'Housewives': No Apologies, No Holds Barred

The Real Housewives of NJCourtesy Bravo
The Real Housewives of NJ

The country may be suffering a recession, but there're no signs of it on one of Bravo's top reality shows.

Meet the "Real Housewives of New Jersey."

In the season premiere, housewife Teresa Giudice runs up a $120,000 furniture bill in a single store visit. She proceeds to pay with $100 bills.

"I hear the economy's crashing," Giudice says. "That's why I pay cash."

The real New Jersey housewives make no apologies for their big homes, big hair or big attitudes.

"You're either gonna love me or hate me," says Danielle Staub, another housewife. "There's no in between with me."

Watch the full story on "Nightline" tonight at 11:35 ET.

And that, the network believes, is precisely why the "Real Housewives" franchise is a cult hit.

"I think that people are fascinated by the idea of taste, and different peoples' taste, or lack of taste," says Andy Cohen, head of original programming at Bravo and overseer of the "Housewives" empire. "So it's always interesting to say, 'Wow, she spent that on that?!'"

The "Housewives" franchise now has spinoff programs located in Orange County, Calif., New York, Atlanta and, of course, New Jersey. Each site has its own characters and feel, with one big thing in common: The women have money, and a flair for spending it.

The housewives of Orange County love their pinot grigio and fake tans. Almost all of the Atlanta women are current or former wives of professional sports stars.

The New York show gets inside the lives of the city's elite social climbers. And now there's the New Jersey version, which might as well be called "The Real Housewives of the Sopranos."

Cohen recently gave "Nightline" an inside look at the Bravo reality-show factory. Contrary to what one might think, the "Real Housewives" franchise attracts some of the wealthiest and most educated viewers of any show, on any network.

"We don't talk down to our audience," Cohen says. "We have TV about rich people, and it's compelling."

For last season's Orange County "Housewives," viewership was up 45 percent. New York was up 62 percent. And the New Jersey premiere brought in a record 1.7 million households.

"I think people start watching, sometimes, the 'Real Housewives' and they think, 'Oh, my God, this is a train wreck. And that's why I'm watching.' But nine times out of 10, they actually start relating to a few of the women," Cohen says. "We may not have the same amount of money in our bank accounts, but these woman -- that is kind of like me."

'Real Housewives': Plenty of Battles

"Relatable" may not be the first word that comes to mind when one meets the "Housewives." "Nightline" recently hung out with the newest cast at a New Jersey diner, where they were posing for a People magazine shoot.

"If you think I'm a bitch," New Jersey housewife Dina Manzo says, "bring it on!"

Manzo and her sister Caroline, who are married to brothers, are the core characters of the New Jersey show.

"Let me tell you something," Caroline Manzo says. "Me and my family are thick as thieves."

Caroline Manzo is the matriarch of the New Jersey show, and her loyalty to her large Italian family has earned her comparisons in the tabloids to Carmela Soprano.

"I am Carmela Soprano in one respect," Manzo says. "I would make a cannoli pie for my child. ... I say I'm June Cleaver and Sharon Osbourne. If you shook 'em up, that's what you'd get at the end of the day. I am a modern-day mother with values of yesterday. You have to pick and choose your battles."

There are plenty battles on "Real Housewives." Take the dust-up between New York housewives Bethenny Frankel and Kelly Bensimon on their respective status within the Manhattan social scene.

"You're here," Bensimon says, holding her hand low. Then her other hand came up. "I'm here."

Cohen reels at the exchange. "Who's gonna write that?" he says. "It's incredible. When I heard from the producers, 'This has happened,' I just couldn't believe it -- love it. It's like crack cocaine that has no side effects, it's perfectly legal and you can do it again and again."

The fight is a good example of how the show has pervaded popular culture. Frankel's and Bensimon's rivalry has been covered as an ongoing feud in the New York tabloids. It has inspired cartoons on YouTube and has fans proclaiming they're on "Team Bethenny."

But was the "catfight" real?

"The 'Kell-amity' was an eight-minute unedited scene, it was completely real and everything that was on the show was real," Frankel says. "And I think that that really, really got people so crazy, and projected such a visceral reaction, because everybody was in high school. And they all know there was a person who really, really thought that they were up here, and everyone else was down here. And, so, everybody gets back to their high school cafeteria. ... And most people were nerds. And most people weren't the cool person, and I think it drove people crazy and people wanted to jump into the TV set."

'Real Housewives': Sociology of the Affluent

In what has become a tradition after each season ends, Cohen "refereed" a reunion of the feuding New Jersey housewives. It lasted six exhausting hours.

"I threw out a grenade, let it go, and said, 'OK, ladies,'" Cohen says. "And it exploded multiple times. I had shrapnel. I went home, drank a bottle of wine and watched "Schindler's List" to relax."

But why would anyone want to watch hours of bickering, back-stabbing and social climbing?

"I love sociology," Cohen says. "I love the way people relate to each other. This is a study in affluent human interplay, and the manners and etiquette and social mores of a certain set of people. If anyone feels guilty watching, that's a way to justify it. It is sociology of the affluent."

Cohen makes no apologies for the conspicuous, often-crass spending habits the women display, even as the rest of the country reels from an economic meltdown.

"Look," he says, "we're putting it out there to reflect a certain slice of life in certain cities. It is for you to decide whether this is fun, offensive, hilarious, aspirational or what. We leave it to you. There's no judgment. We love our housewives, I love them. They're all our children. I love them. ... All my crazy little girls."

The producers have learned how to take that "crazy" nouveau-riche behavior and turn it into reality TV gold.

"We call it kind of the Bravo wink," Cohen says. "It's a cutaway, it's a reaction to what someone's saying. ... It's maybe someone saying something and then you see them doing something maybe a little different from what they're saying. But it's a definite editorial point of view that also makes it OK to watch the show, because we're all in on it together."

Like when New Jersey housewife Giudice proclaims she's not a stage mom, and a second later is seen mouthing lyrics as she coaches her young daughter at a recital.

But the housewives may be getting the last laugh. Many aren't housewives at all, but rather savvy businesswomen hoping to use the show as a launching platform for their careers.

Giudice is starting a line of hair products for kids. Staub, seen in one episode throwing a Botox party, plans to create an exercise video to explain how to get her youthful appearance.

New York housewife Luann de Lesseps, wife of a Count (though they are currently separated), wrote a book on etiquette called "Class with the Countess," and another New York housewife, Ramona Singer, launched a skincare line.

Frankel chose to go on the show to expand her image as a celebrity chef. "Two years ago, I couldn't pay my rent," she says.

"I thought it was a 50-50 shot. It would be completely horrendous for me or the best thing that ever happened to me. And bravo to Bravo -- it's the best thing that ever happened to me."

Frankel now has a best-selling cookbook, "Naturally Thin," and a line of bakery products. She's about to launch her own line of low-calorie margaritas.

"I am on TV because I want to build a brand," she says, "and I want to speak to women and help them lose weight."

Unlike the other series in the "Housewives" franchise, the New Jersey housewives aren't just friends. Most of them are family. And they claim this is the real them.

"We are just, we are who we are," Dina Manzo says. "We are not trying to be anybody we are not, we shoot from the hip, we are not ashamed. You know, I said I was sweating my balls off while I was playing tennis with my daughters. I mean, did I love that I said that?

"I'm like, 'No,' but I say it all the time."