In the past decade and a half, Andy Cohen has become one of the figures most closely identified with the rise of American reality television. As the vice-president in charge of original programming at the Bravo network in the mid-two-thousands, Cohen, who is now fifty-four, developed the enormously successful “Real Housewives” franchise, on whose various iterations—from Orange County to New York, from Beverly Hills to Dubai—he serves as an executive producer, and whose dramatic end-of-season multi-episode reunions he hosts. “I shot the ‘Potomac’ reunion yesterday for almost twelve hours,” he told me the other day. “We started rolling tape at eleven and wrapped at ten-thirty.” (When he got home, he took an edible to “redirect his mind from the cacophony” and went to sleep, only to be awakened at seven by his four-year-old son, Ben, climbing into bed with him.)
Cohen, who grew up in St. Louis and spent the first decade of his career working as a news producer at CBS, leads the hectic life of a media impresario. In addition to executive-producing ten reality shows on Bravo and NBCUniversal, he is also the host and an executive producer of the late-night talk show “Watch What Happens Live,” which has been airing for nearly fourteen years. He has written four best-selling memoirs (a fifth, about his life as a parent, will be out in May) and heads up his own pop-culture-focussed imprint, Andy Cohen Books, at Henry Holt. He also has two SiriusXM channels, Radio Andy and Andy Cohen’s Kiki Lounge, on which he hosts a weekly show, and, for the past five years, he has co-hosted the annual New Year’s Eve coverage on CNN alongside his good friend Anderson Cooper. (In 2021, after being “a bit overserved,” as he later described it, Cohen called Bill de Blasio “the crappiest” mayor of New York on air, leading CNN to prohibit drinking during the 2022 broadcast.)
In late January, I met Cohen—charming, endlessly enthusiastic, both shrewd and truly lovable—at Cafe Cluny, not far from his home in the West Village. As he drank a pot of breakfast tea, we spoke about the highs and lows of the Housewives and about his experience being a gay single dad. (In April of last year, Cohen welcomed, via surrogate, a second child named Lucy.) We also spoke about his fear of—and attraction to—saying the wrong thing, a tendency for which he has become known. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
Do you sometimes get tired of the Housewives?
Do you mean, am I over it? Pretty engaged with it still, believe it or not. There are moments that are tiresome, but I’m not tired of it in totality. I can’t believe it’s still going, with no end in sight—the franchise and how many there are. It’s like a Bloomin’ Onion.
The first iteration of the franchise was “Orange County,” in 2006. How did that come to be?
I was in charge of production at Bravo when a man called Scott Dunlop brought a VHS of these women in his neighborhood, and I was, like, Wow, this is interesting. There was no format. There was no nothing. It was an idea. And I was a big fan of the soap-opera genre, a huge “All My Children” fan. I was intrigued, personally, by the idea that the women on the show all went to the same tennis club, and they lived in the same gated community. Pine Valley was a small place, and they all went to the Chateau for a fancy dinner, and they all went to the Glamorama to get their hair done, and so the drama happened in these spots. I was, like, Well, could we localize it in that way? I had this fantasy that we were going to be at the tennis club every day and whatever.
That’s a very nineteen-eighties fantasy of how the rich live. You grew up middle class in St. Louis. Was that aspirational for you in any way?
“All My Children” was aspirational because there were strong, powerful women who dressed well, with big hair. I was, like, Oh, my God, Erica Kane is the fiercest thing I’ve ever seen. And the Housewives were interesting to me. I haven’t really talked about this, but one of the things that titillated me in the early seasons of “Orange County” was that there was a sexuality that I connected with, that I hadn’t seen on reality shows. Certainly on “The Real World” it was teen-agers who were hooking up or whatever, but here were, like, MILFs with huge boobs—
It had shades of eighties porn.
A little bit. I was on Meghan Markle’s podcast recently, and we were debating the way women are portrayed on “Housewives.” I view it as a great feminist tableau, and I know that Camille Paglia does, and I know Roxane Gay does. And I know that Gloria Steinem doesn’t, but I think Gloria Steinem doesn’t watch the show. There’s no show that has given a platform for women over fifty in this way, in terms of expressing their sexuality and who they are and starting over in life and figuring things out. And I think that’s brilliant.
I just wrote about this new reality show, “MILF Manor,” which presents it as a bit pathetic—like, Look at these women with their desperate need to remain young. They’re sexy, and they’re up for anything, but it’s also a little bit delusional.
Do they fuck?
It’s been only one episode.
What’s it on?
Oh, that’s a shame. I think that streamers like HBO Max or Netflix should do dating shows that are like Cinemax, if you get the reference.
There should be fucking?
Not that, but it should be soft-core a little bit. A woman who signs up to be on “MILF Manor,” if you put in her contract, “We have the right to show you topless on the show,” would that be a barrier for entry for the applicants of “MILF Manor”? And wouldn’t you possibly add another hundred thousand viewers to the show? Maybe. Let’s take it to the next level.
Would you be interested in doing something like that?
Well, Bravo wouldn’t do that.
Right, but, say, if it weren’t for Bravo.
I think I would go there if I thought the show was going to be a hit. I mean, look, are you asking me if I would produce porn? No, I would not produce porn. Maybe under a pseudonym. [Laughs.] I’m just saying for the producers of dating shows, I think it would be cool to push the envelope on a streamer. I’m surprised it hasn’t happened. I mean, you’re doing a show called “MILF Manor.” Call me crazy.
When did you know you had a hit on your hands with the Housewives?
For me, it really gelled during Season 2 of “Orange County.” Before we started shooting, Jeana [Keough] told the producers she was getting a divorce. And I was, like, clutching my pearls. “Oh, no, Jeana’s gonna get divorced. That’s my friend!” While simultaneously saying, “Wait a minute: Jeana’s getting a divorce, and we’re about to start shooting. So now this is, like, a story: What do her friends think, and is she going to start dating?” And that’s called a soap opera.
Then after “Orange County” came “New York.”
We had this show called “Manhattan Moms” in development. And we were looking at the casting and it was, like, Wait a minute, what if we call this “The Real Housewives of New York City”? And the women were so different from the “Orange County” women. It was like they were from another planet. And then we had “Jersey” and “Atlanta.” “Atlanta” was so groundbreaking. It was the first time you had seen affluent Black women on reality television. And then “Jersey” was, like, Wait a minute, is someone gonna get whacked? They were all so different. I refer to them in my head as airplanes in the sky, and now I have ten planes in the sky, and the goal is to keep the planes in the sky. “Orange County” is just incredible, the fact that we’ve been producing a reality soap opera for sixteen, seventeen years. The flashbacks are so insane. You have Tamra [Judge] talking to her son, this kid who’s now in his thirties, and he’s in high school, fighting with his stepdad, whom she has since divorced. I mean, that’s what they do on soap operas.