The stars of the reality TV world are divided over Bethenny Frankel waging war on NBCUniversal and its subsidiary, Bravo. Earlier this month, TMZ first reported that Bethenny, alongside legal heavyweights Bryan Freedman and Mark Geragos, apparently representing dozes of reality personalities, sent a pointed letter to the network, accusing it of subjecting its stars to “grotesque and depraved mistreatment.”
Despite claims from both lawyers that there have been tons of former and current cast and crew members reaching out to express their support, Page Six reported the exact opposite, suggesting most people, particularly the network’s current stars, are rallying behind Bravo, suggesting Bethenny is “sh-tting on the house that made her.” It's an echo of the divisive tactics we've seen with the industry trades regarding the actor and writer strikes.
There’s also a lot of deflection in that narrative. Yes, it’s no secret that Bethenny had a long-standing relationship with Bravo and was able to churn out some serious profits over the course of it. But if she’s saying that even as one of the biggest profit-generating figures for Bravo, she felt like she wasn’t properly compensated for years on camera, it paints a really damning picture for the network’s other cast members.
The idea that Bravo made Bethenny begs the question of whether we can attribute her success solely to Bravo. And despite the common misconception that her claim to fame was her stint on Real Housewives of New York, long before and long after her involvement with the network, she’s always been a hustler.
In 2008, the year she started on RHONY, she told cameras she only had about $8,000 in her bank account. According to reports, she didn’t even earn that amount for the entire first season. But by the end of her tenure on the show, Forbes reported she was earning in excess of $1 million per season. And in 2016, Forbes listed her as the sixth highest-paid reality star, trailing the Kardashian-Jenner clan, earning $8.5 million that year and touting her ability to successfully build a brand.
Bethenny once famously said, “What’s the point of being on TV if you have nothing to sell?” and it’s a question that she has proven is worth asking, given the success of her brand, Skinnygirl. In 2011, just a few years after making her debut on RHONY, she sold her company to Beam Global in a deal worth a reported $100 million. But long after the sale of the company, she is still cashing in. Big time.
If we were to look at the timeline, we’d see that most of Bethenny’s success came after being on Real Housewives. That doesn’t mean being on the show didn’t give her a major kickstart, and she once even admitted that the show was a “wonderful commercial” for her brand. But it does mean that she had an incredible business sense about her that has continued to pay off over time.
When she sold Skinnygirl to Beam Global back in 2011, she chose to forego a lump sum payment and opted instead for payouts based on the ongoing success of the company. And the other crucial thing she did was keep the rights to the brand name, which she can still use to market other products. The name went on to be attached to granola bars, lunch meats, candy, shapewear and jeans – and all of these products are available in major stores.
Beyond that, she had a short stint as a TV host, she currently hosts a successful podcast, and she had a series of shows that followed Real Housewives, many produced by and aired on Bravo, that all counted for earning some big bank. Her union with Jason Hoppy was the focus of Bethenny Ever After before the pair ultimately divorced and became estranged despite sharing a daughter together. And when she began flipping multi-million dollar homes in different areas of New York and throughout the Hamptons, Bravo granted her and high-profile realtor Fredrik Eklund a spinoff called Bethenny & Fredrik. In perhaps the greatest display of just how able she is to get sh-t done, she started bstrong, an emergency relief initiative that provides assistance to people in crisis and is currently assisting those in need in the wake of the Maui wildfires.
So as much as people are shaking their heads asking why Bethenny has taken it upon herself to wage this war against NBCUniversal and Bravo, and to begin the fight to start a union, perhaps the better question is why not?
Perhaps that’s part of the reason why SAG-AFTRA has made it clear that they’re on board with whatever may come from her efforts to get reality TV stars to unionize. She understands some of the fundamental flaws that exist in the industry and a lot of that comes from spending so much time in it.
“I, myself, have generated millions and millions of dollars in advertising and online impressions being on reality TV and have never made a single residual,” she explained in an Instagram video. “So, either I’m missing something or we’re getting screwed, too.”
In that same video, she points to the fact that reality TV stars are often looked down on for being cheap entertainment, an idea I explored in this article. She says they’re sometimes considered the “losers” of Hollywood, but notes that despite their sometimes poor reputation, reality TV is often responsible for providing entertainment during strikes, like the one that ran from 2007 to 2008. She named shows like The Bachelor and The Hills, which provided entertainment to viewers during that period, despite both being outside of the Bravo universe and still playing a huge role in the world of entertainment.
At this point, the only question is why reality stars wouldn’t want better working conditions for themselves, whether in the form of a union or simply putting these networks on notice, as the letter sent by the lawyers did. Part of it likely has to do with wanting to stay in Andy Cohen’s good books.
We know he has his faves. It's often discussed on reunions, or episodes of Watch What Happens Live. For Real Housewives specifically, you don’t want to run the risk of being demoted, getting less camera time, or less invitations to be a guest on WWHL or any of the other perks that come with being a Bravolebrity.
According to Dorinda Medley, who starred in RHONY for a few seasons, she doesn’t see what Bethenny sees and says she had a positive experience filming.
“My experience has been positive. I’ve been part of the network for nearly 10 years, and I’ve loved getting to share my journey with the viewers,” she told Page Six.
Last week, I wrote about the danger of white women centering themselves and their experiences and assuming it's universal. While it's wonderful to hear that Dorinda had a pleasant experience during her tenure on the show, the same can’t be said for the network’s younger stars, and I think Bethenny sees that and is therefore lending her voice to the cause.
I think she’s advocating for women like Margot, who had a naked colleague lay in bed with her against her will and unbeknownst to her on a recent episode of Below Deck, which I wrote about here. I think she’s advocating for women like Rachel who experienced a lot of extreme online abuse during the last season of Vanderpump Rules.
Despite the attempts to chalk up Bethenny’s efforts to unionize on a pitch for a show she made to Bravo a few months ago that the network never accepted, her motivation doesn’t matter nearly as much as the potential impact this could have. What matters is that she’s fighting an unprecedented and much-needed fight here that could revolutionize the way reality TV workers are treated, compensated and respected in the industry. And despite the magnitude of the challenge, if anyone can take it on, it’s Bethenny.