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‘Real Housewives’ gets an oral history

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Over 15 years, "The Real Housewives" reality franchise has become Bravo's most expansive accomplishment, spawning 11 series stateside and at least 15 around the world. It shows no signs of dying with Bravo recently announcing its latest: "The Real Housewives of Dubai."

It seemed like a no-brainer to turn classic scenes of artificial leg throwing, wig pulling and table tossing into an oral history. "Housewives" super fan and entertainment journalist Dave Quinn jumped aboard and interviewed a whopping 112 of the women on nine of the key shows along with 34 notable executives involved in the production. The result? "Not All Diamonds and Rosé," part of Andy Cohen Books.

Proving the franchise's enduring popularity, the book debuted on top of the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list.

"Hitting No. 1 is something beyond my wildest dreams, but just goes to show the power of Bravoholics," Quinn said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, using a common descriptive of obsessive fans of Bravo shows in general.

Quinn also said Cohen, who helped create the entire franchise, didn't place any limitations on how he put the book together. "Not constrained at all!" he said. "No topic was off limits. Andy was really open to pulling down the fourth wall."

At the same time, by framing it as an oral history, Quinn isn't trying to decide if certain incidents happened one particular way. "It's a book about feelings, not a book about fact," he said. "There is often no definitive answer. Everyone has their own perspective. It's always fun to figure out what side you end up on. You can hear from multiple people and decide who you think is right."

This book comes on the heels of a competing recounting of the show's history called "The Housewives" by self-described "Housewives anthropologist" and recapper Brian Moylan. While some reviewers found parts of Moylan's book entertaining, he was handicapped by the fact Bravo execs refused to cooperate with him and told cast members not to talk to him either.

Quinn set aside 54 pages of his 465-page book for stories behind the Atlanta version, which debuted in October of 2008 as the third "Housewives" show. Over the years, it has been consistently the highest-rated franchise, usually beating the original Orange County edition, the brassier New York take and the rough-and-tumble Jersey version.

While Orange County and New York initially featured all-white casts, the Atlanta version started almost entirely Black. It immediately offered a specific attitude, humor and energy that Bravo viewers embraced from the first episode.

"'Atlanta' was the one that took us all by surprise," said Lauren Zalaznick, former executive at NBCUniversal, in the book.

While Quinn did get insights from key "Housewives" cast members including Kandi Burruss, Cynthia Bailey, Kenya Moore and a very dishy Sherée Whitfield, four major cast mates chose not to participate: NeNe Leakes, Kim Zolciak, Phaedra Parks and Porsha Williams.

Quinn wouldn't say why each one turned him down, but he was able to work around those absences by talking to key executives including franchise creator Andy Cohen (who hosts all the reunion shows), Carlos King, Sexin Cavusoglu and Lauren Eskelin. They were able to fill in the blanks on many of the show's notable controversies over the years including Whitfield pulling Zolciak's wig, Williams attacking Moore during a reunion show and Parks spreading a vicious rumor about Burruss that led to Parks' ignominious ouster from the show.

"We've watched a lot of these women tell their stories on social media and in interviews over and over again," Quinn said. "But the producers and executives, those voices to me, are so valuable."

Leakes, an Athens native who was once a stripper, gets credit for being the show's breakout star. "She was popping with personality," Cohen said in the book. "And she kind of anchored this group of friends."

She was able to leverage her fame on the show into an acting career, getting roles on Fox's "Glee" and NBC's "The New Normal" to the point she left "Real Housewives." She also competed on "Dancing With the Stars" and "Celebrity Apprentice."

But when those opportunities waned, Leakes reluctantly returned, drawn by a very hefty paycheck and the siren call of the spotlight. But, as Whitfield noted, "NeNe can dish it out but she can't take it." During the pandemic last year, after failing to mend fences with some of the cast mates, Leakes left the season 12 Zoom reunion show in a huff. The show left her empty screen there, symbolic of her acrimonious second departure.

"Housewives" has struggled in recent years to find fresh permanent cast members. Ratings dropped sharply season 13 without Leakes around.

"It's not easy living your life like this," Quinn said. "The network and casting directors encourage the women to say what's on their minds and not hold back. But then you have to watch with the rest of the world as you experience mistakes or make dumb choices. Then you have to film again. It's really difficult. And it's hard to get fans and the other women on your side when you're new."

"The Real Housewives of Atlanta," entering its 14th season, is at a major crossroads. Two key stars, Bailey and Williams, are not coming back. And the show is several months behind its normal production schedule. Typically a new season debuts in October but the show won't be back until 2022. Whitfield is expected to return a third time.

"The Housewives is like the mafia," Quinn said. "Once you're in, you're in forever. I don't think the door is truly ever closed on anybody."


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