November 19, 2019, is a date that Andy Cohen may never forget.
Dion was the perfect celebrity guest for the late-night series, which is more boozy gossip sesh than the stiff promotional couch of broadcast TV’s assorted Jimmys. She was a major get, bringing a certain gravitas to the WWHL “Clubhouse,” but also known for her kookiness, game to talk about anything. Cohen could not have been more excited.
The French-Canadian chanteuse arrived at the studio as a vision, dressed head-to-toe in denim and, Cohen says, “serving love and jerky hand movements.” The first segment went great. Cohen landed a silly bit in which he sang reworked lyrics to “My Heart Will Go On,” and then successfully navigated the precarious rapids of Dion’s “river of words,” wrestling her famous ramblings into a semblance of a coherent conversation.
But during the commercial break, pre-show nerves started to re-materialize—horrifyingly, in the form of stomach rumbles churning like boulders in a cement mixer. As he was being counted down from commercial, a waterfall of sweat hurdled from his brow until he couldn’t hold it in anymore. Two feet from the greatest singer in the world and in front of four cameras and a live audience, he let it rip. He had just farted in front of Céline Dion.
A noxious, yellow cloud of flatulence began to menacingly spread around him. As he fanned his note cards like an air traffic controller on the JFK runway, the cumulonimbus of stank only grew in size, suffocating the audience bleachers and making its way towards the nostrils of an entertainer so epic they built an entire Colosseum in Las Vegas to house her talents.
He’ll never know if she noticed. Before leaving, Dion simply walked over to Cohen, cradled his cheeks in her hands, and whispered in his ear, “When a child is born, a father is born.” He said thank you and bowed.
About 90 percent of that story took place as written. The 10 percent of embellishment? That’s the creative license Cohen is thrilled to take with his latest project, the animated Quibi series The Andy Cohen Diaries, which premieres Monday on the embattled $2 billion platform.
At the time of said traumatizing flatulence, he happened to be writing the “diary entries” that would become the four-minute vignettes that make up the series. He realized the Céline story obviously had to be an episode. “She seems like she has a great sense of humor, so I hope she’ll love it,” Cohen says, speaking to The Daily Beast over two days on the phone from his house in the Hamptons.
Rather than purely embarrassed, he’s mostly marveling at the fact that, in over a decade of hosting his show, he’s only passed gas one other time while interviewing a guest. (It was former Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star Yolanda Hadid.)
You might call it TMI. For Cohen, that’s his entire brand.
It’s a brand that has evolved and lately experienced a major reckoning. First, that’s thanks to a major life change; in February 2019, he welcomed his first son, Benjamin, born via surrogate. More recently, it’s owed to a national conversation about race and privilege in relation to the reality TV shows he executive produces.
A former news producer at CBS, he became vice president of programming at Bravo in 2004, where his launch of the Real Housewives franchise marked a seismic shift in reality television, essentially the cinematic version of “TMI.” (He left his in-house executive position at the network in 2013.)
He’s been hosting Watch What Happens Live since 2009, at which point he became the first openly gay host in late-night. On his Sirius XM channel Radio Andy, he hosts several live hours a week.
He’s also written three books: a memoir (Most Talkative), and two styled after Andy Warhol’s dishy, confessional tome, The Andy Warhol Diaries. His own The Andy Cohen Diaries: A Deep Look at a Shallow Year and the follow-up, Superficial: More Adventures From the Andy Cohen Diaries, chronicle everything from Cohen’s attempt to quell drama between angry Housewives to juicy celebrity run-ins and his own sexual escapades.
The books were fantastically salacious. One memorable anecdote from Superficial finds Cohen soliciting advice from friends Kelly Ripa, Mark Consuelos, and Sarah Jessica Parker as to whether he should go forward with a threesome proposition he received from a muscled mechanic and his blonde girlfriend.
But the honesty with which he would rule each day a victory or defeat, whether professionally or in his attempts to find love and meet a partner, was actually quite melancholic and profound. “Through radical candor, he’s accidentally created a remarkable book about a specific sort of gay life in the 2010s,” wrote critic Daniel D’Addario in a review for TIME.
When Cohen tested positive for COVID-19 in March, his friend Anderson Cooper asked him if he was going to announce it and talk about it publicly. He said of course he would.
“‘I have to. It’s just who I am,’” he remembers responding. “It’s hard for me to retract that at this point because I did it to myself.” But, he clarifies, “There’s a hell of a lot that I’m quiet about, too, that nobody knows about. I think it’s about the balance.”
The balance has been a difficult one to strike in what have proven to be extreme times in the country, in Cohen’s life, and in his career.
It means figuring out how much to share about his son.
It means figuring out how and when to get political at a time when every casual scroll through Twitter becomes a hopscotch through landmines of infuriating news stories. Recently, he’s made headlines for impassioned speeches delivered on WWHL about New York state’s restrictive surrogacy laws and antiquated, homophobic national regulations that prevent gay men from donating blood.
And it also means not only figuring out how much to share, but how much to listen.
In June, Bravo fired several cast members of shows including Vanderpump Rules and Below Deck: Mediterranean after past racist behavior resurfaced amid the national discourse and call-to-action following the police killing of George Floyd.
While not involved in those series, Cohen is as much the face of Bravo as the network has. He was asked to account for those decisions as well as ones that some still demanded be made, particularly on his Housewives franchises. Watch What Happens Live, which had already pivoted to at-home tapings because of the pandemic shutdown, took a tonal departure and aired several conversations about race.
Cohen is learning what it means to be an open book at this point in his life. If anything, though, the book is becoming more complicated.
In the spirit of The Andy Cohen Diaries, we ask Cohen to take us through his day.
The alarm went off at 7:30 am so that he would be fresh when, at 8:30, he woke up Ben. He fed him, and they played together for about an hour until the nanny arrived. “He had a massive poop. I probably overreacted and spooked him from ever pooping again,” he says. Then it was prepping for his 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. marathon session on-air at Radio Andy.
Lunchtime was also playtime with Ben, before shooting the first of two episodes of Watch What Happens Live he filmed that afternoon. In between the two shows, he worked out and had a pitch meeting. After the second show wrapped, he went to pick up a case of rosé, and, when our phone conversation wrapped at around 7:15 pm, it would be time to feed, bathe, and put Ben to bed.
The schedule is a jigsaw puzzle familiar to those who read his previously published “diaries,” a grind of disparate work commitments and obligations with no hour-block wasted and everything from leisure time to daily workouts scheduled.
Of course, there are now stark differences from the voyeuristic look into his life he provided in those books. Then, fleeting breaks from work meant an occasion to titillate readers with stories of dates, flirty texts, and interactions on hook-up apps. Now they’re spent in Proud Dad mode, cooing about how cute he finds his son.
A schedule like this requires a laser-like focus, and those who work with Cohen have marveled over the years at his ability to breeze in amidst a storm of chaos, center himself to execute a task, and then reenter the melee that carries him to the next thing.
Sure, he can get distracted. Ben toddles into the room as we talk, which mandates a break from thought to babble some baby talk. And one of the more amusing running themes of The Andy Cohen Diaries and Superficial is Cohen self-reporting when friends like Ripa or Parker chastise him for clearly answering emails instead of listening during their catch-up phone calls.
But this has all been so normal for so long that the rigor seems almost soothing, at least gauging by the matter-of-fact calm with which he recounts it. Plus, even with parenting duties now in the mix, there’s still some nightly unscheduled “me time.”
“There could be some rosé,” he laughs, adopting the particular tone of voice he uses on WWHL when he’s feeling saucy. “There might be an edible. I don’t know, Kevin.”
The pitch meeting with Quibi that led to the animated Andy Cohen Diaries happened about a year and a half ago, when Cohen was in Los Angeles waiting for Ben to be born. He doesn’t remember who came up with the idea of animating new diary entries in the vein of the ones he wrote in his books—just that once the idea was brought up, he became obsessed with it.
Working with the animation studio ShadowMachine, which produced Netflix’s Bojack Horseman, and caricature artist Robert Risko, he would be able to tell pretty much any story he wanted. An anecdote that takes place at a Hard Rock Hotel opening in Florida featuring Khloe Kardashian, Johnny Depp, and Real Housewives of New Jersey star Teresa Giudice that would be a logistical nightmare to restage suddenly becomes laughably easy to dramatize.
What he hadn’t realized at the time was how gratifying the animated series would be as an outlet for what became his new favorite pastime: Telling stories about his son.
Since Ben was born, Cohen’s family has been sternly against him publicly sharing photos of the baby on social media, which he tries to respect. “But sometimes he is so cute that I can’t not,” he concedes. He’s broken the rule more often during the shutdown, even bringing Ben on camera during WWHL episodes to reunite with his playmate Gene, son of Amy Schumer, and meet Anderson Cooper’s son Wyatt for the first time.
Cartoon Ben, it turns out, is an excellent workaround. “It was fun for me to be able to show Ben and talk about our life together and tell those stories, because those are the stories I would be telling if I wrote another diary right now.”
Cohen isn’t blind to the unflattering press surrounding Quibi’s rollout. A recent report, for example, said that, despite its lofty goals, multi-billion dollar investment, and coterie of A-listers fronting content, the service had shed nearly 90 percent of its subscribers once the three-month trial period offered at its launch expired.
It’s an interesting position to be in, seeing those reports while also knowing that you have your own show yet to debut on the service, but Cohen is being good-natured about it.
“It is kind of humorous reading all the stuff,” he says. “I don’t know. I don’t think that the time that Quibi launched helped them. But I think that the idea is great, and there’s a lot of creativity there. And nothing is a hit overnight.”
The episodes made available to critics, while still candid and properly self-deprecating, were hardly as risqué as some of his previous books’ tales of Cohen’s own version of Sex and the City. But the fact remains that those stories still do exist in print. So now he’s facing his own version of life imitating art.
Some of the most memorable Real Housewives episodes that he’s produced have centered around one cast member callously cross-examining another about scandalous moments from her past sex life and how she plans to talk to her children about them.
Poor Ramona Singer went into the boxing ring without headgear on when she confronted Bethenny Frankel about that in an episode of The Real Housewives of New York. And Lisa Rinna asking Denise Richards how she feels about her daughters one day watching her Wild Things threesome was just one awkward moment in what’s been an arms race of escalating discomfort between them on the current season of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.
While the stars of his shows may not have broached the topic elegantly, we do wonder what Cohen thinks of the topic in relation to Ben and his own books.
“I haven’t even read any of my books since they came out, so I’m a little terrified to crack them open and see what’s in them, and maybe I’m a little terrified for him to, too,” he says.
When Ben was still in utero, he began writing diary entries again for the first time in years, but a month into it he stopped in a panic. “I was like dude, do you want your son to read this? You can’t do this. So the answer is that I will be potentially horrified [when Ben reads them].”
He has, however, started workshopping one explanation: “That was before you, Ben. I don’t have a penis anymore.”
If there is one thing that Cohen is confident in, it is the tone that Watch What Happens Live should try to achieve. “We wear our stupidity and frivolity on our sleeve,” he says. “That’s what we do.”
On the show, Cohen often emcees wild combinations of guests from Bravo’s reality shows, the Hollywood A-list, and the world of politics through drinking games, corny quizzes, and tongue-in-cheek gossip inquisitions like “Plead the Fifth.” None of it would work were it not for Cohen’s earnestness; guests often can’t help but blush and giggle as he bellows cringey jokes and puns with a broad smile slapped across his face.
He’s a wind-up toy of enthusiasm, which is why it’s a bit jarring to see that energy sputter to a somber standstill. But in that peace there’s space for something meaningful—and he knows he’s only allowed that quiet so often.
One such moment happened in April when he delivered an impassioned takedown of the FDA, after learning that he wasn’t able to donate potentially life-saving plasma following his recovery from the coronavirus because of regulations that discriminate against gay men who have not been celibate for a certain amount of time.
He had previously used the platform as an extension of his work campaigning for New York state to overturn its ban on surrogacy, which had forced Cohen to go to California in order to have his child through a surrogate. (In April, he celebrated the news that New York had reversed the ban.)
“I feel like if I pick my battles, so to speak, it has more power,” he says.
“I think I’m a little less successful with that on the radio, because there’s a lot of time to fill. If you hit me on a day where I just read the paper, I might go off into a tangent about voter suppression or Black Lives Matter or, you know, whatever it is. But I recognize the platform of Watch What Happens Live and I don’t want to abuse it. I want the show to be entertaining. And I’m hyper aware of why people are coming to that show.”
To that end, he wasn’t sure how a string of race-focused episodes he moderated in June amidst nationwide Black Lives Matter protests were going to go.
As networks and media companies were grappling with their own histories of institutional and systemic racism, eyes turned to Bravo.
Its series were often divided along racial lines. Some accused shows with Black casts of exploiting stereotypes or filling quotas. Black cast members themselves spoke up about the changes they expected of the network for it to become more actively anti-racist, while prominent Bravo fan sites, influencers, and commentators released an open letter demanding that the network do more than lip service.
Cohen met with the WWHL staff to discuss how to address these conversations on the show, or if they even should. “I was initially a little reticent because I just didn’t know if people would accept that from us,” he says.
On the first shows back after a weekend of protests in June, he moderated a conversation on racism with Real Housewives of Atlanta star and activist Porsha Williams and United Shades of America host W. Kamau Bell. Over the next two weeks, Black TV personalities like Kandi Burruss and Tamron Hall stopped by for emotional appearances, while politicians including Kamala Harris and Cory Booker guested as well.
“I thought that my role was really just to listen and learn and hear,” he says. “For our audience, I think that what I realized is that they may not be coming to you for this, but this is what they're gonna get. Because we all need to get this right now. It was like, ‘Guess what? Your regularly scheduled programming is now this, and you need to deal with it and listen and learn.’”
Nonetheless, there were plenty of people who felt that listening wasn’t enough. Some voiced anger that it took him days to react to the Vanderpump Rules firings, and wanted him to do more to condemn past comments made by some of the stars of Real Housewives.
When he said on Radio Andy that he supports Bravo’s VPR decisions, but noted that he was no longer a programming executive at Bravo and not a producer on that series, some critics and fans were exasperated. Because of his visibility, they wanted him to say and do more—even if his official job title fell outside that purview.
“If somebody wanted to complain, it seems like an obvious place to start and you can make me the face of whatever you’re feeling,” he says. “And the truth is I am a very active executive producer of the Housewives and so those are conversations that I’m happy to have.”
“It’s an interesting time because the Bravo universe is made up of incredibly unique and often very flawed characters. I think one of the reasons we love watching them is that we can’t believe what they’re saying. But there’s a certain reckoning going on in society and I think that the reckoning is happening at Bravo too.”
With regard to the Housewives, we ask if he can share anything about specific plans he has for the series, whether it’s firing or holding certain cast members accountable or diversifying the shows.
“All I can really say about that is that it’s an ongoing discussion and, as time goes on, the results will be apparent on air,” he says. “Look, I have talked about in the past that we have not succeeded in integrating the shows. And that’s a problem, and we’re looking at it. We’re on it.”
Cohen may be as open a book as celebrities come, but he’s still a consummate TV producer. You’ll have to watch what happens, and preferably live.