Bethenny Frankel doesn’t believe in the edit. With the edit, television producers turn reels of plotless, mostly unwatchable footage into addictive, binge-worthy reality shows. At some point, most reality stars ascribe their reputation not to their own conduct but to the edit, over which they have zero control. You’ve probably heard this line of defense before: She’s not really a schemer or social climber. It’s just the edit.
“People like to blame the edit,” Frankel says. “I have never said [‘I had a bad edit’] in my entire career, and I am way more of a [reality TV] veteran than any person who’s ever said that.” She rolls her eyes. “I consider myself an expert on this topic.”
So she isn’t doing this interview to make sure readers can finally know the real Bethenny Frankel. As far as she’s concerned, you already do. She is who you think she is. For better or worse. And on that note: Yes, she is engaged to on-again-off-again boyfriend Paul Bernon, and she’s “really happy and really centered.” No wedding plans yet; she is preoccupied with the COVID-19 relief work she’s orchestrating through her BStrong initiative and with parenting her daughter, Bryn, age 10. Frankel gestures vaguely at the world outside her home in Greenwich, Connecticut, from which she’s Zooming in, her engagement ring catching and scattering the light like a disco ball. A wedding, in this climate? “It just doesn’t seem right, right now.”
Plenty of people would scoff at the notion of a Real Housewife serving as the arbiter of what is and is not in good taste. Frankel is cognizant of this stigma. It’s part of why she left the show. “It pulls you back in a little, to be attached to the Housewives,” she says. “It [hurts your] credibility as an entrepreneur and a businessperson. No matter how many Forbes covers you could be on or how many hundreds of millions of dollars you’ve raised worldwide in philanthropy.” (Since its founding in 2017, BStrong has raised more than $7 million and distributed $82 million in supplies.)
In fact, Frankel seems to be so self-aware, it’s almost unsettling—a woman wired for life on camera, in control and unselfconscious, cracking the joke before you can call her a punch line. The 50-year-old has spent 16 years making the reality-show rounds, first in 2005 as the runner-up on The Apprentice With Martha Stewart (Stewart dismissed her in the season finale for not being likable enough); then as the snarky, scrappy single girl on The Real Housewives of New York (starting in 2008, on seasons one through three, then again for seven through 11); in between as the girl who got the guy (2010’s Bethenny Getting Married, renamed Bethenny Ever After for the following two years); then, while extricating herself from said guy, as a daytime talk-show host (Bethenny, which was syndicated nationally on Fox-affiliated stations and lasted only one season); and also, briefly, as a house flipper (2018’s eight-episode Bethenny & Fredrik on Bravo).
In an ideal future, Frankel says, she’ll vanish from our screens. But in the present, she’s producing and starring in a new reality series, The Big Shot With Bethenny, a business competition show premiering April 29. Big Shot chronicles Frankel’s search for a vice president of operations for Skinnygirl, the lifestyle brand she launched in 2009. With Frankel as CEO, Skinnygirl has bloomed into a $100 million enterprise. Its products range from shapewear and jeans to coffee and snacks. Frankel’s personal brand has benefitted too. She just inked a multiyear deal with iHeartMedia to host her podcast, Just B With Bethenny Frankel, and produce other content. She’s very, very busy—but not too busy to turn an HR request into a television show whose purpose, she says, is to find her “successor.”
Frankel called up Mark Burnett—she reconnected with the Apprentice producer when she was on Shark Tank; though Burnett’s reputation has taken a dive since 2016, his associations with Donald Trump apparently did not faze her—and together they brought the show not to Bravo, the network that launched Frankel’s career, but to HBO Max. She describes the streamer as “current,” “edgy,” and “curated.” She goes on, saying HBO Max is “by definition the future. The caliber of talent and quality is another level than I’ve experienced in my career.” Throwing shade at her alma mater, or is the compliment just a compliment? (In related news: Due to scheduling conflicts, Andy Cohen, the creator and longtime executive producer of the Real Housewives franchises, was not available to comment for this story. The two remain close friends, according to reps.)
By Frankel’s count, there has been only one other “successful business competition show, and it was The Apprentice.” Big Shot, she goes on, “is all based on my real business. So the stakes are high. It’s personal.”
Frankel hypes her series as unlike anything you’ve ever seen; having watched the two episodes made available to the press, I must report it is very much like shows you’ve seen before—the swirl that would come out if somebody put The Apprentice and America’s Next Top Model in a NutriBullet, with a dash of Vanderpump Rules. Contestants-slash-applicants are subjected to challenges that are either so easy, the word challenge hardly applies (make an Instastory about a Skinnygirl product), or absurdly difficult (direct a photo shoot for a Skinnygirl ad campaign in under 35 minutes). Initially, Frankel doubts that any of the candidates have what it takes. As she confides in the first episode, “I’ve never met anyone in the workplace who can keep up with me.”
The real genius of the show, which has been Frankel’s genius all along, is that she has created something with all the scaffolding of a television program that is really, at its core, sponcon. The Apprentice and ANTM ran on integrations for other products, requiring their hosts to frequently gush about, say, the glory of a CoverGirl contract. On Big Shot, episodes revolve around Skinnygirl products, all of which, save for the margarita that started it all, are owned by Frankel. (Ten years ago, Frankel sold Skinnygirl Margarita to Beam Suntory, the maker of Jim Beam, for a reported $120 million.) While Frankel plays the master of ceremonies and her potential hires act in supporting roles, the real star of Big Shot is the Skinnygirl logo, whose kicky silhouette is never off camera for long.
Any supercut of Frankel’s best RHONY moments is sure to include this season three exchange: After Frankel pulls up to a lunch date with Luann de Lesseps in a car shrink-wrapped with the Skinnygirl logo, the countess balks at Frankel’s brazen self-promotion. Frankel is unrepentant. “If you can wear an Hermès belt, I can wear a Skinnygirl car,” she says. De Lesseps, laughing, replies, “Well, they’re not paying me to wear the Hermès belt.”
Frankel’s response, in a confessional, mocks how “dumb” de Lesseps is: “They’re not paying you. That’s the point.”
Watching Frankel in the first season of RHONY, surrounded by women who do not seem to know exactly what they’re doing on television, is like watching the first baby in playgroup abandon crawling and start toddling for the door. Nowadays, viewers are used to seeing countless women attempt to spin their brief appearances on The Bachelor into lucrative influencer careers. But when Frankel was cast on RHONY in 2008, reality television was in its adolescence and very few of its practitioners picked up on what Frankel grasped immediately.
Frankel says, “It was just something I intrinsically understood. What is the point of being on television like this if you’re not marketing something or monetizing it in some way?”
Danny Pellegrino, host of Everything Iconic, a podcast on which he interviews the whole galaxy of reality stars, explains Frankel’s fame: “Love her or hate her, I think she knows how to use the media, whereas many celebrities get used by the media. And I think that she’s been that way since the beginning.”
When Frankel auditioned for Real Housewives, it was still called Manhattan Moms, envisioned as a docuseries on the Hunger Games–style maneuvers of one-percenters fighting to get their children into hypercompetitive kindergartens. Frankel, who was then unmarried and childless, didn’t see how she fit in. But as she remembers it, Bravo was adamant about finding a fifth cast member to be “this question mark, kind of unsure character.”
At the time, she says, “I was nobody and I had nothing.” Frankel has previously said she grew up in an abusive household (her mother has refuted those allegations) in upstate New York. She spent her formative years at the racetrack observing her dad, a horse trainer, in action. He left the family when Frankel was four and died in 2009.
In the mid-2000s, Frankel was an aspiring natural-food chef with $8,000 in her bank account. She’d just landed a $100,000 deal with Pepperidge Farm and was concerned that doing RHONY would jeopardize her relationship with the brand. Frankel remembers her agent warning her that RHONY was “going to be a trainwreck of a bunch of people drinking alcohol and making fools of themselves—which it became, in many ways,” Frankel concedes. “Everyone told me not to do it.”
But she figured that if the show flopped, no one would even know about it. And if it succeeded, well, “It’s not that easy to get on TV and monetize that I’m a chef and promote what I want to do with my life.” Bravo paid her $7,250 for the first season, with one crucial amendment to her contract: Frankel demanded they cut the part that would have given a percentage of her business to the network, a portion now known in the reality TV industry as “the Bethenny clause.”
She chalks up much of the ongoing success of the series, and “the different caliber of person that has even agreed to do the show,” to the model she set, which the women in her wake want to emulate. “[They say], ‘I’m doing this because I want what happened to Bethenny.’”
Billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban met and befriended Frankel when she appeared as a guest “shark” on a handful of Shark Tank episodes starting in 2017. “She picks things up super fast,” Cuban told Marie Claire via email. Frankel, he asserted, is “one of the all-time best branders in the world.”
Asked why Frankel was able to succeed where so many other reality stars have failed, Cuban replied, “She is smart as fuck.”
Frankel has no filter. She says what she thinks everybody else is thinking, and sometimes she is correct (see: Bethenny Frankel dragging everyone, volumes I–V) and sometimes she swings and misses. Consider when, in anticipation of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s tell-all Oprah interview earlier this year, she tweeted that Markle could “cry me a river” over “the plight of being a game show host, fairly unknown actress, to suffering in a palace w tiaras & 7 figure weddings for TWO WHOLE YEARS to being a household name.” After the interview, in which Markle admitted she felt suicidal during her time as a working royal, aired, Frankel apologized for her comments. When asked about them in this interview, her press rep sprang into action to tell me, “We’re going to skip that topic”—his only interjection in our hour-long conversation.
“A lot of times, what she says is controversial, and I often wonder if it’s purposeful, to get attention to one of her projects,” Pellegrino says. “That’s what makes her such a good reality-TV star: She knows the message she’s trying to get across.”
Question dodging aside, Frankel’s willingness to be herself in front of the world—even if that means inviting strangers to watch her water break as she goes into labor, as she did on Bethenny Ever After—is key to her enduring appeal. “I wasn’t trying to show anybody who I wanted them to think I was,” Frankel says. “People can’t help but show how rich they are, then they get arrested. Show how amazing their relationship is, then there’s infidelity. Show how much smarter they are than somebody else, then their business shuts down. I mean, I just was honest about exactly who I was and where I was in the moment.”
Eventually, Frankel wants you to be consuming something from the Bethenny extended universe without realizing that what you’re watching (or wearing, or eating, or drinking) has anything to do with her. “The goal, like my brand Skinnygirl…[is that] people know the brand and they don’t know me,” she says. “That’s what I want, because you want that to live without you. You don’t want to have to be there.”
The brand—like Frankel herself—is popular but polarizing. Take the name: The skinny in Skinnygirl is not a stigma-free term. It’s got that early-aughts ring to it, about a decade or two out of step with modern, inclusive language about beauty and bodies.
“The [origin] of the word, the brand, was because it was a lighter margarita.…It’s less sugary, and it has fewer calories,” says Frankel. “The brand markets to women of all shapes and sizes. …But the word sometimes does bother me, because I never use the word on its own. For example, we’re launching swim, and I had a real conversation about should we launch it under ‘Bethenny’ because I don’t want...I was considering what that would mean to launch a bathing suit under a Skinnygirl line, especially because I’m thin.” She says Home Shopping Network insisted they keep “Skinnygirl,” the brand with name recognition, but Frankel says she’s “open to shift and pivot.”
She does not, however, plan to pivot to politics—though a few years back, when it seemed like everyone was looking at the presidency and thinking, Why not me?, Frankel was asked the question more than once. You can see where people might get that idea. She’s a famous person who has not lost touch with what it means to be a nobody—a very rich woman who hasn’t lost her hustle. While the early days of the pandemic saw Gal Gadot corral a battery of A-listers in the hilariously ill-advised “Imagine” video to lift plebeians’ spirits, Frankel raised more than $17 million for coronavirus relief and PPE. Over the past five years or so, she’s made headlines for her work contributing vital supplies and distributing cash cards to disaster-struck locales, including Puerto Rico after it was hit by Hurricanes Maria and Irma and California when the state was engulfed by wildfires in 2018. (For these projects, BStrong joins with Global Empowerment Mission, a 501(c)(3) organization.)
During her recent spate of high-profile relief work, Frankel’s get-it-done demeanor and the speed and vigor of her humanitarian efforts were especially striking in contrast to that of then-president Donald Trump, whose idea of aid distribution in Puerto Rico was to fling rolls of paper towels at survivors. But Frankel says she has no interest in running for office, preferring the power that comes from private, nonpartisan life. “I don’t need to be bogged down with answering questions and being criticized for what I wore to something or what happened and talking about one party.”
Come to think of it, the reality-star-to-politician trajectory doesn’t seem like Frankel’s style. It’s just so...2016. Frankel’s specialty isn’t iterating on what’s been done; hers is a kind of pop-cultural prescience, an ability to see tomorrow’s gold mine in today’s taboos. “That’s the thing I’m probably the best at: decisions,” she says. “Decisions that aren’t always popular. Opinions that aren’t always popular, maybe before their time.”
Those opinions will undoubtedly lose Frankel some fans—if they haven’t already. But everything that alienates her from one faction can endear her to another. She can afford to shed a few followers along the way, as long as enough people keep buying what she’s selling.
Edited by Neha Prakash / Photographed by Allie Holloway / Hair and Makeup by Luke Henderson for MAC Cosmetics