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‘We were ready to kill the show’: How Bravo’s ‘Real Housewives’ made it to TV

‘We were ready to kill the show’: How Bravo’s ‘Real Housewives’ made it to TV

Love it, hate it or think it heralds the end of civilization, the impact of Bravo’s “Real Housewives” can’t be ignored. 

Since debuting with its first iteration — Orange County — in 2006, the “Housewives” phenomenon has spread to eight other cities, from Beverly Hills to the Potomac. There have been more than a dozen spinoffs with varying degrees of success. Nearly 100 woman have held a piece of fruit and uttered a sassy tagline such as “I won Miss USA, not Miss Congeniality” (Kenya, Atlanta), and “Soccer moms drive minivans, but this girl drives a Bentley” (Peggy, Orange County). The show has given several aging actresses, among them Lisa Rinna and Denise Richards, gainful employment, and various cast members have made headlines for alleged crimes ranging from trespassing to money laundering. But the cultural juggernaut that has come to define Bravo — and in some ways, our current moment — almost never was. 

Bravo's Andy CohenIn a new book, Bravo’s Andy Cohen says “he wanted it to go away,” referring to the initial rough cuts for “The Real Housewives of Orange County.”Bravo/NBC Universal via Getty Images

“The rough cuts sucked,” recalls Andy Cohen of the early days in the new book “Not All Diamonds and Rosé: The Inside Story of the Real Housewives From the People Who Live It” (Andy Cohen Books – Henry Holt and Company). “I wanted it to go away. We were ready to kill the show.” 

The book’s author, Dave Quinn, interviewed some 185 people for the exhaustive oral history, and he says just the first chapter on the origin of the series was initially 500 pages. 

“[I’m] just giving everyone the space to say their piece,” he says. “There’s a big difference between facts and feelings.”

The show’s original producer, Scott Dunlop, first moved from Los Angeles to the Orange County enclave of Coto de Caza, Calif., in 1986. With a population of 15,000, Coto is one of the largest gated communities in the country, and Dunlop was fascinated by his WASP-y, conservative neighbors. 

“The men would leave for work, and the women were left to run wild on ‘the ranch’ as they called it, playing golf and hanging out and shopping,” says Dunlop. “They were all such unusual humans. Entertaining, but also kind of annoying.” 

He was struck by the archetypes he saw: tennis bitches, men of leisure, boomerang kids. Dunlop initially envisioned a short film, but as reality TV started to boom in the early aughts, he realized that format might be a better bet. He thought of the seminal 1970s PBS reality show “An American Family,” and realized, he says, “There are plenty of characters here who are just as compelling.” 

Naturally, the wives disagree as to who was the first Housewife.

Vicki Gunvalson (from left), Lauri Waring, Jeana Keough, Cretchen Ross and Lynne Curtin.Orange County or bust: Vicki Gunvalson (from left), Lauri Waring, Jeana Keough, Cretchen Ross and Lynne Curtin.Bravo/NBC Universal/Getty Images

“The bottom line is, it was me,” says Jeana Keough. 

“We started it together, but Jeana didn’t last 14 years. It was my show,” counters Vicki Gunvalson. 

Dunlop sides with Keough, who was his neighbor and one of the first people he met in Coto. 

“They were perfect for television, really,” recalls Dunlop of the Keough family. “Jeana came from Hollywood — she was a Playboy Playmate of the Year, she had been one of the muses in ZZ Top’s music videos, but she was now working as a real estate agent. Her husband, Matt Keough, was a retired baseball player. They were always gone, and their three children sort of roamed the streets of Coto de Caza wild.” 

In early 2005, Dunlop put together a sizzle reel to sell the show using the Keough family and a bitchy tennis wife named Kimberly Bryant. 

Cohen, who was in charge of production at Bravo at the time, was impressed. “I watched and couldn’t believe how sexy and Californian everybody seemed, how big their boobs were, and the way they spoke to their kids. I’m not sure [we] totally knew what it was, but I knew if it worked it would be like a soap opera.” 

Jo de la Rosa, Lauri Waring, Vicki Gunvalson and Jeana KeoughOriginal Housewives Jo de la Rosa (from left), Lauri Waring, Vicki Gunvalson and Jeana Keough, who was the first to be cast. The former Playboy Playmate of the Year lived next door to original producer Scott Dunlop.Bravo/NBC Universal via Getty Images

Bravo bought the show and ordered Dunlop to cast more female characters. 

“We started leaning into the aspect that all of the narrative would come from women,” Dunlop says.

Lauren Zalaznick, then an executive vice president at NBCUniversal, recalls how at that time, Lifetime had been the No. 1 cable network for 15 years. Bravo wanted to appeal to women and tell their stories, too, but with an entirely different sensibility. 

“Our women had the power,” she says. “They were CEOs of their lives, come hell or high water.”

Dunlop put out local newspaper ads to find more subjects. One was answered by a boy named Michael Wolfsmith, who wrote about his boundary-lacking mother: Vicki Gunvalson. She would become one of the series’ longest-running characters.

“Michael wrote in, expecting he and his friends to do the show,” Gunvalson remembers in the book. “In his letter, he talked about coming back home in between semesters of college to train with me to become a successful insurance agent. And Scott Dunlop contacted me saying, ‘We want to talk to you! Most women in this area don’t work!’ “

Through Vicki, Dunlop found another key player, a tall blonde going through a nasty divorce named Lauri Waring.

The Real Housewives from the people who lived it: Not All Diamonds and Rosé by Dave Quinn

Dunlop needed just one more woman to round out the cast. He found her in a beautiful 24-year-old from Peru named Jo De La Rosa. She was hesitant to join the cast, but her boyfriend, Slade Smiley, was 15 years older and, Dunlop says, “wanted his 15 minutes wherever he could get it.” (Fans of the show know that Smiley and De La Rosa broke up and then did a spinoff show called “Date My Ex.” Smiley went on to become involved with Lauri first and another eventual Housewife, Gretchen Rossi. (He and Rossi are now engaged and have a child.)

The original title of the show was “Behind the Gates,” but network execs thought it sounded too serious. At the time, both “Desperate Housewives” and “The OC” were very popular shows. Zalaznick came up with “The Real Housewives of Orange County” and said it gave them the option to do other cities. Cohen was “vehemently opposed,” fearing it sounded awkward and thinking they would never do another city. 

“How wrong we were,” he says.

Shooting began in 2005, but the initial footage was quite disappointing and didn’t ring true.

“The confessional interview where the ladies spoke straight to the camera weren’t stylized — they weren’t well lit, and the women didn’t look their best,” says Cohen. “The women also weren’t going deeply into their emotions or being honest about what was happening with their friends.”

He was ready to shelve it and give up, but Zalaznick persisted, insisting they go back to shoot more, at a cost of about $140,000.

“Her words created conflict. Conflict matters; conflict moves the story forward. We didn’t really know that until Tamra came on the show.”

Vicki Dunlop on Tamra Bailey

“ ‘Queer Eye’ was dying. It had hit big and then fizzled quickly,” she recalls. “The future of Bravo was very much hanging on ‘Housewives.’ ”

“Thank Lauren, and the Lord, that we didn’t kill it!” says Cohen.

Bravo took more control over shooting and hired a new showrunner, Dave Rupel, who had a background in soap operas and could prove useful in developing characters and story arcs.  

De La Rosa and Smiley came across as hammy, but Rupel wanted them to work because Smiley was more attractive than the other husbands and De La Rosa brought some much needed diversity to the show. Rupel realized that the key with them was to keep the cameras rolling.

Once, one of his colleagues called worried about how staged and phony a breakup scene between them was playing. Rupel told her: “Just let them do their shtick and then keep going. It will get real.

“And sure enough, Jo was drinking — she had a huge cocktail — and suddenly, their breakup became very real,” Rupel says. “Slade couldn’t resist taking potshots at Jo, and she started to get mad. It turned out to be a really emotional scene.”

Simon and Tamra BarneyTamra Barney (with former husband Simon) loved to make enemies on the show and made it a must-watch.Bravo/NBC Universal/Getty Images

It all came together, and the first season was well-received but not a runaway hit.

But Cohen says he always wanted a second season, especially after learning that Jeana Keough and her husband were splitting up. 

“I wanted to see what would happen next with these women,” he recalls. “I cared. That’s what soaps do. I thought, ‘Wow, we could do this forever.’ ” 

Still, it wasn’t until Season 3 when Tamra Barney (now Tamra Judge) joined the cast that the show hit its stride, insiders say. She practically demanded they put her on the show, calling producers after her interview and saying, “Did I get the f – – king job or not?” She went on to develop a major feud with Rossi, a younger Housewife who was then involved with a much older man with leukemia. Tamra made a habit of blurting out whatever was on her mind — making enemies in the process.

“She called me an old lady and said she was going to come for my real estate business,” says Keough. “I wasn’t too worried. She’s never sold a house.”

Tamra Barney, Vicki Gunvalson, Jeana Keough, Lauri Petersen during the 2008 NBC Press Tour Tamra Barney (from left), Vicki Gunvalson, Jeana Keough and Lauri Petersen became the faces of rich and ridiculous women in Orange County — and helped spawn a popular franchise with spin-offs around the country.NBC Universal/Getty Images

Those behind the camera, however, loved her. “She was a born reality star,” says Alex Baskin, the president of Evolution Media, the company that produces the series. “It went from a sort of sleepy slice-of-life show with a bunch of suburban women getting together for trunk shows, [to] a much more aggressive, claws-out show,” he notes in the book. “There was no going back.”

It was a recipe for success and the franchise would go on to become the catfight fest many of us know and bingewatch.

“Tamra was the first one to voice an opinion about another Housewife,” Dunlop agrees. “Her words created conflict. Conflict matters; conflict moves the story forward. We didn’t really know that until Tamra came on the show.”

Viewership grew steadily. By Season 7, the show was bringing in 1.36 million viewers in the desirable 18 to 49 demographic.

It may have taken the over-the-top bitchiness to draw people in, but author Quinn insists that the show has actually been positive for women.

“Our culture tends to throw women away in general, but especially at a certain age,” he says. “When are you going to see a 50-year-old black woman like Kenya Moore celebrated in pop culture if not for the Housewives?”