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"I want a sauvignon blanc. do you want a sauvignon Blanc? I'm having a Sauvignon Blanc."
It's March 25, lunchtime, and Bethenny Frankel is every bit as energetic — some might even say spastic — as she appears on her Bravo series, "Bethenny Ever After." Her hair pulled back in a tight ponytail, Frankel, 40, draws a long sip from her wineglass.
"It's Friday," she says. "I'm done with work. My weekend can begin." Sitting in a tucked-away corner of the BLVD restaurant at the Four Seasons Beverly Wilshire, the wound-up reality star and executive producer of her own series visibly begins to relax. Frankel removes the oversized shawl she calls her "moosh" and tugs at her gray sweater underneath.
"It's Club Monaco," she notes without prompting. "I love their tops. I don't have a lot of tops, but everything I buy is on sale. I never pay full price." She buzzes on for a few minutes about her controlled spending and how her husband of one year, Jason Hoppy, recently encouraged her to purchase an $800 Chanel handbag she was eyeing. "I couldn't do it," she says. "I didn't need it."
Any other day, her animated tangent about frugality might have seemed unremarkable, but this week Frankel was celebrating the acquisition of her Skinnygirl cocktail line (featuring a 100-calorie margarita) by the world's fourth-largest spirits company, Fortune Brands' Beam Global — which distributes the likes of Jim Beam bourbon and Sauza tequila — for a price tag insiders have placed at $120 million. It's a feat never before seen in the spirits marketplace by a single celebrity (typically, the transactions are pure endorsement deals), unless you count Ciroc's nearly $100 million deal to bring on Sean "Diddy" Combs as part-owner of its premium vodka for promotional value.
The former natural-foods chef, who developed the cocktail line in 2009 with partner David Kanbar (formerly of Skyy Vodka), has become the next personality-turned-mega-entrepreneur on a growing (but still somewhat short) list of reality stars who have turned the tables on producers and networks and found a way to capitalize on their fame through business ventures wholly their own. Earlier this year, THR reported that the Kardashian family pulled in a combined $65 million in 2010 through a laundry list of endorsement deals and commercial projects. Even the less palatable stars — like "Jersey Shore's" Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino, who brought home a $5 million paycheck by the end of last year for a range of deals including a book, a workout supplement and a vodka endorsement — are finding ways to broaden their reach in the reality marketplace independent of their shows.
And now, this new-age business model for stretching a person's 15 minutes into an entertainment empire has become a larger phenomenon that has reality stars coast to coast scrambling for opportunities that might send their careers (and bank accounts) into an entirely new stratosphere. It also has left networks scratching their heads as they look for ways to also cash in on their talent's outside endeavors.
Seemingly, though, no personality has leveraged reality quite as well as Frankel. As cameras prepare to roll on the third season of Frankel's irreverent series following her personal and professional life in New York (the first-season premiere was Bravo's highest-rated series bow to date), it bears noting that this one-woman, low-cost operation made more money through her liquor sale than what David O. Russell's layered, complicated, Oscar-nominated film "The Fighter" grossed domestically ($93.6 million).
To this day, Frankel operates largely independent of Bravo, the network that put her on the air in 2008 on "The Real Housewives of New York." Under her personal business umbrella called Bethenny Frankel, the reality star has amassed a fiercely loyal social media following (Twitter, Facebook and Bethenny.com), lucrative endorsement deals (Pampers, Bluefly, Hanes), a successful publishing franchise, a "Body by Bethenny" workout DVD, Skinnygirl extensions (including a shapewear line, a diet cleanse and weight-loss supplements), speaking engagements, a stint on ABC's "Skating With the Stars" and, of course, that epic liquor deal. It is likely Frankel ranks among reality TV's wealthiest self-made stars. But it is empires like Frankel's that have network heads scurrying to renegotiate talent deals; they have even begun including clauses in new talent contracts that would award the network a stake in any business venture created as a result of a talent's time on the show.
"It's indeed becoming the trend," one network development insider says. "Our attorneys are constantly telling us that we need to cover our butts in case the talent blows up. If we are responsible for their success, we should get a piece." Four years earlier, though, when Frankel joined the "Housewives" series, such clauses were far less common. And Frankel's personal circumstances were far less fortunate.
Living in a 700-square-foot apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side, Frankel recalls having just a few hundred dollars in her bank account. The chef and founder of the gluten and dairy-free meal delivery service BethennyBakes had gained a certain level of notoriety as a finalist on the ill-fated NBC series "The Apprentice: Martha Stewart" but was struggling to take her business to the next level. "I didn't know where I was in my life," Frankel says of her pre-"Housewives" days. "I was still taking the subway to events because I couldn't afford the $20 for a cab."
Not long after her stint on "The Apprentice," Ricochet Television came knocking. The production company was interested in casting the outspoken Frankel on its new "Housewives" series for Bravo. At first, the rarely camera-shy Frankel was hesitant about jumping on board, saying no for two months before finally agreeing to join the cast. "I was worried that it would ruin what I had going," recalls Frankel, who at the time had signed on as a Pepperidge Farm spokesperson and had appeared on NBC's "Today" show for a cooking segment. After more consideration, Frankel decided that television might provide an enormous opportunity to grow her business at a national level. And Bravo had no qualms about her plugging her own products on the show. "I went on the show single-handedly and exclusively for business," Frankel says of the now common practice among reality stars. "I knew it was a risk and I had the most to lose, because I already had a platform. When I went on the show, no one was going on for business, no one had done anything."
At first, Bravo was reluctant to cast Frankel despite Ricochet's endorsement. The network was seeking to find fresh personalities for its audience instead of dipping into the already existing reality pool. "She was one of the last, if not the last, woman we cast on the show," says Bravo Media president Frances Berwick. "We had a few reservations and were a little on the fence since we don't take reality stars and put them on the network."
After seeing Frankel's tape, where she was alone in a town car engaging the driver in playful banter, Berwick and her team decided that even though Frankel was somewhat of a known New York personality, they were willing to take a chance on her. Unbeknownst to the network — or the existing "Bravo-lebrities" — Frankel would soon become the network's most recognizable face.
In October 2008, the series revolving around five affluent Manhattan women debuted, and for three seasons, Frankel's sharp wit and tell-it-like-it-is attitude attracted an enormous fan following that she painstakingly cultivated. Now, with roughly 500,000 followers on Facebook and Twitter, Frankel attributes much of her success to the show's audience.
"I'm not running around buying diamonds and getting facials," Frankel says of her time on the series. "I just decided to be totally honest and own it. You can't do something you don't stand for just to make money.