A House Divided

Inside the Real Housewives Reckoning That’s Rocking Bravo

Amid disturbing allegations, Bethenny Frankel’s calls for a union, and a whole lot of drinking, reality TV’s most popular stars are facing their demons.
Bethenny Frankel who appeared on eight seasons of The Real Housewives of New York City at her Hamptons home.
Bethenny Frankel, who appeared on eight seasons of The Real Housewives of New York City, at her Hamptons home.Photograph by Gillian Laub.

The Housewife woke up in her own urine. She was still drunk from the night before, when she’d had three drinks at dinner, another three or four with her costars, then an indeterminate but debilitating amount of mescal after her castmates went to sleep. The house had been fully stocked when they arrived.

She was too hungover to care that she’d wet the bed and so sick that she couldn’t film, she told production. But people on set kept telling her she was fine, it was just the Mexican water screwing up her stomach—the same thing had happened to them in Cartagena, Colombia, the year before.

The van hired for the day trip pulled over so the Housewife could throw up. When the crew saw what was happening, they rushed over, she said—not to help, but to document it. Bravo didn’t wind up airing that footage. Production did bring in a doctor, who gave the Housewife a shot. She pulled down her pants on camera and took it while a castmate held her hand.

“If you go to the whorehouse, you’re gonna get fucked,” said another Real Housewife. She knows what you think—that if you sign up to be on a Bravo reality show, you deserve what you get—and she agrees. “If we do this, it’s at our own peril. We know that, and we don’t fucking care.”

They do it for the money, in part—more than $1 million a season for the highest-paid cast members. But it’s more than that. The second Housewife remembers being a little girl and plotting in her diary to achieve public recognition. “I used to dream that one day I’d maybe get to go on Jeopardy, and I would have put that in my obituary,” she says. Now, when she dies, she will leave this mortal coil having been a reality star. She’s grown accustomed to cruel comments about her body and face, vitriol about her life—but she has also become accustomed to the validation.

“Have I been put through the wringer?” she says. “A hundred percent…. Still better than my worst day withering away at a life of quiet desperation.” When this Housewife—speaking on condition of anonymity because she doesn’t want to lose her nightmare of a dream job—went to last year’s BravoCon, a three-day convention attended by 30,000 or so fans, she turned to two former fellow Bravolebrities and said, “How do I ever be happy after this?”

This is the deal Bravo stars make with the devil—and there are many stars. There are currently 10 Real Housewives shows and about 20 other properties in the Bravo reality space, including the Emmy-winning Top Chef and improbable Emmy nominee Vanderpump Rules. The biggest series have 11 million viewers each. Network exec turned master of ceremonies Andy Cohen hosts Watch What Happens Live (WWHL), a nightly talk show on which non-Bravo celebrities and cast play games as Cohen polls the at-home audience with questions like, “Which Real Housewife of New Jersey has the better bad nose job?”

Leah McSweeney, who joined RHONY for seasons 12 and 13, in her New York City home.Photograph by Gillian Laub.

Bravo, which is owned by NBCUniversal, distributes the series on cable and via the streaming service Peacock. Shows are produced by third-party partners like Banijay and Warner Bros. Discovery. (Advance Magazine Publishers Inc., which owns Condé Nast, which owns Vanity Fair, owns a stake in Warner Bros. Discovery.) Those partners have subsidiary production companies, including 51 Minds Entertainment (which makes most of the charter yachting franchises of Below Deck) and Shed Media (The Real Housewives of New York City and Salt Lake City; the all-star Housewives show Ultimate Girls Trip, known as UGT). The production companies are on the ground during the filming of shows. The series and cast members orbit around Cohen, who described himself to me during a 2021 interview for New York Magazine as their “boss,” among other roles, including “father.” It’s an unusual employment arrangement and a singular workplace. If you watch these shows, the words scary island or dinner party from hell or Amsterdam are a wormhole to the collective memory of a fandom. If you don’t watch, it’s easiest to think of these ostensibly unscripted but highly produced series as the Bravo Cinematic Universe: an interconnected group of characters linked by WWHL, social media, and crossover series. The stars are usually affluent, often poorly behaved people—mostly women—who either know they’re ridiculous or don’t care if anyone thinks they are. As Lisa Shannon, senior vice president of programming and development at Shed, has said, “This is a comedy.”

But the material is not always funny. Leah McSweeney relapsed after nine years of sobriety before her first season on The Real Housewives of New York City (RHONY). Her recollection of a 2019 cast trip to Mexico, described at the beginning of this story, is from one of many interviews conducted over many months with current and former Housewives, producers, and Bravo staffers about the things that viewers haven’t seen: racist language and behavior, the real-world effects of making entertainment out of destructive interpersonal relationships, the downsides of fame, and substance abuse beyond the meme fodder that drives fan discourse. According to some Housewives, Bravo should answer for breaking them down for storylines. According to those who are responsible for the shows, however, the casts are largely in control of their own destinies. Now, with one of the most famous Bravo stars, Bethenny Frankel, calling for a union; two legal complaints filed by talent in the last year; and NBCUniversal releasing renewed guidance around cast behavior and production oversight, the Bravoverse is in the midst of a reckoning.

Anyone who has watched reality TV since The Real World first premiered in 1992 is at least partially aware of the normalization of televised intoxication. But alcohol has become a character itself, as the lubricant that made the cast of Jersey Shore DTF and the bubbles that preceded a thousand Bachelor tears. On Bravo shows, there are Champagne rooms and Fireball nips and Fireball bottles and Belvedere and sodas served in short glasses with three lemons, carcass out. There are nightly drinking games on Watch What Happens Live and weekly “shotskis,” where Cohen and guests take shots off, yes, a ski. During a panel at BravoCon in 2022, a UGT producer told fans that during filming, cast member Marysol Patton started her mornings with “cockies”—juice and vodka. The audience loved it. According to one Housewife, the cast stashed water bottles filled with clear alcohol around the set both to calm their own nerves and, they hoped, to get one particularly volatile cast member “crazy” drunk. She felt like the producers hoped so too.

“It’s just faster and easier,” the Housewife says of trying to give the producers what they want. Cast members describe some producers using “big words”: phrases written in large font on their phones, held up to redirect conversations. Former Real Housewife of New York Eboni K. Williams says she ignored one that read “BRING UP SONJA’S DRINKING,” referring to Sonja Morgan. Before a day of shooting begins, the production team sends out the “beats” of each scene: topics they’ve written and want addressed. The following is a beat reviewed by VF for an episode that was filmed in November 2020: “Sonja is on a loop and this abuse of pills and alcohol has been going on for way too long…. Is there anything they can do, or do they need to just be there for her when she falls?”

When she was on RHONY, Frankel says, “I was talking to producers about how we’re going to bring into the show that Luann [de Lesseps]’s fiancé has cheated on her”—a person with knowledge said Frankel acted on her own accord—“or a producer comes in and tells me that somebody is trying on wedding dresses when they’re not engaged, and I bring that into a scene.”

According to McSweeney and Williams, producers did not suggest curtailing Morgan’s on-set drinking, even as they instructed cast members to discuss it. “Whatever has aired on the show is reflective of her experience,” says someone who is familiar with production. Shed’s current alcohol policy states: “We have always strived to depict cast members as being authentic on its shows. Therefore, cast members—and cast members only—make their own decisions about whether to consume alcohol.”

“Hot sheets” are production’s daily postfilming logs. They describe on-camera action and dialogue in detail, from cast spats to Ramona Singer’s dog peeing on her floor. Cohen receives hot sheets for the shows on which he is a producer, including The Real Housewives and UGT. A person who works in production says they are written by the field team and distributed to the postproduction team that uses them in the edit, as well as various executives at Bravo and NBCUniversal.

Off-camera interactions aren’t discussed on hot sheets, but executives have become aware of certain complaints. RHONY season 13 featured Williams, the show’s first Black cast member. In 2020 and 2021, Singer’s alleged racial hostility and use of the N-word in conversation with a Black crew member during season 13 production were the subject of complaints within Shed Media, Warner Bros. Discovery, Bravo, and NBCUniversal. (Companies declined to comment on the specific allegations.) Singer continued to film after the alleged incidents, has since been part of two seasons of UGT, and appeared on WWHL as this story was going to press. (When asked if she used the N-word in conversation with a Black member of production, Singer responded, “Never.”)

“Everybody wants the bag of shit to not be on them at all times,” Frankel told Vanity Fair. The most successful Housewife of all time would know. In July, she called for her former reality TV peers to unionize and directed them to legal resources. She described some of these castmates and crew as “people I never would have given the time of day—who I judged through this toxic process, and who may not have a past I would normally respect—but who have been tossed away after being used like trash.” As she put it, “It’s kill or be killed.”

Patient: McSweeney, Leah
Admitted: 01/23/2022
Emotional Trauma: “the show”
Exploitation: “the show”
Psychological Trauma: “I can say all of that shit is the show, but at the same time I did a deal with the devil so I need to figure out how to deal with it and win but at what cost.”

In May 2019, nearly three years before she checked into a psychiatric hospital, McSweeney was auditioning for The Real Housewives. “I’m drinking again, but…it’s fine,” McSweeney, 41, says she told the producer. She says she had been sober for almost a decade up to that point, and she describes this moment as her first attempt to minimize her substance abuse issues with Bravo. The conversation moved on to McSweeney’s apartment size—small for a Housewife—and what she thought of the other cast members.

On August 2, 2019, Lisa Shannon at Shed called McSweeney to tell her she got the job. The next day, McSweeney says, she stopped drinking. According to McSweeney, her contract was for $3,000 an episode. (As a matter of policy, Shed does not comment on compensation.)

More than a month later, on an early September cast trip to the Hamptons, McSweeney began drinking again. “I don’t consider myself an alcoholic at all. I’ve been drinking for the last six months or so, and I pick and choose when I drink,” she said on camera that season. (McSweeney now says she was trying to keep her relapse from becoming a storyline.) McSweeney says co-showrunner Darren Ward had warned her, “This shit is boring as hell,” and “You better turn it up.” (Ward did not respond to questions from VF.) McSweeney turned it up. She drank. And drank. And took off her clothes. And, wearing only a thong, threw a lit tiki torch across Singer’s lawn. She doesn’t remember that evening because she was “browned out,” she says, but when the episode aired in April 2020, McSweeney as “Hurricane Leah” was instantly iconic.

McSweeney says that in April 2020 during an off-air exchange on WWHL, Cohen asked her, “Were you already drinking? Or was your relapse at the winery, or on the trip?” She told him she wasn’t dry when filming began, hoping to de-emphasize it. She believes “he looked disappointed” that the exact moment of McSweeney’s relapse wouldn’t be documented on the show. During taping of the season 12 reunion in August 2020, McSweeney says Cohen asked which drugs she’d used during her active addiction. (Through a Bravo representative, Cohen declined to answer questions.)

The following season, according to McSweeney, Morgan was so inebriated that she vomited and urinated on herself on a different trip to the Hamptons. Whatever footage there may have been did not air. (Morgan didn’t respond to questions from VF, and a source with insight says producers don’t recall the incident.) Someone documented in the hot sheet for October 22, 2020, that Morgan was “continuously getting more and more out of control and drunk.” In 2015, during a trip to Atlantic City, a RHONY cast member told production that Morgan was too drunk to film and that a real intervention was necessary. Frankel staged one on camera. It didn’t take.

McSweeney says the only time production intervened in her own drinking was when Singer complained to producers that McSweeney had been too disruptive while filming in Rhode Island. On the trip, McSweeney threw a martini glass during one dinner and ravioli at Singer during another. (A source involved with production says, “If the cast is out at a restaurant, production pays the restaurant bill. On production trips, production stocks the fridge and pantry with requested food and beverages.”) McSweeney says Shannon phoned her and said, “We need you to be lucid,” and at Shannon’s request, a mental health professional called McSweeney, though they did not mention alcohol.

Other Housewives recall similar experiences with mental health care providers referred by Bravo. “They have a 1-800 number for Dr. Barry,” one Housewife says of Barry Goldstein, an off-screen psychologist who goes by his first name with Bravo clients. His website, realityshrink.net, notes he is also a “board game designer and expert.” Goldstein “has called me on many occasions as a ‘check-in,’ ” says a Housewife, which in her estimation feels like, “You’re not doing what they wanna do.” (Goldstein did not respond to VF’s requests for comments. According to a source familiar with production, all cast members have access to mental health care resources.)

During season 13, which filmed from late 2020 to early 2021, McSweeney was freshly sober. But she struggled with the isolation of COVID, and her grandmother, who had been a key figure of support, was in hospice. The cast was about to take a trip to Singer’s house in the Hamptons, and McSweeney texted Ward and his fellow showrunner, John Paparazzo, “My grandmother is going to die any day now,” adding that “if the funeral happens while we r [sic] in the Hamptons, there’s no way I can miss it. Sorry.” Paparazzo responded, “Obviously. Hang in there. Thinking of you.”

Soon after the trip began, McSweeney learned her grandmother was losing consciousness. She began having panic attacks. A source involved with production says Ward told her, “Whatever day or time you need to be with your grandmother, we’re going to make that happen. Don’t get stressed out about that. We’re on your side and we’re going to support you, okay?” But McSweeney felt his tone meant the opposite. A car was later arranged for McSweeney when she requested to leave the Hamptons a few hours early. Her grandmother had already died.

Some fans questioned why McSweeney hadn’t gone to her grandmother earlier, a thread Cohen encouraged on WWHL. After being asked by Cohen about McSweeney and the trip, former RHONY Housewife Heather Thomson said, “I think it was better for Leah to go home.” “It hurt so bad that I was not able to grieve,” McSweeney says. “That I had people not showing me any kind of compassion or humanity regarding it.” At the same time, McSweeney was trying to maintain a good relationship with producers and convince herself that what had happened in the Hamptons was okay. She texted Ward and Paparazzo, “I’m glad I stayed in long island cus that’s what my grandma wanted.” McSweeney says reading the message now is like seeing someone with Stockholm syndrome.

While the season was airing, McSweeney says Shannon told her, “I just think that there was such a stark difference between you when you were drinking versus this season, and that’s why the audience kind of didn’t like you.” A source says McSweeney complained about the audience hating her, but her drinking “was not at the center of these conversations,” and denies Shannon agreed there was audience antipathy or that she told McSweeney any negative public reaction she perceived was due to her not drinking. The source notes that viewers found McSweeney’s struggles to be relatable. Nevertheless, McSweeney informed Shannon of her decision to leave the show by phone in late 2021.

Weeks later, McSweeney says she suffered a major depressive episode related to the show and her grandmother’s death. Her mother and a former long-term partner, the father of McSweeney’s teenage daughter, moved into her home, then moved McSweeney to Silver Hill Hospital. She stayed for eight days—the longest amount of time insurance would cover.

By March 2022, after many hours with a therapist, rabbi, acupuncturist, and healer, McSweeney felt she was in a better place. Bravo and Shed were casting a season of Ultimate Girls Trip to be filmed in Thailand in July of that year. McSweeney says producers swore it would be different this time—fun!—and that she was offered $250,000 for one week of work. Cohen and an NBCUniversal executive told her she was being considered for RHONY Legacy, a RHONY franchise with veteran NYC Housewives that might air alongside a rebooted RHONY series with a new cast. According to McSweeney, Cohen also said, “Let’s get you through Ultimate Girls Trip first.” McSweeney said yes.

McSweeney got a text from fellow UGT cast member Marysol Patton before filming began. “I support your sobriety obviously, and I could never do what you do because I don’t have your will power, and I marvel at what you have done!!” Patton wrote. And then: “But on that note I wish you were still drinking. That’s all.” (“Yes, I sent the text message,” Patton told VF. “There was a collective memory of the girl running around throwing tiki torches and skinny dipping, and that is who I was hoping to go on vacation with.”)

Though McSweeney was vocally sober, cast member Heather Gay asked McSweeney if she was drinking and said, “Let’s get Leah drunk!” Another cast member, Gizelle Bryant, said to McSweeney, “Like if you drank this week, would that be a big deal?” “It would ruin my life,” McSweeney said.

McSweeney texted Ward: “Did you guys push her [Bryant] to talk about this stuff with me? It’s so odd.” Ward wrote back, “NO. We did not.” McSweeney texted, “I don’t need people trying to undermine my sobriety.” Ward responded, “Get out of your head.”

During lunch at an elephant sanctuary, the cast played a game, one McSweeney says the producers came up with, in which they listed the best and worst parts of being Housewives. McSweeney talked about feeling like she couldn’t leave the Hamptons and the depression and inpatient treatment that followed. According to McSweeney, Ward and Paparazzo, the showrunners, came into her room, and Ward said, “Lisa Shannon’s pissed at you,” then, “You’re gonna get it today.” A source familiar with production’s thinking says not only did Ward not tell McSweeney Shannon was pissed, but Shannon was not “pissed,” just confused by McSweeney’s belated upset, as producers had told her she did not need to go on the Hamptons trip at all. The source adds that Ward’s “You’re going to get it today” sentiment was specifically intended to prepare McSweeney for potentially contentious interactions with cast members.

The cast began piling on McSweeney, according to people with knowledge, repeatedly telling her on camera that she didn’t want to be in Thailand. In confessionals that aired, cast members discussed whether production would ever have pressured them to stay on a trip and not be with a dying grandparent. According to someone with knowledge, there was at least one dissenter, Gay, who said, “They wouldn’t even have to say a word…. I would be afraid to leave and go to my grandmother’s funeral. I would not do it.” That footage wasn’t included in the show. ​​

Several days before UGT wrapped, McSweeney had a panic attack, which was aired. According to McSweeney, a staff medic gave McSweeney a makeshift IV clipped to a clothes hanger on the bed frame, which then fell and pulled the needle out of her wrist. When McSweeney’s condition didn’t improve, the crew took McSweeney to the hospital, where she was admitted overnight. Two members of production were nearby, and McSweeney started crying to the nurses. “Just keep them away from me,” she said. In November, McSweeney found out from de Lesseps and another castmate, Dorinda Medley, that Legacy would be filming without her.

On March 10, 2023, McSweeney and her attorneys at Adelman Matz filed an employment discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against Bravo, Shed Media, and its parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery, and Cohen, Shannon, Paparazzo, and Ward, citing a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. On May 15, Christie Del Rey-Cone, an attorney representing all respondents, denied the claims. The response stated that McSweeney’s disabilities were allowed for, and that she was not retaliated against. “In fact,” the response says, “production spent endless amounts of time accommodating her and only internally expressed frustration with the fact that she was knowingly misrepresenting what had transpired.” The attorney also pointed out that “Complainant herself spent much of RHONY Season 12”—the season of her relapse—“discussing (and sometimes even mocking) the alleged disabilities that are now the subject of the instant Complaints” and stated, “Complainant’s need for affirmation was never-ending but that need was completely separate from any alleged disability.” The response notes several instances of support, but McSweeney maintains those were either subsequently reneged on or she felt weren’t offered in good faith. (Editor’s note: After the publication of this story, Vanity Fair learned that the New York State Division of Human Rights dismissed McSweeney’s complaint on the grounds that McSweeney plans to sue the respondents in court. A source close to Shed says, “We believe her claims lack merit, and in the event McSweeney files a lawsuit against Shed, we will vigorously defend ourselves.” Warner Bros., Bravo, and individual parties did not comment.)

On March 23, UGT premiered. On episodes of Watch What Happens Live that aired during the run of the show, Cohen questioned guests about whether McSweeney was fun on the trip. One night this spring, “Leah” was the drinking game word. Whenever anybody mentioned McSweeney, Cohen instructed viewers to take a drink.

Eboni K. Williams, a RHONY cast member for season 13, in her New York City home.Photograph by Gillian Laub.

Problem drinking isn’t the only problem. That was immediately clear to Williams, a lawyer and TV host who, in 2021, became the first Black cast member on RHONY. (Many other cities had featured Black Housewives, though casts at that point were largely segregated by race; Beverly Hills, New York, Dallas, New Jersey, and Orange County were mostly white; Atlanta and Potomac mostly Black.) A virtual education session before filming season 13 covered topics including “Black Women” (“How Black women are treated in larger society and the Black community”), “Microaggressions” (“What are they? How do you recognize them?”), “Lexicon” (“Appropriate vs. Harmful/Offensive language”), and “Missteps” (“What to do when you say something offensive? How do you move forward in that relationship?”). Williams, McSweeney, Morgan, Singer, and de Lesseps were on the call, as well as an NBCUniversal communications executive, a Bravo publicist, and two representatives from a racial justice organization. Williams had never previously met Morgan or Singer. Before the one-hour session officially began, according to McSweeney and Williams, Morgan commented on the natural hair of the Black woman leading the session.

Williams, 40, interpreted the meeting as a “cover your ass” move—she says it mostly focused on the kinds of things cast members should avoid saying, like the racist trope that Black fathers are not present for their children. “What if they don’t have a father? Why can’t I say that?” Singer said during the meeting, according to Williams. “Most of them don’t.” The RHONY publicist, who is also Black, told Singer that she has a father, but Singer said she’d read a study that confirmed that most Black children do not. McSweeney corroborates Williams’s account. “The training included ‘open dialogue,’ ” Singer said to VF. “In that spirit, I asked a question about a statistic I had read about single-parent households, where children with single-parent households were statistically less likely to succeed than two-parent households.”

Later, while filming a scene that did air, de Lesseps and Singer expressed on camera their squeamishness around words such as dick, which they attributed to their backgrounds as “churchgoing” and “conservative.” Williams said that she had no discomfort with sexual language, noting she was the most educated person at the table, with a BA and a JD. De Lesseps, who is a high school graduate and licensed nurse, said, “I don’t like the way you talk.” When Singer also got upset, Williams said, “Your white fragility is killing me right now,” then had to explain the term.

De Lesseps called Williams an “angry woman,” which Williams understood implicitly: an angry Black woman. “I never referred to your color,” de Lesseps said. Williams left, Singer stayed behind. The scene that viewers saw ended there. But the emotional momentum continued. One of the people who remained told Vanity Fair, “Ramona slammed her hands on the table. She goes, ‘This is why we didn’t need Black people on the show…. This is gonna ruin our show.’ ” (Singer emailed VF this “absolutely” did not happen. “In fact, I supported adding diverse cast members well before before [sic] Eboni was added.”)

The hot sheet went out several days later to a group that included Cohen and other NBCU executives. It did not note, however, that Singer allegedly said the show didn’t need Black people. On October 24, 2020, Cohen responded via email, “These are incredible reads and will be amazing episodes. The fact that this particular journey through white fragility ends with Ramona DM’ing Bryan Cranston is next level.”

That season, Singer also allegedly told a Black woman staffer, “There’s so many of you guys here now, please don’t change your hair as I’m not gonna be able to remember anybody’s names.” Singer says this was the kind of thing she commonly did: “It was a [sic] strictly a commentary on my inability to remember names. […] As an example, just last week I saw a photo with me and Travis Kelce from 2016 on Watch What Happens Live and I thought he was Jax Taylor,” she emailed Vanity Fair, referring to a Vanderpump Rules cast member. According to two people familiar with production, Singer exclaimed, “There’s so many Black chicks!” (Singer denies saying this, though footage that aired in the season shows her using the phrase “Black chicks.”)

Darian Edmondson (Herrington before she married) was a senior producer on season 13, her first Bravo production. “No one ever said officially why I was hired, but Eboni was the first Black talent that was brought on for New York,” Edmondson told Vanity Fair. “I think that they were specifically looking for a Black female producer.”

A source involved with production says new producers are typically introduced to the cast, but that didn’t happen with the new Black hires on RHONY. “If the cast is not being told from the executives, ‘These people are here to do this X job,’ ” that person said, “the cast is gonna make up their minds who they talk to and who they don’t talk to.”

Edmondson says she wasn’t able to produce Morgan, de Lesseps, or Singer—they simply didn’t respond to her texts or calls in the same way other cast members did. So it seemed unusual when Singer spoke to her after a scene filmed on November 6, 2020, in Singer’s home. Here is how the hot sheet described the conversation:

Ramona says she doesn’t want to talk about race, religion or creed…Ramona tries to change the subject again, asking about who Eboni is dating. She asks Eboni if the guy is black, white, or what? Eboni says she thought Ramona didn’t want to talk about color. Ramona says, “Now I have to watch what I’m saying to you! I feel like whatever I say is wrong!”

A person who sees hot sheets said that while they don’t recall that one specifically, they would not dispute it.

After this scene, Williams left. Edmondson remained, she says, at Ward and Paparazzo’s instruction. (A source familiar with production denies Paparazzo asked her to stay.) Singer told Edmondson that her interaction with Williams reminded her of when Jewish colleagues used a “Catholic slur” with her when she was a young woman and called her a “shiksa,” a Yiddish term for a non-Jewish woman. Edmondson hadn’t heard the word before and later had to ask her mother what it was. According to Edmondson, she said, “Ramona, I have no idea what you’re talking about,” to which Singer said, “Oh, it’s literally like somebody calling you a n-gger.” (Singer says she “never” said the N-word and that this account is a “misrepresentation.” “I did describe an incident where I was called a shiksa while working in college,” she wrote, “but I did not compare the the [sic] two experiences.”)

Edmondson wrapped up the conversation without addressing what Singer had just said, and says Singer thanked her. But she discussed the moment with a shocked colleague and sent her husband and a friend texts about what happened, which VF has reviewed. Then Edmondson started crying. “I should have said something,” she says she told herself. “Eboni’s fighting this fight this season.”

She says she talked to Ward and Paparazzo about it that night. They said, “I’m so sorry that that happened to you.” According to multiple people who worked on season 13, other production members went to Warner Bros. Discovery HR about Singer’s comments throughout the season.

Edmondson endeavored to make herself feel better. “At least she’s getting comfortable around me,” was how she rationalized Singer’s ease using the N-word. (“I always felt like Darian and I had a great relationship,” Singer told VF.) But on a different day of filming with Williams, Edmondson recalls, “Literally, we broke down hysterically and cried in each other’s arms. And I’ve never in my life in a decade of working in TV ever shown emotion like that with a cast member.”

Williams had tried to quit the show November 6—the same day Singer allegedly used the N-word, though Williams didn’t know about the incident at the time. On November 9, Williams says that Ward, Paparazzo, and Shannon implored her to stay over a video call. Williams says they told her, “Listen, what you’re giving us is exactly what we want. If we wanted a different Black woman, we know how to get them.” (A source with knowledge denies they said any words to this effect.) Shannon suggested Williams bear the racial animus she was experiencing more lightly, as Williams recalls it, reminding her, “Eboni, this show is a comedy.” Producers deny that Williams tried to quit and that they asked her to stay, though someone with knowledge says a producer told “Eboni and others generally that Real Housewives is partly comedic in nature. Viewers tend to see the show as an escape.” (Emails reviewed by VF show Paparazzo, Ward, and Shannon had a Zoom call with Williams on November 9.)

At the last dinner of the season, at Singer’s Hamptons home, a party planner hired by production set the table with raw cotton. According to some, it was supposed to look like snow. Once again, Williams had to provide context. (Shed acknowledges the situation and said they addressed it immediately.)

But it wasn’t until after the season began airing in 2021, almost a year later, that Williams heard Singer had been reported to Warner Bros. HR, and that it had been determined that Singer said she had difficulty telling Black crew members apart. At that point, Williams requested a series of meetings with NBCUniversal. During one meeting with NBCU executives and an outside lawyer, Williams says she was told an investigation into whether Singer had said the show didn’t need Black people was “inconclusive.”

Williams says someone on the call confirmed the company determined Singer had said the N-word, but Williams says the lawyer (who was not representing NBCU) tried to downplay the issue. To paraphrase: Singer didn’t call Edmondson the N-word, she just said the N-word. Williams says that NBCU’s chief diversity officer, who is biracial, was present. He told the lawyer, “No, what we’re not gonna do is sit here and litigate the capacity in which the N-word was used in the presence of a Black woman.” (NBCU did not comment.) Williams says, “That was the only time I felt like anybody on the other side of this had any competency.”

“What I recognized even in the midst of my own trauma is I still had the most power of any Black person involved in this thing,” Williams says. “These are just young Black women trying to go to fucking work.”

Edmondson has not been hired for a Bravo series since her one and only RHONY season, which ended filming in 2021.

Photograph by Gillian Laub.

For the first time in Housewives history, the reunion, which typically films about a month before the finale airs, was canceled. At the time, Bravo attributed this to “scheduling challenges.” Now, a source with knowledge says the reunion was put on hold during an investigation into Singer’s conduct, and ultimately never happened.

RHONY went off the air for almost two years. When it came back, it had a new cast, and a “LegacyUltimate Girls Trip, starring Singer, de Lesseps, and Morgan, helmed by Paparazzo, which filmed in St. Barth’s in June 2023. Shed produced both, as well as the Ultimate Girls Trip season that Singer filmed three months after RHONY season 13 wrapped.

Someone familiar with production says, “As soon as Shed became aware of concerns related to conduct on the RHONY season 13 production, producers immediately reached out to the affected employees to make sure they were supported, and Shed hired an outside investigator to conduct a thorough and confidential investigation. Where issues were substantiated, appropriate corrective action was taken […] These measures were taken over two years before the casting of UGT: St. Barth’s [Legacy].”

Sources differ on when the allegations of Singer’s use of the N-word were communicated between the companies, which illustrates how complicated the processes and reporting chains can become on these shows.

Why do they stay?

“It is a promotional machine unlike anything you can even buy,” says Williams, who tried to develop her own show with Bravo after season 13.

“Money and clout,” says McSweeney.

One Housewife wonders who she would be otherwise. “Is it any wonder why we cling to it well past its expiration date?”

Frankel is one of the few examples of a Bravo star whose success transcends the network—and even she hasn’t cleaved herself completely. Frankel quit the show, sold the cocktail division of her company Skinnygirl for a reported $100 million while filming a Bravo spin-off, returned, then quit again, then developed several more shows with Bravo. In 2022, she started a podcast about The Real Housewives called ReWives, distributed by iHeartPodcasts.

Frankel says that former RHONY castmate and former best friend Jill Zarin’s July 2023 appearance on her podcast is what prompted her to reevaluate her relationship with Bravo and reality TV generally. The truth about what came up on that podcast is, like everything in this story, complicated, and has been the subject of Housewife infighting and proxy wars in Page Six, on WWHL, and among fans. (Disclosure: I am one.) On Just B, Frankel’s other podcast, Zarin revealed that she didn’t know Frankel would be filmed attending the January 2018 funeral for Zarin’s husband, Bobby. She wouldn’t have “looked like that” had she known, she said—“Hand to God, should Bobby turn in his grave.” Frankel says she believed Zarin was aware.

A source with production knowledge tells VF that a spokesperson for Zarin indeed had reached out and invited filming at the funeral. Zarin supposedly also invited a crew to shiva, but they declined.

Zarin told VF that her former publicist suggested asking if Shed wanted to film the funeral; Bobby had loved being a “Househusband” while Zarin was a cast member from 2008 to 2011. Zarin agreed. “It’s an honor for Bobby to be honored on national television and be respected,” she says. The emails went back and forth, including with a suggestion for a made-for-TV shiva, but Zarin said her ultimate understanding was that there would not be cameras present outside the service.

Zarin says she’s not upset that production came afterward. What she calls a “fucking ambush” was that she wasn’t prepared—or paid—for what would become a huge, heavily promoted Bravo moment: her long-awaited televised reconciliation with Frankel, her estranged best friend. (Zarin says she wouldn’t have asked to be compensated if they had documented Bobby’s memorial because she considered that a tribute to him; otherwise, she says she would have said, “Write me a check for $100,000 and put it into the memorial fund.”) She also wasn’t happy when Cohen later indicated Zarin was lying about knowing it would be filmed.

Yet even after all of this, Zarin still wanted to be on Bravo. In 2021, she starred on UGT season two, which was produced by Shed, the production company Zarin says crashed Bobby’s funeral. “I want to vomit at how I kissed Andy’s ass to come back,” Zarin says now. She says she was in talks to join the Legacy cast, but the negotiation ended because Bravo was offering less money than Zarin felt she deserved.

On July 21, Frankel posted a now infamous TikTok in which she grapples with assailing a grieving widow for TV and calls for a “reality reckoning.” “It got a lot of pickup,” Frankel says now. “It seemed fairly obvious to me. Then I said, ‘How am I going to go further with this? I can’t just talk and not do something.’ ” In addition to her stated goal of securing future rights for cast and crew with input from SAG-AFTRA, Frankel says she’s planning to meet with network and streaming executives about improving conditions on reality productions.

The Housewife quandary sounds a bit like problem gambling. And the house always wins, which Bravo reminds cast members. “People are gonna like you because we edited you well, so don’t worry,” McSweeney says Cohen told her before her first season premiered.

“We literally are walking to the casino thinking we’re gonna change our family’s lives, make a fortune, and ride off into the sunset,” one Housewife says. “But if you were, say, the most successful Housewife ever, you would not be able to chart it without charting also absolute emotional destruction, public humiliation, divorce, death, crime, prison, shame, misogyny, and just an onslaught of pure hate.”

Photograph by Gillian Laub.

Bravo and its partners who make these shows are employers at the end of the day. Based on documents shared with VF, a contract might state that cast members will be paid only for the episodes in which they appear, which may be fewer than the number they film. However, their obligations—including promotion and filming—continue for the duration of the contract. Outside unscripted work and press opportunities may be subject to approval requirements.

There are nondisclosure agreements as well as nondisparagement agreements, which Frankel has railed against. “Confidentiality clauses are standard practice in reality programming to prevent disclosure of storylines prior to air,” the network wrote in a statement to Variety. “Any current or former cast or crew is free to discuss and disclose any allegedly unlawful acts in the workplace, such as harassment or discrimination, or any other conduct they have reason to believe is inappropriate.”

And then there’s a waiver-of-privacy clause. Two Warner Bros. contracts with Bravo talent viewed by VF state “the appearance, actions, sounds and statements of Artist and others, and the information related or revealed thereby, may be of a personal, private, surprising, defamatory, disparaging, embarrassing, offensive or an otherwise unfavorable or injurious nature, and may be factual or fictional…[and] may expose Artist to public ridicule, humiliation or condemnation, and may portray Artist in a false light.”

When Frankel first read her contract, she decided, “I can navigate this…. I’m just a different breed.” She also says, “I was a prostitute at the highest rate possible and was aware that there was a transaction that was happening and that I was going to benefit from it.”

Bravo has made adjustments based on information that leaked from troubled productions. The next UGT to air will be Shannon and Paparazzo’s Legacy edition; it switched slots with what was supposed to be the fourth season, which filmed in Morocco months before Legacy.

In January 2023, People published a story about cast member Brandi Glanville allegedly “kissing [costar Caroline Manzo] multiple times throughout the evening without her consent” during filming. The following month, Page Six reported that on the same night, Glanville allegedly “pinned Caroline against the wall” and “put her hands on Caroline’s breast area and vaginal area.”

During a March interview, Manzo, who has not publicly made any accusations, said, “I can’t say much, only because it’s not good for my headspace […] I would imagine it would unfold on the series when it airs and there’ll be a lot said then.” Through her attorney, Derek Smith, she declined to comment to VF. The same month, Glanville’s attorney sent Warner Bros. a letter that read, “The entire incident was comprised of some flirtatious conduct and kissing between Ms. Manzo and Ms. Glanville, and all of it was absolutely mutual and consensual” and called for it to release all footage.

Glanville says she and Manzo were never alone, and no one from production stepped in at any point. (Glanville had behaved similarly on a previous season of UGT. Glanville says NBCU executives sent positive feedback to the cast.) Cast member Phaedra Parks told Vanity Fair she was sober that evening and observed Glanville and Manzo’s interaction as “nothing short of a modern-day Harlequin Romance…. Love was winning.”

“You’re not in your right mind, and you want to give them good TV,” says Glanville. “The whole point of these shows is to get us unhinged. If there was an issue or situation where someone was uncomfortable in Morocco, no one in production or the crew or cast intervened in the moment.”

Glanville says she heard nothing until she started posting about Bravo and UGT on social media while she was hospitalized for inflammation in October, at which point she got a text from Barry Goldstein, whom she had never heard of, telling her he was a psychologist who wanted to call her for a “check-in.” Bravo recently announced the season will premiere in 2024, though a source with knowledge of executives’ decisions says the network is still discussing whether it will air at all.

On October 20, Manzo’s lawyer filed suit on behalf of Marco Vega against NBCU, Bravo, Peacock, Warner Bros., Shed, and Forest Productions (a subsidiary of Shed). Vega, who was an onscreen butler on a UGT arc, alleges Glanville sexually harassed Vega, and that Parks smacked his bottom. “Defendants allowed, condoned and even encouraged Ms. Glanville’s sexually aggressive and offensive conduct on others on the sets,” the suit says. (Warner Bros. does not comment on pending litigation.)

Other reality shows at other networks have had to make corrections. The Bachelor reportedly instituted a two-drink-an-hour restriction after two intoxicated Bachelor in Paradise cast members reportedly had an on-camera sexual encounter. On the British dating show Love Island, past cast members have said they’re allowed two units of alcohol a day, and rigorous mental health protocols were put in place following the suicides of two former cast members and the show’s longtime host (which I wrote about for this magazine). On Netflix’s Love Is Blind, a dating series with single-season casts, a cast member accused producers of not supporting her with mental health care, although emails viewed by VF show she was offered postshow therapy. This month, a cast member filed a lawsuit asserting she was sexually assaulted while under “24-hour surveillance” and no producers intervened. Chris Coelen, the creator of Love Is Blind and CEO of Kinetic Content, told People that casts are not filmed or managed around the clock and that “we can’t be accountable if someone doesn’t tell us that they have a concern.”

On Kinetic shows like Love Is Blind, The Ultimatum, and Married at First Sight, professionals interview each cast member prior to filming to evaluate whether they’re in a headspace to be on (and subsequently off) reality television. Similar protocols are in place on Love Island, The Bachelor, and MTV’s The Challenge. Frankel says she underwent emotional and psychological testing during casting for The Apprentice, which aired on NBC. A source with knowledge of the casting process clarified that while psych evaluations take place for competition series like Top Chef and Project Runway, unstructured, unscripted series like The Real Housewives only require partners to have already-cast talent speak with a psychologist in a meeting NBCU calls “Intro to Psych.”

McSweeney, Williams, and Frankel say they did not talk to a mental health professional before filming a Bravo show, though a source with knowledge says McSweeney and Williams completed Intro to Psych. Two other Housewives told me they had Intro to Psych phone sessions with Goldstein, but in their view that the calls did not achieve the stated goal of “establish[ing] rapport with the show psych early on.” The general murkiness about the level and type of care provided extends to the language of the guidelines. A representative for Shed says that, “Going forward, cast members will have even more touchpoints with show psychologists.”

Bunim/Murray Productions president Julie Pizzi oversees The Challenge, one of the few long-running reality shows outside Bravo with a repertory cast. (Bunim/Murray is the production company that brought us The Real World and Road Rules via MTV.) The Challenge has evolved its approach through multiple instances of racism and a 2009 accusation of sexual assault. Pizzi says mental health professionals who have worked with the same contestants over many years are on call 24 hours a day during filming, and counseling is available once production wraps. If producers see cast members order what they deem to be too much alcohol, they get cut off.

On April 2, 2023, Vanderpump Rules star Rachel Leviss entered inpatient mental health treatment for three months following a season on which her affair with a castmate, known as “Scandoval,” became the show’s central plotline and a national news story. Despite Bravo’s knowledge of Leviss’s residential care, Cohen subsequently declined to correct Leviss’s castmates on multiple episodes of WWHL when they said she was actually at a spa and implied she was faking her mental health issues. Cohen also repeatedly asked what guests thought about Leviss and her mental health. Saturday Night Live star Chloe Fineman called her a “filthy whore,” and Cohen laughed. After the reunion, he speculated in a Variety interview that Leviss had been “very medicated” at the taping, during which her costar Ariana Madix, whose ex-boyfriend Leviss had the relationship with, told Leviss, “Fuck yourself with a fucking cheese grater.” Cohen did not intervene.

“You can’t be the leader of the universe, then act like you don’t know what’s going on in it,” Frankel says of Cohen.

“I was part of it,” Frankel says. “I wanted to be Andy’s favorite. I loved that I was Andy’s favorite. I loved that I was able to make good television and produce it at the same time. I loved that producers knew I was the best. I was in the machine. I was the machine. I created the machine.” Of her new mission to remake the medium that made her, Frankel says, “It’s my penance.” (Presented with the idea that she might participate in Frankel’s organizing, Williams said, “Fuck Bethenny Frankel. You think I’m going to let some white girl speak for me with my experience with a multibillion-dollar corporation?”)

Photograph by Gillian Laub.

On September 22, 2023, after VF began discussing this story with representatives from Warner Bros. Discovery and NBCUniversal, NBCU entertainment chairman Frances Berwick sent a message to production partners. The message included a new alcohol policy: “Building on our current protocols, we will require that you deliver an expanded alcohol-related training to the cast, crew, and production team.” Berwick also wrote about enhanced mental health support, including on-set psychological support during and after filming and at reunions, as well as care after filming. According to the memo, there will reportedly be an on-set HR representative for “shows where NBCU determines additional support may be warranted,” and a Bravo representative told VF there will also be “a daily communication to NBCU, separate and apart from general production notes, flagging any health, safety, or respect issues that have arisen to quickly address concerns.”

Four days before Berwick’s memo went out, Bravo had aired an episode of The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City on which Gay drank espresso martinis until she…vomited? Urinated? It was unclear what fluid was pouring out of Gay and onto the floor of the Sprinter van. Cohen was there to quiz her about it on the episode of Watch What Happens Live that aired September 26. Then he handed her an espresso martini to sip as punishment if she declined to answer any questions during a drinking game.

One day later, on September 27, the surprise guest on WWHL was Ramona Singer. Cohen pulled her onto his lap, embracing her. On October 23, Cohen teased that Singer was going to appear on WWHL again. She sat in the front row of the audience, and the drinking game word of the night was “Ramona.” Her name was uttered eight times. As this story went to press, Singer was still scheduled to appear on a panel at BravoCon on November 5.

“I want to burn it down,” one Housewife told me in March. “I don’t!” I said. I still hope there’s a way to keep making Bravo shows without cast members feeling they’ve ruined their lives. Can’t humanity be made into entertainment humanely?

I put this to another Housewife—the one who dreamed of being famous. “I take umbrage with ‘humanely,’ ” she says. “Have you ever seen what it takes to train a Navy SEAL or to become a professional athlete? There’s nothing humane about the process to do it. And there’s nothing humane about the game of football. And I fucking love it.”

This story has been updated.