“When We Sign These Contracts, We Give Up Our Right To Complain”: Behind The Scenes Of Real Housewives With Kandi Burruss

The songwriter of hits for Destiny's Child and Pink didn’t know if reality TV was for her. Over a decade later, she’s one of the highest paid castmates. Is it still worth it?

Before Real Housewives became pop culture’s most outrageous melodrama factory, singer-songwriter Kandi Burruss heard from a friend — hairstylist Derek J — that producers were looking for new castmates. “He was like ‘Yeah, they’re looking for new housewives for that show ‘Housewives of Atlanta,’” she told me earlier this month, chuckling about his shady pitch: “‘I'm gonna tell them to call you, ’cause they need someone with their own money.’”

Burruss was already a Grammy Award–winning songwriter for big acts like TLC (“No Scrubs”), Destiny’s Child (“Bills, Bills, Bills”), and Pink (“There You Go”). She wasn’t really looking for more exposure, and reality TV wasn’t yet an established move for people in the mainstream entertainment industry. “It was kind of looked down upon,” she said. But Burruss said she decided to join the show as “something to do” in 2009, and the rest is history.

Since then, Housewives has become a juggernaut — especially Atlanta, which has consistently garnered Bravo’s highest ratings. The show thrives on drama and exposing intimate details about its castmates, and Burruss has put a lot of those details on the table: endlessly defending her mom’s (iconic) antics, processing the sudden death of her fiancé, and finding love with an Atlanta production manager who’s now her husband. But she’s also weathered some of the darkest allegations ever lobbed at someone in the franchise — which is saying a lot when others have faked cancer.

Burruss’s openness — and controversies — has made her one of the longest-lasting and most compelling characters in the Bravo reality universe. She’s in a league with women like Bethenny Frankel and Lisa Vanderpump, who branched out from reality success into synergistic business opportunities. Since joining the franchise, she’s produced TV spinoffs like Kandi’s Ski Trip, created a sold-out sex toy line, and opened restaurants — including Old Lady Gang, a tribute to Southern comfort food based on her mom’s and aunts’ recipes, which now has its own show too.

Bravo recently started airing Kandi & the Gang, a half-drama, half-sitcom about the hijinks of the family and the staff at the restaurant. In early March, while she was in New York promoting the show, we met to talk about how existing in a sometimes messy TV genre is, for her, a “way to still connect with the world.”

Ensheathed in a white bodycon dress, her skin glowing like in one of her high-glam confessionals, she arrived at the BuzzFeed offices flanked by an entourage befitting the reportedly highest-paid Housewife in the franchise. It included a Bravo publicist; Burruss’s own camera-toting social media manager, Jami Ziegler, who was documenting her day for content; and her right hand, in real life and on the show, Don Juan.

I recognized both Ziegler and Juan from their squabbles with Atlanta castmate Porsha Williams. And if the mix of personal and professional seems somewhat exhausting to outsiders, Burruss acknowledged, “There’s a lot of stress that comes with being on reality TV.” In the past couple of years, the critiques of reality TV as a toxic, exploitative genre reached something of a fever pitch, especially regarding the behind-the-scenes racism and inequality in the industry. Still, as Burruss points out, “the opportunities that have come from doing these shows have been astronomical.”

“You get a whole TV show where people get to see what you got going on in your life,” she said. “They get to support you in a way that I can’t even explain.”

Kandi Burruss had to deal with the complicated chemistry of ensemble productions long before she was tangling with castmates on Housewives. She first connected with audiences during her time in Xscape, an R&B quintet that took off while she was still in high school in the ’90s. “We used to rehearse in my house, my mom used to help get our outfits and stuff like that,” she explained. “My brother passed away, and my group was like something that uplifted my mom’s spirits and gave her something to really push for.”

Signed by Columbia Records and produced by Jermaine Dupri, Xscape released three albums starting in 1993, all of which went platinum and spawned hits like “Just Kickin' It” and “My Little Secret." By the third album in 1998, she knew disagreements over the group’s direction spelled the end. “I was just like, ‘Oh my god, what am I gonna do, how am I gonna take care of myself?’” she said. “I had to figure something out.”

Burruss and bandmate Tameka “Tiny” Harris wrote a demo for a joint album. “It was a dope little project,” Burruss recalled. “Someone was playing it for L.A. Reid. When he heard ‘Scrubs,’ he was like, ‘I want that for TLC.’” It became one of TLC’s biggest hits and helped her segue into songwriting.

Throughout the late ’90s and early aughts, as producers like Timbaland and Pharrell were mashing up R&B and hip-hop into new sounds, Burruss became one of the most successful Black woman songwriters and producers, giving a no-nonsense woman’s perspective on bops like “Bills, Bills, Bills” and “Bug a Boo.”

The planned duet project with Harris got scrapped in favor of solo efforts, and Burruss’s 2001 album spawned a self-penned top 40 pop hit, “Don’t Think I’m Not.” “It wasn’t really for urban radio — it was for pop radio,” she said. “They didn’t really push me as a crossover artist; that’s when things kind of didn’t work.”

She said she had been happy staying “in the background,” writing for everyone from Mariah Carey to Justin Timberlake and “chilling” in Atlanta, when she and Harris tried to shop a reality show. She wasn’t picked up as a castmate when Tiny and Toya was bought by BET in 2009, but that same week she heard from Derek J about Real Housewives. “Yeah, I don’t think I’d fit in with those girls,” she’d said. “I’m gonna tell them to call you anyway,” he insisted.

She interviewed with the show’s then-producer Princess and joined the cast with the assumption it would be a low-stakes side project for her. By the next week, she was already filming. “I'm thinking I’ll just go on the show and have fun,” Burruss said. After an on-camera fight with her mom, “First day of taping I was crying.”

Real Housewives of Atlanta debuted before Love & Hip Hop or Basketball Wives. That new genre of docu-soaps focused on women seemingly living their lives on camera, giving glimpses into their relationships with husbands, kids, and work. Ostensibly about friendship and family, the shows were also propelled by storylines involving explosive fights, slut-shaming moralism and pettiness. The shows have since been called out as a hotbed of negative representation for women, especially Black women.

Atlanta’s first seasons were dominated by NeNe Leakes, a stay-at-home mom with a big personality and acting ambitions, and her feuds with Shereé Whitfield, a former NFL wife with fashion aspirations, and Kim Zolciak, the random white woman dating a wealthy married man she called “Big Poppa,” and with a hankering for pop stardom.

“Why wouldn’t you want me on this show?”

Friend breakups were consistently fodder for storylines, and when Leakes heard Zolciak was talking about her and then turned her back on a deal to release a novelty single with her, it created the show’s first major conflicts. “That's a dirty, lowdown monkey with a wig on,” Leakes spat out during a discussion about Zolciak. “Close your legs to married men!” she exhorted Zolciak at the first reunion, in a moment that became as iconic as the table flip by New Jersey’s Teresa Giudice. She repeated the catchphrase on Cohen’s then-new talk show, Watch What Happens Live, which helped stoke the discord.

“A lot of people said negative things … from the first season,” Burruss recalled. “‘You shouldn’t join that show, it makes Black women look bad.’” But Burruss wasn’t intimidated by the dynamics. “I was just like, ‘If you feel like they’re making us as Black women look bad, but you think I'm a good representation of Black women, why wouldn’t you want me on this show?’”

Most Housewives are seduced with a softish edit on their first season, and perhaps so was Burruss. Producers showcased her family dynamics with daughter Riley, fiancé AJ, and her complicated — but very deep — bond with her mother, Mama Joyce, an “old school,” protective mom, as Burruss put it. “At the time I was engaged to AJ, my mama didn’t like him,” Burruss recalled. And on the first day of taping, “She went in on me,” which drove Burruss to tears.

Her mom unveiled the kind of unvarnished opinions that have made her a must-watch presence on the show, complaining about AJ having multiple kids with different women and being less successful than Burruss. The then-emerging gossip blogs got in on the rumormongering, which was an education for Burruss, whose first wave of fame was pre-internet: “It wasn’t like you were on the internet being on a blog every day; people didn’t see me a lot at that time right before the show came out. I was just thrown into the sauce.”

That first season, Burruss also learned how hard it is to relive life events as the show aired. The first week the show was out, AJ was murdered. “We had to watch the whole season, of all these terrible things that were being said,” she told me. “It's terrible.” Still, she didn’t shy away from sharing her emotions for the benefit of viewers; at the reunion, she sang a ballad, “Haven’t Loved Right,” about her feelings about his death.

“Right before the show came out, I was just thrown into the sauce.”

Throughout the early seasons, Burruss quickly established her brand on the show as a relatable, independent, sex-positive entrepreneur— sharing how she was creating her Kandi Coated Nights sex talk podcast, which led to a sold-out Bedroom Kandi sex toy line. Even her fights with the castmates were about work, including her biggest early blowups with Leakes, who turned her anger over Zolciak’s novelty single toward Burruss (who produced it), and then with Zolciak (when she reneged on their agreement about profit sharing).

By the fourth season, Burruss had met her now-husband Todd Tucker, a producer on the show, who was also shaded by her mother, blogs, and castmates. “Men are supposed to be the providers,” Mama Joyce told Tucker in one episode. “And I do provide,” he insisted. “I provide love, happiness, stability.” Mama Joyce retorted: “You go down to light the gas lights and say, ‘I have stability’? They’re not going to take that… I feel you’re an opportunist,” she said, gesturing at Kandi’s house.

The drama mounted at the fourth season reunion. The rest of the cast ganged up on Burruss, claiming that “word on the street” — and the blogs — was that she “took care” of young men, as eternal “friend of” the cast Marlo Hampton delicately put it. “‘If I wanted to take care of every motherfucker in here, I could!” Burruss replied hotly in what became one of her first memes as she owned her boss persona. The controversies didn’t lead to Burruss’s downfall, though — they simply made her even more famous.

In 2013, she produced the seasonlong talent competition Kandi Factory, and a 2014 wedding special got over 2 million viewers. “I’ve been used to this whole famous life…but it was nothing like being on Bravo,” Burruss told me. “I was getting off the plane, an Asian businessman, [who] looked very corporate, was like, ‘Kandi Burruss!’ I was shocked… I was like, ooooooh, life was changing.”

But then came the backlash.

Some people think Housewives-style television is totally manufactured, but the storylines often emerge organically because the women are all perpetually on television and have to protect their brands and life. “There are some people who really care what the public thinks of them, and they will do whatever they can to change that narrative,” Burruss said. “Some people lie; some people get caught in their lies and some people don’t.”

Producers often stretch out the miscommunications, so they become games of telephone on steroids. That’s what happened in 2017, when a scandal engulfed Burruss during the show’s ninth season. It would become one of the darkest feuds in the franchise.

It started when two castmates were annoyed at Burruss: Porsha Williams, who divorced former NFL player Kordell Stewart on the show, accused Burruss of gossiping about her relationship with a former paramour, and Phaedra Parks, a Southern belle lawyer, felt that Burruss wasn’t sympathetic enough during her tumultuous divorce and accused her of allegedly spreading stories that Parks was already dating as well.

If slut-shaming is one of the weapons used by castmates, queer-shaming is another. Williams started claiming Burruss was a lesbian, but without stating it to her face. “I just want to know…” perpetual “friend-of” Marlo asked, full of mock shock during a glamping trip on the show, “Kandi…are you a lesbian?”

Williams’ faux-innocent “Who said that?” reaction became one of the show’s most iconic memes. But Burruss wasn’t amused because, she said, Porsha made out with her at a club. As we spoke, she recalled that it was social media manager Jami Ziegler who reminded her that Williams had texted her after their makeout. (“I didn’t realize phones could hold texts that long,” Burruss told me.)

During a meetup at a restaurant captured on camera, Burruss confronted Williams. “You said you wanted to eat my pussy until I came,” Burruss reminded her. “I’m not into teacups, short and stout, bitch,” Williams retorted. Williams later backtracked and admitted something might have happened, but blamed it “on the Hennessy.”

Most importantly, in a scene that has seemingly been scrubbed out of existence online, Williams then alleged that someone had told her that Burruss and her husband wanted to take her home and drug and rape her. At first Burruss laughed it off, but when it became clear that Williams was serious, Burruss’s reaction turned to shock.

 “I was devastated.” 

This was all happening in a moment when #MeToo had just changed the conversation around allegations of sexual assault and misconduct. The ”she said, she said” controversy took over the entire season, and Burruss was inundated with DMs and social media backlash calling her #BillCosby. “I really called the network,” Burruss recalled. “‘Y’all, this is not cool, you’re going to let this girl say this about me.’” According to Burruss, their reaction was, “Oh, [viewers] aren’t going to believe that.”

Viewers were confused as to who started the rumor — and riveted by the drama unfolding — right up until the 2017 historic four-part reunion when Williams finally revealed Parks had initially made up the allegation. Parks, in turn, blamed a producer for the false rumor. “The lies! The lies! The Lies!” Burruss retorted during the reunion, a moment that became another meme.

While Parks and Williams both finally apologized during the reunion, Burruss told me that at the time, she’d considered quitting. “I was devastated,” she said. “I remember I just cried.” Ultimately, Parks exited the franchise after the fiery reunion.(When reached for comment, Bravo didn’t speak on its handling of the incident or why Parks was fired.) Many viewers erroneously believed the producer, Carlos King, was fired or left because of the brouhaha. (He said the timing was coincidental.) Burruss herself offered that she never believed King was involved. “Listen, he’s done a lot of things that pissed me off. But that right there, I do not believe that he ever told her that.”

Still, the allegations helped make the reunion the highest-rated show on the network.

Burruss understands — and sounds resigned about — the Faustian bargain of reality TV. “When we sign these contracts, we pretty much give up our right to complain,” she explained.

Maybe the resignation is also because she’s reaped some of the biggest spoils to be had from reality TV stardom. Her nearly 10 million Instagram followers eclipse Frankel’s or Vanderpump’s 2+ million. She even made the jump to network television, becoming a finalist on 2019’s Celebrity Big Brother and winning The Masked Singer in 2020.

Still, the reality industry as a whole has been dogged by accusations of racism and exploitation. In 2020, fellow castmate NeNe Leakes called for a boycott of Bravo. Both Leakes and Mariah Huq from Married to Medicine lobbed allegations that the network’s use of Black women in front of the scenes did not lead to equality behind the scenes.

When Black Lives Matter protests put social justice front and center that year, questions about diversity bubbled up and led to cast shake-ups. “I did a whole letter to the network, telling them that I wanted to see more diversity in executive leadership,” Burruss said, “basically telling them to hire more Black-owned production companies, and to just make sure there’s more diversity. And it was heard and they did start implementing some of the things that I asked for.”

Burruss has a great relationship with the network and has pitched her own shows to Cohen from the start. When reached for comment about her and why she’s been such a great castmate, Cohen emailed, through a Bravo spokesperson, “Kandi is fun, smart, likable, opinionated, energetic, beautiful and unafraid to speak her mind.”

Still, it’s been reported that contracts at Bravo have become more and more specific about the kind of dramatic labor required to stay on the shows. (Bravo didn’t comment on its contracts.) Newer castmates could potentially get cut out of episodes — and paychecks — if they don’t have compelling storylines. Burruss sees those clauses as security for the network “for people who try to skate by and try not to share their lives. If you knew they’d cut your butt out of an episode, and you wanted that coin, lemme go on and show them: ‘This is my boyfriend over here, y’all,” she explained.

The economics of this kind of drama have created problems in the Bravo franchises because some castmates have wanted to save their biggest drama and best content for their own shows. On Atlanta, castmate Porsha Williams generated massive social media backlash when she started dating another castmate’s husband. But it never played out on the show — which she exited last season. Instead, she saved it for her own Bravo spinoff, Porsha Family Matters.

“There were a lot of times like on our show where she would pretend like something didn’t happen and didn’t want to talk about it on camera or whatever,” Burruss said. “I thought it showed you a lot on her show … you got to see ‘oh no, she actually…’” she said, laughing without finishing her thought. She might have been alluding to the way Williams’ depiction on the show — from attacking her ex-fiancé to her seeming coldness toward a cousin — has soured a lot of fans on her.

A select few of the most successful Housewives have left the franchise’s drama and fan backlashes altogether by becoming producers on their own shows, where they likely have more control over their own narratives. This includes Lisa Vanderpump of Vanderpump Rules, where the drama is relegated to her restaurant staff while Vanderpump simply acts as a kind of mentor.

Burruss’s own new spinoff, Kandi & the Gang, is like a mix between Vanderpump Rules, highlighting the lives of the restaurant staff, and Tabatha’s Salon Takeover as they bring in a new manager to improve Old Lady Gang’s performance. Because the restaurant has been hit with some health inspection issues, the TV revamp is partly addressing that bad press — reality sitcom as savvy brand management.

And it’s working. The first episode relies on the comedy of Burruss’s mom and two octogenarian aunts providing a relatable engine for the series. In one funny scene, Aunt Bertha complains about the “nasty ugly attitude” of “the girl who used to work there.”

“Shawndreca?” Kandi asks.

“Yes.”

“She still works there.”

The humor is mixed with the workplace and romantic drama of the staff, rather than solely Burruss’s family.

The success of Vanderpump Rules meant Lisa Vanderpump could ultimately exit the Real Housewives franchise that made her a household name in the first place. I asked Burruss if she was looking for an exit ramp as well. “I don’t really need an exit ramp,” she said, “’cause I got so many other things going on.”

Last season, Burruss brought on a massively endowed stripper encased in Chanel, which created a “who slept with him” mystery storyline starring Williams. But even with the addition of messy YouTuber LaToya Ali, who got accused by castmate Drew Sidora of cheating on her husband with a pastor, Atlanta’s ratings have recently dropped precipitously.

Williams and Cynthia Bailey both left the franchise amid rumors of a cast shake-up. During our interview, as we were talking about Bailey — often seen as the “boring one” on the show — Burruss mentioned that “she’s done a lot and I feel like people don’t give her credit for what she brings. Viewers want us to be out-of-the-box crazy.”

When I mentioned she’s not out of the box but still manages to keep it interesting, Burruss reflected on her role in the franchise. “I’m not gonna go for anyone. I'm pretty chill unless you push my buttons.” As she said it, I was struck by how calm she sounded given how much her buttons have been pushed. But then again, that’s part of why she’s lasted so long. ●

Correction: Jami Ziegler's name was misspelled in a previous version of this post.

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