability of someone who’s a threat to the other people on the show.”

Which sometimes means that producers and networks will brush whatever they can under the rug in order to keep a person around who’s good for ratings. Consider the case of Josh Flagg, a realtor on Bravo’s Million Dollar Listing who was arrested for stealing art (which he liked to take photos with and then post on Facebook). Although charges were eventually dropped, Flagg was supposedly fired from Coldwell Banker because of the thievery, but not from Listing. “Josh is a really successful realtor–that's why we wanted him—and we love him,” says Cohen; the incident was not discussed on the show.

There’s also Alexis Neiers, one of the teenage robbers of the rich and famous who starred in the E! show Pretty Wild post-arrest.

The worst-case scenario occurred in August of 2009, when VH1’s Megan Wants a Millionaire contestant Ryan Jenkins killed himself while under suspicion of murdering his wife. Jenkins had also starred in—and possibly wonI Love Money 3, which VH1 opted not to air (the channel canceled Megan and removed all mentions of it from its website as well).

After that, networks began putting out the word that they wanted to focus on " inspirational" programming rather than tabloid-friendly fare. The finale of the first season of The Real Housewives of New Jersey—when Staub pulled out a copy of Cop Without a Badge, the controversial book that had revealed her past, at Teresa Giudice’s dinner party and Giudice famously flipped both her lid and a table—had aired a month earlier.

While Bravo is surely feeling like they got more than they had bargained for with Staub—“We didn’t know about her name change and former life,” says Bravo’s Cohen—they don’t seem to be feeling any regrets. “We knew it was going to be a challenging season because none of the Manzos wanted to hang out with Danielle anymore,” Cohen adds. “But look, we follow the story.” When I point out that the show consists of either Scenes With Danielle or Scenes With People Talking About Danielle, Cohen counters, “There's other stuff going on: Caroline is having empty nest syndrome, there’s what’s going on with Albie…and Theresa.”

And Staub insists that the network hasn’t ever wavered in its support for her. “Bravo has never judged me for anything,” she says. “I’m part of their family. I’m a Bravo-lebrity. There’s never been a ‘How could you?’ questioning day.”

Staub says that she’s now figured out that her arrest—and everything that led up to it—had to happen so that she could become “a better person, a better mother, a better Catholic and eventually a better wife.” She also says that while she was originally defensive when she started working on her recently released book, The Naked Truth: The Real Story Behind the Real Housewife of New Jersey—In Her Own Words, the process changed her. “It became about saying to people, ‘You might understand yourself a little better and avoid some of what I experienced through this,’” she says, adding, “If I’d read a book like that earlier, it might have helped relieve things I didn’t quite understand.”

While Staub claims that she doesn’t care “if everyone hates me,” she’s quick to point out how adored she is. “You don’t know how many people run toward me screaming and jumping up and down, saying, ‘It’s you!’ and ‘You get me!’” she says. “You should see how happy they are. I get love from so many people.” It’s not clear whether or not Staub understands that people tend to gravitate toward anyone they’ve ever seen on TV and that their “love” is often influenced by the excitement of seeing someone who’s invaded their living rooms, but the importance to her of receiving it is evident. If the teaser for Monday's much-anticipated "Danielle meltdown" episode is any indication, Staub's not getting any of that love from her castmates.

Of course she has no love for them, either. On Dina Manzo's recently shown departure from Real Housewives of New Jersey, which Dina told Us Weekly was “99.9 percent … because of Danielle,” Danielle asks rhetorically, “Like she was such a big part of it? It’s like, ‘Dina, nobody missed you. Your own husband won’t do any show with you.’”

Adding none too subtly to the rumors about Dina’s custody battles, Staub says, “You know how my daughters are legally allowed to do the show? Because my ex signed a contract saying that they could.” (When I ask whether she knew for a fact that Dina’s ex had refused to sign such a contract, a Bravo rep that was on the line chimed in that the topic was off-limits.)

Clearly, caring about what topics others feel are off-limits is not a concern of Staub’s. Of the two Kims—boutique owner Kim D. and pot stirrer Kim G. (both seemingly batty, both seemingly devoted to betraying Staub, both seemingly doing everything in their power to land regular roles on the show): “They’re meaningless. They’re insignificant to me. They’re opportunists.” On Jacqueline Laurita and her tweet that Staub had leaked her own sex tape: “Here’s what I have to say to her: Why don’t you tweet about your babies instead of focusing on me? Why don’t you pay attention to your kids and stop drinking wine at three in the afternoon and driving drunk? You have a daughter who’s acting out: pay attention to that.”

Staub saves the kind words for others—like her “Real Close” songwriter and rumored lesbian lover Lori Michaels (about that relationship, Staub says, “I’m going to keep people on the edges of their seats about that a little longer”). And for Danny Provenzano, a fellow ex-con she says she met in the last year or two at a Queen Latifah charity softball event, who, on the show, she has brought along as “security” several times because she seemingly sometimes thinks she’s on The Sopranos. She also adores Cohen. “Andy is brilliant!” she raves. “He was very touched by [her “Real Close” performance on WWHL]. He has so much energy but it calmed him to a place where he was really immobilized.”

While one wouldn’t imagine that Staub brings Cohen calmness, immobilization isn’t so difficult to conjure up. Yet he insists that Staub isn’t diminishing the Bravo brand. “She’s certainly unique in terms of the Real Housewives franchise because she’s independent and dominant and has a strong point of view,” he says when I inquire about it. When I ask whether Bravo might have hesitated to cast Staub had they known everything about her ahead of time, Cohen sounds weary. “That would be a total speculation,” he says. “You really can’t tell with hindsight.”

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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. She appears on CBS, NBC, Fox News and many other networks regularly. Her most recent book, Reality Matters, is an anthology of essays that she edited about reality shows.