Reading the Real Housewives of New Jersey, Seasons 1–8

President Barack Obama used “watching Real Housewives” as a term of derision.[1] Gloria Steinem has called it “a minstrel show for women.” The Real Housewives is an American media franchise, hatched by Bravo in 2005.“It is women,” Steinem said, “all dressed up and inflated and plastic surgeried and false bosomed and incredible amount of money spent, not getting along with each other. Fighting with each other.”

The Real Housewives of Orange County, New York, and New Jersey were the first. Advertisers and executives had discovered the public’s insatiable appetite for watching prosperous women shop and feud. There were real housewives in Vancouver, Sydney, Melbourne, Bangkok, and Johannesburg; the Mulheres Ricas argued with each other in Brazil.

The literary output of the cast members of The Real Housewives of New Jersey is extensive. Their collective works include cookbooks, party-planning books, how-tos, polemics, a surrendered wife manifesto-cum-beauty and style guide, and a prison memoir. Almost all of the cast members have produced a book containing autobiographical fragments. Again and again, they stress the importance of “family,” “respect,” “loyalty,” and “blood.” Collectively, these texts serve as a valuable document of the experiences of the Italian diaspora in New Jersey. A rich tapestry is woven by the vivid, almost Proustian descriptions of a childhood of Catholic schools, mozzarella and eggplant sandwich picnics, and a stern, hardworking father driving his daughter from house to house on her paper route to keep her safe.

Social historians seeking a precise description of cocktail waitress uniforms of the early 1980s (“We also wore a tuxedo cuff on each arm, and black high heelsthe higher the better”) or the nicknames of inmates at Danbury Federal Correctional Institute (“Butchy,” “Heaven,” “Teeny,” and “the Stud”), will consult Danielle Staub’s The Naked Truth and Teresa Giudice’s Turning the Tables, where archaeologists puzzled by single occupant dwellings with two kitchens will also find their answer.[2]

Future civilizations will consult these books to learn which tune Nero was fiddling when Rome burned. The heirs to the present will marvel at the excess and consumption and the blithe, careless obliviousness of the people who lived in sixteen-room mansions and drove his-and-hers SUVs. The clues are scattered all over the texts, the murderer in an Agatha Christie novel who was under your nose all along.

Aspiration:

The books promise to teach readers how to dress to impress their man. Cook Italian style. Raise little princes and princesses. Strengthen their marriage and amp up the passion for life-long bliss. Get on track, get organized, get flawless skin and beautiful hair. The new rules for dating, relationships, and finding love on their terms.
These books tell women to drink lots of water and always take their makeup off before bed, but what they’re really saying is “follow me” – the ancient command of King Agamemnon and Genghis Khan, the plea which embodies the digital age. For all that the real housewives of New Jersey have, they want more. They want to sell iTunes singles, clothes, Skinny Italian spaghetti, and Fabellini wines. They want to be Bethenny Frankel from The Real Housewives of New York City, who sold her cocktail company for 100 million dollars. Teresa even published the handwritten contents of her vision board, which included the words: “Ferrari,” “black card,” “private jet,” “helicopter,” “best body,” “abs,” and “happily ever after.” “Other images and words I put on my vision board: making forty million dollars so I could take care of my girls and help needy children around the world,” she wrote in her memoir, which debuted ahead of The Name of God is Mercy by Pope Francis on The New York Times bestseller list.

The Show:

A conceit of the Real Housewives franchises is that irrespective of the interviews to camera punctuating their scenes, cast members never refer to the fact that they’re on TV. Season-long disputes occur over misunderstandings which could easily be cleared up by asking to see the footage. They only acknowledge the production in their books and on the reunion specials mediated by their gleeful Geppetto Andy Cohen, where the fact of the programme is a constant, Orwellian presence and the most common accusation hurled is, “She was only doing it for the show!”

The source of the animosity between Teresa Giudice and her extended family, which raged over three seasons, was never made clear on-air. The reason for the bad blood, she explained in her memoir, was the show itself. “I will never forget when I was getting ready to shoot Season 3 and got a phone call from Andy telling me that my sister-in-law and cousin were going to be joining the show as the newest housewives… Reality shows are all about drama, so I knew where this was headed.” That same old story: the Contendings of Horus and Set on a papyrus found in Thebes, Hamlet plunging a dagger into Claudius onstage at the Globe, JR trying to wrest control of Ewing Oil from Bobby on CBS, a YouTube post entitled “RHONJ: Joe Vs. Joe [EXTENDED FIGHT] Bravo.”

“When reality TV came calling and I joined the cast,” Teresa’s cousin wrote inher dessert cookbook Indulge, “I was already a housewife, for real.” The verisimilitude of their characters is constantly emphasized on the book jackets. “Caroline Manzo, the tell-it-like-it-is, breakout star and fan favourite.” “What you see is what you get with Melissa Gorga.”[3] A quote on the back of Turning the Tables reads like Samuel Beckett: “The world will see a new Teresa. A different Teresa. Well, actually, the Teresa I always was.”

The books make frequent cameos on the show. Cameras follow the housewives to meetings with editors, cover shoots, and signings at Barnes and Noble, where a line-up of #Trehuggers coils out to the parking lot. The scion of the Columbo crime family was ejected from the launch of Turning the Tables; Teresa said that a co-star was “as Italian as the Olive Garden” in her cookbook Fabulicious!, then they argued about it on camera, a snake eating its tail. “I’m far too young to be your mother, but I’ll be your Italian best friend,” she promised in the introduction to Skinny Italian. “The fiery, kind of crazy one, who’s always good for a bottle of wine, a big dish of pasta, and a million laughs.”

In the books they’re at pains to stress the show isn’t fake. “You can try to present yourself as one thing,” Melissa Gorga wrote in her marriage guide. “But your true nature will eventually come out. That’s why the show films around the clock, to catch that telling moment when you let your guard down.” Tell-it-like-it-is fan favourite Caroline Manzo tactically acknowledged “I can sense when I’m being set up to help gets sparks fly.” But even if every scene has been staged, real happiness and sadness and discomfort intrudes upon the cast; marriages fail and babies are born and people die. They get arrested, file for bankruptcy, have their tummies tucked, and cry about their kids. How does a personality alter through this particular type of renown? How does the presence of cameras form the character of a child? If people are plied with alcohol and ordered by producers to talk out their differences, is the explosive fight that results fake? “It’s a mystery wrapped in a riddle, inside an enigma,” Joe Pesci said in JFK. “The fuckin’ shooters don’t even know!”

Polemics:

One of the most interesting RHONJ-related books was only previewed on the website All About the Tea.[4] Putting the REAL Back in Housewives (aka the Uncensored Cohen Diaries) by Jim Marchese promised to “present a behind the scenes look at the Housewives franchise, as it has never been told before. This story will be told through the eyes of it’s [sic] most notorious and brutal villain, as created by Bravo.”

The excerpts are a delineation of the mechanics of a group trip to Boca Raton, a holiday which culminated in Jim shouting, “No but I do think he fucked your mom!” at one of the housewives, thus “recklessly humiliating several generations of the Aprea and Napolitano lineage.” It was his big scene, the climax of the dramatic structure of Season 6. Jim said his answer when people ask him how he could have said such a terrible thing is always: “It was in the script.” He said the crew arrived a week before the cast members to set up. The producers stayed in a room full of monitors where they tracked lighting and sound, and the cast went into the kitchen to be directed. “If we missed a beat, if production wanted more drama, or a direction changed, we would be pulled into the kitchen.”

The plot of Season 1 was the discovery of a true crime book about Danielle Staub’s first husband, Cop Without a Badge: The Extraordinary Undercover Life of Kevin Maher (tagline: “What’s the difference between a cop and Kevin Maher? Kevin doesn’t have a badge. And he doesn’t play by the rules”). Maher revealed that he’d met Staub when she was out on bond for kidnapping and extortion. Her mug shot was printed in the photograph section. After the Cop Without a Badge episode aired, copies of the out-of-print book were selling for $200.00 on eBay. “People also tell me they’re on a waiting list at the Strand to get a copy,” the author Charles Kipps told the New York Post. “There’s nothing like television.”

The reissued editions of Cop Without a Badge tastefully refrained from mentioning the show at all, and Danielle Staub was as good as Kipps’ prediction that she’d make her own book deal. The Naked Truth was published before she left the show and fled the state with her daughters. Her eldest Christine Staub wrote an excoriating essay for Vice: “With each episode, the bullying and harassment grew worse. After another housewife said my sister and I appeared ‘dead in the eyes,’ strangers felt the need to repeat the line to us. When the show labeled my mother a criminal, people called us the children of a felon.” In 2016 her mother announced on Twitter that she was writing another memoir. “I’m breaking my silence. And writing my tell all including the Reality of #RHONJ the impact on mine and my family’s life’s [sic] @Andy @bravotv.”[5] A year later Danielle Staub was photographed doing yoga with Teresa Giudice, and she rejoined the show in Season 8, in the “friend-of” capacity for prodigal housewives.

Teresa:

Teresa Giudice is the only cast member to have appeared on every season, and she was the first New Jersey housewife in print. With six books, she is the Judith Krantz of the 23-city franchise. “The first thing people say to me when they find out I have four kids is that they could never tell from my body,” were the opening lines of Skinny Italian: Eat and Enjoy it Live La Bella Vita and Look Great, Too! Published in 2010, it landed on the New York Times Advice, How-to & Miscellaneous paperback bestsellers list. It’s a safe bet that Giudice – whose celebrity is predicated upon flipping a table (Season 1), metaphorically igniting a powder keg that initiated a brawl at her nephew’s christening (Season 3), and serving just under a year for fraud at Danbury, where she inherited Cameron Douglas’ prison sobriquet “Hollywood”, embraced yoga and co-authored two consecutive memoirs focusing on personal growth and resilience – is more recognizable globally than Mike Pence.

“I’m not a nutritionist or a food scientist or a fancy chef,” she wrote in the introduction to Skinny Italian, presaging by six years a British cabinet minister’s announcement that “people in this country have had enough of experts” in the lead-up to the Brexit vote. “I’m just like you: a regular girl with two eyes and a brain and enough common sense not to buy any of this crap.” Or, as Caroline Manzo put it in her own book, “Everybody shits on a bowl. Never allow yourself to be intimidated.”[6]

The Gorgas and the Giudice families have been forged and buffeted by the currents of history. Their patriarchs met in Paterson, New Jersey, paisanos from Sala Consilina, a town “right at the beginning of the boot in the southwest of Italy.” Franco was at the hospital when his friend Giacinto’s daughter Teresa was born. Giacinto walked Teresa down the aisle of the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark to marry Franco’s son Giuseppe – in America, he went by “Joe.” The newlyweds honeymooned in Hawaii. Teresa got a job as an assistant buyer at Macy’s and appeared as a “Shocked Stripper” in Donnie Brasco. Joe had a stucco business. They owned rental properties and flipped houses. Teresa was cast on the show in 2009. In her debut season she attempted to tip a table over Danielle Staub and paid a $120,000 bill in a furniture warehouse. “I hear the economy’s crashing,” she said, licking her thumb to count through a stack of bills. “So that’s why I pay cash.” The Giudices lived in an enormous chateau with their daughters, Gia, Gabriella, Milania, and their youngest Audriana, who was born on television and is the first “Audriana” a Google search engine suggests. “You see how perfect she was when she came out? The cameras came right back into the room as soon as she was born,” Teresa wrote in her Bravo blog.

The Giudice mansion has two Cinderella staircases, but the story of Teresa and Joe is the myth of Icarus and Daedalus for the reality-warping, fake news, post-truth age. They filed for bankruptcy protection at the end of the first season. Joe got a DUI and told Andy Cohen, “The times that I should have been charged, I wasn’t. The one time I really wasn’t drunk, I got charged.” Teresa promoted bestselling cookbooks. She came fifth on Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice and launched lines of Skinny Italian pasta and Fabulicious gelato bars.

These are some of the other things that the Giudices did: used fake W-2s and tax returns to receive a construction loan. Hid assets and income from a bankruptcy trustee representing their debtors. Joe forged his business partner’s name on mortgage discharge papers. They were indicted on thirty-nine counts of federal bankruptcy fraud and conspiracy to commit wire and mail fraud. Watching them face the consequences was excruciating. “I’m not dying,” Joe said gruffly to his daughters, their foreheads creased with anguish. Teresa was sentenced to 15 months in prison, and Joe 41 months. She served her sentence first so Joe could stay with their children, her Q-Score maintained as a speakerphone voice on the Bravo special Teresa Checks In.

Turning the Tables: From Housewife to Inmate and Back Again is an observant and detailed report about what it’s like to serve nine months in a federal correctional institute. The products sold in the commissary, the Dickensian conditions, the guards “in charge of literally everything you do.” The agony of missing her kids and seeing their distress. A chapter is devoted to the complex hierarchies and unspoken rules of the television rooms, where five TVs were shared between 200 women. Internet access was severely restricted. Inmates could only send and receive emails, which meant that Danbury was one of the few spaces in American life not dominated by phones. It’s a self-referential experience to read a ghostwritten account of her attempts to watch Teresa Checks In at Danbury, transmitted via the first portable device to revolutionize the world.
Joe Giudice had arrived in America as a toddler and he’d never bothered to become naturalized. Legal permanent residents who commit crimes are subject to removal. US Immigration and Custom Enforcement took him into custody when he got out of prison. He spent six months in an ICE detention center in Pennsylvania, locked in a cell with eight people. “Being in there is like having your head in a panini press, okay?” he told Andy.

He appeared via satellite from Italy on The Real Housewives of New Jersey Special Event: Joe and Teresa Unlocked. The Giudices gave the scoop that they were separating to Us Weekly. Teresa took their daughters to Italy at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Today, Joe works in a fish factory in Sala Consilina, and he recently posted an old picture on Instagram. It was the 1980s. Teresa’s hair is feathered and enormous; Joe’s moustache is neatly groomed. They look like two babies. “Whatever happens in our future, remember we were friends to begin with,” he wrote. “We will always stay strong.” He concluded his posts with the hashtags “#family is everything #awakening #kids #future.”

Books written by celebrities have always been around – The Brooke Book from 1978 had an analysis of Brooke Shields’ handwriting and her personal horoscope – but books have never before been written by this particular type of celebrity. These texts and the accompanying photographs are a document of moneyed leisure in the most powerful country in human history, during an incomprehensibly profound cultural shift. A product of our age, these are the books of the women who live in phones, storming away and flipping tables on an infinite loop of GIFs. They are the stokers on the steamship of the attention economy, and we are the members of the court assembling in the bedchamber at Versailles to watch the king eating breakfast, the rhesus macaques in the study who traded hard-won rewards to look at photographs of higher status monkeys,[7] the bloodthirsty tricoteuse Madame Defarge. We are who we have always been.


[1] “I do love a little Real Housewives every now and again,” Michelle Obama, Live! With Kelly and Michael, October 19, 2012.

[2] “My parents installed a full kitchen in the basement, which is totally an Italian thing. They did that because they wanted to keep the kitchen upstairs spotless.” Teresa Giudice, Turning the Tables.

[3] The descriptions of the real housewives on their author blurbs (“outrageous,” “straight-talking,” “brutally honest breath of fresh air”) are startlingly similar to the fan descriptions of a certain very stable genius.

[4] All About the Tea is a font of information about housewife books, like this beauty from an “exclusive insider”: “Teresa’s big thing was buying her own books at cost, at local bookstores, (which count towards NYT List) then taking them to her events and selling them herself, at full-price. CASH ONLY of courseit’s really shady, and no legitimate author would ever do that.”

[5] “I have no NDA!!!” Staub continued on Instagram. “I owe BRAVO NOTHING… It’s a two way street.”

[6] Other chapter titles in Manzo’s Let Me Tell You Something: Life as a Real Housewife, Tough Love Mother and Street-Smart Businesswoman include: “For spoiled kids, my kids worked their asses off,” “I’d rather you said fuck than did heroin,” and “Don’t touch my face, but tuck my tummy away.”

[7] “Monkeys pay per view: adaptive valuation of social images by rhesus macaques,” Deaner RO, Khera AV, Plattt ML, Department of Neurobiology, Duke University Medical Center, 2005.

Louise Phillips

About Louise Phillips

Louise Phillips lives in London. Her nonfiction has appeared in The Independent and Blizzard. Her fiction has been published in issues 99 and 108 of Litro, and most recently by Requited, failbetter, New World Writing, Columbia Journal, and 3AM Magazine.

Louise Phillips lives in London. Her nonfiction has appeared in The Independent and Blizzard. Her fiction has been published in issues 99 and 108 of Litro, and most recently by Requited, failbetter, New World Writing, Columbia Journal, and 3AM Magazine.

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