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By Paige Wiser | May 29, 2012 | People
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Bethenny Frankel has achieved the impossible: She gives reality TV a good name. The Bravo star conquered the cruelest medium by using it to publicize her brand and now is embarking on the next episode of her career with her first novel and her own talk show. All this, and she still has her dignity, too.
Being "real" is rare enough in reality television, but Bethenny combines her big-city brashness with an irresistible combination of approachability, humor, and resilience—the kind that you can only get in Chicago.
Long before she shot to fame as a cast member on The Real Housewives of New York (ironically, without meeting the main requirement: a husband), the future health guru lived here in 1999 and 2000 while engaged to a trader she knew from her Florida boarding school. Still licking some superficial wounds from a decade in Los Angeles as a wannabe actress, she thought Chicago would be her home; it turned out to be a crossroads.
"I really didn't know anybody," says Frankel, 41, who lived at George and Racine, next to the Elbo Room. As her relationship deteriorated, she grew isolated. "I would go to the East Bank Club and try to stretch my workout as long as I could, just to have something to do during the day," she recalls. "You could really kind of hang out there. I don't have any place like that in New York.
"It was a transitional time," says Frankel. "I really didn't know what I wanted to do with my life. But I knew it was time to hit my stride." Rollerblading along the lakefront, she faced some tough truths and began formulating a set of rules: Find what's authentic for you. Stand up for yourself. Take action.
And, of course, Chicago's unmatched restaurant scene inspired another key rule: "Taste everything (eat nothing)." Frankel managed to find the best comfort food in town—Mia Francesca, NoMI—without gaining weight. Her biggest challenge was indulging in breakfast at Lou Mitchell's. "It may seem bizarre, but when I think of Chicago, I think of omelets," she says. "I miss the omelets."
It helped that Frankel tracked down the relatively few vegan spots, too (Karyn's Fresh Corner, The Chicago Diner). If staying fit in Chicago doesn't qualify you to be a health guru, nothing will.
Sadly, when Frankel split with her fiancé, she had to leave Chicago behind, too. "He was a wonderful man, but it was the wrong relationship," says Frankel.
While it was ill-fated love that brought her here, it's her true love—big business—that keeps bringing her back. Last year, Frankel sold her low-calorie Skinnygirl Cocktails line to Deerfield-based Fortune Brands' Beam Global for a reputed $100 million. It earned her a cover of Forbes magazine and a spot on its "Celebrity 100" list above Sandra Bullock and Brad Pitt.
But the cocktails are just for starters. This summer, Frankel is taping a six-week test run of a daily talk show, Bethenny. Frankel will be taking on competitors like powerhouse Katie Couric and hometown favorite Steve Harvey. But she thinks she has figured out the secret to syndicated success.
"It's important to have a point of view," says Frankel. Fans of her Bravo show, Bethenny Ever After, can testify that she's brimming with that. What would she bring to daytime? "Being honest, being relatable, having fun…being me," she says.
It doesn't hurt that Bethenny has Ellen Degeneres as an executive producer. "Bethenny is a rare personality," says Hilary Estey McLoughlin, president of Telepictures, which produces Ellen and now Bethenny. Her "sense of humor, relatability, honesty, and rags-to-riches success story" make her a natural talk-show host, says McLoughlin.
Frankel's show will be different from Degeneres's, though. "Ellen is not remotely as inappropriate as I am," Frankel says. She is planning to feature guests with whom she has history, so that the show will feel more conversational and less like a typical interview show. Frankel's wish list includes Lea Michele (a Twitter pal), Denis Leary (a client from her personal-chef days), Bobby Flay (she almost interned with him), and Charles Barkley (they had been to a "boot camp spa" together). There's always the chance that some of her more surprising fans may pop up, too. On that list: Mike Tyson and Snoop Dogg.
She would also love to host the ultimate hostess, Martha Stewart—despite the fact that Stewart fired Frankel during the finals of 2005's The Apprentice spin-off.
There are no hard feelings, although Frankel is not exactly friends with her former role model. "I definitely never got close with her," says Frankel. "But she's a woman whom I respect greatly. I think Martha likes being intimidating; she likes being powerful. She didn't get where she is by being warm and fuzzy. She runs an empire. I know it can make you a little grouchy."
Want more details on Frankel's life? On May 1, she released Skinnydipping. Another of Frankel's rules is "always be branding." The book is fictionalized, but seems awfully familiar. Like Frankel, the main character, Faith Brightstone, moves to Los Angeles in her early 20s to become an actress and patch up her disastrous relationship with her father. (On Real Housewives, Frankel tried to visit her estranged father, champion horse trainer Bobby Frankel, before he died of leukemia. He refused to see her.)
Mirroring her creator, Faith's career in LA is a nonstarter. (You may have missed Frankel in 1994's Hollywood Hills 90028. The tagline: "She's popular…She's a killer." Frankel found more steady work as a nanny for teenaged Paris and Nicky Hilton and as an assistant for Jerry Bruckheimer.) The dishiest part of the book, though, is when Faith is recruited for a reality show hosted by an ice-cold lifestyle goddess. (The Apprentice: Martha Stewart, anyone?)
"A good percentage of the book is autobiographical," admits Frankel. There's not much fiction that can compete with Frankel's reality for pure entertainment value. She let the cameras roll during her honeymoon with new husband Jason Hoppy—even when she talked him into waxing her pregnant belly.
Does she have any boundaries? "Not really," Frankel says. The cameras are with her on vacation with her toddler, Bryn, during fights with her husband, and even in her therapy sessions. She won't talk about Hoppy's business or confirm her own profits, but that's about it—with one small exception. "The interaction with the baby on camera is very limited," says Frankel. "That's just not a choice that she is old enough to make."
Since 2008 Frankel has lived a televised existence. On the few occasions that she finds herself with a little privacy: "Something really funny will happen, and I'll think, 'Oh my God, where are the cameras now?'" The novelty wore off a long time ago, though. "Have I gone too far with it? You can't put the cork back in the bottle," she says. "I went on reality TV to be truthful."
Her fans know that she'll give it to them straight. Frankel was in Chicago recently to promote Skinnygirl at Binny's in the South Loop. "This is nice!" she marveled at the bar setup and buffet. Frankel may be a fixture on the red carpet, but she still can appreciate a good Binny's.
The crowd was young, bright, and well dressed. They see Frankel as the ultimate girlfriend, with the added bonus that she provides her own liquor. These budding perfectionists are well on their way to fulfilling one of Frankel's favorite rules: You can have it all—just not all at once.
With her sprawling interests, after all, something's got to give—like her mental health. "I am not sane," confesses Frankel.
More shockingly, she's carved out extra "Bryn time" from her workout schedule. "I haven't exercised in weeks," she says. She considers being there for Bryn her "biggest success." If Frankel is traveling somewhere for more than a day, she brings her daughter along. "I'm able to be with her for every meal, every bath. I'm there when she wakes up from every nap," says Frankel. "I think that's definitely what my definition of success is."
She's hinted that her reality-show days are numbered, but her empire is growing large enough that it's just a matter of time before it might rival Martha Stewart's. However, money is no longer the main motivator, insists Frankel. "It's amazing how inspiring my fans are," she says. "They're the reason I do everything."
Photography by Andrew Eccles; Styling by Julie Matos for Ford Artists NYC; Hair by Luca Blandi
at Artists by Timothy Priano; Makeup by Beau Nelson for The Wall Group; Manicure by Elle at The Wall Group