When TV is in trouble, it runs to one group. They usually have big hair and even bigger silicon boobs. They also possess filthy mouths, drink rosé like water and have rich husbands. They are the Housewives — and in dry spells, on Sunday afternoons, or in the middle of a writers’ and actors’ strike, you will see their ilk plastered on your screen more than the news. There are plenty to choose from: there are eleven Real Housewives franchises in the US, twenty international versions and twenty-seven spin offs.
But will the Housewives continue to be the entertainment executive’s solution to a strike-induced content drought? Or are they set to join the picket lines?
The simultaneous Hollywood writer and actor strikes which started in May are gaining traction and glamor. Stars such as Colin Farrell, Holland Taylor, Olivia Wilde and Jessica Chastain have turned out in support so far. Now, the queens of reality TV appear set to take a stand after Bethenny Frankel, an original cast member of The Real Housewives of New York City, called for reality TV stars to unionize: “Networks and streamers have been exploiting people for too long.”
“Just because you can, as a streamer or a network, play the show as much as you want, it doesn’t mean you should,” she told Variety. “Yes, they’re going to get as much milk out of the cows as they can because it’s legal. We signed a contract. Does it mean we should be exploited? It means when you get a ratings bump or something happens, you should share.”
Frankel was referring to the fact that reality stars don’t earn residual payments when their series becomes a hit, even if the episodes are replayed by networks and streaming sites across multiple platforms. Frankel claimed that she was paid $7,250 for the first season of RHONY. That’s pocket change, especially when you consider that she has to find a way to pay her glam squad — and when you consider how much money she has made for Bravo: the show debuted with nearly a million viewers and has been binge-watched 100 times by every woman I know since. She hasn’t seen another cent.
Yet the reaction from fellow Housewives to Bethenny’s plan has been mixed. Luann de Lesseps, Frankel’s former co-star, told one outlet that she would love to join a union, but that “it’s never going to happen. If we do a picketing line, [the network’s] gonna be like, ‘Bye! We’ve got the next younger, brighter, hotter star than you. You can’t unionize reality, because it’s too easy to get other people, it’s too easy to say, ‘Let people go’ because we don’t have a union. We have no protection whatsoever.”
Lisa Rinna from the Beverly Hills franchise has called for a boycott of the TV network’s annual fan convention, BravoCon. Rinna posted to Instagram last week, “Every SAG/AFTRA who is on a Bravo show should boycott Bravocon. You want them to start to take you seriously and pay you the money you deserve? Then start a reality show union per Bethenny. Time is now.”
It isn’t just the Housewives. After Bethenny’s plea, other reality stars are weighing in. “We’re not protected like everybody else is,” Selling Sunset’s Mary Bonnet told one outlet. “Even all of our production team, they are a union. They’re like, ‘No, you guys are real estate agents. This is reality. So that’s not your actual job, you’re not an actor. Reality wasn’t a thing. Now it’s a big thing. We have awards shows for it. It just makes sense, though, because reality has taken over.”
This is not the first time Frankel has spoken of unionizing, but her ideas haven’t gained traction until now — perhaps in part because most Housewives are too rich to care. Kyle Richards from The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills is worth $100 million. Her sister Kathy Hilton, mom of Paris and the wife of hotelier Conrad Hilton’s grandson, is even wealthier, at $350 million. Yolanda Hadid, mom of the two biggest names in fashion Gigi and Bella Hadid, is worth $45 million. Even the Housewife that is reportedly the poorest is worth somewhere between $400,000 and $500,000. (Teresa Giudice from the New Jersey franchise was much richer, but in 2013 she and her husband Joe were indicted on thity-nine counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, bankruptcy fraud, mail fraud, bank fraud and making false statements on loan applications. Teresa was later sentenced to fifteen months in prison.)
Speaking of her plans, Frankel said, “I’ve alienated this industry and burned bridges with the entire network and streaming community in one fell swoop. This is not for the faint of heart but it’s for the greater good.” When asked how she would get the ball rolling, she said, “We should just find out what reality shows are in production right now and say, ‘Just stop working. Say you’re not going to work unless they take down all the things you’ve done in the past and then we can negotiate for the future.’” Frankel’s reality TV days may be over, but she might find herself a new career as the next Jimmy Hoffa.