You’ll chat over margaritas (Skinnygirl, of course) and mention an interesting business idea you have, leading to a frank but motivating conversation that culminates with Frankel calling a friend who can help you get your venture up and running. There’ll be an invitation to a charity event she’s involved in. She’ll give you a shout-out on social media when your business gets off the ground. And then she’ll send you a late-night text checking you’re on track and okay. You know she’s always got your back and that makes you want to have hers.
It’s the combination of razor-sharp repartee, deadpan humour, insight and charm that has made Frankel one of the most iconic of all the Real Housewives. But, ironically enough for a star of ‘reality TV’ (a genre that is often criticised for its lack of realism), it’s Frankel’s authenticity that has helped her create the multimillion-dollar empire she now presides over. An empire that counts 120-plus consumer products; from popcorn, preserves and frying pans, to shapewear, sunglasses and supplements. There are also five NYT bestselling books, a podcast, a TV production company… We could go on.
Make no mistake though; none of it was a happy accident. A pioneer in the art of monetising reality-TV fame, Frankel made two very astute business decisions when she first joined the cast of Real Housewives of New York in 2008. One was to use her ever-growing platform to advertise the now-famous Skinnygirl margarita brand to the masses – a move so successful she sold the pre-mixed drink portion of the company (while keeping the Skinnygirl name rights) to Beam Global in 2011 for a reported US$100 million.
The other was to take “the $7,250 for my first season contract of Housewives and have the wherewithal and confidence to cross out the clause giving away a piece of my business”, Frankel tells The Suite. “I was broke and was no one, had nothing, the show was nothing and no one had monetised reality TV. I just had a hunch that it might be important someday,” she says matter-of-factly.
That hunch paid off in spades (and by spades we mean millions of dollars), and even inspired TV networks to insist on cast members signing contractual clauses stipulating the networks get a piece of all side-hustle profits. “After my initial deal, ‘the Bethenny clause’ was born in the entertainment industry whereby talent was asked to give networkers and streamers a part of the action,” she explains.
“I thrived and SURVIVED and fought for what is morally and ETHICALLY correct and I am STRONGER for it.”
No mean feat for someone who has often spoken about growing up in a dysfunctional, non-traditional environment, where she was exposed to all kinds of abuse, from physical to drugs to eating disorders. It resulted in a resilience so strong that even being flat broke in her late 30s didn’t fully break Frankel.
What nearly did? Her divorce. “It was completely excruciating and endless and there are many aspects of it that have never surfaced publicly,” Frankel admits. “I was intensely private about it, which came very close to hurting my career. I kept my mouth shut and waited almost a decade for the storm to pass. I thrived and survived and fought for what is morally and ethically correct and I am stronger for it.”
Strong should be Frankel’s middle name (if it wasn’t Robyn). Not just because she’s had to find the strength to deal with her fair share of media backlash, but because her disaster relief charity is called BStrong, and even it has had its battles. “I have had people write slanderous, incorrect things about me in business and I’ve had to weather those storms and turn them into rainbows,” she says. “I’ve felt like I could be cancelled for expressing an honest opinion. I’ve dealt with corrupt people in relief work and been on the edge worried that I couldn’t pull off multimillion-dollar philanthropic transactions. I’ve been through it all.”
Frankel gets fired up when she talks about her philanthropic work, and with good reason. Since its inception, BStrong – which provides real-time emergency assistance to people in crisis – has contributed critical supplies and funding to Puerto Rico after Hurricanes Maria and Irma, California and Australia after the wildfires, and Mexico City after an earthquake, to name just a few. Last year, it turned its attention to the coronavirus, raising over $20 million for relief, and using the money to coordinate the delivery of masks, hazmat suits, and direct funding to hospitals, healthcare systems, and police officers in the US. More recently, Frankel has worked to raise funds for the Miami condo collapse and the Haiti earthquake.
“Having the means and evolving skill set to execute lifesaving meaningful relief missions is very rewarding,” she explains. “It gives me a greater purpose and always surfaces when life is simply too superficial.”
It’s this down-to-earth, matter-of-factness that makes Frankel more of a force than a famous face. It’s also why her podcast, Just B with Bethenny Frankel, is a no-brainer: it’s where ‘no-bullshit Bethenny’ can really show up and work her magic. After all, this is when she shines; connecting with an audience through humour, emotion, entertainment and the occasional curse word. For Frankel, the podcast is “an absolute dream … I love doing it with all of my heart”.
“Having the means and EVOLVING skill set to execute lifesaving meaningful relief missions is VERY rewarding.”
That’s not to say the venture was without risk: letting someone like Frankel loose on the airways should come with a warning sticker. But it’s what her audience wants, expects and loves. Now, 50 episodes and counting, she’s featured everyone from Chelsea Handler to Hillary Clinton, Matthew McConaughey to billionaire investor, Mark Cuban. Speaking of…
“One of the best pieces of advice I’ve received was from Mark Cuban, who told me that just because I love a product doesn’t mean I should invest in it, but that I can simply buy it,” Frankel reveals. “Kevin Huvane told me to rise above it all, be gracious and not take the bait. And Ellen DeGeneres told me that you’ll keep making the same mistakes until you learn the lesson, and not to buy into the love or the hate.”
And Frankel’s favourite advice to give to others? It’s actually her own. “Never connect a dot,” she says. “This isn’t referring to business per se, because knowing everything in business is key. This is about socially not telling people everything – where you have been, what you’re doing and who you know. I keep those cards very close to my chest.”
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