These days even Bethenny Frankel is calling herself a failure.
In the first minutes of Tuesday night's premiere of The Real Housewives of New York, Bravo’s voyeuristic look at Manhattan’s ladies who lunch and occasionally hurl cocktails at each other, Frankel assesses her return to the reality TV juggernaut after a five-year absence. “Failed talk show. Failed marriage,” she says. “It’s like starting over.”
In those five short years, she starred in her own spin-off reality show Bethenny Ever After, which chronicled her marriage to businessman Jason Hoppy and the birth of her now-4-year-old daughter Brynn, and an eponymous talk show. She’s also seen that marriage and talk show end—she filed for divorce from Hoppy in January 2013, and Bethenny was canceled in February 2014 after less than a year on the air.
There’s a lot of talk of failure and comebacks, but Frankel is not returning to Housewives with her tail between her legs. On the contrary, she’s returning with an enlightened, even proud proclamation.
“Look,” she says over lunch at SoHo’s Mercer Kitchen. “I’m a professional reality star.”
The skeptics are excused for doubting the triumph of Frankel’s Housewives return when the trailer and promos for Tuesday’s premiere so incessantly replay the “failed talk show, failed marriage” tagline. Professional reality star that she is, Frankel knows the value of a good sound bite. Still, she can’t help but walk herself back a bit from the one that’s starting to define her.
“I think I probably said it on the show,” she says. “But I don't really feel like I failed, you know?” She knows the “failed” tagline is being circulated in Housewives trailers and promos, but she's adamant that it’s not a proper indication of the state of mind she’s truly in. “What good is that, to be like ‘I failed’?” she says. “I guess I did. But I try not to think about it that way.”
We’re meeting the morning after her big Watch What Happens Live! tell-all with Andy Cohen aired on Bravo, and the gossip sites are already dissecting comments she made about how, after her divorce from Hoppy, she will never get legally married again.
“When you do these shows you think about when they’re going to air, but you forget the next day with the Internet is when the aftershocks come,” she says.
She clarifies the whole legally married thing. “You can commit to somebody and be in a relationship,” she says. “But it doesn’t have to be legal. Why are paperwork and contracts part of a relationship?” She also reiterates that she wasn’t saying she’d never date or be in a serious relationship again.
There are many aftershocks to talk through over the course of our lunch. She also told Cohen that she was at one point embarrassed to be associated with Real Housewives, making her return to the franchise all the more eyebrow-raising. There’s the end of the talk show to discuss. And there’s the constant interest in her divorce from Hoppy, and her comments—that she sticks by—that money was at the root of their problems.
We talk through each aftershock, Frankel frantically jumping from topic to topic, pithily doing damage control and explaining herself, but never apologizing. She’s fast-talking and frenetic and free-associates her feelings about every issue we discuss. The energy is intense and rapid and characteristically hers. It’s controlled, unfiltered chaos.
The chaos is how you know that Bethenny Frankel is finally at peace.
Considering the Bethenny-brand enterprise she’s built since—product line, books, talk show, and more—it’s fitting that Frankel's first foray into reality stardom came by way of Martha Stewart. In 2005, she was a contestant on the lifestyle maven’s season of The Apprentice, finishing in second place. The series gave her a certain level of notoriety that she hoped would help her business, the gluten- and dairy-free meal delivery service BethennyBakes. But when Bravo began approaching her to join Real Housewives, she had only a few hundred dollars in her bank account, unable to even afford cabs to her meetings.
Agreeing to join Real Housewives, she says, was a purely business decision. At the advice of her then-boyfriend, she initially would only be filmed while cooking, thinking that it would help her reputation as a natural foods chef. “I shed that the first week of filming,” she says.
“I didn’t know what this genre was when I got into it,” she explains. “It was exposing yourself and talking about your life. I made a decision that if I was going to do this with people watching, then I’m going to have to reveal myself. And so people connected to me, and that’s in turn why they ended up buying my products. Not the other way. They didn't care that I was cooking or what book I was writing.”
It's been a lucrative relationship. In 2009, she developed the Skinnygirl cocktail line with partner David Kanbar, an empire erected from the popularity of a 100-calorie margarita. In 2011, the line was acquired by Fortune Brands’ Beam Global for a reported price of $120 million. Today, she says, there are 14 categories of products that the brand has a hand in, from microwave popcorn to salad dressing.
It’s been a remarkable feat transferring reality fame to such outsized commercial success, especially when you consider that, as Frankel is the first one to admit, there are a lot of people who don’t much like her. Such are the dangers of a razor-sharp tongue and an arguably refreshing lack of caution as to where she wields it.
“Andy Cohen is the first one who told me I was polarizing,” she says, giving credit to Bravo’s reigning reality TV suzerain. “But I didn’t really realize how much, and it’s only escalated. It’s crazy because there were so many times I was off television in the last year-and-a-half that I’d thought it would go away a little bit. But it hasn’t really happened."
If anything, people still can't get enough of her.
Frankel says it’s because, whether or not you like her, you’re amused and impressed by her insistence on telling the truth. The irony of it all: a reality TV star more famous than the rest because of her personal mandate to actually be real. It's why Bethenny Getting Married was Bravo’s highest-rated series premiere at the time it debuted. And it’s why, even though it was ultimately doomed, she was given a talk show.
For what it’s worth, Frankel hated hosting Bethenny.
“A talk show is not about revealing yourself,” she says, referring to her own skill set. “You can’t get deep. It’s three-minute segments. You're directing traffic.”
Rather than serve as a venue for her straight-talk, the chat show stifled her.
“I said this sentence: ‘Men like to have one hand on their remote and another hand down their pants,’” she remembers. “It’s not particularly edgy to me, but producers were like, ‘No, no, no! You can’t say that!’ I couldn’t say my perspective on things because apparently it was too edgy and racy.”
There’s been an open door to return to the Housewives franchise ever since she left in 2010 to do her spinoff. Bravo even wanted her to remain a Housewife while shooting Bethenny Ever After. But it’s taken her five years to agree to go back. Given the timing, there are critics who wonder whether she felt “too good” for the franchise, only to return now that her other ventures haven’t worked out.
They’re partly right. “I didn’t love what it represented and I found it to be a little embarrassing,” she says. But it’s not because she felt she was above it.
“I thought certain elements of the franchise had gotten contrived,” she says. New cast members became students of the show’s history, and would dial up and manufacture drama to get more airtime. She remembers watching an episode after she left with a girlfriend and being turned off by what the show had become.
“Other people have to manufacture things to make themselves seem compelling,” she says. But she’s noticed that there’s been a shift in tolerance for that. “There are people who have been thrown off reality TV for trying to make things happen that looked contrived.” Like throwing legs, maybe? “There’s an example,” she laughs.
But it was more than the lack of reality that was keeping her away. As anyone who’s picked up an Us Weekly in the past two years knows, her divorce has been ugly. And though a custody arrangement has been worked out, she and Hoppy are still battling over property division and the divorce settlement.
“I wouldn’t have been able to do the show two years ago,” she says. “As much as people like drama, dark is not entertaining.” Things are still contentious with Hoppy, but time has given her perspective on it all. “I have some things that are still unpleasant, but I’m definitely coming out on the other side. So it’s a good time to go back, because it’s good to have an arc.”
Plus, she feels like she owes it to the Real Housewives audience to come back. “I went through all the great stuff with them,” she says. “So now it’s good to be honest about, ‘You know, I got knocked down a little bit.’”
Lunch with Bethenny Frankel runs along two tracks, jumping nimbly between both. One is a therapy session, with Frankel wasting no time launching into rapid-fire self-analysis about everything that’s happened in her life, how she feels about it, and the work she’s done to gain perspective. The other track is spent with Frankel defending herself.
She defends herself against false accusations or unfair reports about her in the press. There’s the rumor that she insisted that Cohen pre-tape their much-ballyhooed Watch What Happens Live! sit-down to avoid surprise questions and control the way she comes off. “That’s total bullshit,” she says. “That’s just how he does the show. I never ask for questions in advance, ever. Do me live. Ask me any question you want.”
And there’s the write-up chronicling her “diva behavior” during the filming of Housewives, particularly on one day of filming where she refused to move from one room of a party to another to shoot what she calls a fake scene.
“I said I’m not an actress,” she says. “If the cameras want to film me they should come over here. That’s not being a diva. That’s saying this isn’t Day of Our Lives. When it was picked up in the press I was like, ‘Yeah, and...?’”
But beyond defending herself against the press, Frankel, often without being asked specifically to do so, defends her lifestyle: a single mom and entrepreneur who, despite the fact that reality TV quite possibly destroyed her family, is unabashedly announcing that she’s making the genre her career.
A keen observer of Tuesday night’s Real Housewives premiere will notice that her daughter, Brynn, does not make an appearance. Frankel is adamant that Brynn not be on the show—a change of attitude after the baby played a starring role in Bethenny Ever After. “People will say that she was on as a baby, but that’s a very different thing,” she says. “As a baby they’re not putting a mic pack on you.”
But Brynn is still very much a part of Frankel’s reality TV career. She’s a frequent talking point during Frankel’s Real Housewives scenes. She’s the subject of exhaustive headlines chronicling the custody battle and divorce proceedings with Hoppy. And that footage and those headlines will live on forever, a truth that Frankel’s had to grapple with.
“This is what I do for a living,” she says. “People are a lot of different things. People are strippers. People are prostitutes. People pick up garbage and are doctors and aren't home at night to put their kids to bed. This life affords me a flexible schedule.”
In fact, Frankel says, Brynn is one of the biggest reasons she decided to return to Housewives. It provided a fairly light filming schedule—there are eight Housewives to shoot, after all—that would allow her to spend the most amount of time with Brynn while still remaining in the public eye, and remain there on her terms.
“I think people think that my talk show didn’t do well so I’m desperate to get back out there,” she says. “But I’m not white-knuckling anymore. I’m not striving anymore. I could’ve done a lot of new projects.”
Frankel says she was offered the role of the wicked stepmother in Broadway's Cinderella, but turned it down because of the oppressive schedule it would’ve involved. (Plus, “I didn’t think at the time I should be playing the wicked stepmother when people were already thinking I was that in real life.”) She says she had offers to join Dancing with the Stars and Shark Tank as well, but neither had a schedule that could compete with the flexibility of Real Housewives.
“I don’t want to get up at 6 o’clock in the morning and not be at drop-off,” she says. “The talk show was stressful because I was going through so much negativity, but also because I was doing things like picking up my daughter in my talk-show dress and heels. I’ll never get that time back. So I’m not looking to jam myself in more television.”
Not that Frankel is sitting on her laurels. On Tuesday, the day that her new season of Real Housewives premieres, her latest book, I Suck at Relationships So You Don’t Have To, will be released. The irony that America’s Most Famous Divorcee is penning a relationship book is not lost on Frankel. It’s right there on the cover.
“I learn so much more from my mistakes than from my successes,” she says. “I’m not bitter. I’m not cynical.” In writing the book, she hopes that maybe she can help someone who’s gone through similar heartbreak or, remembering happier times, love, crystallize, and process it. It’s that desire and sense of duty to people, her “audience” as she repeatedly calls them, that’s behind the book and behind her Housewives homecoming. Now, she’s wiser—about everything.
“I missed the connection and the journey,” she says. “I maybe just went in too deep. It’s a different story when your whole family’s in it. When you’re just flying solo, it’s less complicated.”
But after talking divorce and career failures and the press and privacy and the secrets of reality TV and everything in between, there was one topic we hadn’t actually broached. Is she actually enjoying any of this?
“That’s a good question,” she says. “I feel like there was a time when I was on a ride and was just pulled every minute to do something every day. Now I get excited to get on a plane to go on a book tour and I’m excited to come to an interview today, when there was a time when it became a chore.”
What’s different? Time. “I’ve taken a decent break. The Housewives schedule wasn’t crazy. Since filming I haven’t done much. It was a good break. Lorne Michaels told me once, ‘You gotta make an exit before you can make an entrance.’” He was referring to knowing when it’s time to walk away from a successful project. She’s liberally adopted it as a more universal mantra.
She smiles and takes what might be the first deep breath of the afternoon, and then gathers the fur coat that’s been bunched on the banquette next to her. “Now I’m going to make an exit.”