How do the ladies of “Real Housewives” measure success? In New York co-ops, gated McMansions, fairy-tale weddings, Rolex watches and shameless social climbing.
The act of living large — or aspiring to that much-cherished goal — transcends area codes in Bravo’s “Real Housewives” reality franchise, where having money is a high priority for the upscale women and wannabes of Orange County, Calif., New York City and Atlanta.
Exhibit A, “O.C.” edition: Tamra Barney, freshly Botoxed, celebrates her 40th birthday on a yacht. Upon receiving a $40,000 Rolex from her husband, she exclaims, “I’m a little taken back by this! But I’m 40 — I so deserve it!”
Exhibit B, “New York” edition: Countess LuAnn de Lesseps, wife of a Frenchman whose ancestor presented the Statue of Liberty to the United States, admonishes friend Bethenny when she introduces her to a driver as “LuAnn” instead of “Mrs. de Lesseps.”
And Exhibit C, “Atlanta” edition: Sheree Whitfield, divorced mother of three, throws herself a glamorous birthday bash in her million dollar home. Not on the list: nemesis NeNe Leakes, who is publicly humiliated after being denied entrance despite winning style points for her slinky designer dress and shoes.
They are friends and rivals, frequently ridiculous, sometimes relatable and, above all, pure viewing pleasure. “The Real Housewives of Orange County” was first to premiere, in March 2006. Viewership has more than doubled over three seasons of the show. Season one averaged 471,000 viewers; last season averaged 1.16 million viewers an episode.
The show’s popularity led the cable channel to spin off “New York” and “Atlanta.” Filming is now under way for season two of “New York,” which garnered averaged 928,000 viewers an episode in its first season.
‘I can’t get enough of them’
The debut season of “Atlanta,” which premiered this week, will overlap with the fourth season of “Orange County,” beginning next month. And coming down the turnpike: “Real Housewives of New Jersey.”
Andy Cohen, Bravo’s senior vice president of programming and development, said the franchise has successfully wooed viewers who would otherwise balk at the over-the-top subjects.
“You start watching for one reason and then you keep watching and you realize, ‘Wait a minute, I either relate to these women or I love these women, or I can’t get enough of them.’ Whereas, you maybe started (watching) because you were like, ‘Wait a minute, what is this?”’
Whitfield, the Southern belle who keeps an entourage of personal assistants and stylists, said the drama is real. Yes, she really did leave Leakes’ name off her party guest list — but not on purpose.
“That was a horrible horrible mishap,” said Whitfield, ex-wife of former NFL player Bob Whitfield. “No, I NEVER would have left her name off the list. ... It was a horrible situation that we tried to fix but it was too late.”
In the episode, Whitfield — busy celebrating at her party — sends her apologetic publicist outside to persuade Leakes to return to the party. A distressed Leakes, waiting for her car, refuses, steaming with anger and shame.
‘Those women bring it to another level’
Bethenny Frankel, the no-nonsense businesswoman of “Real Housewives of New York City,” said the entertainment value of the “Atlanta” spin-off has raised the game for the other shows.
“In this economy right now, it is the show of conspicuous consumption,” Frankel said. “I felt like it was an episode of ‘Cribs’ meets ‘Jerry Springer.’ ... I like that they’re unapologetic. I think it’s going to be wildly entertaining. ... After watching this, if we’re going to keep up our ratings, I’m going to go stand outside one of my cast mates’ houses and wait for them outside and slap someone ... just because those women bring it to another level.”
Some other standout moments: Kim Zolciak, the lone white woman on the “Atlanta” show, coaxes her secret sugar daddy to buy a new SUV for her; she later changes her outfit in a gas station parking lot as Leakes and a stylist try to form a protective wall. DeShawn Snow, bubbly wife of NBA star Eric Snow, a guard for the Cleveland Cavaliers, giggles while meeting the humorless estate manager for her new mansion. The steely Whitfield lets down her guard, wiping away real tears, as she is serenaded at her birthday party.
Their coastal counterparts are no less dramatic. Last season on “Orange County,” real estate super-agent Jeana Keough finds herself back in the dating game after splitting from her husband Matt Keough, a former pro baseball player with whom she has three children. Keogh’s best friend, Vicki Gunvalson, a married mom with a goofy side, tries to be a good wife while nurturing her growing insurance business. Meanwhile, Lauri Waring — a well-groomed divorcee with financial problems — snagged a rich husband and lived out her dream with a lavish wedding.
“We hate her,” Keough joked. “She’s so happy — we all just hate her.”
New York’s oddballs
The “New York” edition has gained a cult following for its cast of highly competitive oddballs: Frankel, who has man problems; de Lesseps, who leaves her kids at home to hit the town with her 23-year-old niece; Alex McCord, who insists her toddler learns to speak French; Jill Zarin, who wears suede bell bottoms to a construction site; and social outcast Ramona Singer, who lashes out at McCord for bringing her husband to a ladies’ dinner.
Frankel, who knew only Zarin before being cast on the show, said they represent “an older ’Sex and the City’ married life.” Frankel, 37 and single, called herself “the poor one.”
She said that part of the show’s appeal was its ability to polarize.
“Some people are angry because they say, ‘This is not really New York,’ and, of course, it’s not entirely New York,” she said. “There are people at poetry readings in the Village and people doing drugs in Washington Square Park — which has nothing to do with our lives — but it’s just a slice of New York and truth is stranger than fiction.”
Keough, a former Playboy Playmate who now sells multimillion-dollar properties, said she would never live in New York and send her kids to school in a taxi. After meeting Frankel and company, she thought, “They all have publicists, and we’re like, ‘Why bother? It’s not our real job.”’
“You live in large houses, but I don’t think any of us — you know, we don’t have yachts and boats and airplanes and stuff,” Keough said. “I don’t think we live large. I think I’m middle class.”
She said the Atlanta women, three of whom married athletes, may suffer from “new money syndrome.”
“That goes fast, you get over that,” she said. “There’s only so much jewelry and cars you can have and then you start saying, ‘OK, this is stupid.”’
Has she ever suffered from the condition?
“Yes, well I still do. I still have six cars. It’s just stupid. There’s always one in the shop — and a pain in the butt.”