reality reckoning

Bethenny Frankel, Still Dragging Everyone

TikToking a baked potato with the self-described “Erin Brockovich” of the reality TV reckoning.

Bethenny Frankel makes “girl dinner” (a baked potato topped with caviar and cottage cheese) for her TikTok, and our lunch. Photo: Brock Colyar
Bethenny Frankel makes “girl dinner” (a baked potato topped with caviar and cottage cheese) for her TikTok, and our lunch. Photo: Brock Colyar

They’re calling me Erin Brockovich,” Bethenny Frankel tells me, relaxing on the back porch of her luxuriously renovated 18th-century Connecticut farmhouse and wearing a fuzzy sweater and house slippers with peace signs on them. She doesn’t specify who, exactly — besides Bethenny Frankel herself, of course — is calling her Erin Brockovich, but she’s clearly interested in my buying into the comparison, and confident in it. After all, “it’s taking some courage” to do what she’s been doing.

Which is this: standing up for the rights of housewives everywhere … or, at least, those tipsy, downtrodden entrepreneurs of the self who populate the Bravoverse. Frankel, 53, left The Real Housewives of New York City (for the second time) in 2019, but now she’s the force behind what she’s calling the “reality reckoning”: an effort to form a union for the ladies like herself who feel chewed up and spit out by the reality machine that made them famous (as well as the crews, who tend to get overlooked in the coverage of this campaign). As it so happens, on the same day she invited me to her compound in Fairfield County for lunch, BravoCon was in full swing in Las Vegas, and her phone, she told me, was blowing up with texts from other Bravolebrities chiming in with their support.

“I’ve never had a better relationship with women than after leaving the show,” she tells me. “That’s what’s ironic. It’s a space of women. But you’re not having that many positive experiences because you’re fighting for your life.”

Just because she owes much of her notoriety to Bravo (and has, in the past, expressed feelings of gratitude to her former bosses) doesn’t mean she is holding back now. Frankel has always been possibly the wittiest and most scathing of the Housewives and, to borrow one of her most memorable lines, is ready to “MENTION IT ALL!” Just last week, she told Chris Wallace on CNN that starring in RHONY felt like being a “prostitute of the highest rate.” Perched on her porch, she describes her eight seasons as like being a “caged animal.” And though I was warned by her publicist that our visit was supposed to be centered on what a success she’s having as an influencer on TikTok — more on that later, and she is quite good at it — and she was hoping to avoid taking potshots at her old boss and friend, Andy Cohen, she is, in person, eager to tell me exactly what she thinks. “He’s been able to sit back and have a Cheshire grin,” she says, her arms sternly crossed. “He’s watching Gladiator, watching everyone rip each other apart and being entertained by it. He’s become very wealthy profiting off of women’s —” she then gets distracted by the help (I counted at least an assistant, a driver, a plumber, and a housekeeper) scurrying around. She clearly emerged a winner from her own time in the colosseum.

Frankel was first introduced to audiences back in 2008 (tagline: “New York City is my playground”). She was young, sometimes single, childless, and working as a “natural foods chef” — in other words, she was generally much less privileged, pedigreed, and pretentious than the other original RHONY cast members. She was, however, adept at both outtalking and out-reading the others. (Remember when she called Countess Luann a “dumb drag queen”?) Fans watched as the “Skinnygirl” without a second home in the Hamptons sold her cocktail brand and got just as rich, if not richer, than the rest of the women. (She still made money by licensing out the Skinnygirl name and logo — for such things as popcorn, salad dressings, coffee pods, blue jeans, and shapewear, all available on Amazon.) In the process, she transformed the franchise in her image, from housewife to girl boss. As my colleague Kathryn VanArendonk recently pointed out about the (rather sleepy) RHONY reboot: “It’s full of younger people, social climbers, women looking for their first marriage, and entrepreneurs. In other words, new RHONY is full of Bethennys.” As Frankel told me, “You can crystallize me into this weakling little girl that Bravo propped up … But I did it to spite them.” Her case in point: She often mentions the “Bethenny Clause,” which she says is included in Bravo contracts to stipulate that cast members must share a cut of any business they promote on the show. (They don’t call it the “Bethenny Clause” at Bravo.)

Frankel is not shy about her accomplishments: “Kim Kardashian did a sex tape 15 years ago. Is every person who makes a sex tape a billionaire?” she asks me, almost out of nowhere. “There’ve been hundreds of women” on Housewives. “Has anyone else been on the cover of Forbes magazine?” Without her, she says, there never would’ve been reality stars like Erika Jayne.

In 2010, Frankel left RHONY, but she returned in 2015 for another high-octane five seasons. She thinks it’s gone downhill since then. “It’s too produced, it’s too glossy, it’s too staged, it’s too prepped, it’s too perfect,” Frankel tells me. “Back when I came on, it was infinitely more real. Now it’s a manufactured product.” She declares this while also swearing that she’s not watched the latest season, which — maybe too conveniently — premiered the same month she kicked off this reckoning.

Now she’s out for reality justice. What Frankel wants to win is a bit murky. Her lawyers have sent a letter to NBCUniversal (Bravo’s parent company) accusing it of “a pattern and practice of grotesque and depraved mistreatment of reality stars and crew members” — also calling attention to its strict confidentiality clauses. (They responded by calling those a “standard practice in reality programming to prevent disclosure of storylines.”) Frankel also starred in a big feature in Vanity Fair, which — though it did detail alleged racist behavior by Ramona Singer, and also the show’s lack of support for Leah McSweeney’s on-camera sobriety — wasn’t exactly the bombshell exposé it was hyped up to be in “Page Six” (the Housewives are notorious for beefing in the gossip rags), especially if you’re a fan who follows this drama closely. NBCUniversal did, however, announce it was updating the alcohol protocol for its shows, though I’m told they were already under review.

Not everyone seems to think Frankel is waging this fight in good faith. When one of her former castmates heard I was writing this story, she met me for a drink, where, for a couple hours, she tried to convince me Frankel’s war is nothing more than a scheme to get attention — “a hashtag,” as this Housewife who asked not to be named put it. “She’s a creation of Bravo. They created a Frankelstein, gave her power, and as in life imitating art, she turned against her creator. It was obvious and inevitable,” she told me. “She’d like everyone to believe that she gives a damn about the exploitative nature of reality TV … Instead, what she’s doing is desperately trying to keep herself relevant, making herself the hero without doing any real work.” It was clear talking to her that as much as all of them insist they are not the “characters” producers make them out to be on TV, what is real are some of their grudges. It felt like being in an episode of the show — hearing the same accusations, the same digs, the same dirty laundry aired out off-camera. As another New York Housewife, Eboni K. Williams, put it to Vanity Fair: “Fuck Bethenny Frankel. You think I’m going to let some white girl speak for me with my experience with a multibillion-dollar corporation?”

Frankel at her last Watch What Happens Live appearance. Photo: Charles Sykes/Bravo via Getty Images

There’s also the fact that Frankel had pitched three new show ideas to Bravo just months before the reckoning. Though, her final appearance on Watch What Happens Live last December was rather tense. On that episode, Cohen pointed out that, though Frankel likes to call the franchise “toxic,” she also has a podcast called ReWives devoted to rehashing old storylines. (There was a later negotiation to have her back as a bartender on the late-night show, but it never happened.)

She’s the queen of the brand extension, after all. And she’s been up to other side projects too. She has a new line of rosé, and also, maybe because she’s mostly sober now, has invested in a mocktail company called Mingle. Plus her disaster-relief initiative BStrong and the podcasting for iHeart, where she’s been interviewing not only other Housewives like NeNe Leakes, Denise Richards, and her ex-BFF Jill Zarin, but also some curveball guests, like Chris Cuomo, David Spade, and Dave Portnoy. (Her dream interviews are Oprah, Mark Zuckerberg, and Elon Musk.)

Frankel admits she never intended to start this reckoning in the first place. It all came together by happenstance after she posted some TikToks over the summer, in which she claimed, “Reality stars are the stepchildren, the losers, the mules, the pack horses” of the entertainment industry. This was during the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes, and the call to arms has gotten her featured in some more “elite publications,” as she puts it. No matter what she’s said elsewhere in the press, though, Frankel gives the impression this all might be more of a hobby than a crusade: “I have no intentions of being the Fran Drescher of the reality TV space.”

Even in person, no camera crew in sight, it’s easy to see why Bethenny Frankel makes good television. She is a woman who needs no caffeine, constantly entertaining even when you’re just watching her be herself, talking at you, less interested in what you have to say in response to her than what she has to say next. Her assistant, at one point, calls this interview a “playdate,” which is exactly what it feels like.

Which is why she’s perfect for TikTok, where over the last year and a half she’s built an audience of 1.5 million followers by once again being herself on camera — all the while reviewing beauty products, sharing her thoughts on Meghan and Harry, and posting completely unhinged Mukbang-like videos about all the strange things she eats in a day (a video of her devouring a literal bucket of boiled seafood in a hotel room went viral this summer). Frankel tells me TikTok reminds her of being on reality television — unfiltered, raw, not always pretty — but at least here, she’s in charge of what audiences see in the end. (She also says she regrets not buying stock in the app, though she does not mention the fact that she tried to sue it last year.)

Anyway, before we got lost in Housewives tea-spilling, Frankel, in influencer mode, had suggested we make lunch — what she calls a “girl dinner” in TikTokspeak. Of course, it will be content. “I may film this. I’m filming this. It has to be filmed,” she says at rapid-fire pace.

“Do you like caviar?” she asks me, holding a baked potato in one hand and an iPhone in the other, while standing in her kitchen — a clean, sparkly, Williams Sonoma domestic dreamscape. She sprints to the refrigerator for a can of white sturgeon roe from Citarella. Frankel calls herself a “high-low” kind of gal — “I have as much enjoyment at the dollar store as I do Hermès” — and so for lunch we’re having a poor man’s russet topped with a Housewife’s fish eggs. “You’re gonna freak,” she promises me. She’s also adding cottage cheese, which, if you follow, you will know comprises a good portion of her diet. “I’m telling you, I’m responsible for this being in production,” she says, pointing to the cottage-cheese container, whose brand she asked me not to name. “Without a question. People stop me on the street and talk about cottage cheese.”

“Fancy girl dinner! Let’s go!” she tells her phone, then to me, “This is how the sausage gets made.”

Back to the camera: “My potato is out of the oven and the reason it’s on nice, fine china is we have a special guest today,” she says, and I, naïvely, prepare a smile, thinking I’m about to be introduced to her followers. “Okay, caviar is the special guest,” she says.

Eventually, we take a seat to dig in, and Frankel can’t quit telling me how good the meal is: “How insane is that? How insane is that? It’s, like, clean. It’s totally healthy. There’s a little butter. There’s cottage cheese. What’s wrong? There’s salt. It’s satisfying. How good is that?” she asks after I take my first bite. Then she never stops. “I’m so happy that someone is finally here. I’m always alone. I’m sitting here by myself. I’m in my own nutty world… I’m so happy. I feel seen. I feel seen right now.”

Then someone — I’m presuming one of those Housewives she says are texting her — sends her a video of Andy Cohen addressing the reckoning at Bravocon for the first time: “My thoughts are that Bravo, and the shows that are on Bravo, bring millions of people so much joy and so much happiness,” he said onstage to a round of applause. Frankel and I watch the video together, to which she responds out loud, “Is that an answer? He can’t answer it. Why can’t he answer it?” (When Cohen spoke to Today this week, he referred to Frankel as “that former Housewife.”)

Not long after, Frankel’s daughter and her fiancé, Paul Bernon (I was later told he is a big fan of the YouTube compilation “Bethenny Frankel Dragging Everyone”), arrive, and I get a brief glimpse at the Housewife being an actual… wife … sending her daughter off to do homework and nagging Bernon about all sorts of things. He seems to like it, calling her, affectionately, “a real Joan Rivers.” When the two get into a disagreement about how early they eat dinner, Bernon looks at me and with a wink says, “Bethenny is the hero of every story.”

Frankel, on the other hand, has reclined in her seat, full of girl dinner and quiet for maybe the first time today. “I’m exhausted. I just hit the wall,” she says. “Pimpin’ ain’t easy. Right?”

Bethenny Frankel, Still Dragging Everyone