The trailer for the new season of The Real Housewives of New York is a glorious wine-soaked overture of screaming matches, catty remarks, and tearful confessions, a cacophony that translates as sweet music to the ears of reality TV fans.
Bottles are popped. Boob jobs are judged. The phrase “hunting season” is quite appropriately bandied about as various women talk about cougar prowls, the speed at which they can climax, and laser hair removal from their nether regions. There are fights about boyfriends, fights about rumors, fights about drinking, and fights about having fights about drinking.
After it all, the music pauses as cast member Carole Radziwill looks at the camera and grins sheepishly. “Yep,” she says, laughing at herself. “These are my friends.”
Radziwill, 52, is back for her fourth season as a member of this high-society clique of Manhattan women, each wantonly epitomizing the phrase, “With friends like these…”
That makes her a veteran of the reality TV juggernaut, which launches its eighth season on Wednesday with the most familiar—O.G. Housewife Ramona Singer returns, as does reality queen Bethenny Frankel and catchphrase maven LuAnn de Lesseps—and may be most entertaining cast yet.
The success of these shows tends to depend on how depravedly they cater to our gluttonous appetite for guilty pleasures, which might explain why Radziwill, in her four years on the series, has become a fan favorite cast member: She feels like one of us.
Some of us watch Housewives because we feel above it. The pleasure comes from the naughtiness in indulging in such fare, the apparent bravery in facing embarrassment by being caught partaking, and ultimately feeling a little bit superior to the drama. We shouldn’t be into such things, but, at the risk of being uncool, we’re enjoying it anyway.
Radziwill, in many ways, seems to be the show’s own version of that ethos, though she denies it.
“I’m not above the other women,” Radziwill laughs over a lunch at the Rockefeller Center Café the week before the RHONY season premiere. “I never even thought I was above the show.”
She says she’s aware that many people watch the show and confuse her barely disguised amusement while observing the other women’s antics as a judgment of their behavior. But it’s quite the contrary, she says.
“I don’t feel better than,” she says. “I feel like I’m in it. And I am in it. I’m doing it. That doesn’t make me better than anyone, just because my background is a little different.”
About that background: “Housewife,” Radziwill is not.
She is an Emmy-winning journalist who spent 15 years working in broadcast news. That’s where she met her late husband Anthony Radziwill, nephew to Jacqueline Kennedy and son to Prince Stanislaw of Poland. Yes, that makes Radziwill, by extension, both a princess and a Kennedy.
Her husband’s passing just three weeks after Radziwill’s best friends Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy and John F. Kennedy Jr., died in a plane crash became the inspiration for her 2005 memoir, What Remains: A Memoir of Fate, Friendship and Love, a New York Times best-seller. She’s been a working journalist and author since.
In other words, consider her the Thinking Man’s Real Housewife.
“That line does represent how I feel!” Radziwill insists when that Season 8 trailer is brought up. “At this point I can say that these are definitely my friends: the good, the bad, the ugly.”
She has a sense of humor about the show and how these friends of hers come off, but she also never disparages them or gives in to the idea that they’re not as smart, accomplished, or strong as she is—drunken antics notwithstanding. At the notion of being the Thinking Man’s Housewife, she giggles.
“I went into journalism for a reason,” she says. “I try to be a thoughtful person. I try to see all sides. And I do think before I speak.” Then a pause before erupting into laughter: “Which is not necessarily a good thing on this show.”
When Andy Cohen, supreme overlord of the world of jewel-toned gowns, Pinot Grigio, and ladies who lunch (and occasionally flip lunch tables) that the Housewives occupy, reached out to Radziwill about appearing on the fifth season of his New York franchise, she had never seen an episode of the show.
“Andy Cohen I’ve known socially for a long time, as a lot of women in New York do…” Radziwill begins the story of how it all started, laughing.
Cohen had just let go of many of the show’s cast of Housewives, and its breakout star, Bethenny Frankel, had left on her own the season before. Radziwill reminded him of a lot of women he knew in New York—funny, hardworking, and down to earth, while still exuding certain vibes of Sex and the City-era fabulousness—and he was on a mission to have the show reflect more of the New York he knew.
“I have to be honest,” she says. “He also liked the idea that I was a princess by marriage”—though he didn’t know that until further into their negotiations.
A certain naiveté about what she was getting herself into actually may have marked Radziwill for success.
The curse of late-addition Housewives is that they are also students of the franchise, with their own ideas of what kind of behavior or—that icky word—“character” might get them more screentime (and more seasons, more Us Weekly covers, and more fame).
“I had no idea how to be a Housewife, or what they argue about or what to get really offended by,” Radziwill says. It was refreshing.
As a reality TV personality, Radziwill seemed exceptionally real at a time when the genre and its participants seemed to be leaning heavily on staged stunts that reeked of inauthenticity (is that, um, a leg flying?) and controversies so engineered you could see their masterminds’ wheels turning as they played them out.
“I think the audience is so smart, and the camera—I’ve learned this from all my years in news—the camera will see right through your soul,” she says. “There’s no hiding.”
“The people who you see put on airs, who create things that aren’t organic to their lives, they end up imploding,” she continues. “I’ve seen that.”
When Radziwill joined the show, she had no idea what she was getting into, which meant very little pressure. She was more uncomfortable on the second season, because she knew what she was in for when the cameras started rolling.
Now, as she films her budding relationship with her 30-year-old boyfriend (and weathers the alternating judgment and “go girl!” cheerleading that comes with the age difference), she says she feels a certain flow. Plus, now she feels like she actually knows these women, too.
“It makes it easier, because you don’t have to second-guess, you know, when some of the women act…unpredictable,” she says, bursting into a guffaw at the word that followed her pause. “I don’t get as startled.”
Relatable might seem an odd word to describe an actual princess who takes filmed vacations to the Caribbean for work. But Radziwill’s upbringing grounds her.
She was raised in Suffern, New York, where her parents sometimes worked two jobs to support the family and she entered the workforce at age 14. There was a stint at Wendy’s, and customer service at a Caldor department store. She worked her way through school at Hunter College before being hired as an intern at ABC News in 1986.
“I like to joke that when I was working at Caldor’s, Anthony was water-skiing off the Christina [Aristotle Onassis’s yacht],” Radziwill says.
It’s not uncommon to read about the relationship between Radziwill and her late husband and see it described as a fairy tale, or a rom-com come to life—a Cinderella story. The truth is that their meet-cute was hardly adorable or romantic. They met while both were at ABC News working on the Menendez brothers story. Love born out of double homicide.
“Every Cinderella story turns out a little different,” Radziwill laughs. “It’s modern day. It’s a working girl who meets her prince at work. Because that’s what women do now. That’s when you meet your prince.”
“In fact,” she says, bringing up her current boyfriend, Adam Kenworthy, whom she met while filming an episode of Real Housewives at LuAnn de Lesseps’s house, where he was working as a caterer, “that’s where I met Adam. I was at work. He was at work.”
We commiserate about how uncomfortable it can be, as journalists, to talk with interview subjects’ personal lives, something I wouldn’t ordinarily do if I was interviewing a celebrity but something I feel compelled to do when interviewing Radziwill because of the nature of her celebrity.
“It’s all personal,” she shrugs. “That’s the deal you make when you go on these shows.”
She’s the one who brings up the episode last season in which she travels to London to retrieve her husband’s ashes, because the church they were housed in was being demolished. It ended up being an uncharacteristically poignant episode for the franchise, and one in which Radziwill, famous for her resistance to sappiness, showed vulnerability and emotion.
She says she struggled with the decision to film the trip but agreed to do it because she thought the idea of new Housewife Dorinda Medley, also a recent widow, accompanying her seemed organic.
More, she found she got far more out of the experience by doing it on camera than she would have had she not done it so publicly.
“On television, because it needs dialogue, you’re forced to talk about stuff,” she says. “I talked about things with Dorinda that I never talked about with longtime friends—but also never thought about.”
“The show also has a really good way of making you focus: What’s going on in my life and what are things I have to focus on in my life?” she says. Case in point: her now 1½-year-long relationship with Kenworthy.
While the two-decade age difference seems to dominate any discussion of their romance, she swears it’s not something they ever really talk about.
“I think if he was 30 and wanted to go out and party and go to nightclubs, I wouldn’t be with him,” she says, insisting they’re very much a Netflix and chill couple since the summer he spent living with her while between apartments last year.
More than their age difference, she seems to be preoccupied by her surprise that their relationship has lasted this long. Time seems to be on her mind, with that Season 8 Housewives trailer making much of her comment that she “only has five good summers left.”
“I hate when people say age—I’m 52—is just a number,” she says. “It’s not just a number. It’s life. It’s everything you’ve accomplished and learned about the world and yourself in that great period of time. I’m proud of my age. I think I’m the perfect age for me right now.”
She laughs again: “I threw myself a 50th birthday party on TV. I have no problem with my age.”
On the conversation of personal lives, we laugh about the unique situation Adam finds himself in, dating a person whose entire past is public, thanks to her memoir. He knows about her husband. He knows about her famous past boyfriends. Is he wondering whether he measures up to former flame George Clooney?
“He measures up,” she laughs. “I’m a very open book literally and figuratively, and not just because of this show.” She pauses. “He knows who I am now. And that’s really all he focuses on.”
In a rush, Radziwill realizes that she’s running late for her next appointment, a social visit with Katie Sturino, the wife of Internet phenom The Fat Jew, a good friend of hers. Her new dog, Baby, was recently a bridesmaid in their dog’s wedding. “Toast got married!” she says. “Didn’t you read about in People magazine? We filmed it for the show.”
She adopts a familiar grin, the same self-aware, sheepish one from that Season 8 trailer, the one before her proud admission. “This is what I do. This is my life. Last year it was a little more serious. This year is love and puppies.”