The Natural

Photo: Payam

If the cable network Bravo were a man, he would be urbane, witty, and well-dressed, with a fondness for the sort of news one would call soft. He would, in other words, be Andy Cohen, the peppy, perma-tanned gentleman in the photo above. Cohen has been the network’s senior vice-president of original programming and development for four years. More recently he began hosting the Real Housewives reunion shows, and this summer he acquired his own weekly talk show, Watch What Happens Live, on Thursday evenings at midnight. “It’s unusual, sure,” says Frances Berwick, Bravo’s executive vice-president, of Cohen’s move from behind the scenes. “We call Andy our pop-culture pundit. He’s charming, articulate, and speaks amusingly about things that are of relevance to our viewers.”

Cohen landed at Bravo in 2005 after working at CBS News then Trio. “I originally wanted to be on-air,” he says, “but then I was like, Screw this, I’m not moving to the middle of nowhere to be a reporter when I could have this cool life behind the scenes in New York.” Cohen’s TV appearances grew out of e-mails he sent to Bravo president Lauren Zalaznick in 2007. “I was sending dishy reports from the set of a show, and she was like, ‘You have to start blogging for us.’ And then I started getting punditry gigs, and they saw I could string together a sentence.”

At Bravo, which is known as gay-friendly (Cohen likes to refer to it as “bi”), he intended to keep his own sexuality off the table. But during the taping of The Real Housewives of New Jersey reunion show this past June, he spontaneously outed himself during a discussion about the misuse of the word gay. “I felt really self-conscious about it, because it was the furthest I’d gone in terms of including myself in something,” says Cohen. “But I was offended [by a husband insultingly referring to another husband as a “gaylord”]. That moment allowed me to go on to Watch What Happens Live and be fully myself as my friends see me.”

Cohen’s sophisticated cheek exactly fits Bravo’s. Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Top Chef, Project Runway, and the Real Housewives shows have made reality TV okay for a viewer who shuns the more homespun pleasures of The Biggest Loser. And though he might cock a skeptical eyebrow while moderating a Housewives reunion show, Cohen never condescends. “Ultimately, it’s not my job to judge the Housewives—we don’t editorialize on the show; we really leave it to the audience,” he says. “We have a certain wink, which is the Bravo wink. We may linger on a shot or we may let something play out longer, but we leave it to you.”

Despite the glut of commentary and talk shows on TV, Cohen is confident there’s a place for Watch What Happens Live—and so is Bravo, which, given the shows’ audience of close to a million viewers, has ordered 22 more episodes. “I love that we’re live. That’s very definitional,” he says. “And we have a voice that’s not represented anywhere else—it’s part of me, not all of me, but the fun part. So if I have a crush on Cristiano Ronaldo, or I think it would be cool if Levi Johnston got naked [it was Cohen who suggested Johnston pose nude, which he ultimately did for Playgirl], then I’m going to say it, just as I would to my friends.”

In some ways, Cohen is a throwback to hosts like Joe Franklin, or those eccentric public-access shows of the eighties; rather than observing a public persona, you feel like you’re a guest in the living room of a person with fabulous friends. In fact, the set is decorated with kitschy castoffs from his West Village apartment, and guests are often celebrity pals, like Kristen Johnston, soap star Mark Consuelos, or designer Isaac Mizrahi, who spent a portion of his interview arguing with his host over who was gayer or more Jewish. (We’d argue for Cohen, who ends each episode with a “Mazel of the Week”; on December 3, that salute went out to Meredith Baxter for coming out of the closet: “Congratulations, Meredith, you’re a les-bi-an!”)

Clearly, rather than luck, Cohen has had a head-on collision with destiny. “I don’t have a lot of self-doubt or cracks in my self-confidence,” he admits, “but putting yourself out there every week and throwing your opinions around on TV would cause you to maybe go home and say, Who the hell am I to say anything? I’ve had that feeling a couple of times, and it’s not the most fun feeling to doubt yourself. But the truth is, it’s a blast. I mean, Thursday night is my favorite night of the week!”

The Natural