March 21, 2021 will mark 15 years since The Real Housewives first premiered on Bravo. Back then, the show was a one-off, a look at the lives of privileged, wealthy women in Orange County. Today the series is an international phenomenon, with multiple franchises across the U.S. and plenty of global series to boot.
How did this little Bravo lifestyle show become the modern soap opera: a long-running, much-gossiped-about franchise with scores of cast members and more quote-worthy moments than you can possibly remember? What happened over this decade and a half to make The Real Housewives what it is today? In honor of the 15th anniversary, we've collected 15 memorable milestones — one per year — to celebrate and reflect upon the reality TV megahit that could.
Initially just called The Real Housewives, the first installment of this epic franchise began behind the gates of Coto de Caza in Orange County, California. Looking back, the show seems vastly different from what we've come to expect from the series: the five Housewives, Kimberly Bryant, Jo De La Rosa, Vicki Gunvalson, Jeana Keough and Lauri Waring, largely kept to themselves and their own families. The reunion episode at the end of the season saw them all watching parts of the show separately, reacting straight to camera. A humble beginning, but a beginning nonetheless.
Nowadays Housewives come and go from the various cities all the time. Some don't even wait until a season is over to leave — cut to: Kim Zolciak-Biermann exiting halfway through The Real Housewives of Atlanta Season 5, or Tinsley Mortimer bouncing early from the most recent season of The Real Housewives of New York City. But someone had to be the first to go, and that would be Kimberly. In her place came Tammy Knickerbocker, a divorcée and mom of two. She would stick around for two seasons, but the swap between her and Bryant established a revolving door tradition for the franchise.
In 2007, Bravo went into development on a new reality series about wealthy women in New York. At the time, it was called Manhattan Moms — we now know it as The Real Housewives of New York City. Colloquially referred to as RHONY (the C got lost in abbreviation), the new series served as the first brand extension of the franchise, and featured such series legends as Bethenny Frankel, Jill Zarin, LuAnn de Lesseps, Alex McCord, and the still-on-the-series stalwart Ramona Singer. Later that year, Bravo would add another city with The Real Housewives of Atlanta. The expansion had formally begun.
The fourth "city" to be added to the franchise was actually a state, as The Real Housewives of New Jersey joined the lineup in 2009. In its first season finale, it provided the franchise with its first truly mega-viral moment, when series star Teresa Giudice, in an argument with fellow Housewife Danielle Staub, flipped a table in anger. Several quotable lines from this moment remain iconic: "prostitution whore," "engaged 19 times," and so on. Even Oscar nominee Isabelle Huppert has praised Teresa's table-flipping skills. In a franchise that was quickly becoming a cultural monolith, the table flip upped the stakes, and changed the game for all the shows moving forward.
RHONY took the idea of a cast trip — get all the girls together in an alternate location for a few episodes — and made it Scary. As in Scary Island. Named for Kelly Killoren Bensimon's strange nickname for St. Barts ("I'm alone on Scary Island with no friends"), the fan-beloved, three-episode arc is probably the closest Real Housewives will ever get to producing a horror movie. The trip, planned in honor of Ramona's upcoming vow renewal, saw Ramona, Bethenny, Alex, and new Housewife Sonja Morgan contend with an increasingly manic Kelly. Small personal digs ("You're a cook, not a chef") became more hostile as the trip went on, as Kelly seemed to irrationally fear for her life among the women. Kelly ultimately left early — but then a surprise visit from Jill, now on the outs with Bethenny and Alex, only ratcheted the tension further. Scary Island set the standard for cast trips on Real Housewives, but arguably none have been able to reach the same level of absurdity since.
Unlike previous cities' casts, The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills boasted some genuinely notable names among its ranks. Camille Grammer, then the wife of Kelsey Grammer, was probably the biggest draw in terms of tabloid notoriety, but the Richards sisters — Kim and Kyle — also had acting credits to their names. Arguably the least-known of the cast was Taylor Armstrong, which made her something of an outsider in her first season. A tragic twist of fate changed that in Season 2, however, when her husband Russell Armstrong died by suicide between filming and the season's premiere. Despite protestations that it shouldn't continue — including from Camille — RHOBH pressed on with a season that revealed Russell was allegedly abusing Taylor. It's perhaps the most shockingly real season that Real Housewives has ever produced, and thus utterly compelling in a totally macabre way. To this day, questions linger about Bravo's ethics of airing it.
The first four seasons of RHOA were quite strong, with special notice to Seasons 2 and 4. But to become the series we know today, it required the introduction of two huge personalities in Season 5: former Miss USA Kenya Moore, and Porsha Williams, then the wife of NFL star Kordell Stewart. The two immediately feuded when the series began, and their conflict has remained a source of many arguments in the seasons since. One such argument, in the Season 6 reunion, led to a physical fight when Porsha accosted Kenya over the latter's taunting. While all-star Housewives like Nene Leakes and Kandi Burruss are more recognizable to wider audiences, and model Cynthia Bailey has remained a calm, centering presence on the show since her Season 3 debut, it's Porsha and Kenya who drive the series' dramatic engine. They've both changed in the intervening years — Porsha has become an activist, while Kenya got married, and both have had children. But as can be seen on the current RHOA season, their feud remains as fiery as ever.
Showing up to a Real Housewives reunion is part of the job of being a Housewife. You can handle the season however you'd like, but you must come together with your fellow castmates to hash everything out with Andy Cohen. So it was shocking when, at the Season 3 reunion, RHOBH co-star Adrienne Maloof was missing. She'd had a tough season, after cast firebrand Brandi Glanville spread the news that Adrienne used a surrogate to have her twins. (Adrienne's contract infamously stipulated that Bravo had to edit out references to the surrogate, making this a literal fight over nothing.) In her last appearance on the show that season, she announced her divorce from then-husband Paul Nassif. So she likely didn't want to answer for all that. But Andy wasn't having it, calling Adrienne out for skipping and announcing she wouldn't return to the show. Some Housewives have missed reunions since, either as a form of quitting (Lisa Vanderpump on RHOBH) or for personal reasons (Luann checking into rehab on RHONY). But Adrienne's failed gambit proved a warning for most cast members: miss the reunion at your peril.
Though the most signature Real Housewives series are domestic installments — and those are the only ones that air on Bravo — the franchise is not limited to the United States. The Real Housewives of Athens, which aired one season in 2011, was actually the first international installment. But it was The Real Housewives of Melbourne, premiering in February of 2014, that changed the game for international series. It has aired five seasons, and is often mentioned by superfans as one of the best in the franchise. Since Melbourne, there have been 10 additional international Real Housewives series, including the long-running Real Housewives of Cheshire.
Housewives leaving and joining the franchise was a quickly established trend. Much rarer is a Housewife returning to the series after departing it. Bethenny, who was the face of RHONY for its first three seasons, departed the series during Seasons 4 through 6. Her return in Season 7 was a shocking development, and a very welcome one — it instantly renewed interest in the series, although fans did enjoy the new cast members (especially Heather Thomson and Carole Radziwill) introduced in the intervening years. Bethenny's return signaled that revisiting the past could happen across the franchise, and other cities would follow suit: RHOA bringing back Sheree Whitfield and Nene Leakes after their initial departures, and even RHOBH bringing Camille back as a Friend of the Housewives. But Bethenny's return remains the most seismic — and gives her fans hope to this day that, despite leaving the show again, she may return once more.
Few Real Housewives series end. Only the ill-advised Real Housewives of D.C. and the enjoyable but low-key Real Housewives of Miami have been canceled — and just recently, Peacock announced they're reviving the latter. But even though shows don't end, more have still been added. The first major new series in five years, The Real Housewives of Potomac, joined the lineup in early 2016. It was something of a second take on RHODC, with an all-Black cast and focusing on the Potomac region in particular. That series has since become a crown jewel of the franchise, routinely drawing the most positive reviews and press coverage. Later in 2016, The Real Housewives of Dallas would also premiere, giving the series two rookie series and a shot of new life.
Early reunion episodes were just one installment each. RHONJ's two-part reunion in its first season changed the game. RHONY then set the modern standard in Season 3 with a three-part reunion. But only once in the franchise's history did the reunion spill into a full four parts: RHOA Season 9. This reunion, an opera of epic proportions, saw series stalwart Kandi slot into the hot seat next to Andy for the first time, thanks to her most dramatic season yet. At issue was a claim by Porsha, fed to her then-best friend Phaedra Parks, that Kandi had attempted to drug and have sex with Porsha. Phaedra's exact involvement was previously unknown, leading to a shocking reveal during the reunion, one that required everyone to take a break to recuperate during the fourth installment. The four-part saga remains a remarkable piece of reality television, and untouchable in the reunion pantheon.
As a viewer of RHONY Season 10, you were Team Bethenny or Team Carole. Maybe you were Team Friendship, just wanting to see the one time best friends put aside their season-long beef. But more likely you took a side in one of the most dramatic feuds in Housewives history, as what was once a rock-solid bond fell apart. The exact cause of the feud remains the subject of much speculation, as even now new details arise. But on the show, the tension really seemed to ratchet up when Bethenny failed to show up for Carole as she ran the New York City Marathon. This conflict tore up the fanbase, as taking one side or the other became fodder for sharp, heated debate between friends. Neither woman is on the show anymore, but for a moment, this conflict threatened to tear RHONY apart entirely.
If an OG — an original Housewife on a series — left after several years on the show, it was almost always of her own volition. Bethenny left RHONY; Nene left RHOA; Lisa left RHOBH. But in RHOC's 13th season, series star Vicki Gunvalson was demoted to being a Friend of the Housewives, a move she made clear she was unhappy with. Her tantrum during the reunion, and repeated claims that despite not being in the main cast, this was still her show, ultimately sealed her fate, leading to her being kicked off entirely the final year. It was a sea change on a scale Real Housewives had not yet seen, and a warning to other OGs that no one is irreplaceable.
After nearly a decade and a half on the air, the Real Housewives franchise needed something fresh. Enter The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City, an immediately buzzy, remarkably diverse new series that, like RHOP and RHOD before it, proved there's still life in theformat. From the very first episode, the women of Utah routinely went viral, as Mary Cosby's claim that Jen Shah "smelled like hospital" became a hugely quotable moment. Despite just being a 13-episode first season, the drama was so plentiful that it required a three-part reunion — a first for an inaugural season. After 15 years, RHOSLC posited a path forward for this franchise, one that looks very different from the conservative, Californian cast that started the series. Who knows what The Real Housewives will look like in 15 more years?
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Kevin O'Keeffe is a writer, host, and RuPaul's Drag Race herstorian living in Los Angeles.
TOPICS: The Real Housewives Franchise, Bravo, The Real Housewives of Atlanta, The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, The Real Housewives of New Jersey, Real Housewives of New York City, The Real Housewives of Orange County, The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City, Andy Cohen, Bethenny Frankel, Teresa Giudice, Vicki Gunvalson