The ‘Real Housewives of New York’ to Bethenny Frankel: Good Riddance
Ahead of the season premiere, the returning RHONY cast members react to Frankel’s surprise departure and explain why, in their minds, the show will be better off without her.
The Season 12 premiere of Bravo’s reality-TV juggernaut The Real Housewives of New York City launches Thursday with a sobering dose of, well, reality.
The first few minutes of the episode break the fourth wall in an unprecedented way, as each of the returning cast members discover and then react—with their signature cocktail of hysterics and wit—to the news that, days before production started on the season, star Bethenny Frankel decided to quit the show. More, she announced the move to the press without warning any of the girls.
Suffice it to say, the news hit the returning Housewives like a flying leg to the head.
“To me, that’s F-U,” Ramona Singer is seen saying in the sequence. A producer asks her to elaborate on what she thinks about it. She rolls her eyes with the force of the Earth spinning on its axis. “I don’t know why we even have to acknowledge. It’s so stupid.”
Dorinda Medley has a warmer reaction: “Why do I feel like crying a little bit?” Sonja Morgan is hurt: “I feel abandoned all over again. My daughter’s going to college and now I won’t have Bethenny. It’s a lot.”
But it’s Luann de Lesseps, whose showdown with a shaking, screaming, emotional Frankel provided the climax to the series’ previous season, who lands the clincher. “It’s really hard for me to say that I’ll miss her all that much,” the cabaret star says to the camera. “But as they say on Broadway, the show must go on. Without you.”
De Lesseps laughs when reminded of the line during a phone call to talk about the new season.
“Like I say in the show, I wasn’t that disappointed because, you know, I’ve gotten a lot of grief from her in the past,” she says from the Hamptons, where she’s self-isolating with her son and daughter. “As much as we’ve had good times, there’s been a lot of bad times. I was reminded that she hasn’t been supportive of me in a lot of ways.”
Plus, there’s the way everyone found out. “We felt kind of, you know, jilted and abandoned.”
Singer, who is waiting out the quarantine with her daughter and ex-husband, Mario, at his beach house in Boca Raton, felt particularly blindsided. “We found out through the press, which I thought was disrespectful to the cast.”
She initially balked at the producers’ suggestion that they talk about the behind-the-scenes drama on camera. Discussion of cast departures, contract renewals, and matters of production—things that acknowledge to viewers that, at the end of the day, this is a TV show—is typically discouraged, if not forbidden.
But after seeing a cut of the premiere episode, she’s come around to the decision. “I think we all realize it was a good thing because, you know what, she was a presence. It just shows that yes, she was part of us. And now she’s not.”
From her house in the Berkshires, Medley agrees. “It would have been weird if they didn’t do it,” she says.
Beyond shock, her initial reaction was shaded with concern for the series. Frankel was the franchise’s biggest name and, with her bulldozing wit and rodeo ability to lasso in plot, arguably the show’s driving force.
“It was scary,” Medley says. “She was an integral part of the show and I was worried. I didn’t know the new girl [new cast member Leah McSweeney], and I didn’t know how people were going to react to it. I think what it did is it really pushed all of us just that little bit more.”
“I thought it was a great way to emit my emotions, because I had strong feelings,” says Morgan, speaking from—and you can’t make this up—a wellness spa near Palm Springs, where she booked a juicing-and-colonics recharge months before the pandemic and is now, essentially, stuck. “I felt really separation anxiety when Bethenny left, so I was happy to have that moment to go behind the scenes and say, ‘What!? Oh my God!’”
In a recent interview with Variety’s Kate Aurthur, Frankel explained that she left the show, in part, because it was no longer a platform to promote her businesses. She pulled the lever at the spur-of-the-moment during negotiations, she said. “It’s taken me longer to order a pasta dish than just to decide this.”
“It was really the paycheck, which was, you know, astronomical at that point,” she told Variety. “And so I was staying because of money. And I just thought to myself, a bartender, a high-class prostitute who’s making a lot of money, you gotta sometimes make a move, and just say, ‘Let me just do what feels right to me.’”
In February, upcoming streaming service HBO Max announced an eight-episode order of the unscripted series The Big Shot With Bethenny. But in recent weeks, Frankel has thrown herself into providing emergency assistance to those affected by the coronavirus crisis through her disaster relief initiative BStrong, which has in the past distributed millions of dollars worth of relief and aid to victims of catastrophic events like the California wildfires and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.
Her efforts with BStrong were frequently spotlighted on Real Housewives and, regardless of the state of their friendships, were always supported and spoken highly of by the other cast members.
While Frankel’s departure was largely met with a panicked reaction from the show’s fans about how it would affect the series, the returning cast members maintain that having someone who was such a commanding presence step away could only be a good thing.
“A lot of the time she was overwhelming and didn’t allow us to express ourselves in a way we could have,” Singer says. (In the opening of the premiere, she puts it this way: “Everyone will be freer in spirit. Sometimes with her I don’t know if she’s going to come purr at me or scratch my eyes out.”)
She credits a particular producer, Darren Ward, with seeing this as an opportunity, refusing to let Singer get away with discussing her life on camera in superficial terms, acting like a therapist and forcing her to dig into uncomfortable places. Case in point: one scene in the premiere in which Singer has a sobbing meltdown at a bar about being 60 and alone, wailing, “I want a man to hold me and be with me!”
“I can’t believe I did that,” she says. “I don’t think I could have exposed myself in that way if Bethenny was still filming. It’d still be a great show with her. But it’d be a different show.”
De Lesseps was also grateful for some noticeable “breathing room” this season. “She took up a lot of oxygen in the room, to be quite honest. I think it was always a lot about Bethenny.”
In her case, that means continuing to chronicle her journey with alcohol addiction and sobriety in the aftermath of her 2017 arrest for disorderly intoxication, resisting arrest, battery of an officer, and making threats against a public servant, and the ensuing stints in rehab.
The RHONY premiere Thursday shows de Lesseps leaving her final probation hearing. But fans of the show have already gasped with concern after a trailer for the season showed her taking a sip of vodka in a future episode.
Yes, she is allowing herself to drink again, de Lesseps says, though at the moment she’s not consuming alcohol while in self-isolation.
“I’ve decided that, you know what, I suffered long enough,” she says. “I felt like I could take drinking responsibly and at least give it a go. So you’re going to see me drink socially on the show.”
She’s taking her relationship day by day, calling it “very real and very personal.” Still, a journey so personal is undoubtedly complicated by the fact that it’s being weathered in front of a camera crew...and the world.
“I decided not to pigeonhole myself into, like, ‘I’m not drinking.’ I decided not to label it,” she says. “To be judged because you have a glass of wine, it’s difficult. It's not easy walking that line.”
It’s a sentiment that echoes what Medley thinks is the reason that people keep tuning in to watch these women’s lives, whether or not Frankel is a part of the show. “We’re kind of brave, I think, and soldiers to put ourselves out there,” she says. And with New York City currently under lockdown, she jokes, “Now we’re gonna be probably the best entertainment in town.”