Bravo star Bethenny Frankel is leaving 'Real Housewives' — but her 'RHONY' legacy lives on

From the beginning, no one subverted the "Real Housewives" title quite like Bethenny. Perhaps no one ever will.
The Real Housewives of New York City - Season 11
Dorinda Medley, Bethenny Frankel and Andy Cohen during the "Real Housewives of New York City" reunion on May 17, 2019.Heidi Gutman / Bravo
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By Brian Moylan

The news that Bethenny Frankel would be exiting the “Real Housewives of New York City” before the upcoming 12th season of the Bravo franchise sent shock waves through the “Real Housewives” community. Fans have long been dreading what the show might be like without its witty, loud and confrontational mainstay. But what should have been more shocking to fans was she was still on the show in the first place. If there is any Housewife who could survive without the franchise — all apologies to NeNe Leakes — it’s Bethenny.

In 2007, Bravo was prepping a show called “Manhattan Moms” about four women raising their kids in the Big Apple but after the success of the “Real Housewives of Orange County,” the show was repackaged under the Real Housewives banner. Bethenny was added to the cast thanks to the intervention of cast member Jill Zarin. She wasn’t a mom, but, as a single woman, she wasn’t a housewife either.

If there is any Housewife who could survive without the franchise — all apologies to NeNe Leakes — it’s Bethenny.

Bravo impresario and king of the “Housewives” kingdom Andy Cohen writes in his book “Most Talkative” that Bethenny was reluctant to join the show because she had just come off a second-place finish in Martha Stewart’s low-rated version of “The Apprentice.” Facile early critics of the show would say, “But they’re not even housewives” — but that was always the point. While some of the women were married and full-time mothers, just as many were running their own businesses, working at corporate jobs, or single. Even if some viewers — and many detractors — didn’t realize it, subversion of the title was always baked into the show in some way.

But from the beginning, no one subverted it like Bethenny. She started the series as a scrappy underdog, being ignored by shoppers in a supermarket while she tried to peddle her natural baked goods and then insulted by fellow Housewife Kelly Bensimon, who lorded her superior social status over Bethenny. She was the stand-in for the audience, speaking truth to power and taking the air out of the other women’s sails when they tried to give her an etiquette lesson about how to address the driver in the back of a limo or shouted at her on the Brooklyn Bridge.

And yet, Bethenny’s biggest skill was using the platform of the show to peddle her own brand. She started talking up a “skinny girl margarita” on the show, telling waiters in restaurants how to make it. (One of the vagaries of the “Real Housewives” franchise is that they always show what the women order at a restaurant.) Next she was driving around the Hamptons in a “Skinny Girl” branded car. Next she was selling an interest in her liquor brand to Jim Beam for a reported $120 million (though some are skeptical of that number). Whatever the true price, though, it was justified. In 2012, Skinny Girl was the fastest-growing liquor brand in the world.

By that point Bethenny had moved to her own spin-off program “Bethenny Ever After,” which lasted three seasons. She left that show to start an ill-fated daytime talk show, which was canceled after one season. The same year, Andy Cohen himself wooed her back for the seventh season of the show that made her not a housewife or a reality star, but a mogul. This amazed many fans at the time: Why would a woman who had got everything she could out of reality television go back? (The answer, perhaps, has to do with the number of Skinny Girl logos viewers have be subjected to in subsequent seasons.)

Alex McCord, Jill Zarin, Bethenny Frankel together in a classic "Real Housewives" restaurant scene from Sept. 10, 2007.Barbara Nitke / Bravo via Getty Images file

Bethenny definitely brought a change in the aspirations of the other Housewives. We started to see Housewives like “Beverly Hills” cast member Lisa Vanderpump, who turned her L.A. restaurants into nationally recognizable institutions that book up months in advance. On her way to a prison stint for mail and wire fraud, Teresa Giudice built herself a cookbook empire and started her own (significantly less successful) liquor brand, the Fabellini. Fashion designer Heather Thomson was added to the New York franchise to promote Yummy Tummy, her brand of shapewear. Sonja Morgan, also in the Big Apple, pretended to launch products ranging from a toaster oven, shoes with the Morgan family crest on them, and something having to do with a Nigerian soccer team that no one ever figured out.

Clearly not every Housewife had the special Bethenny touch (Wines by Wives, anyone?), but thanks to her, the franchise was no longer just a show about rich women doing nothing. It was a series about women hustling.

Bethenny was the exception that proved the rule: There was a lot of money to be made selling one's privacy and vulnerability on cable television. By leaving the show now, Bethenny is chasing bigger opportunities. She’s been a guest shark on “Shark Tank”and now has a production deal with reality guru and her former “Apprentice” boss Mark Burnett to create reality shows that may or may not center around her. Bethenny, once again, is taking the leap from being the alpha of an ensemble to running the whole show.

It’s going to be hard to imagine “RHONY” without her, considering it was often her drama with other cast members — either friend-turned-foe Carole Radziwill or longtime frenemies Ramona Singer and Luann de Lesseps — that has fueled the best storylines for the past several seasons. (And they were some of the best seasons in franchise history.)

Bethenny’s departure also comes at a sensitive time for the franchise. Vanderpump, a “Beverly Hills” fan favorite, pulled out in the middle of the show’s ninth season because she thought her castmates were calling her a liar. She will not return to the series. Vicki Gunvalson, the last remaining original cast member of the original “Orange County” show, was just demoted to a “friend of” the Housewives and not a main cast member. NeNe Leakes, the grand dame of Atlanta, reportedly sat out part of the season currently being filmed over a contract dispute.

Putting all this together, it seems like the franchise, after nearly 15 years, is starting to show some wear-and-tear. Maybe Bethenny, always a little bit ahead of the curve, decided to be the first one off of this particular leaking ship. But the thing about the “Real Housewives” is that it has become a fixture of pop culture, just like “Saturday Night Live” or the “Today Show.” The personalities may come and go, the popularity may wax and wane, but fans can feel secure in the knowledge that a revival or a new superstar is just around the corner. And thanks to Bethenny, that new personality will be in a killer position, not just to become the next high-profile housewife, but to be the next reality-star mogul.