Below the street, in their dressing rooms, the Housewives breathed through the tension. They had lived their reality on camera and watched the results. They had heard their Housewife colleagues talk about their behavior in on-air interviews. And they had built within themselves a caldron of anger, resentment and oh, yeah?s to what they had seen. So as not to dilute their fury, so as not to lose one moment of heat for the cameras, the publicists brought them to me separately through secured hallways, like Hannibal Lecter on his gurney.
Teresa Giudice, who wore a satin evening gown and body shimmer (it was 8 a.m.), told me she used to be nervous about confronting certain cast members at these reunions, but now, since serving a prison term for fraud in 2015, which she continually refers to as “the time I went away,” she’s fine; she’s ready for her day in court or whatever this is for her. She used to resent Cohen, because she thought he was hardest on her, but now she takes a more nuanced view. “I think he’s an amazing guy,” she said. “If he was straight, I definitely would date him.”
Jacqueline Laurita, who was Teresa’s best friend but has now replaced Melissa Gorga as Teresa’s sworn enemy for life, admitted that she was expecting a blood bath. “Yeah, it feels like you’re walking to the electric chair” is how she put it. She knew she would be held accountable for crimes that included calling Teresa a “criminal” and accusing Teresa’s allies of being her “soldiers.” Jacqueline knew she just had to endure it. She has stopped trying to game Cohen at these things. “He greets you with a smile, and he has a way about him, and he makes you feel comfortable talking about things, and he can pull the best and the worst out of you with a smile on his face.” She agreed that the best way to think of Cohen is the way you think of Jesus. You pray to him for blessings — to get more airtime, to get a rival off the show — but like Jesus himself, he answers prayers only sometimes.
In his sunny dressing room up above, I asked Cohen how he’d feel if, like the Housewives, he were about to be confronted by everyone he’d interacted with this year. “I’m not on a reality show about my life” was his answer. It annoys him, this implication that what he’s doing is somehow cruel to the women who have signed up for it. But don’t you feel bad for them? I wanted to know. He shook his head, the way he would every time I didn’t get it. These women, who were once housewives, real housewives, are now businesswomen. Teresa Giudice is a four-time New York Times best-selling author. Melissa Gorga has a successful clothing store. Jacqueline Laurita now has a platform to talk about her son’s autism and for her husband to sell a mini-popcorn brand called the Little Kernel. “I’m in a business relationship with these women,” he said. “They know what they’re doing.”
He put on his shirt and picked the striped tie. Walking out, he was intercepted by Kathleen French, a senior vice president at Bravo, who said that things had become a little too crazy the night before at the end of the “Real Housewives of Orange County” trip to Ireland. “Don’t tell me any more,” he said. “Let me just see it.”
He took his place in the fake living room and sat down. “Very casual,” he said as the women geisha-stepped out in their restrictive formal wear, spray-tanned a deep mustard and hair spritzed to within an inch of environmental-protection laws. “This is their Super Bowl,” he told me when I asked why they were in ultra-black tie before 8 a.m. Over the next few hours, as they said things like “Oh, really, bitch?” and “I was friends with Teresa when she was chasing a prostitution whore out of a country club” and “Do I look like an ape?” and “I’m turning you off” and “You’re a dumb bitch,” Cohen’s placid cool sometimes gave way to frustration. “Stay on your couches!” he beseeched them. “Don’t push Daddy!” He put a finger gun to his head as Teresa accused Jacqueline of selling a story to a tabloid.
He won’t like that I began this article with the “Housewives.” Cohen has hosted a nightly talk show now for more than seven years that features scintillating conversation with celebrities and (O.K., yes) clips of Bravo shows, but his guests are legitimate stars, like Meryl Streep and Oprah Winfrey and (O.K., yes) Real Housewives. “Watch What Happens Live” is doing well, with nearly 800,000 viewers a night. The set just expanded to accommodate twice its 22-person audience.
But you can’t talk about Cohen without talking about the decade-old reality-show empire that he helped create in 2006 — a juggernaut of unscripted television, with all but one of the locales (it’s Dallas) averaging two or three million viewers per first-run episode. “Real Housewives” is watched sincerely, it is watched as camp. It is love-watched, it is hate-watched, it is background-watched, it is pored over by at least one very funny podcast (“Bitch Sesh”), it is debated by feminists, it is singled out for a particular kind of cultural degradation that has seeped into our national conversation and it is fairly said to have been a factor in our recent elevation of a reality-show host to the highest office of this country, a man who apparently spent Thanksgiving asking his guests, game-show style, whom he should pick for secretary of state.
Cohen was at a Jewish Federation speaking gig in Washington recently when a man raised his hand and asked if he felt responsible for the level of discourse that the American republic had descended to in the last few months. It was two weeks before the election, and the question was fair. Over the 10 million episodes of “Real Housewives” I watched this fall, I heard people say to one another, “I just wanna friggin rip his balls off” and “Put away your penis … and maybe someone would treat you like a woman.” I saw a woman flip a table when she was angry, a woman who threw her fake leg when she was angry (more on this later). I saw women demand respect, respect, respect, saying, “You don’t respect me” and “That is not respect” and “That’s disrespectful,” respect in the way that people who conduct themselves respectfully and respectably seldom feel the need to demand out loud. Over in the presidential debates, meanwhile, Hillary Clinton was called a “nasty woman,” and Donald Trump’s Twitter feed seemed as if it had been ghostwritten by Kelly Dodd, the Real Housewife of Orange County responsible for such Twitter pronouncements as: “Got my phone hacked with the fraud Dept. Going to get a private investigator and I’m going to sue & press charges!! Good luck Thunderdome.”
But Cohen told that man in Washington this: “First of all, the ‘Housewives’ are entertainment. Second of all, in the ‘Housewives universe,’ you get punished for behaving badly. There are consequences to it.” The consequences to Donald Trump’s behavior, by contrast, seemed to be more people loving him.
Had he seen the polls? I asked. He had made a similar speech to me, and I was skeptical. Trump’s not going to win, I told him.
Cohen pursed his lips and raised his eyebrows and tilted his head back and forth in consideration. “You never know.”
I didn’t listen to him. No one did, not even when he conducted two televised and dubiously scientific polls of the people who tuned into “Watch What Happens Live” and turned up numbers based on about 60,000 votes that said, actually, yes, Trump was going to win.
He’s used to that. “There’s a lot of times when I will say something about politics, and people will immediately discount me, and I think it’s the easiest way to discount my show too. It’s just like, Oh, that’s the ‘Housewives’ guy, who cares?” Cohen explained a few weeks after the reunion. We were at Cafe Cluny in the West Village for lunch in the 3 p.m. hour, which is the approximate time lunch happens for someone who goes to bed at about 2 a.m. each night, often following a two-hour massage.
He ordered a salad and then stared down the three pieces of dark chocolate that came with the check. “I think I’m self-conscious about it, but on the other hand, if that’s what I am, I’m also good with it because it’s a wonderful thing to be.” His voice didn’t get less hoarse over the months I spent with him. “You know what I mean?” He opened his mouth to say something else, only to remember that control in an interview resides with the person who can stop talking.
“Look, I was a thinking person before the Housewives ever came.” He took a piece of the chocolate. “I’ve been a TV producer for a long time — not that that’s Mensa, but I’ve had a career, and I made my own way. So I just think, If I ever say something that someone doesn’t want to hear, it’s a very easy thing to then say, Oh, well, coming from the ‘Housewives’ guy, oh, really, Mr. ‘Real Housewives’?”
He is lately, at 48, consumed with trying to gauge exactly where he stands in the national esteem. When I first met him, in his downtown office, a few minutes before he went on the air, he asked me why I wanted to do an article on him. “I’m just not that introspective,” he said. I took this to mean he possessed the natural discomfort that a producer might have with someone else telling his story. But soon I realized it was more about positioning: Do we think of him as the “Housewives” guy — or as a former Bravo head of development who has a thriving production company? Or a guy with his own channel on Sirius XM Radio that features shows with Sandra Bernhard and Dan Rather? Or the author of three best-selling books, or the host of a nightly talk show, the first one in late night with a working bar, no matter what James Corden says? He is no longer what he started out as on the talk show, the kind of person who could ask the question we wanted answered (like: Jacqueline, why would you sit on that woman’s lap after she threatened to “rage on your ass”?). Now he’s one of the famous people.