Shereé Whitfield drives her Porsche through Atlanta. Photos by Amy Lombard
Women have reinvented themselves after divorces for decades, but after they’ve left the Real Housewives franchise, reality stars have learned they are branded forever.
At Sky Zone Trampoline Park in Anaheim, California, the former Real Housewife of Orange County Alexis Bellino strutted toward a trampoline. "Of course I've [jumped] on the trampolines," Alexis said. "If you don't live, you'll never know!" She flung her high heels across the room and began to jump. As she bounced, her Chanel earrings and diamond-encrusted crucifix necklace banged against her tan neck and chest. "Jesus is in my heart," Alexis whispered, eyes closed. Then she dove off the trampoline into a pit filled with blue and orange foam cubes. I tossed my recorder and notebook onto a trampoline and jumped after her. For several minutes, I lay next to Alexis as she writhed around like a woman receiving messages from God. She looked at peace.
Alexis has struggled to find tranquility over the last few years. Since she left Real Housewives of Orange County in 2013, her reality television persona has followed her, and she has been defined by her memorable battles with her fellow Housewives, like when Heather Dubrow, Tamra Judge, Vicki Gunvalson, and Gretchen Rossi hosted an intervention over Alexis's alleged "pretentiousness." She had summoned me to her family's trampoline business, roughly 20 minutes away from Disneyland, to tell me how the Real Housewives franchise had affected her life. For an hour, we talked in a room built for children's birthday parties (the metal picnic tables and blue walls gave it the look of a prison cafeteria, which felt oddly appropriate). But midway through the interview, Alexis decided any talk of her former castmates—who had christened her "Jesus Jugs" because of her large breasts and love of God—was off the record.
We pushed through the foam pit, talked about my boyfriend, ran across the "Sky Zone," and bounced on two more trampolines. As we passed Alexis's young son, she began complaining about her daughters. "Girls are harder," she explained. "I have two twin daughters—and they're Scorpios!" The years Alexis has spent combating Real Housewives seem to have gotten to her; she went on to tell me she has banned all other women from her house, including female pets that her kids wanted to get. When I asked Alexis what's to blame for what she seems to believe is women's essential malice, she laughed and shouted, "Estrogen!"
Among former Real Housewives, Alexis is not alone in her mistrust of women. Since Bravo premiered Real Housewives of Orange County in 2006, 161 women have taken the title "Real Housewife." Seventy-eight of these women have left the show, either because Andy Cohen, the show's executive producer, fired them, they quit, their series was canceled, or some combination of the above. Most of them have struggled to move beyond the Housewives realm, which has branded their identities, financial prospects, and world views—and not in a good way. While some former reality stars, like Rock of Love's Heather Chadwell, who is now a real estate agent, have gone on to successfully work in normal, everyday jobs, Housewives are not just any reality stars. They belong to a franchise encompassing Bravo's nine Housewives series and 14 spin-offs (including Vanderpump Rules); nine foreign incarnations airing across the globe; and President Donald Trump's The Celebrity Apprentice, which is also owned by NBC Universal and has functioned as a crossover series. (Twelve former or current Housewives have competed on the program alongside other celebrities, like Snooki from Jersey Shore.)
"There are a lot of [Housewives], and they all know each other. It's like a high school in that way," explained novelist and celebrity ghostwriter Maya Sloan, who has worked with Housewives on a variety of projects. "There's beef between the franchises. There are alliances between them. This is a very [tight-knit] community."
Alexis Bellino grows lemons in her backyard in Orange County. Photos by Amy Lombard
In terms of its scope and cultural presence, the Real Housewives franchise is more like the Marvel Cinematic Universe than, say, Survivor, but it wasn't always this way. Five years ago, blogs mocked the writer Camille Paglia for gushing about the show and comparing it to Discovery Channel documentaries about cheetahs hunting their prey. Today, Housewives are mainstream. Former soap opera stars, like Lisa Rinna, turn to Real Housewives instead of scripted TV when they stage comebacks, and older Housewives have been able to do the reverse, with Real Housewife of Beverly Hills Kyle Richards selling a scripted drama about her childhood to Paramount. (Alicia Silverstone is set to play Richards's mother.) Critics have dissected the Housewives in every publication from n + 1 to the New York Times Magazine. Last month, Vogue interviewed the fairly new Real Housewife of Beverly Hills Erika Jayne. With Donald Trump as president, few can deny that reality television has moved to the center of American culture.
Since Real Housewives of Orange County debuted in 2006, the term housewife has also experienced a shift, thanks in no small part to the franchise. When Shereé Whitfield signed on for the first season of Real Housewives of Atlanta, the third incarnation of the series, she more or less fit the traditional definition. "I was married, I had kids, and I was there [at home]. Did I have help? Yes. But I was there pretty much waiting on my kids' and my husband's every beck and call," Shereé recalled at the Mandarin Oriental hotel's restaurant in Atlanta. "[Now] you have some Housewives on Atlanta who've never been married, don't have any kids."
"[Being a Real Housewife] means you're a strong, successful entrepreneur—a businesswoman—that's what the Real Housewife is," said original Real Housewife of New York Jill Zarin. "The term sounds simple, but the second you're a Real Housewife, you're working."
When I visited Kathy Wakile, the former Real Housewife of New Jersey and cousin of convicted felon Teresa Giudice, who was also on the Real Housewives of New Jersey before she spent a year in federal prison for fraud, Kathy ranted about how Real Housewives have corrupted the definition of the word housewife, which she used to connect with because she is literally a housewife, not an aspiring entrepreneur. "I don't give a shit. I'm wearing it for who I am, what makes me comfortable," she said. "As you can see, I dressed up for you today. I put makeup on. That's a big deal."
Kathy Wakile envisions her New Jersey kitchen as a "meeting place."
Kathy was wearing a blue button-down shirt with jeans and sitting in the kitchen of her suburban mansion in Franklin Lakes. She is obsessed with her kitchen; when she and her husband designed the house, she placed the open-air kitchen in the center of the first floor. She envisioned it as a "meeting place" to "inspire conversation." I asked her the difference between a housewife and a Real Housewife.
"Housewife means a woman who stays at home, a stay-at-home mom—the woman that takes care of everything in the house. A domestic engineer, I guess you could call it," she said. "The whole pop-culture, TV persona thing of [the Real] Housewife is completely different."
"Is it more like a socialite?"
"It's a wannabe socialite. You wanna see your name on E! News, or you wanna open up one of those tabloids and see your face: 'Who wore it better?'"
During the day, Kathy pointed out, she cooks and cleans, whereas on the Real Housewives franchise "nobody is doing laundry," she said. "I have laundry to do!" She held up her hands, which had perfect French tips. "I have the hands to prove it. Dishwasher hands are real, and they exist in Franklin Lakes."
Despite her professed disinterest in reality television and branding, Kathy occasionally guest-stars on new episodes of the show as a "Friend of the Housewives," a term for women who frequently appear on the program but are not part of the core cast. Several times during our interview, she brought up her cannoli and dessert company and showed off a copy of her cookbook, Indulge: Delicious Little Desserts That Keep Life Real Sweet, which she had displayed on a marble counter in the center of her kitchen.
When she left the show (she says she quit), Kathy wanted to preserve her ties to Bravo. When I asked about her relationship with Teresa Giudice, she described it as good. But when her husband, Rich, walked in, he told me, "You should do a story on how people are stupid and commit crimes on TV... Does Bravo make these women do an IQ test?" Kathy ordered him to stop talking to me.
After I left her house, Kathy's publicist emailed me saying Kathy would refuse to sign our model release form unless Kathy could approve the photos.
Kathy loves to read books about her home state.
Many of the original Housewives—the drink-hurling furies who made the show a thing in the first place—were not lucky enough to know to brand themselves from the get-go. When Bravo first greenlit the show 11 years ago, reality television was in a transitional phase. The Real World had been on air for 15 years, but Hollywood still regarded "alternative programing" as inferior to scripted fare. Industry veterans were warning young make-up artists to avoid working with reality starlets, and as late as 2011, Kim Kardashian was appearing in Sketchers ads.
Jill Zarin, an original Real Housewife of New York, claims she didn't know she was becoming a Real Housewife when she signed her initial contract. She recalls producers telling her she would star on a program called Manhattan Moms. She found out she was the heroine of the first sequel to Real Housewives of Orange County at a photo shoot for the now iconic advertisement that featured the original Real Housewives of New York holding apples.
"Oh my God, they lied to us!" Jill cackled, talking to me at her friend's house in Beverly Hills. "The Real Housewives of Orange County were not presented the way we thought we [behaved], so I was so upset. I'm a very honest person. I felt that we were bait and switched."
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I first met Jill seven years ago. At the time, she was still a Housewife, and I was a freshman at Sarah Lawrence College, where I had befriended her daughter, Ally. On the weekends, we would party in the city and crash at Jill's apartment at her behest; she would ask me about boys and feed me Greek takeout. She felt like the Jewish mom that I never had. This was shortly after Jill's split with Bethenny Frankel—who has become the most successful Real Housewife thanks to her Skinnygirl wine business, which she sold for several million dollars—in season three.
Jill met Bethenny in the mid-aughts. Jill was the wife of millionaire fabric and real estate entrepreneur Bobby Zarin, and Bethenny was struggling to launch a cupcake business after losing The Apprentice. She had been trying to become a star for years. In the 1990s, she had embarked on an acting career but only landed a job as a production assistant on Saved by the Bell. She paid her bills by working as Paris and Nicky Hilton's nanny.
After Jill scored Real Housewives of New York City, she and Bobby bumped into Bethenny at a party. Bobby said, "Bethenny, Jill just got on a reality TV show. Do you think you'd want to do it with her?" Bethenny asked what the show was about. Jill described the premise and remembers Bethenny rebuffing her: She wasn't a mom. "Yeah, but you're a mom wannabe!" Jill recalls telling her. Eventually, Jill says, Bethenny agreed. Bethenny started as Jill's sidekick; in the show's early ads, Jill stands in the center while Bethenny poses on the far left, in the back.
Jill Zarin relaxes in her Manhattan apartment, the setting of some of the most notorious scenes in "Real Housewives of New York City."
"When [Andy Cohen] was promoted [to Bravo's head of development], I was the first to send him a present," Jill told me. "I remember telling Bethenny, 'You have to send people gifts. I remember calling her once, saying, 'Give me some of your Skinnygirls (at the time it was Bethenny Bakes). I said, 'Give me some of your cookies. I'll put it with my stuff, and we'll put together a package to send Andy to congratulate him.'"
Today, she regrets offering that advice. In 2010 Bravo awarded Bethenny a spin-off show, Bethenny Ever After, and then a feud broke out between the two best friends on Real Housewives of New York City's third season. In one episode, Jill lamented that Bethenny didn't call her when Bobby developed cancer. Bethenny has alleged Jill incited the fight to embarrass her, telling Cohen on his talk show Watch What Happens Live, "It was like, whoa, this is one cunning bitch. She's waiting to be on camera to come at me with things and make America hate me!" Bethenny claims she ended the friendship after Jill called Today show producers and told them to interview her instead of Bethenny.
Jill remembers their split differently. In a 2010 interview on The View, she claimed Bethenny told the other Housewives to stop filming with her after Bravo granted Bethenny a spin-off. (After several email exchanges and phone calls, Bethenny's publicist, Joanne Freed, did not return Broadly's request for comment.)
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Jill's damage control, though, didn't work. Jill and Bethenny's falling out has become one of the top reality-television feuds of all time—only Lauren Conrad and Heidi Montag's split rivals it in memorability. In viewers' minds, Jill, like Heidi, is the villain. This was best displayed in a season-three episode known as "Scary Island" to fans. The other Real Housewives of New York had gone on vacation to St. John, which they referred to as Scary Island, and Jill decided to crash the trip in order to make up with Bethenny. She called the producers. They agreed. Jill said she bought her own ticket from St. Barts, where she was vacationing, to St. John. When she arrived, she found her castmates lined up in pool chairs ready to confront her.
"Surprise!" Jill shouted. "We came!"
"What's going on?" Bethenny asked.
Jill, Bethenny, and the rest of the Housewives fought for several minutes, with the Housewives shouting at Jill for joining their trip. "I can't believe this," Jill said to them. "Two weeks ago, I thought you'd be happy, and we'd surprise you." The scene concludes with Jill in tears.
Jill keeps her gold apple from the "Real Housewives of New York City" ads in her living room.
"I [was] so excited because in my mind, I'm gonna get in the house, find Bethenny, and it's gonna be this love scene. I didn't know that the show had set up [a confrontation]," Jill recalled to me. "They were leaving the next day. They had had enough, and the producers tortured them, and I didn't know this. The producers told them that they had to come get these pedicures, and they had to sit in these chairs facing the front door. So they knew something was coming. They held them there and made them do that for an hour and a half. I had no idea. I'm in the car thinking I'm gonna walk in and they'll all be scattered around the house and I'll go find Bethenny."
Two seasons after that, in 2011, Jill left the show. Whether she quit or was fired is up for debate. Jill claimed she first quit, and then she rejoined the show only to be fired. Cohen has maintained that he let her go.
"I was very hurt when [Cohen] chose sides," Jill told me. "I wished and hoped that Andy would've stayed neutral with the Housewives. To be fair, it's hard to be neutral. Can you really treat all the girls the same? But I felt that he really picked sides in our fight, and I know why. He had invested and said yes to giving [Bethenny] a show, a spinoff, and he had to back her."
But despite the drama and emotional turmoil, Jill still loves the Housewives. In several emails and conversations, she offered steep analyses of the show's ratings and gushed about her peers' beauty. "I'll tell you, some of these Housewives take my breath away," she said. "I feel like the fat, old, ugly one." I pointed out that many of the Housewives had had a lot of plastic surgery, saying, "Some of their faces can't move." She brushed me off. "Mine moves too much!" she said. "Some of the girls are so freaking gorgeous that it's intimidating. I was like the fat sister. I always felt like Mama Jill, like I had to take care of [everyone]." Jill dreams of meeting with Bethenny on the show and resolving their issues. Either she's the Housewives' biggest fan and knows what that would bring to the show, or she's an optimist.
During the height of her Housewives fame, Jill won the 2012 Kings County Women of the Year Award.
"I think that time heals all wounds," Jill said of her feud with Bethenny. "I think that my best friend is time, because a lot of things I said at the time people didn't believe and have now come true."
The strangest aspect of Jill's obsession with old fights and reality stardom is that she was already a successful businesswoman before reality television. After attending Simmons, a women's college, she trained as a buyer at Boston's Filene's Basement department store, worked at the Great American Knitting Mill, where she managed clients like Nautilus and Joe Boxer, and eventually became a national sales manager for Jockey International.
In her early endeavors, there were hints of the Real Housewife Jill would become. At Simmons, she sold men's underwear that said, "I've been Simmonized" on the butt, and the dean of admissions punished her for violating the school's trademark. "That's the first time I learned about trademark infringement," Jill said. As kids, she and her sister would play the board game Careers. When it was Jill's turn, she always chose a goal called "Fame." But she didn't want to be an actress, singer, or writer, or create an alternative route in the game.
""[My sister] says I put all my money on being famous, and that's what I wanted to be," Jill said.
Jill maintains an archive of Housewives memorabilia in her home.
"What you know about us as people is the crappiest eight minutes Bravo's production can find," former Real Housewife of Orange County Gretchen Rossi told me about the show that presented her as a rich man's unemployed, childless fiancée. "What a lot of people don't know about me is that I was an extremely successful real estate agent. I was in the top 7 percent internationally of my company, of Coldwell Banker, and I did very well for myself. I was literally making a million dollars as a 26-year-old girl, and I made that much money for multiple years while I was in real estate."
Since leaving Real Housewives in 2013, Gretchen has operated a "full lifestyle brand" called Gretchen Christine with her fiancé, Slade, who has dated multiple Real Housewives of Orange County. When I visited their showroom—a second-floor downtown Los Angeles space with walls covered in purses—Gretchen huddled next to Slade at a table full of yet more purses. Since appearing on the show, Gretchen has yet to live like an actual housewife:
"I try to get her to bake cookies, and she says no," Slade said.
"I made cookies the other night, you little turkey, and they were good!" Gretchen said. "I'm a very good homemaker. You love it when I cook, and you love it when I make the house all beautiful."
She seemed much happier discussing business. She views the Gretchen Christine label through a charitable lens: During her five-season Housewives tenure, Gretchen received tweets from fans asking where she bought her clothes. She told them Gucci, and then, she says, they would tweet their dismay that they couldn't afford it. "This is really sad, that women can't have high end," she remembers thinking, and so she launched her brand, which focuses on handbags but includes items like the "Gorgeous Camel Suede Dress" (currently sold out) and home decor. Most items are under $100. "The profit margin isn't that big. That was OK for me," Gretchen said, petting one of her purses. "This was about women [looking] their best."
Describing a for-profit clothing business like it's charity work may sound ridiculous, but Gretchen has spent hours thinking about pop culture's effect on women. During her Bravo run, she was engaged to an elderly man named Jeff Beitzel. (He died of cancer during her stint on the show.) Viewers would call her a gold digger and accuse her of having breast implants. "These are my real boobs," she made a point to tell me. "I don't have fake boobs, even though I got accused of it a thousand times." More than once, she told me, Gretchen went to a plastic surgeon, begging him to give her a nose job after viewers called her a "horse" on Twitter. The doctor refused. "Your nose is fine," she recalls him saying. During our interview, Gretchen asked me "to be nice" in my article.
Seeing her face on an HD television bothered Gretchen. "For instance," she said, "I had started to have a lot of issues with these moles I have on my face." ("Beauty marks," Slade corrected her.) Gretchen begged a dermatologist to remove them, but he said the scars would look even worse on HDTV. The stress of the show caused her to lose massive amounts of weight, yet she dreamed about losing even more.
"I look back and see pictures of myself—I was so skinny when I was on the show and I didn't even realize it," Gretchen said. "[Being a Real Housewife] does start to mentally kind of break you down."
My opinion is that the network has raped their talent.
Unlike working as a CEO or in-demand real-estate agent, being a Real Housewife does not come with a compensation that matches the psychological endurance it requires. Jill claims her daughter, Ally, never received a dime for appearing on the show. "I'm a SAG member, so I am in the union, and I really wish they would enforce it on reality shows," Jill said. "If for no one else, the children of reality [stars] need to be protected from the long hours." (SAG does not cover reality stars, although some SAG actors have appeared on reality television. SAG did not return Broadly's request for comment.)
Without a union, the Housewives, and their children and husbands, lack the protections that have prevented multi-media conglomerates from exploiting actors and writers. Several sources that have worked with Bravo say salaries vary depending on a Housewife's popularity. Although children's scenes often consist of them running around in the background, kids also occasionally play major roles. And while actors receive residual checks when TV channels air their performances from years ago, multiple Bravo stars say the network does not pay Real Housewives residuals. "My opinion is that the network has raped their talent, because this show has been syndicated since season two," Slade said. "It has been sold off into international distribution... It's been seen by over 500 million people. It plays all over the world, and its talent gets nothing."
In a phone call, a Bravo spokesperson said the network and Cohen declined to comment on these accusations, citing the company's policy on discussing contractual matters. She did not refute any of the Housewives' claims.
Housewives who got their starts as models or successful actresses tend to care less about the short financial stick of reality television. They view the Real Housewives as a means to boost their platform. On a cold day in Manhattan, 39-year-old former Real Housewife of New York Kristen Taekman prepared for a day of press with her assistant at the Little Cupcake shop in Soho. Destiny's Child's "Bills, Bills, Bills" played throughout the store as Kristen discussed work and pretended to eat a croissant.
Kristen Taekman, former model and ex–Real Housewife of New York, strikes a pose in front of a shark.
In her 20s, Kristen worked as a model. She wasn't a household name, but she paid her bills. Her newfound Housewives fame has allowed her to launch a makeup brand. The line specializes in the bright colors she loves—she was wearing a pink jacket when we met. She felt it only made sense to name her company after the phrase "pop of color," which she uses often. "It's [a term] that I use all the time," she explained. "As I'm sure you've noticed, it's everywhere." After deciding on the name, Kristen did an internet search to see if anyone had trademarked "pop of color." Someone had, but POC Beauty was available, so Kristen trademarked it instead.
"I just got my paperwork yesterday," she said. "I own it."
Kristen seemed unaware of the other, more common meaning of the term POC, and I wasn't sure how to broach the topic. I framed the issue around Twitter controversies, a pop-culture motif that all reality TV stars understand. "There was a bit of Twitter controversy with POC [Beauty], because [POC] also means 'people of color,'" I began. Kristen cut me off. "And people of Christ and piece of shit!"
Kristen turned to her assistant, who was arguing on the phone with her dermatologist. "Isn't it bizarre that no one pointed out that it means 'piece of crap' as well? So interesting... The funny thing is that I don't want to comment more on it, because I think it's super silly, to be honest, and everybody knows that the name of my company is Pop of Color, and Pop of Color was not available, POC Beauty was, so there you go. The piece of shit people never came after me!"
Kristin owns the trademark for POC Beauty.
I didn't bother to argue with Kristen. Real Housewives operate in their own world, where perspective is jilted. But for their universe to function, it has to include people besides Bravo castoffs, like "Friends of Housewives," husbands, boyfriends, makeup artists, managers, and producers.
Darren Bettencourt is a manager/producer who has worked with Jill and currently manages new Real Housewife of New York Tinsley Mortimer, as well as Bravo's Million Dollar Listing real estate agents. He's also known to socialize with women from multiple seasons of Real Housewives. Originally working on the scripted development side of TV, Bettencourt changed course around a decade ago after having dinner with Jill and Bethenny. He agreed to work for Jill. "At the time, I knew nothing about the unscripted side of the business, and I saw the opportunity to work with Jill as a great way to learn about reality television," he explained in an email.
Bettencourt is now turning his experiences into a satirical television comedy called Altered Reality, about life behind the scenes of Real Housewives. In the show, he's cast numerous ex–Real Housewives on a fictional show very similar to the Bravo franchise, creating a meta narrative about reality TV. Bettencourt is co-producing the show with Oscar nominee Michael Ohoven, the producer of Capote, and Ohoven's wife, former Real Housewife of Beverly Hills Joyce Giraud.
"I thought it would be fun to cast reality stars in the series to add an additional element of realism, and I wanted to make it over-the-top," Bettencourt said. "My goal was to create a juicy prime-time soap opera reminiscent of Dallas and Dynasty, with the modern twist of the storyline surrounding a group of women that star on a reality series."
"It's a lot about breaking the fourth wall, but you see more of the other side that people don't see in Housewives," Giraud said when we met for lunch at the Chateau Marmont. "It's not just breaking the fourth wall with the women—it's also breaking the fourth wall with the producers."
Housewives manager Darren Bettencourt (left) explains "Altered Reality" to Hollywood power attorney Marty Singer (right).
Last April, I accompanied Bettencourt when he went to explain the program to his lawyer Marty Singer, a Hollywood power attorney best known for defending Bill Cosby. (He no longer represents Cosby.) Singer liked the idea, and he seemed impressed with Bettencourt. "He is extremely looking out for all of his clients, which I admire," Singer told me. "When I look at a client, I look at them as if I'm representing a family member."
Bettencourt has hired Maya Sloan, the celebrity ghostwriter, and her husband, Thomas Warming, an illustrator for Nikki Finke's site Hollywood Dementia, to write the script. At a table reading in Jill's apartment in New York, the couple listened to Jill read her lines and then rewrote the script to include some Yiddish lines at Jill's request.
"She showed me all the [Real Housewives] memorabilia she had and she was very proud of it," Warming recalled. "She's very proud of that."
"Much as it's scripted, when it's most compelling, it's coming from a real place," Sloan explained. "We've had conversations with Housewives, and they very much want to talk about the plotline on [Altered Reality] and [their] entertainment value, but in real life [being on the show] was a pretty emotionally devastating, confusing, all-encompassing [experience]. These issues that you see on the [scripted] show, a lot of them come from very real places, and there are real emotions involved."
Jill reads dialogue to writers Thomas Warming (left) and Maya Sloan (right).
Projects like Altered Reality are dangerous for former Real Housewives because they could prevent them from returning to Bravo. Women like Kathy Wakile, and now Jill, whose return to Real Housewives of New York was teased last month, have returned to the show as friends, and after a three-season total absence, Atlanta's Shereé Whitfield spun the gig into a full-time return to the series.
Like the best reality stars, Shereé straddles the line between savvy and messy, self-aware and oblivious. In Atlanta she asked me to meet her at the Abbey Glass Showroom in the Atlanta design district because she identifies as a designer. "I love art," Shereé later told me. "It's a lifestyle." Shereé showed up late to our meeting, so I waited in the mostly empty showroom, surrounded by racks stuffed with gowns. ("Everyone's at Memphis Fashion Week," the head of operations told me.) When Shereé arrived, she changed out of her Uggs and into a silver ball gown. She strutted outside and posed in front of a mural of 1800s Atlanta. "I'm having my Beyoncé moment!" she yelled. Shereé views herself as superior to other reality stars. When discussing the shows she likes to watch for fun, she mentioned the Love & Hip Hop franchise on VH1. "It doesn't get much more ratchet!" she said.
After the shoot, Shereé drove me to lunch in her blue Porsche; I sat in the back. As she sped through the streets, a roll of carpet slid across the seat next to me. Shereé's story has revolved around her struggles to build Chateau Shereé, a mansion she has yet to finish, and run her fashion line, She by Shereé. She sank most of her Housewives earnings into the brand, and she currently owes the IRS over $300,000, according to reports. "It happens!" Shereé said about her tax problems. In the parking lot of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel's restaurant, Shereé asked me to pay for her valet parking.
Shereé Whitfield, who considers art a "lifestyle," tries on clothes in Atlanta's design district.
At the same time, Shereé is more self-aware and down-to-earth than some other Housewives I spoke with. She grew up in Ohio with a single mom and brother. In 1992 she followed her mother to Atlanta, where she saw many opportunities.
"In Ohio, there was not a lot going on," she told me. "It just didn't seem like there was a lot of opportunity for African Americans. The hype was that, in Atlanta, a lot of African Americans are doing things, they're doing great, and I couldn't wait to see that."
Shereé eventually married New York Giants player Bob Whitfield, but after they divorced, she struggled to pay her bills. When NeNe Leakes, perhaps the most famous Housewife after Bethenny Frankel, asked her to join a new reality show, Shereé agreed. "Let me do this [fashion] line," Shereé recalls thinking. "I don't want to be on TV just to be on TV," she said. "I want to make money, because, you know, I was having hard times at home going through a divorce."
Gossip blogs alleged that the network fired Shereé, but she describes leaving the show as "a mutual agreement." "At the time I was going through, like I said, a divorce and a bunch of stuff, and it just got really messy," she said over lunch. "At home I had no peace, at work I had no peace. I was losing my mind."
Shereé has a "Beyoncé moment."
When I first met with Jill in Los Angeles last February, she had yet to finalize returning to the Real Housewives of New York as a guest star. But she was dead set on returning to television. She had traveled to California to pitch a new show to executives and was staying at her friend Sarah's Beverly Hills mansion. When I met Jill, she was lying on a couch next to a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf full of Sarah's L. Ron Hubbard novels and scientology textbooks. (Jill bragged, "She's gone clear!" a term in Scientology that means someone has freed themselves of "engrams," or emotional trauma.)
The night before, they'd had dinner with the producer of Night of the Wild, a 2015 horror film that Jill starred in. Produced by the creators of Sharknado, the film told the story of a group of suburban housewives who get eaten by dogs. At the time, Page Six and Jezebel reported on how Jill got into a car accident a few days before the premiere of her movie. Jill was upset about the car crash, but happy it garnered publicity for Night of the Wild. "I loved it!" she said of working on the film.
Midway through our conversation, Jill received a text from the rapper Spectacular Smith, from the group Pretty Ricky. They met on JetSmarter, the app that allows users to share private jets. Jill recommended I interview him. "Most women are born with the DNA of mothers, which is taking care and making sure you have food," Jill said. "I have an extra quality, which is being a connector."
When Spectacular arrived at Sarah's house, Jill and I went outside to meet him and his entourage. Sarah, the scientologist, brought out her teenage son, who wore a fedora and pants that looked like they were made out of leather. He wants to be a rapper one day. Jill encouraged him to perform for Spectacular Smith, and he proceeded to rap about Donald Trump. Jill applauded.
Fans have continued to mail Jill letters since she left the show.
I spent his rap thinking of a way to get out of the house. I love Real Housewives, both current and former. They are funny. They are entertaining. But they are also petty, vindictive strivers, and spending time in their world can be exhausting. I approached Jill and told her my boyfriend needed me to come home. She gave me a hug and made me a plate of leftover veal to bring with me.
In that moment, Jill was being maternal—an actual housewife—but the madness in her friend's kitchen consumed me. I viewed Jill the way "the blogs," as Housewives refer to websites that cover them, do—as a spectacle clawing to get back on television despite her tortured history with the medium. Real Housewives savaged her, yet she believes returning to the franchise will be her rebirth.
Later, after I spoke to other Real Housewives across the country, I regretted judging her. A woman can remarry, switch careers, or return to school, but a Real Housewife will always be a Real Housewife. Now that I know about Jill's return to the show, I admire her tenacity and obsessiveness. She wasn't crazy; she knew exactly what she needed to do to get back on television. But watching a woman—or rather, a group of women—fight about, rationalize, and try to explain an identity they had in a past life was still very sad.
As I walked down the hall, Jill yanked my arm. "Mitchell," she begged. "Please don't make this about Bethenny." It probably never should have been.
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