Reality TV Reckoning: Will America’s Drama Queens unionise?


“Life is different in a gated community. The land here is a-million-an-acre. This isn’t just a place to live – it’s a lifestyle.”

These were the opening lines on the pilot episode of the TV show ‘The Real Housewives of Orange County’. Set in a Republican-voting area of southern California characterised by big blonde hair, orange tans and breast implants, the unscripted reality TV show burst onto American television in 2006. It centred around the real lives of 5 women: Vicki, Jo, Lauri, Jeana and Kimberley, their families, businesses, and flashy lifestyles.

Almost two decades after the first show premiered, the ‘Real Housewives’ has evolved into a melting pot of scandal, petty catfights and conflict, with bits of personal story peppered in-between. But the integral theme which drew in its first viewers remains: fly-on-the-wall insight into the glamorous lives of the super-rich, the ladies-who-lunch, the exclusive social circles of the big cities. Think less ‘Bread and Roses’, more ‘Dolce and Gabbana’.

The longest-serving Real Housewife is Vicki Gunvalson, 61, who runs a successful insurance firm. She has gone through a painful divorce, become a grandmother, and hopelessly searched for true love, all in front of the cameras. As a long-time viewer, I’ve laughed watching her on drunken girls’ trips, I’ve gasped as she’s been accused of being in on her ex-boyfriend’s alleged cancer scam, and I’ve cried seeing her collapse in grief at a dinner party during a phone call in which she was informed that her mother had suddenly passed away.

I should make one thing very, very clear: The women cast on these shows are no champagne socialists. Most are assumed to vote Republican. The wealthiest ever cast member was Diana Jenkins who is worth an estimated $300 million. Famous and almost-famous faces often feature; current and former Housewives include Bond-girl Denise Richards, three-time Emmy award-winning journalist Carole Radziwill, Julia Lemigova, the wife of tennis legend Martina Navratilova, and Kathy Hilton, mother of socialite Paris Hilton (yes, as in Hilton hotels).

Why on earth would these women want to unionise?


The Glossy Façade of the Billion-Dollar Reality TV Empire

The networks making hit reality TV shows have struck a goldmine – it’s an industry worth $1.8 billion. Traditional screenwriters and actors aren’t needed to make reality TV, so new shows are cheaper and quicker to launch. A succession of Real Housewives shows has been created in 9 other locations across America, from Atlanta’s thriving hip-hop scene to the famously Mormon Salt Lake City, with another 21 international adaptations. Collectively, there have been more than 100 seasons of the Real Housewives worldwide. It’s a strange Schadenfreude-driven form of entertainment which has become a global cultural phenomenon.

There are multiple income streams for Bravo, the network which produces Housewives: TV advertising, selling content on to streaming sites, merchandise, fan conventions, YouTube clicks. ‘Most Explosive Moments on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills’ and ‘The Real Housewives of Potomac Arguing for 14 Minutes Straight’ have over a million views each on the Bravo YouTube channel. It’s the show that launched a thousand memes; every episode opens with the Housewives’ personal taglines – a witty catchphrase about their personality – like “I’m passionate about dogs, just not crazy about bitches”, “I may be married to a plastic surgeon, but I’m 98% real” and “If you’re going to talk about me behind my back, at least check out my great ass.”

There are many spin-offs, like ‘Vanderpump Rules’ which follows the lives of the staff working in Beverly Hills Housewife Lisa Vanderpump’s restaurants. Over a decade after the show first launched, this year’s series of ‘Vanderpump Rules’ was the most-watched cable show amongst ages 18-49 in the whole of the United States. The ratings and revenue of the Housewives realm blows scripted drama out of the water. Don’t be fooled by the show’s chronically-online fan subculture – Real Housewives is the opiate of the masses.

But the dark underbelly of the networks’ lucrative model has been brutally thrust into the spotlight – by none other than one of its former darlings. The usual churn of reality TV tabloid gossip was completely upended in July when former Housewives star, multi-millionaire Bethenny Frankel, issued a strong, unexpected statement to over a million social media followers: “Reality TV should strike.” And the American reality TV eco-system hasn’t been the same since.


The Housewife serving the solidaritea

Bethenny Frankel gained prominence as a breakout star of ‘The Real Housewives of New York City’ which premiered in 2008. Reflecting on her decision to become a Housewife, the New Yorker humorously recalls, “I thought it was going to be a train wreck of a show with a bunch of women drinking alcohol on it, which is exactly what it was.” Frankel’s charisma and outspokenness quickly endeared her to fans, inadvertently creating memorable one-liners like “Trying to get her laid is like Saving Private Ryan – we’re all gonna die trying.” In her inaugural season, Frankel earned a modest $7,250, equivalent today to about £450 an episode. Hardly big bucks. But Frankel was the first Housewife to really monetise the publicity she got from the show, starting a low-calorie cocktail brand which she sold for a staggering $100 million. The TV network’s response was the creation of ‘the Bethenny clause,’ now a common inclusion in cast members’ contracts, requiring the women to sign away a percentage of the profits from any of their businesses seen on the shows. A perplexing paradox, where employees double as entrepreneurs, only to find themselves ‘sharing’ their profits with the ones who call the shots.

In her initial ‘TikTok rants’ about unionising, Frankel spoke out about the issue of residuals – the payments made to actors and writers after a show has been broadcast, every time a network re-airs an episode or sells it to an online streaming service. Whilst actors and writers get paid in residuals, the pittance those residuals have been reduced to is a key reason American actors and writers are striking. Reality show performers miss out on residuals altogether, despite their shows being akin to soap operas in their longevity and their episodes regularly being re-aired and re-streamed. The witty lines which drive clicks, online impressions, and viewers even years later are the “intellectual property” of the reality performers, argues Frankel. “I myself have generated millions and millions of dollars in advertising and online impressions being on reality TV and have never made a single residual. So, either I’m missing something or we’re getting screwed too.”

Stories like Frankel’s demonstrate that, whilst reality stars have, in her words, “always been the losers, the I’m-up-here-you’re-down-there to the actresses and actors”, they bring entertainment value as individuals. A camera and a talking head does not a reality star make. Ratings dropped when Frankel left the show, describing her experience as a cast member as “scary and painful”. The network enticed her return with an alleged $1.5 million offer, and her comeback spurred a 20% increase in viewership. The women featured on the shows are valuable commercial assets for the TV networks, evident in the power the networks exert over their lives – through their astonishingly controlling employment contracts.


Clause for Concern

Last year, SAG-AFTRA, the American actors’ union, reached an agreement with Netflix to counteract the constraints of excessive ‘exclusivity’ clauses. The deal aimed to ensure performers would have flexibility and freedom to pursue multiple work opportunities – crucial in industries like acting, where professionals often navigate from one contract to another. The Housewives, by contrast, are often subjected to strict exclusivity terms in their contracts. This limits their ability to participate in shows with other networks, even extending to a year after their last appearance on the Housewives. These exclusivity clauses only scratch the surface of the level of control exerted by networks. For instance, court documents leaked from the divorce proceedings of Orange County Housewife Tamra Judge revealed that her reality TV contract granted producers the right to secretly record her.

Back in 2013, when Bravo was preparing to launch a new addition to the franchise – ‘The Real Housewives of New Jersey’ – a leaked cast contract stirred controversy. The document required potential cast members to waive their right to be paid, asserting that their appearance on the show wasn’t considered employment, but rather a voluntary endeavour. Whether you think reality show cast members have a real ‘talent’ or not doesn’t really matter – as Frankel puts it: “Just because you can exploit young, doe-eyed talent desperate for the platform TV gives them, it doesn’t mean you should… they don’t know what they don’t know.” While the New Jersey Housewives later secured payment, the extent to which elements of the leaked contract persist in their current contracts nearly a decade later remains uncertain. Are the women still required to consent to broadcasting “personal, private, surprising, disparaging and embarrassing” aspects of their lives, even if what is broadcast is untrue or defamatory? Must they still sign away the right for the footage of themselves to be “exploited throughout the universe at any time, in perpetuity… without any compensation whatsoever”? We might never know, as the contracts stipulate “strictest confidence” concerning all show-related “information or materials” before, during, and after filming. Networks are financially (and psychologically, more on that later) exploiting the ignorance of those who may never have previously signed an employment contract in their life.

Whilst a lot of the Housewives are successful businesswomen, many others are married to the money, some without their own income prior to joining the show. In some cases, this financial imbalance within the relationships and marriages featured on the shows is extreme. After Miami Housewife Lisa Hochstein’s husband suddenly filed for divorce, she accused him of taking her car and leaving her financially unable to ‘buy diapers and food’ for their children. Her lawyers described it as a strategy to “financially strangle her” in order to “force [Lisa] into submission” in the divorce proceedings. Californian Housewife Taylor Armstrong has previously credited the reality show with ‘saving her life’, reflecting in interviews that she may have subconsciously signed up for the show originally to escape her physically abusive and controlling marriage. For the women who are in positions of significant power imbalance at home, employment – as a reality star or otherwise – with their own income and career gives them a financial independence and degree of freedom they wouldn’t otherwise have and may very much depend on.

Even the name ‘Real Housewives’ reads like an old-fashioned sneer towards stay-at-home-mums and women who don’t work, let alone towards the inclusion on the show of many successful businesswomen and workers in other industries (like Miami Housewife Nicole Martin who is an anaesthesiologist). Gender bias amongst male TV network bosses has likely contributed to the inadequate safeguards and astonishing level of contractual dominance over these women. Such bias might have been rooted in assumptions that ‘housewives’ are naturally financially subservient and would be grateful to have a camera following them around to make them feel important. Don’t worry your pretty little head about your workplace rights, sweetheart, and here’s some money for the shopping.

In 2020, Bravo was reported to have changed the rates of pay in their contractual agreements to per-episode rather than per-series. According to an insider quoted by RadarOnline, “Bravo has rolled out a new talent agreement which doesn’t guarantee the ladies will be featured in every episode. No one is safe. They will no longer be giving huge contracts to the returning ladies.” This raises concerns about cast members potentially participating in months of filming without being paid if producers decide not to air their scenes. The women are now under more pressure throughout filming to generate conflict, drama and ‘storyline’ to ensure they are featured from one episode to the next, or risk not being paid. When coupled with the aforementioned exclusivity clause, many of the women are relinquishing their financial independence to the networks. The reality TV recipe is a toxic cocktail of excessive employer control, pay insecurity and exploitation.


Seizing the Means Of (TV) Production

The argument often put against British train drivers or relatively high-paid NHS consultants who choose to take industrial action is that they already earn ‘enough’ and that this somehow erodes their universal right to take action for better pay, protections and workplace conditions. Should the (far wealthier) Real Housewives also be told to just shut up and be grateful?

Given that the essence of their employment revolves around relinquishing control of the public broadcasting of their personal lives to the corporation that employs them, ensuring worker protections for the Housewives becomes more necessary and yet harder to achieve. Bethenny Frankel’s long-time frenemy, Luann de Lesseps, was approached for comment by TheDailyBeast on the issue of unionising. “I would love to have a union, but it’s never going to happen,” said Countess Luann, singer of ‘Money Can’t Buy You Class’. “Because if we do a picketing line, [the network’s] gonna be like, ‘Bye! We’ve got the next younger, brighter, hotter star than you.’ You can’t unionize reality because it’s too easy to get other people.”

De Lesseps has a point. A few days ago, The Guardian US reported that Starbucks has launched a vicious union-busting campaign to defeat one of America’s biggest union drives of the 21st Century. Where British workers have statutory minimum notice period for dismissal and protections against unfair dismissal and against discrimination for being in a union or for union activity, many American workers can be fired at will. The American union representing Starbucks has said that the company has fired 200 pro-union baristas, in what is being described as a “scorched earth” strategy. In reality TV, the wannabes would be queueing up to take jobs from fired pro-union stars.

“I believe people are irreplaceable, but I feel like in reality, yeah, it’s too easy to say, ‘Let people go’,” continues de Lesseps. “Because we don’t [currently] have a union. I mean, already SAG-AFTRA is protected, right? And the writers are protected. But we have no protection whatsoever.”

There’s certainly an appetite for a union – other Housewives have been quick to support Frankel’s call. Singer and Real Housewife Erika Jayne Girardi stated on a popular Housewives-themed podcast “Do I think we should get residuals? Yes, I do.” Current ‘The Real Housewives of New Jersey’ cast member Margaret Josephs told Obsessed “It’s a great idea, coming off the SAG-AFTRA strike, which I totally support.” But, like de Lesseps, she was cautious. “I think it’s a very big undertaking,” the fashion designer added.

But other Housewives are more positive: “I’ve always wondered why reality TV was not unionised,” Alabama-born Housewife Cynthia Bailey told TheDailyBeast. “I definitely think, especially as someone who’s been on a reality show for 11 years, to not be able to at least get residuals, because all that stuff helps with our health insurance, I never thought that was really fair,” Bailey said. Braunwyn Windham-Burke, formerly of The Real Housewives of Orange County, is seemingly a long-time comrade. “I think unionising any group is smart,” Windham-Burke said. “The things that we do on these shows will be there forever. For better or worse… And if someone’s profiting off of that, we deserve to have that too.”

The snowball continues to roll. Former Housewives star Lisa Rinna, who is also an actress and member of SAG-AFTRA, spoke out on Instagram, posting “Every @Sag/aftra [member] who is on a Bravo show should boycott Bravocon”. Bravocon is the Bravo TV network’s biggest annual event where thousands of fans gather to meet Housewives and ‘Bravolebrities’. Taking place over 3 days, attending this year’s convention in Las Vegas can cost you as much as $1200 per ticket, not including accommodation at one of Bravo’s partner hotels. Rinna continues, “You want them to start to take you seriously and pay you the money you deserve? Then start a reality show union per Bethenny. Time is now.”


Next time, on Reality TV Reckoning: “grotesque”, “depraved”, “slut shaming”, “unlawful acts in the workplace” and “corporate bullshit answers”.
Read PART 2 ‘Trading Catfights for Courtroom Drama’ in our next episode

Copyright Tessa Milligan, moral rights asserted

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