Seventeen years ago, Andy Cohen had the idea that would change reality TV forever: “I always loved soap operas,” he says. “So I wanted this to be like a soap opera.”
Cohen is the mastermind behind Real Housewives, the reality juggernaut that currently boasts 10 different US iterations as well as international adaptations everywhere from Abuja to Amsterdam. (There have also been two ill-fated Australian attempts, neither of which Cohen has watched – in fact, he says he didn’t know he was famous here until he arrived in Sydney last week for a promotional visit and started getting stopped on the street by fans.)
Andy Cohen, in Sydney for World PrideCredit:Brook Mitchell
The media titan devised the concept for Housewives when he was the vice-president in charge of original programming at US reality network Bravo and wanted to make a show that followed the lives of a group of wealthy women in Orange County. It was such a hit that the format was rolled out over the following years to cities including Atlanta, New York, and New Jersey, gradually amassing a global fan base who follow the franchise with the same fervour as sports fans tracking their favourite team.
Today, Cohen still serves as executive producer as well as the public face of Housewives, hosting the dramatic reunion episodes where cast mates come back together after each season to air grievances and answer tough questions.
True to Cohen’s vision, Housewives is like a real-life soap opera – full of cheating spouses, shock splits, new romances, and scandalous acts of betrayal. But while it might be easy for the unacquainted to dismiss it as trash TV, viewers know there is actually a lot of depth to the show.
Housewives is a rare piece of television to hero middle-aged women, positioning them as stars of their own story – not just supporting figures to their husbands or children. In its happier moments, Housewives can be funny and even uplifting as we see the women who make up its casts dust themselves off and start again after loss and divorce.
But Housewives also goes places few reality shows dare, confronting exceedingly difficult topics. For instance, Cohen says, “Some of the stories we’ve told relating to addiction have been incredibly relatable, I think, and timely”.
The most recent season of the Salt Lake City series saw one woman process her history of childhood abuse. And in an early season of Beverly Hills, currently the franchise’s highest-rating series, cast member Taylor Armstrong was slowly revealed to be in an abusive relationship that ended when her husband died by suicide. It was a stark portrayal of the machinations of domestic abuse. All of these are stories Cohen knows the show has to be sensitive about, but ones he’s proud to have been able to tell.
“The Taylor Armstrong situation on Beverly Hills was so incredibly dark,” Cohen reflects. “But it also betrayed the reality that sometimes when things look like they’re all wrapped up in pretty packages, the truth of the matter is that life is really hard and it’s not what it appears.”
Recent seasons have even seen wives embroiled in high-stakes legal drama. In the Beverly Hills series, Erika Girardi, a former waitress who married a wealthy attorney 32 years her senior, found herself in hot water after her husband was sued for embezzling funds from plane crash victims. He was eventually disbarred and ordered to pay millions in restitution. The following year Salt Lake City’s Jen Shah narrowly avoided being arrested on camera for conspiracy to commit wire fraud; she took a plea deal and recently began serving a six-and-a-half-year prison sentence. Cohen believes it’s important to keep filming even when situations get sticky.
“We didn’t go into shooting with either of these women when they were in any kind of legal jeopardy,” he says. “So I think the Jen Shah thing took everyone by surprise, but you’re not gonna stop telling the story because she did something wrong. This is someone who now people are invested in and you’re going to want to see how it turns out, how it affects the friendship group, and how it affects their family.”
In fact, what angers fans is when big moments aren’t seen on camera. In Beverly Hills, part-time cast mate Kathy Hilton (yes, mother to Paris – Housewives move in high-flying circles) had a drunken meltdown that allegedly included a derogatory slur. Some viewers have speculated that production was hit with a lawsuit that prevented unflattering footage from airing. Cohen says that’s not the case.
“If it happens on camera, you can’t put something back in the bottle. And there have been times that date back to the limo fight in season one of Beverly Hills” – Cohen is referring to a scene where housewife Kyle Richards outed her sister Kim as an alcoholic during an explosive fight, a moment their real-life relationship never recovered from – “it was their lowest moment and neither of them wanted it to air and it was like, ‘Well, it happened, and it’s not fair to the other women if one thing isn’t shown and another is.’”
Cohen insists the incident happened late at night after the crew had already wrapped filming – and the wives kept on partying. “I mean, they were up until four or five in the morning. So at some point, you have to say to the crew, okay, you can go home,” he says. “If the footage existed, trust me, we would show it.”
The possibility of having your worst moments captured on camera is part of the deal the housewives sign up for. As Cohen puts it, “The show gives them so much, but it also can be incredibly challenging emotionally for them to take part in it”.
So across almost two decades of real-world soap opera, has Housewives ever come up against anything that felt too dark to air?
“There was a scene where Lenny and Lisa Hochstein [from The Real Housewives of Miami] had to say goodbye to their dog before they put it down, and we were like, ‘we can’t show this’. It was devastating,” Cohen says.
Even the most confronting reality show on television has to draw the line somewhere.
Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen airs only on Hayu.
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