Andy Cohen is usually the one asking the questions. But on the first day of this year’s BravoCon in Las Vegas — a place where he alternates between being a star, a boss, and a God — he was in the hot seat. At an early-in-the-day panel, a casually dressed Cohen was asked the question everyone wanted to know: What did he think about the so-called “reality reckoning”? That is, the campaign led by former Real Housewives star Bethenny Frankel that accuses TV networks, including Bravo, of mistreating and exploiting reality stars.
An excitable ripple spread across the crowd. “As you can see here,” Cohen said, “Bravo and the shows on Bravo bring people so much joy and so much happiness — which is why we are all here, to have fun. That’s the place that I’m at.”
2023 was arguably the most chaotic year yet for Bravo, the network Cohen has lorded over for the last two decades. This year, its behind-the-scenes practices and ethics were publicly scrutinized like never before. But you might not have noticed, because its current crop of stars gave us some of the most outrageous (and most-watched) reality-TV scandals ever. As the network’s output rapidly expands — with revamped legacy shows, brand-new formats, a bigger-than-ever BravoCon, and more places to stream all the drama — it raises the question: Is the Bravo-verse becoming too big to fall?
A few weeks into Frankel’s “reckoning,” it seemed like floodgates were inching open. In August, Samantha Suarez, a makeup artist, alleged that Gary King — who has starred on Below Deck: Sailing Yacht since 2021 — tried to force himself on her during production. (He denies the claims.) Suarez also accused producers of covering up King’s alleged behavior. Then, a butler from the second season of Real Housewives: Ultimate Girls Trip sued the network, alleging that two cast members sexually touched him without his consent and that producers encouraged the cast to drink excessively. Then, there was the much-touted Vanity Fair “exposé” that Frankel participated in, which rehashed various controversies at the network, from excessive drinking to racism allegations.
And yet, despite all this, the “reckoning” seems to have stalled. Part of the reason why might be Frankel herself. It’s been hard to shake the feeling that Frankel — who, by her own admission, has profited immensely from her relationship with Bravo and admits to pitching several shows to the network months before her reckoning began — is primarily motivated out of her own self-interest. Her aims also seem unclear: Is the problem Bravo specifically, or the reality-TV medium as a whole?
Mostly, though, Frankel’s crusade was eclipsed by the total chaos (the good kind) on our screens. First, “Scandoval” — the seismic cheating scandal that engulfed Vanderpump Rules — became the most-talked-about reality-TV story of 2023. As the show aired, fans pored over every detail and clue like detectives solving a murder case. A resurgent Vanderpump Rules drew huge ratings for Bravo, but more importantly, it gave the show a newfound cultural relevance: Everyone from Jennifer Lopez to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner was talking about it.
For the fans, Scandoval was a return to the type of betrayal narratives that first made the show a guilty pleasure — and it provided a big, messy payoff after a few stagnant years. It also spawned an entire cottage industry of #content, where the fandom’s creators and the stars themselves cashed in with (often paywalled) podcasts. Then came the merch: Lala Kent reportedly made enough from selling hoodies to put a down payment on a home in Palm Springs. Ariana Madix became a magnet for Insta partnerships and secured spots on Dancing With the Stars and Broadway. Even Frankel couldn’t escape it: Her biggest podcast episodes to date were interviews with Rachel (formerly Raquel) Leviss, who broke her silence on how the scandal had upended her life. (Ironically for someone who has campaigned for reality-star unionization, Frankel was criticized for not compensating Leviss for the appearance.)
Elsewhere, there has been a healthy harvest of real-life drama. Southern Charm was rocked by its own Scandoval-style moment earlier this year (that was also captured on-camera, of course, and is airing now), when Austen Kroll secretly made out with Taylor Ann Green — she was besties with his ex, Olivia Flowers, and the ex of Kroll’s good friend, Shep Rose. In July, Kyle Richards and Mauricio Umansky — Real Housewives of Beverly Hills’ golden couple — broke hearts everywhere by announcing their separation after 27 years of marriage, the lead-up to which is currently captivating fans of the show. Weeks later, in September, Summer House’s Carl Radke and Lindsay Hubbard called off their engagement — again, on-camera — just weeks before they were supposed to walk down the aisle.
Bravo has also taken big risks to revamp shows that were struggling. On Real Housewives of Orange County — the first in the Housewives franchise — ratings were up after the return of troublemaker Tamra Judge. The much-anticipated Real Housewives of New York reboot — which featured six new Housewives, notably Jenna Lyons — was a hit. Here, the women argued about restaurant reservations and cheese plates. After a bizarre few years, where FBI arrests and federal indictments briefly became the norm, these shows are returning to what Bravo does best: real (and often petty) friendship drama.
Even more significant, perhaps, is the rapid expansion of Bravo’s reality-TV universe. This year, fans watched two new Ultimate Girls Trip seasons, which brought beloved faces from the Housewives lore onto our screens. There have been spinoffs, like Crappie Lake, Luann de Lesseps and Sonja Morgan’s take on The Simple Life. And new shows, like The Traitors and House of Villains, are bringing Bravolebrities from different franchises together in one place. Fans can now stream all this content on Peacock, NBCU’s streaming service — including, for the first time, uncensored and extended episodes.
It was Below Deck: Down Under — Peacock’s contribution to the ever-growing yachting franchise — that provided the network’s most impactful moment of the last 12 months. In an August episode, viewers watched open-mouthed as producers intervened when cast member Luke Jones attempted to climb into bed naked with fellow yachtie Margot Sisson while she was unconscious. Jones was immediately fired, and the aftermath of the incident not only made for captivating TV, but provided a blueprint for supporting victims of sexual misconduct. But of course, not every scandal that unfolds in the Bravo-verse has a silver lining. Much has already been speculated about the not-yet-aired upcoming Ultimate Girls Trip: Morocco, in which former RHOBH Housewife Brandi Glanville was accused of touching RHONJ’s Caroline Manzo without consent. Glanville has since protested her innocence and her lawyers have asked Bravo to release the footage, which she claims has been exaggerated for — what else? — ratings. There are reports that the entire season might never be aired — if confirmed, it would be an unprecedented move.
And last month, Frankel’s onetime adversary Ramona Singer — the Housewife who once provoked her to stick her legs in the air and shout, “MENTION IT ALL!” — was removed from BravoCon at the 11th hour after allegedly sending the N-word in a text to a reporter. (Singer reportedly sent the slur as part of a denial of racism allegations in the aforementioned exposé.) Weeks later, though, she was back on the red carpet with her co-stars at the glitzy premiere of Ultimate Girls Trip: RHONY Legacy.
Singer’s short-lived cancellation aside, BravoCon was perhaps the most convincing proof that 2023 was the network’s biggest year yet. Around 25,000 fans flocked to Vegas to watch spectacle-filled panels, many of which were streamed on Peacock and dissected on social media. Huge crowds showed up to meet their (often problematic) faves, hoping to get close to the action. At the “Ask Andy” panel, when Cohen gave what was essentially a nonanswer to the Big Question, he was met with screeching applause. It was like watching a televangelist preach to a huge crowd, with a momentum that felt unstoppable. Maybe this is why boycotts of brands like McDonald’s or Coca-Cola rarely take off: Not only are they embedded in our lives and culture, but their products are simply too delicious — even if we know they’re bad for us.
Frankel must surely know that, without a smoking gun, her product isn’t as appealing — she’s a businesswoman, after all. (I’m reminded of her own tagline, from season nine of RHONY: “If you’re gonna take a shot at this B, you better not miss.”) This year has been full of challenges for Bravo, but its thriving output has helped the network to overcome them. In fact, 2023 may well be the year it became unstoppable — or at least, too big to be taken down by any one person. As the year in Bravo ends, the real question becomes this: How will the network possibly follow the gasp-worthy twist-fest that was 2023?