Some of the Housewives are fabrications of society women: “I had $8,000 in my bank account when I signed up,” says Bethenny Frankel over a lunch of shrimp salad and Perrier at Barney’s. Before she was cast on Housewives, Frankel was a runner-up on Martha Stewart’s Apprentice. “At first, I was like, ‘I will work so hard and be the best,’ because I thought they really wanted an apprentice,” she says. “But they don’t care what you say; they just want you to slap someone.”
Frankel was approached for The Real Housewives by a producer at a polo match in the Hamptons, but initially turned it down. “I thought it would be tragic, just tragic, a bunch of women drinking and acting like idiots, and I would be the idiot who’d been on two reality shows,” she says. But she went to a party where she met the rest of the cast and changed her mind. “I thought, Maybe I should do this, because there is no way I could look like a crazy person with all these crazy people.” She lets out a guffaw. “You can’t believe these shows are real, because you don’t believe that people could be this insane, but everything is 100 percent genuine.” She sighs. “You know, the things we’ve all done and said to each other … they’re unforgivable. If I met these five women at a party in the Hamptons, we’d love each other, but this—it’s too much. Everything comes out about your life. And nobody cares. And you learn that if you don’t care, nobody else cares. It’s good not to be ashamed. I had a picture taken of me the other day, and my nipples were showing, and I was like, ‘Well, at least they were lined up.’ ”
Whereas Manhattan’s Real Housewives are largely predatory, the producers of The Real Housewives of New Jersey have allowed its characters to have souls. They may get their hair cut at the Chateau salon and dine at restaurants named Lu Nello, but they’re lovable and support each other—except for Danielle, the preening, Botoxed mother of two with a phone-sex relationship with a man named “Gucci-model” and a criminal past involving cocaine and escorting. (She pines for love, but it’s not really what she’s after: “For me to chase someone who makes less than $25,000 a year? Excuse me, I owe more than that to Neiman Marcus.”) On a recent morning in Franklin Lakes, a town where trees barely reach the top of gargantuan nouveau houses, the two sisters in the cast, Caroline and Dina Manzo, sit around Caroline’s marble kitchen in her 6,000-square-foot home—above a window, there are words written in large gold paint: TO LIVE, TO LOVE, TO LAUGH, TO BE HAPPY, an interior-decorating trend of which I was formerly unaware. Caroline points out a few furnishings, like a filigreed yellow bowl that she purchased in Jordan, on a trip she took as a guest of the king, she says, set up by her “very close, very best friend” Bernie Kerik, the disgraced NYPD commissioner. “I was in Petra, like, ‘I’m stepping here, right where Moses walked, get friggin’ out of here!’ ” she says. “The Princess of Jordan called me the other day, and she said she likes the show.” She points a finger. “You know, Bernie is a true patriot. Even though his country shit on him, he still loves his country, and that shows character.”
In the city, that kind of remark could ruin your social schedule, but not south of the Hudson. “Here, in New Jersey, we’re not trying to get somewhere else, like in New York,” says Dina, folding her hands in her lap. “We’re happy where we are.”
PC Peterson’s family may be the richest to ever be featured on reality TV: His grandfather Pete, a self-made billionaire from a first-generation Greek-American family in Nebraska who has just published his memoir, The Education of an American Dreamer, has been the secretary of Commerce, CEO of Lehman Brothers, and, most recently, chairman of the Blackstone Group. After the company went public, he vowed to donate $1 billion to study America’s fiscal challenges. Paris Hilton didn’t have this kind of background when she was cast on The Simple Life. The Peterson family, an eccentric, gregarious group who usually court publicity—Pete Peterson’s wife, Joan Ganz Cooney, is the founder of Sesame Street, and Holly Peterson, PC’s aunt, is a journalist who wrote an Upper East Side novel last year about male nannies—has discouraged PC from speaking publicly about the show. It’s high drama, with whiffs of a lost inheritance. In one sense, it’s like one of those upper-class parables in which the callow heir besmirches his good name with his debauched youthful pursuits—but in this case, the kid has remorse. “He feels humiliated, degraded, and hurt by the show,” says a family friend.