Few balancing acts in the world are as hard as flourishing in reality television without completely losing your dignity. That’s especially true of the women in Bravo’s Real Housewives franchise.
The franchise is supposedly about women just “living their lives,” but fans know it’s actually a Survivor-like show about fights and shifting alliances as castmates attempt to stay on the platform long enough to sell you something.
More than a decade in, certain cast archetypes have emerged. There are the aggressively self-deluded women (like table-flipping Teresa Giudice, who ended up in prison for tax fraud), the drunk hot messes (like Sonja Morgan, also sued for fraud), and the shady jokesters (like Gizelle Bryant). You have the boring one-season acts (DeShawn Snow, Cindy Barshop) and the boring multi-season acts (Cynthia Bailey). There are the savvy self-promoters who become famous on the show, go on to create $100 million empires or acting careers, and then want to leave (Bethenny Frankel, NeNe Leakes).
Finally, there are the rare castmates who are already successful when joining, like Real Housewives of Atlanta’s Kandi Burruss-Tucker, a former vocal quintet member and Grammy Award–winning songwriter, who came on in the second season of the show. She managed to survive, get married on the show (to a line producer), and arguably become more famous than ever without completely debasing herself.
But no one has managed to make the most of her time on the franchise quite like Lisa Rinna. Rinna doesn’t have a Grammy, but she is a 1994 Soap Opera Digest Award–winning actor, most famous for stints on Days of Our Lives, and the ’90s primetime soap Melrose Place. After her soap career, she segued into her own reality show with husband Harry Hamlin on TV Land in 2010 and became the face of women’s Depends diapers.
As Housewives went from making stars to needing them to boost ratings, she was part of a wave of soap hires, alongside Eileen Davidson, for Season 5 of the Beverly Hills iteration in 2014. Like many Bravo fans, I was dubious about the move and thought the show would finally jump the shark. Instead, Rinna has revived the flailing franchise.
She’s created her own brand of iconic absurdity with her self-help catchphrases (“Own it, baby!!”), tearful controversies about stuffed rabbits, and one of the most aggressive glass-breaking scenes in Housewives history (a tall order in the franchise). And, in the best tradition of New York’s Bethenny Frankel and Beverly Hills’ own Lisa Vanderpump, she has quietly segued from castmate to castmate-as-producer.
“I’ve never been more famous than I am at this point, because of the show,” she told the LA Times last year. And that was even before she got parodied on the new season of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Her trajectory on the franchise, as eminently memeable reaction queen, pot-stirrer in chief, and B-list momager of model daughters, is deeply revealing about the particular brand of shamelessness it takes to both make it on the long-running franchise and thrive in the current reality TV ecology.
Lisa Rinna wanted to join Housewives from the first season of Beverly Hills, which aired in 2010, but head honcho Andy Cohen wasn’t keen on the idea since the rest of the cast were relative unknowns. “I felt like Lisa Rinna was too much of a personality and a name to join,” he later admitted.
It’s well known among Bravo stans that Cohen and his production team don’t like overly savvy women who understand how editing and reality production work. They correctly assume those women will come in, be hyperaware of how they’re being edited, not give any good TV content, and just use the platform to sell something. Cohen had similar qualms about Bethenny Frankel because she had a successful stint on The Apprentice.
Rinna, for her part, had already cycled through primetime soap Melrose Place in the ’90s, as well as multiple arcs on Days of Our Lives. When a first shot at Housewives didn’t work out, she ended up with her own glossy reality TV show about her husband, their teen daughters, and her clothing store, Harry Loves Lisa. But it was canceled after a six-episode first season.
Lots of people would kill for a reality TV platform, but no one can handle — let alone carry forward — the Housewives’ (sometimes) dark drama. Even the stalwarts of the show take great pains to avoid revealing anything too embarrassing, and even attempt to largely stay out of the most dramatic squabbles that make the show captivating. But that kind of caution had been dragging down ratings on Real Housewives of Beverly Hills for years. Then Lisa Rinna and Eileen Davidson entered the picture in 2014.
In all fairness, the Beverly Hills franchise started out with such high drama that it had nowhere to go but down. The first season was a riveting battle between former child star and Paris Hilton aunt Kyle Richards, and the sugary former MTV dancer and wife of Kelsey Grammer, Camille Donatacci Grammer.
The inciting incident happened off-camera: Grammer alleging that Richards had asked why they would film her without her famous husband. But the game of telephone of what really happened provided much of the engine for the season. Grammer called Richards “pernicious” (she was an English major), brought in a famous psychic to tell Richards that her husband would never love her, and calling Richards’ friend Faye Resnick “morally corrupt” for posing nude in Playboy during the OJ scandal. (Grammer had posed for Playboy too, but not, as she pointed out, during a friend’s murder trial.)
"In all fairness, the Beverly Hills franchise started out with such high drama that it had nowhere to go but down."
There were other compelling storylines too. Richards and her sister Kim were locked in a family feud that ended with Kim accusing Kyle of “stealing her house.” Meanwhile, Lisa Vanderpump, a restaurant owner with a penchant for pink, succeeded in getting everyone to ignore that she was the least interesting castmate because she had props, namely an animal menagerie that included swans named Hanky and Panky (and which she kept adding to, eventually culminating with mini ponies).
By the second season, Grammer went back into her sugary mode after viewer backlash to her Season 1 villain edit, and Brandi Glanville, a former model, was added to bring the drama because she became a tabloid favorite after her husband cheated on her with LeAnn Rimes, and she slashed his motorcycle tires.
Glanville kept the franchise going for a while, but nothing matched the drama of that first season. By the third season, which aired from 2012 to 2013, Vanderpump became so good at self-promoting while staying above the fray that she got her own spinoff, Vanderpump Rules, where she could make her restaurant staff bring the theatrics while she swanned above it all with her British accent.
Vanderpump became the franchise’s central castmate as producer, and Glanville started calling out the ruthless way Vanderpump was willing to turn the other women’s trauma — rumors of Kyle’s husband cheating, using Glanville’s own tabloid coverage as a storyline on Vanderpump Rules — into content.
Soon, the entire show became about the women trying to call out Lisa Vanderpump for instigating drama while somehow avoiding ever being the subject of it herself. Even hiring a self-proclaimed witch and a former Miss Puerto Rico for Season 4 didn’t help ratings. But then Lisa Rinna arrived.
Rinna and Eileen Davidson gave the show an immediate boost; the Season 5 premiere was the most-watched episode in three years. (That both Rinna and Davidson had soap opera fanbases probably helped.) Rinna in particular was a great choice because she was a recognizable name, with more industry clout than, say, Brandi Glanville. She also didn’t owe any of the other women on the show anything; she had nothing to gain by keeping anyone’s drama off the show.
Unlike Davidson, she was also familiar with reality TV conventions, not just from her glossy show but from unsuccessful stints on Celebrity Apprentice, and she seemed to understand the need to give good “bad” content in order to stand out. During her first seasons, as she was still finding her footing, she shook up the franchise because she was so willing to call bullshit on the other women’s relationships and storylines.
When Kim Richards retaliated against Rinna’s speculations about her sobriety by bringing up Rinna’s husband, Harry Hamlin, during an Amsterdam cast trip, she threw wine at Richard’s face, and broke a wine glass on the table. “Don’t ever go near my husband,” she screamed, in her first iconic franchise moment. But during the reunion, Rinna was also a great apologizer and “owning it” became her brand for the show.
Her next season, the addition of pop diva in training Erika Jayne got a lot of the fan attention, but it was, once again, Rinna who actually made the season compelling. She raised questions about whether cast member Yolanda Foster, who was being treated for Lyme disease, actually had “Munchausen syndrome” and was faking her illness. Rinna claimed it was Vanderpump who had wanted her to bring it up, but Vanderpump refused to take any ownership in circulating the rumors.
Unlike the other cast members who tried to take on Vanderpump, however, Rinna refused to back down. She claimed that Vanderpump had said, “There goes our fucking storyline,” when Hamlin suggested they leave Yolanda Foster (now Hadid) alone; she even brought receipts to show that Vanderpump had called her numerous times.
Rinna ended up almost leaving the show because Foster had been so upset about the Munchausen syndrome rumors. But by then she had become indispensable to the franchise. As one recapper put it, she was like “a drama sprinkler in a story line drought.”
As a former soap actor, Rinna’s talent lies with improvising and acting unbelievably casual while instigating or reacting to storylines. When Dorit Kemsley’s husband said she was a loose cannon and a pill-popper, Rinna waited to retaliate until a Hong Kong trip, seemingly out of nowhere. During a cast dinner she asked Dorit, “What I want to know is when I was at your dinner, you all got up and left, were people doing coke in your bathroom?” That moment provided her second most iconic line.
Kim Richards was brought back on as a guest star to poke at Rinna’s husband again. But Rinna wasn’t having it. Instead, she pivoted effortlessly. "Let's talk about your arrest,” Rinna said. “Why don't we do that?" She later apologized to Richards by giving her a stuffed bunny for her grandkid’s birthday.
In one of the most awkward moments in Housewives history, Kim returned the plastic-wrapped bunny during a reunion. Rinna’s reaction — crying a single tear, like a Botoxed mater dolorosa — became one of the most memed moments in the show’s history. Cohen, the franchise’s shady ringmaster, later replayed the moment on Watch What Happens Live: "Just so you know, it's amazing," he told viewers, and the bunny got added to his Clubhouse museum that includes former Orange County star Tamra Judge’s implants and a perfume made out of Lady Gaga’s urine.
Rinna told the LA Times that, like everyone else, she joined Housewives for the “business angle.” “I saw what it did for NeNe Leakes, [Lisa] Vanderpump, Kyle [Richards], Bethenny [Frankel].” And it definitely helped her promote her QVC line. (Her QVC shilling was even part of the Drag Race parody.) But most Housewives castmates think they can still play by the early aughts reality TV Paris Hilton playbook of “I’m so ditzy and lovable” and assume that’s enough of a personality for a TV show.
Instead, Lisa Rinna knows that in the Kardashian age, everything is content, and if she doesn’t bring it on the show, the producers will. So from her daughter’s struggle with body image issues, to her mom’s encounter with a serial killer and rapist, Rinna makes sure it all makes it onto the show. (Her daughters, who have their own fashion lines now, are also featured on the show.)
She’s even broken the unspoken no politics rule that seems to rule the franchise, which is full of All Lives Matter Trumper supporters (like Ramona Singer) or apolitical women (like Kyle Richards). During last season, Rinna brought up the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings and passionately spoke out for Christine Blasey Ford. It was a shocking moment in the franchise, and featured Camille Grammer going to bat for Kavanaugh. (More recently Rinna spoke out against the QVC “Karens” trying to muzzle her political views.)
During last season’s Puppygate drama, when Lisa Vanderpump finally got called out for allegedly leaking stories to tabloids and refusing to come to the reunion, Rinna could mostly let Richards and newcomer Teddi Mellencamp do the heavy lifting of exposing Vanderpump, who had finally exited the show.
And Rinna’s interactions with Denise Richards, the newest celebrity hire, speaks to her growing role on the franchise. Rinna’s Housewives success seemingly even convinced Denise Richards to join the show. As a former “Bond girl” and genuine movie star, Richards is the biggest celebrity the show has ever signed.
Richards got a great first-season edit, and became comfortable enough to start providing the kind of unintentionally messy good TV that the producers love, especially whenever her buff husband with a soft-core porn actor voice Aaron got screentime. When he started sharing his conspiracy theories about Big Pharma during a Kyle Richards dinner party in Richards’ second season, the show finally reached the zany heights of first-season Camille Grammer.
You know a Housewives castmate has made it to the top echelon when producers let her break the fourth wall by acknowledging that they are, in fact, on a TV show. It now happens often in reunions, but Rinna did it in a midseason confessional, accusing Richards of wanting to craft a holier-than-thou mom image this season, to “clean up” her image from her first season, where she opened up about her husband’s penis size and getting him a happy ending massage. Richards is getting the bad edit this season, and Glanville was even brought back to accuse her of cheating on her husband. With Glanville. In previews for an upcoming episode, Rinna blurts out “they fucked!?” as the other women speculate about the relationship.
Rinna herself keeps providing amazing content this season, most recently giving fellow castmate Erika Jayne advice about playing Roxie Hart in the Broadway play Chicago while having her buttocks electrically rejuvenated in a thong bikini. Rinna had once played the role herself and recounted a Roxie Hart monologue about loving fame and attention that, Rinna tells Erika, fully represents her worldview. “The audience loves me!!” she says, repeating the monologue during her confessional, “and I love them for loving me!!”
In the Housewives universe, setting yourself up as the moral arbiter and getting the good edit and audience adoration always ends in a backlash. Rinna will most certainly be next. Fans will be watching. In the meantime, there are QVC sweaters to sell. ●