Former Real Housewives of New York star and entrepreneur Bethenny Frankel has some advice for disgraced Vanderpump Rules star Raquel Leviss: get paid.
Recently, Bethenny told Entertainment Tonight that Raquel should “play hardball” with Bravo to ensure she gets as much money as possible following a dramatic season that saw the Scandoval debacle unfold.
In conversation about why reality TV stars haven’t gone on strike, Bethenny pointed to the fact that most of Raquel’s costars have returned to production while she’s visibly absent from filming and still getting dragged through the mud about the affair she had with Tom Sandoval, saying:
"She had an affair. She's not the first person in the world that's had an affair…You were wrong, you slept with someone's boyfriend. It happens. You work in a bar on a reality television show, the most toxic environment in history. I didn't think it was a big deal but, of course, the media gods came through and were marketing it like it was the friggin' election," she said.
She then went on to say:
“The girl was a punching bag for everybody on every talk show in the entertainment industry,” she said. “So you get beaten up? Like Erika Jayne did, get paid. You’re gonna put me in a ring with Mike Tyson, I’m gonna get paid.”
Bethenny is referring to how Erika leveraged her ongoing legal battles, which I summarized here, to negotiate a bigger paycheck for herself going into season 12 of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. Fans grew addicted to seeing her face her legal controversy on camera, and in turn, that brought in huge ratings for the show, much like Scandoval did for Vanderpump Rules.
Bethenny is spot on in saying that Raquel became a punching bag across the entertainment industry. It’s not every day that you see reality TV storylines being covered on major news networks like CNN. But CNN covered not only the initial affair, but published follow-up stories and even covered the ratings success of the reunion.
Despite the detriment the affair brought to Raquel, the debacle certainly bolstered Ariana Madix’s level of fame. During the fallout, she made appearances on shows like The View to reflect on her experience with Tom and Raquel’s deception and unfaithfulness. And since then, she’s dropped into Love Island USA, and has been named one of the cast members of the latest season of Dancing With the Stars. While it’s great that she was able to turn lemons into lemonade thanks to one of, if not the biggest reality show scandals we’ve seen play out in history, naturally, the bullying that came out of it was just as unprecedented.
During the reunion, Ariana instructed Raquel to “f-ck herself with a cheese grater,” and throughout the entire season and long after it, the entire cast came for Raquel with such vitriol there were restraining orders put in place. What’s more though was the social media frenzy that followed.
As much as it was entertainment for most viewers, social media users really laid it on thick. Raquel was called every name in the book. The comment sections of gossip blogs became spaces for awful discourse. So much so that in April, Raquel checked herself into a mental health facility. And recently, she announced she was going back to her birth name of Rachel in hopes of shedding at least some of the stigma that now surrounded being Raquel.
Only recently did people start sounding the alarm about the intensity of the abuse she was facing not only online, but from the cast and online trolls throughout the season. People seemed to have softened their tone and have started asking how a network as large as Bravo could have condoned some of the bullying we saw taking place.
To Bethenny’s point, Raquel certainly deserves some sort of compensation for what she went through, even if the reason she went through it was because she had an affair with her best friend’s boyfriend of nearly a decade. But what does that compensation look like? It’s an interesting question to ask, particularly against the backdrop of the double strike. It’s also very telling that even the talent on reality shows are asking for more money.
The thing about reality TV is that it’s often been considered and treated as some cheap alternative to scripted television, which requires a lot more time and resources to produce. With most reality show writers, performers, and producers not being unionized, the strike won’t necessarily impact them, so they are the perfect shoe-in during a work stoppage.
But if more people behind these productions, like Raquel, start demanding more money, as are the WGA and SAG-AFTRA, then these fluffy, filler shows won’t continue to be seen by networks as the cheap alternative to scripted shows.
According to this LA Times article, the WGA strike in 1988 increased the popularity of shows like Cops and America’s Most Wanted. And the 2007-08 writers’ strike led to networks and studios ordering new unscripted programming and fast-tracking the return of others including Paradise Hotel, Big Brother and Celebrity Apprentice to help fill programming gaps. And though networks have been quick to turn to shows like Real Housewives and Vanderpump Rules to serve as programming fillers, this time around, things are different.
In the last several years, reality TV has grown from some nonsensical niche production genre into a programming powerhouse that attracts and maintains a loyal audience. These reality shows are capable of generating just as much chatter as scripted shows often do on social media, thus, snagging primetime slots based on its success.
The increasing competition between reality and scripted TV has made for an interesting dynamic. For a long time, reality TV as a genre has been considered a threat to the stronghold scripted shows like Grey’s Anatomy has had on primetime television. But as time passes, these shows can also be an ally with the power to prevent studio giants from using it merely as some stop-gap during a strike. According to the same LA Times article, the WGA attempted to add animation and reality TV writers under the 2007 contract it was negotiating, but the demand eventually became one of its concessions.
As writers and producers have started to witness the power of these shows, we’ve seen them become more vocal about their working conditions. In recent years, reality TV show workers have spoken out about the long hours, low pay and crappy benefits. Sure, they don’t have a writer’s room in the same way a scripted show might, but they’re still tasked with creating compelling character dynamics and producing storylines. And can you name a more compelling character dynamic than what we saw with Ariana, Tom and Raquel? Can you name a more compelling storyline than Scandoval? It was arguably one of the most compelling reality TV storylines we’ve ever seen, and that’s a hill many seasoned reality TV fans will die on.
So it only makes sense that more production companies of unscripted shows have started to organize with the WGA. Alex Gibney’s Jigsaw Productions, Sharp Entertainment, the group behind the wildly successful series 90 Day Fiancé, and writers and producers at BSTV, best known for their cooking shows, have all successfully joined the WGA. All of that stemmed from the lower wages and longer hours on non-scripted shows compared to scripted TV, and a resistance to the efforts to unionize.
In Raquel’s case, the fact that her negotiations are taking place against the backdrop of the double strike could absolutely be to her benefit and could give her a bit more bargaining power. Because networks are depending on people like her and her costars to continue delivering the same inexpensive but gripping content they have been. But if they offer her more money, writers and actors can use that as ammunition to continue on in their fight to have their wages increased, too.
It's an interesting thing to watch unfold, that’s for sure. And Raquel’s negotiation is the perfect representation of the tug of war that exists for network giants that find themselves with less and less places to turn as they evade calls to increase wages and improve working conditions for their creative collaborators. We’re starting to see how whether you’re a writer, producer or the on-camera talent in a reality, animated or scripted series, the strike impacts you in some way. And if there’s one thing for sure, it’s that you want to be on the write side of history.
Attached - Ariana Madix and Lala Kent seen filming Vanderpump Rules in LA on the weekend.