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How Real Are The Real Housewives? Ask The Show’s Producers

In an excerpt from The Housewives, reality TV scholar Brian Moylan reveals what goes down behind the scenes.

Whitney Rose and Jen Shah are cast members on 'The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City.'
Fred Hayes/Bravo

If you’ve ever wondered what really goes on behind the scenes of the Real Housewives, you’re in luck. Vulture writer Brian Moylan’s The Housewives: The Real Story Behind the Real Housewives is here to answer all of your burning questions about how reality TV in general, and the Real Housewives series in particular, gets made. The Housewives covers everything from casting to salaries, meddling producers to editing tricks — making it the closest most of us will come to a true on-set experience.

It wasn’t easy gaining access to the cast’s Bravo-controlled world. “Getting Housewives and people who worked on the show [to talk]” was the hardest part of his job, he tells Bustle, largely because Bravo specifically asked cast members not to speak with him. But despite the interviewing hurdles, The Housewives will come as a relief to fans who fear their favorite shows are entirely manufactured. “If anything, it’s more real than a lot of fans think it is,” Moylan says. “They have all these conspiracy theories, and it seems like if anything, it’s the women driving this themselves.”

The book is out now — but before you get your hands on your own copy, you can read an excerpt from Brian Moylan’s The Housewives today, exclusively on Bustle.

On Producers, The Chaos Agents Of The Real Housewives World

How, exactly, do the producers get what they want out of a scene? Well, it’s a little bit like being the animated devil on the shoulder of a cartoon character, driving them to do what they want to do but maybe don’t have the guts to do otherwise. It’s sort of like being a chaos agent, but instead of making anarchy, they’re making a story line.

“If I was out to dinner, sometimes the conversation could be about potty training for two hours,” Kristen Taekman, former Real Housewife of New York, says. “The only time production ever came in to intervene with me, they would say, ‘Kristen, listen. No more potty-training talk. I just wanted to remind you, remember last night when this and this happened.’”

Lisa Vanderpump used another example in a 2014 article in The Observer.“Imagine a friend is always late and you don’t say anything. [The producers] say, ‘OK, don’t just say what you’re thinking to us, say it to your friend.’ And then that becomes something that ignites a situation.”

One producer explains it like this: “When I’m in the field producing a scene, I’m thinking about what the audience is going to think. For instance, they might think, ‘Okay, so Lisa Vanderpump is obviously lying to these women. It’s just obvious the way her body language or her story is not adding up.’ The audience might think that and wonder why nobody is calling her out on it.” They say it’s the producer’s job to get in there and ask the women why don’t they say something if Lisa is, hypothetically, lying. (And we all know Lisa does more than hypothetically lie.) “It’s just encouraging the women to think larger than just in that moment, what is really happening.”

The production companies have different levels of comfort with just how involved producers should get on a scene. Producers who have worked for more than one company told me that the Evolution shows (RHOC and RHOBH) are relatively hands-off, letting the action unfold as it would naturally. In the Truly Original shows (like RHOA and RHOP), by contrast, producers intervene in the middle of scenes. They might go as far as pulling aside a woman in the middle of a group dinner to suggest that she push someone harder or make her point of view clearer. They’re still not telling the Housewife what to say or how to feel, but they do goad her to think and process outside of the action. This might explain why RHOA and RHOP tend to be more explosive and careen from drama to drama, where RHOBH can spend an entire season fighting over whether a rescue dog was returned properly.

The anomaly is RHONY, where producers are reportedly very hands-off, maybe even more than on the Evolution shows—but they can afford to be. The cast is professional and always brings it. When you can have an entire scene of Sonja Morgan narrating what she is going to pack for a weekend trip and have it be funnier than most Saturday Night Live sketches, why would you tamper with genius?

That’s not to say that producers don’t have their tricks, even when they stay out of the action. Shane Keough says they always staggered people’s arrival times to parties so that someone would show up at 6:00 p.m., others at 6:30, and others at 7:00. “At first I thought they just wanted to make sure they get everyone entering. But then as it went along I discovered, ‘Oh, they want this person there first because they’re the most mad about something.’

“Then they’re going to talk to the next person that shows up. By the time the person who’s the fuel for the first person’s anger gets there, everyone’s heated up and ready to go. That’s what happened with that moment when my mom got the wine in the face.”

He, of course, is referencing the famous RHOC season 6 finale party in Vicki Gunvalson’s backyard where Tamra Judge threw a glass of wine in Jeana’s face. Vicki lived next door to Jeana at the time, but producers made her wait while everyone else arrived. Jeana later told BravoTV.com that when she arrived, Tamra was already fired up and had a bigger glass of wine than anyone else. Whether she got that glass from a cater waiter or a producer, we’ll never know.

A former producer said to me one of the wisest things I’ve ever heard about the Real Housewives. The key, they say, is to figure out why each woman is on the show. Is she on to launch a business, for love, to get out from under a controlling husband, to find her independence, or the good old garden-variety quest for fame? That motivation is what will drive her story.

If this sounds more like life coaching than TV production, it’s because Real Housewives is different from many reality shows in one key way: these women have to come back year after year. It’s one thing for a producer to manipulate someone on a competition show who doesn’t know the ropes and will be gone after one season. Producers on The Bachelor are known to interview the women in the house when they’re on their period so that they’ll be more emotional. They also keep the contestants in interviews for a long time, asking the same question repeatedly until the person caves and just gives the producers the sound bite they want.

Those bridges can be burned, with emotional fallout right out of an episode of the reality TV drama UnREAL. As for the Housewives, they’re going to stick around (hopefully) so producers not only can’t betray them but have to forge bonds with them.

While a season films, each field producer is usually assigned to develop a rapport with one or two women. “I would describe it as like when you talk to your best girlfriend,” RHOD’s Cary Deuber says of her relationship with producers. “They are just sitting there, and they’re like, ‘Hey, what do you think of Tiffany over there? What do you think of her? I don’t know. I just think her and her boyfriend, they’re kind of shady, and I don’t really think that they’re on the up-and-up. I don’t know, I’m just saying, I don’t know what you think.’ Then that’s in your head, right?

“Then you go into a scene and you think, ‘Oh yeah, they are kind of shady,’ and then you say that. So it’s just more like you feel like you’re talking to one of your buddies, and then it just taints your whole view of everything.”

“I think opening up about your life really helps them kind of do the same,” says Pete Garcia, a producer that worked on both RHOC and RHONY. “You do have to put in a little effort and hang out with them off the clock and just befriend them . . . [so] they realize or feel like there is a human on the other side listening.”

Darren Ward, who has worked across the franchise, particularly RHONY, told the crowd at BravoCon, “The lines do get a little blurred, and we do become a little bit like therapists because it’s our job to be there and help them sort of navigate through this journey, which is what it is . . . I talk to Dorinda every single morning between 7:00 and 8:00 a.m. I call it my ‘morning medley.’ We talk about nothing to do with the show, what she watched on television, where she’s going for the day.”

Now that Dorinda is off the show, I doubt those phone calls are happening. This happens with most such bonds, because the producer moves on to a new show and has to form those relationships with a totally different cast. There are some exceptions, of course. I’ve heard, for instance, that Kyle Richards is especially close with some of the longtime producers on RHOBH, even during the off-season.

When field producers run afoul of the talent, on the other hand, it does not go well. “There was one producer who got fired in the middle of a trip,” says Greg Bennett, who was a featured player on several early RHONJ seasons. It was during RHONJ season 4 when all the cast went on an RV trip in Napa Valley. “She was rougher, like a real LA reality TV producer. She didn’t want to be our friend, and she was always trying to catch us doing something we weren’t supposed to be doing.

“[On the trip] she left a beat sheet out, and it literally said, ‘The boys are going surfing but Lauren [Manzo, Caroline’s daughter] looks like a big fat whale in a wet suit and won’t put it on.’ Caroline was not happy and complained to the producers. We never saw her again. I think she was relegated to sitting in a helicopter doing aerial shots for the rest of the trip.” Her sin wasn’t in showing the beat sheet but in that she was trying to humiliate Lauren by getting her to do something she didn’t want to do.

That is the only really malicious story I’ve heard about producer intervention. Skeptical fans often point to the excruciating scenes when women who are arguing then have to sit down to lunch together—as if ordered to crisis mediation by their bosses. But “it’s not so much about forcing them into things that they don’t want to do or uncomfortable scenes,” one field producer says. “It’s just that [the women] know the whole thing about these shows is conflict and then conflict resolution. So if you fall out with somebody, you’re going to have to make up at some point, or you are going to have to try and figure it out, because that’s just the nature of the beast.”

One editor I talked with did say that scenes or phone calls are sometimes thrown together after an episode is in post so that the story will make sense to the viewer. “If two people get in a fight, and then all of a sudden they’re getting along again, that happens in real life all the time, and it’s fine,” they say. “But what [producers] started doing is saying, ‘We have to have a scene of them making up.’ . . . They don’t tell them what to say, it really is them being them, but they know what they’re going in there to do.”

Another editor likened these scenes to me as “a very expensive improv class.”

“If anybody’s conspiring to push a story line forward, it’s the women themselves,” one producer says. “Even on shows that I know are super heavy-handed in terms of the producers talking to the women a lot more and helping them with their story, never do I see them pushing them in a certain direction.”

“I don’t know that production necessarily goes too far,” RHOD’s Cary Deuber agrees. “I think a lot of the cast goes too far in that maybe somebody wants to be well known or recognized or famous.” One can’t help but draw parallels between this and her bête noire and show villain LeeAnne Locken. “Production gets a bad rap, but if it wasn’t for production, I mean, what would you do? Just sit there and watch girls eat nachos? You can’t do it without production.”

Excerpted from THE HOUSEWIVES: THE REAL STORY BEHIND THE REAL HOUSEWIVES by Brian Moylan. Copyright © 2021 by Brian Moylan. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books, a division of Macmillan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.