reality tv

The Return of the Ex-Housewives

There are more opportunities than ever for a former Real Housewife to make it back on our screens — if they’re willing.

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

Don’t tell Dorinda Medley she was fired. “I’m like a bird,” she says. “If you put a little worm in front of my mouth, I’ll go for it every time. I can’t help myself!” The little worm, in this metaphor, is the person saying the F-word. There’s a moment in the latest installment of Real Housewives Ultimate Girls Trip — in which a selection of “legacy” cast members from Bravo’s Real Housewives go on holiday together — that spells, er, screams this out. In episode one, Medley argues with co-star Kristen Taekman about whether she was fired — or, crucially, put on “pause” — from The Real Housewives of New York when she left the show in 2020. Medley, who tends to take the bait whenever anyone suggests the door wasn’t left open to her, points across the dinner table and tells Taekman: “Eagles don’t fly with pigeons. So go get your bread crumbs and talk to me tomorrow.”

But when Medley and I talk days before the show’s premiere, she admits there’s little difference between the actual pink slip and the theoretical pause button. “Listen, I was a waitress,” she says in the mobsterlike tone she often slips into while delivering one of her Dorinda-isms. “If you ain’t workin’, you ain’t makin’ money.”

Luckily, right now, she’s doing both. The much-hyped all-RHONY alumnae season of Ultimate Girls Trip, starring Medley and Taekman as well as Ramona Singer, Sonja Morgan, Luann De Lesseps, and Kelly Bensimon, premiered on Thursday on Peacock. The popular spinoff is just one of the ways the Bravoverse is ever-expanding, with other new shows, podcasts, and the bigger-every-year BravoCon convention.

Medley joined the Real Housewives universe in 2015, for the show’s seventh season. It was a turning point in her life: She was recently widowed and figuring out what was next. “For the first time, I didn’t have to be a mom, I didn’t have to be someone’s wife, I didn’t have to be someone’s daughter,” Medley recalls. “I was just Dorinda.” It soon felt like she had always been on the show. Fans watched annual weekends at the “Berserkshires” descend into chaos, plus arguments after (very dirty) martinis. But there was a softer side to her: Medley wasn’t perfect, but she wore her heart on her sleeve. Then, in her sixth year on the show, she had a “bad season.” Her home flooded, causing over $1 million in damage. She went through a painful breakup. Her behavior became erratic and, particularly after a few drinks, mean. “I cried to anyone that would listen,” she remembers, describing the shock of being fired. “I loved doing the show. And you know what? I thought I was good at it.”

Being a Real Housewife is a year-round job. If you’re not filming a show, you’re watching, promoting, or posting about it on social media. For many of the women living this roller coaster, losing their Housewife status can be devastating. In the past, the norm was for former Housewives to fade into obscurity, losing their fast fame almost as quickly as it arrived. But 17 years into Bravo’s flagship franchise, that burgeoning Bravoverse is becoming more self-referential and fluid. Thanks in part to the network’s increasingly empowered fandom, more former Housewives are getting the call to return — either to the show they first starred on or something new. Medley is part of a growing club of women who have put in the work required to resurrect their reality-TV star status. “I like being a reality star,” she says. “Why is it so shameful to say that?”

Before “pint-size, baptized, and highly prizedReal Housewives of Orange County star Tamra Judge joined the show in its third season, the first show in the Housewives franchise had been slower paced. But Judge wasn’t afraid to, say, ask Gretchen Rossi why she went on vacation to Bass Lake when her fiancé was in the hospital — and in that season-four moment, RHOC became more than a fly-on-the-wall look at life in California’s gated communities. It was now a reality show.

Twelve years later, Judge was on a camping trip with her husband when she was fired. Her phone started blowing up with texts from production and, suddenly, she realized: Oh, shit. They’re firing me. Immediately, Judge went into panic mode. “I didn’t know what I was going to do. I didn’t know my identity anymore,” she says, claiming her co-stars, including on-camera bestie Shannon Beador, stopped taking her calls. “I felt like I was kicked out of the Cool Girls Club. Nobody wanted me anymore.”

There are likely two reasons why a Housewife might lose her place in Andy Cohen’s kingdom, says Brian Moylan, chief Vulture recapper and author of The Housewives: The Real Story Behind the Real Housewives. “Either everyone hates you or they’re bored by you,” he says. (That, or perhaps after years of being on the network, their salaries become too high for even the NBCUniversal payroll.) Bravo’s social-media fandom can be a brutal place, where the ’wives are heroes one minute and villains the next. “The thing about Housewives fans is we’re never going to be happy,” Moylan says. “For every person who loves a Housewife, there’s someone who hates that Housewife.”

Housewives enter the danger zone when their haters significantly outnumber their fans. Alex Baskin, executive producer of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and Orange County — and host of the new official podcast, Bravo’s Hot Mic — was the person who called Judge to fire her. He stresses that social-media reaction is just one factor when it comes to casting decisions. Still, Baskin recently told former RHOBH Housewife Teddi Mellencamp that her firing was partly influenced by a “strong” audience response to her, so fan opinion does play some role. The difficulty here is that the Housewives fandom can be fickle. Baskin says some fans will “relentlessly campaign” for someone to be fired, then complain once they’re gone. “This isn’t a viewer-vote-elimination show,” he explains. “Our job isn’t to make the show fans think they want, it’s to make the best show possible.”

A desire not to be seen as the villain — or, worse, boring — can influence the behavior of the Housewives, particularly near the end of a season. (Aviva Drescher famously threw her prosthetic leg across a Manhattan cocktail party in RHONY’s season-six finale.) Judge says she has seen all kinds of fake “story lines” over the years, like on RHOC’s eighth season, when Rossi flew her boyfriend, Slade Smiley, to a Los Angeles rooftop to propose to him. Ten years later, the couple are still together — but not married.

These issues are partly caused by the precarity of Housewifery. (When Judge was on RHOC, she was convinced she’d be fired “every year.”) Baskin insists there isn’t a yearly “chopping block,” as is often reported. But when I ask if they ever tell the women to “bring it” or face demotion or firing, he’s more nuanced. “We have pretty direct and up-front conversations with the participants about what our expectations are,” he says. “Heading into a new season, you might say: ‘It felt like you really held back, and if that’s the case, the expectation is that you won’t do that going forward.’” Still, Moylan thinks the biggest threat to authenticity is not producers but the Housewives “overproducing” themselves, or pandering to social-media opinion, to keep their jobs. “Everyone’s a freelancer,” he says. “But these women need to be able to be wrong without fans calling for their jobs. Otherwise you don’t have a show.”

Two seasons after Judge found herself on the wrong side of the chopping block, she returned to RHOC. “It was a pretty amazing feeling,” she says, remembering the moment she strutted onto the Watch What Happens Live stage in a skintight catsuit to reclaim her orange. Did she always know she’d be back? A conversation with Andy Cohen — the show’s executive producer and reunion host — suggested that her Housewives journey might not be over. “Andy said: ‘Listen, you’ll be back. I promise you, it’s not going to work without you.’” He was right. Ratings slumped and, suddenly, fans wanted more of her. Judge now says that her “pause” did her good, and she advocates for long-serving Housewives to take a year or two off.

Judge’s return was no coincidence. In 2021, she launched Two Ts in a Pod, an iHeart-produced podcast with fellow fired Housewife Teddi Mellencamp, which quickly became one of the more popular Housewives podcasts. The hosting gig gave Judge her Housewives “fix,” a (substantial) regular paycheck, and, crucially, it kept her on the audience’s radar. Then, in 2022, she appeared on Ultimate Girls Trip: Ex ’Wives Club alongside Medley — where the pair were seen screaming at each other in ’80s-inspired aerobics gear. Baskin says Judge’s positively received appearance “accelerated the conversation” surrounding her RHOC return, which suddenly felt inevitable.

The UGT format has become a de facto training pen for former Housewives hoping to be reintroduced into the wild. Ex ’Wives Club not only paved the way for Judge’s return but also Taylor Armstrong’s and Phaedra Parks’s, who later joined RHOC and Married to Medicine, respectively. Rachel Smith, EVP of Unscripted Content, Lifestyle, and Documentary at NBCU, says these new formats are “part of an endless ecosystem,” comparing Bravo fans to sports fans, who love to make lists of the best players and dream combinations. Smith says there had been “a lot of trepidation” about whether such a format would represent a “shark jump” moment. But when NBCU streaming platform Peacock launched in 2021, its time had finally come.

Now, that endless ecosystem provides more opportunities for Housewives to shine. This year, (former) countess Luan De Lesseps and Sonja Morgan swapped the Upper East Side for rural Illinois on the RHONY spinoff Welcome to Crappie Lake. New NBCU series like House of Villains and The Traitors have featured current and former Housewives, like RHOM’s Larsa Pippen and RHOBH’s Brandi Glanville. Bringing these Bravolebs together is a conscious strategy: “Watch What Happens Live is another place where we can start to incubate these relationships,” Smith says. “The development team is constantly inspired by real-life encounters.”

Fired Housewives often use appearances on these platforms to mount fairly transparent campaigns to be rehired. And no one has done it more transparently than Vicki Gunvalson, the self-described “OG of the OC,” who has been open about her desire to return and so far participated in two UGT seasons. Alexis Bellino, who starred on RHOC seasons five through eight, made a splash with a viral moment at this year’s BravoCon. Now, rather coincidentally, she is both rumored to be dating the ex-boyfriend of current OC Housewife Shannon Beador and returning to the show. According to Baskin, they pay attention to “all” of these antics, but “just because someone is campaigning for a return, that doesn’t mean that it always happens.”

Former Housewives are usually careful not to ruffle too many feathers once they’ve been paused fired. Moylan tells me that, when he was doing research for his book, one of the biggest obstacles was getting former Housewives to talk to him. Most of them didn’t want to upset Bravo, because they were still hoping to be asked back one day.

After Judge was fired, she took a different tact, leaning into stage two of grief: anger. Whenever her former castmates mentioned her on the show, she would respond by publicly dragging them. “Did they really think they could air those women talking shit about me and I’d sit back and take it?” she asks. “Oh no, they had the wrong fuckin’ Housewife for that.” This turned out to be a reminder of how entertaining (and messy) Judge could be, which didn’t go unnoticed. “She treated the show how she would treat people who she was having issues with on the show,” Baskin says. “She became its most formidable adversary in the immediate aftermath, I think, because she missed doing it.”

Judge didn’t simply take issue with what her former castmates were saying about her on the show. On the latest season of RHOC, Judge fought with her co-star Heather Dubrow — who herself rejoined the show, in a much-hyped return, the previous season. Judge accused Dubrow, who was a bridesmaid at her 2013 wedding, of not trying hard enough to help her get back on the show. “When she [Dubrow] left, I was always saying: ‘Bring her back, bring her back!’” She didn’t return the favor in interviews — instead, Dubrow often said she wanted Bellino to return. “I was really confused,” she says. “I thought, ‘Wow, you don’t really want me on this cast.’”

Fired Housewives often try to leverage existing friendships with the current cast to get back on the show. After Jill Zarin was fired from RHONY in season four, Medley says she would often try to get in touch — but only when the cast was filming. She tells me Zarin got particularly annoyed at a Halloween party filmed for RHONY season 12, when Medley refused to film a scene with her because she had already taken her mic off. “I had just finished a long night of filming. It wasn’t personal to Jill,” she explains. “I’ll film with Satan if I have to!” She says she and Zarin were never that close. Did she ever feel used? “It’s like anything in life, Louis,” she pauses, a Dorinda-ism incoming: “If you follow the bread crumbs, they tell you the truth.”

Getting back on TV can offer something most Housewives are chasing: redemption. Medley always thought she deserved a “redemption season” on RHONY after so many ups and downs on the show. “I had a bad season,” she says. “But I never understood why they didn’t ‘friend’ me?” After being at the center of the drama, there is sometimes an assumption that a “redemption arc” might follow. (Erika Jayne is currently experiencing this on RHOBH after an intense few years.) Baskin says that both producers and fans naturally hope for growth, but that maybe part of being a Real Housewife is “seizing” an opportunity for redemption or reconciliation when it appears. I put this to Judge, who tells me the best Housewives can sense these moments, and, crucially, don’t hold a grudge: “If you don’t have the ability to move on, then you’re on the wrong show.”

Bringing back former Housewives doesn’t always work. Moylan is “ideologically against” former Housewives returning, because there is a reason why the vast majority are fired. “It’s kind of like getting back with your ex,” he says. “You remember all the good times, but you don’t remember the bad times until you get together again.” He cites the recent RHONY reboot — where six new women were cast — as an example of why Bravo should look to the future, not the past: “I don’t want you to bring back Nene Leakes; I want you to find me the new Nene.”

Smith compares creating the perfect cast to cooking a stew — there are a lot of ingredients and it takes time. RHOC’s recipe of several returning cast members, plus newbies like Jen Pedranti, is one fans like. (According to Smith, the show is up 12 percent in total viewers compared to last season.) She says Bravo “definitely listens” to the fans, who are “very vocal” about who they miss. But she is also wary that, when shows become very reliant on one person, or a certain group dynamic, they can be “backed into a corner.” It’s a delicate balance between nostalgia and becoming a prisoner of the past. “If we can move forward by reaching back, then it’s a beautiful thing,” Baskin says. “But if we’re just looking backward, it doesn’t work.”

In the ever-expanding Bravoverse, there are fewer “red lines” when it comes to where and when we see Housewives on TV. “All bets are off,” Baskin says, comparing Bravo to being in the Mafia: “You never quite leave the family.” Medley now exists in a more fluid space between “on” and “off” pause, but she doesn’t think there will ever be a situation where we never see the “OG” RHONY girls on TV again, because they are “magic in a bottle.” Next, she would love to do a proper RHONY: Legacy season, which was the plan before contract negotiations stalled. What about an UGT starring both RHONY newbies and “legacy” cast? “Call Andy!”

As Bravo tries to combine the best of its past with forging a new future, there is a chance for once-shunned Housewives to rejoin the reality-TV rodeo — even if getting their jobs back is a job in itself. The network’s biggest challenge is respecting its history, and the views of its increasingly empowered audience, without becoming overly reliant on either. The saying goes that no Housewife is bigger than the show. But collectively, their stories and relationships are the tastiest ingredient in the stew — and fans are hungry for more. “There’s always a part of you that thinks you’re not worthy,” Medley says. “But I’m just happy when people are happy to see me. It never gets old.”

The Return of the Ex-Housewives