Andy Cohen’s Reality-TV State of the Union: From ‘The Real World’ to ‘The Real Housewives’ 1

For the first time in what was, for some of them, over 20 years, members of The Real World’s inaugural New York season were reuniting.

Norman, who became the “first reality TV star” to come out as bisexual (the de facto first, because there weren’t any other reality stars), was hugging Julie, the Southern “fish out of water” who helped birth the TV-as-a-fishbowl format. Eric was catching up on his new career as an ayahuasca shaman while Heather, who still works as a radio host, couldn’t stifle her laughter—she would be having none of that.

On the other side of the video feed sat Andy Cohen, who was about to interview them. As they mingled, he cried.

The emotional reaction took him by surprise. But to anyone who watches For Real: The Story of Reality TV, which premieres Thursday on E!, the tears make sense. If the series drives home any point, it’s how emotionally connected we’ve all become, even in ways we didn’t realize, to the reality TV series that shaped our lives.

“That show meant a lot to me,” Cohen says in an interview ahead of the premiere of For Real, which he hosts and produced—a fitting position for the producer to be in as he celebrates the 15th anniversary of the Real Housewives franchise this week.

“It represented an innocence in reality television,” he says. “It represented a more simple, innocent part of my life. It represented the very beginning of my professional life, when I was a desk assistant at CBS News in New York. It was 1991 when that show premiered, and I was their age.”

That cast stepping out 30 years later, with Cohen now the one sitting in the chair ready to interview them after all that has happened in his life, was actually surreal. “I’m looking at them and they just were like exactly who they were then. It just really touched me and brought home how much that show meant to me.”

The retrospective docuseries traces the history of reality TV and its impact on culture. It’s hard to imagine that it’s been 30 years since seven strangers first stopped being polite and started getting real. It’s just as wild that shows like American Idol, The Bachelor, and Survivor have recently or are about to turn 20. It was just yesterday that Teresa Giudice flipped a table, yet there have also been 126 “Real Housewives” since the original Real Housewives of Orange County premiered in 2006.

Like Cohen, we’ve all had an emotional connection to the phenomenon, whether that meant staring slack-jawed as Sue Hawk delivers her rat-and-snake monologue, weeping as confetti rained down on Kelly Clarkson, erupting in outrage at makeover shows like The Swan, cheering on Ty Pennington to “move that bus,” jeering at the exploitation that would become a constant talking point of the genre, becoming more accepting after meeting the Fab Five, and, lately, expecting more of the genre.

That latter point is especially true as reality TV summons its Real World roots and shows like Keeping Up With the Kardashians and across Bravo further evolve to engage with sociopolitical issues more directly. With Kardashians ending, all these anniversaries, and the occasion of the For Real retrospective on it all, we’re at a turning point for reality TV.

It’s a genre that weathered every criticism calling it a distraction, a guilty pleasure, or toxic. Yet it has been validated as pivotal enough to have played a role in the election of the president of the United States—a fascinating portending for the future and maybe the most monumental of reasons to look back at the journey of how we got here.

And who better to talk us through it than Andy Cohen, the producer behind Top Chef, Project Runway, the Real Housewives franchise, and every meme any gay friend has ever sent you. Oprah has recently made us question the value of monarchies, but few would dispute Cohen’s current reign as the King of Reality TV.

From how he dealt with the criticisms of the genre to his own personal history as a reality TV fan—and of course, his thoughts about how the Real Housewives might continue to grow—here’s his state of the union.

In For Real, you got to sit down with Kim, Kourtney, Khloé, and Kris Kardashian to talk about Keeping Up With the Kardashians, which is ending this season. End of an era, really, considering how they changed TV. What did you take away from that conversation about their impact and how they feel about it?

They’re really proud of the series. The thing that kept coming up with them was that they feel like it started as a family show and it’s ending as a family show, and that’s the root of what it’s always been about. They never strayed from it. It was meant to be kind of a half-hour comedy when it started about this fun California family.

It’s changed so much since then.

It remains lighthearted and there are pranks and there is sweetness and it’s built on love. But if you look at the evolution of it as the cameras were going, starting with Caitlyn Jenner and all Lamar Odom stuff with Khloé and Tristan cheating and Kim getting held up… I mean, this is some real shit that developed partly as a result of them getting super famous and partly as a result of the evolution of life. And I think that that’s the stuff that really kept it going for so long.

Has that made you think about how you’re going to produce your shows going forward?

Not really because there’s a difference. As a producer of the Housewives, I always am dismayed when things that are happening on the show start playing out on social media while we’re filming. I would rather wait and let it all be a surprise for when the show comes out. And conversely, I think the Kardashians are fueled by it. It certainly has driven me to turn on the Kardashians to see what really happened in those situations. But as a producer, I’m always worried that it will kill what we’re doing because people will just hear about it already and think they don’t need to watch. So there’s a question there of whether it’s what works for them works for others.

I see what you’re saying. But at the same time, I look at this past season of Real Housewives of Potomac, and I would argue that a lot of people tuned in because of all the headlines made before the show aired about the “altercation.”

I think you’re right. The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills this season will be an interesting study, because we’ve all obviously read a lot about Tom Girardi and Erika Jayne. But you’re not going to see it from her point of view and from the point of view of her friends who were finding out about this, as everyone else did, until you watch the show.

Outside of The Real World, what other reality shows made an impact on you?

I was senior producer at CBS News when Survivor premiered. We were going to get the castaway every week the morning after they were eliminated. I just remember when I saw the first episode, my mouth was on the floor. I remember I watched it standing up. I thought it was the most brilliant format. My mind was blown. Then when The Swan came on, I just thought that that was such a train wreck, but I was fascinated by it. It tickled me being able to interview women who had competed on The Swan about the experience and also just to see up close how they held up.

It’s interesting that you were fascinated by The Swan because so many people were repulsed by it, and used it as the argument for why reality TV marked the end of culture. [The 2004 Fox series had “ugly” women compete in a pageant once they had plastic surgery.] What do you make of those extreme reactions that those kinds of shows would get?

I think that there’s two silos. There’s a level of outrage that reality TV has always elicited. It was the same kind of outrage that soap operas elicited in their day. Every few years that would be a big TIME magazine cover story about like, “Are soaps dangerous for us? Are they ruining society?” I think there’s a dialogue around reality TV that is similar, and I think it’s stupid.

Ha!

I think you just turn the channel if you don’t like it. I think there are some shows that maybe push it to the limit where you could be like, “I don’t want my daughter watching this.” If I had a daughter, I wouldn’t want her to watch The Swan, let me put it that way.

I think the extreme reaction is also in two different buckets. There was the outrage over shows that seemed in bad taste or maybe exploitative. Then there are the shows that just pushed the limits of silliness, like Joe Millionaire or Married at First Sight.

Those are kind of just stupid. (Laughs) I mean, there are shows that are just stupid! And there are shows that are maybe like… Listen, I don’t think I would want my daughter watching a show that misrepresented what it meant to be beautiful, you know?

That’s interesting because there are obviously critics who over the years would say things like, “I don’t want my daughter watching The Real Housewives,” because of what they think those women represent.

You know what? The Real Housewives isn’t for kids.

When there is outrage or cultural discourse surrounding a show, as a producer how much do you listen to it? There are times when if you listen to it, it could help the genre and the shows to grow and evolve. But also you must want to tune it out and stay the course in some respects.

For me personally, I try to just go with my gut. Listen, you may not be making a show that’s about what critics want it to be about. Like, this is a show about a group of women having fun together and navigating their friendships. It’s not a show about X, Y, or Z, so I’m sorry that you think it should be. There are certainly enough television shows that everybody can find something.

To me guilty pleasure is always attached to something delicious. So, what can I say? I mean, it is delicious.

Right. It just is not for some people.

I think sometimes it can also be really lazy reporting just to say, like, “Is reality TV to blame for…?” Like referring to a level of discourse in our country. It’s like, well, there’s also been cable news that’s been on for 30 years and people have been fighting with each other there. And there’s also social media, which is very nasty. And, you know, so I think that it, I think it gets a lot of blame.

Did the “guilty pleasure” label that’s put on these shows ever bother you?

No! I think it is a guilty pleasure! People say to me, “Oh, it’s my guilty pleasure,” and I say you have nothing to feel guilty about.

But they do! Or, at least they have.

I think it’s a guilty pleasure in the same way that a box of chocolates is a guilty pleasure. It’s great. It brings people pleasure. I had dinner with someone the other night who was so repulsed by the Housewives. It just upsets them. And that’s OK, too! You just turn the channel. Don’t click on the story. I understand. They’ve spawned so many shows. There are so many GIFs. They really have permeated a certain part of pop culture. But on the other hand, sometimes you turn it on and there are two people who are having an argument. For one person in the room, watching this argument is funny. And for another person watching the argument is upsetting. The way everyone processes it is different, and that’s OK.

I think the issue that I’ve always had with the “guilty pleasure” label is that when you call something that, people tend to not acknowledge the things about it that do have worth. That are culturally important. That are worth discussing seriously. It always bothered me that when people hear the phrase “guilty pleasure,” they ignore those things.

I agree. But, you know, to me guilty pleasure is always attached to something delicious. So, what can I say? I mean, it is delicious.

One of the things that is fascinating about For Real is that it revisits shows like The Swan that were so controversial when they aired, but it also makes the point that makeover and plastic surgery shows like that are pretty normalized and not scandalous now.

It was interesting to talk to all the people who participated in the shows, be it The Bachelor or The Swan—most of the people don’t have regrets about their experience, which I thought was really interesting.

I was going to ask you about that because the concept of “regret” came up a lot in the series. It’s such a common assumption that people who were on reality TV would obviously regret it. But even when you talked to Caroline Manzo and Teresa Giudice, both said they had no regrets.

I always find it interesting to hear what people say about that. Here you have Teresa who’s been to jail, divorced, fought with her family. But no regrets!

As a producer, do you have any regrets when it comes to your involvement in these shows and these people’s lives?

I regret anyone who has walked away saying that they now are unhappy with their experience, or that they regret it. I certainly don’t want anyone to walk away from this working experience that I’ve been a part of and not feel great about it. It’s funny. I’ve remained in contact with so many people that used to be on our shows. Predominantly, those relationships are good and they have good feelings about it. Our shows are not meant to humiliate anybody. So, you know, it’s all been fairly positive.

When you look back from this vantage point, are you surprised that you transitioned your career from news to reality TV? Or does it seem like something that happened naturally?

It’s totally natural. I think if you look at what has become the news business, it has kind of devolved or transitioned into the aspects of reality television that play out. It’s very character-based. It can be salacious. The stories that are considered “news” have evolved. I think just as a producer, the training that I got at CBS News for 10 years helped. You have to think on your feet. It’s very deadline-based. You’re crashing stories in edit rooms. That’s all stuff that I was able to use.

Has working on For Real and spending so much time seeped in the history of reality TV changed your thoughts at all about the genre or what it represents?

It reinforced everything that I knew. That the people who are on it are willing participants and they’re pretty happy about it. And whether it is highbrow reality like Top Chef or Project Runway to, you know, Dr. Pimple Popper, for whatever reason, the people who watch the shows have a real connection with what they’re watching. It takes them out of their lives. Truth is stranger than fiction. And it’s fun. It’s a genre that has gone in a million different directions and will continue to surprise us.