Bethenny Frankel’s move into crisis relief has been as abrupt as it’s been visible, all easily charted on her social-media feeds. Frankel in August: lounging in beachwear, bidding farewell to Ibiza. September: some images of Texas, mingled with #thisisacrisis hashtag wear and the occasional photo of one of Frankel’s dogs. October? Planes full of aid pallets. On-the-ground images of Frankel walking through Puerto Rico, hugging people, visiting homes. Her charity’s logo literally looms over an urban Puerto Rican vista. The Real Housewife’s Twitter feed has been something else entirely. People who need help from Puerto Rico showed up in her mentions, and she quote-tweeted them into her timeline. “Where are you?” she wrote in response. “You say you have water to donate — do you need help transporting it?” Here’s Bethenny, loading a box into an airplane.
By her own admission, her pivot into disaster relief has been unexpected. “I can’t explain why I was doing this,” she told me in late October. “I really can’t.” I met her at her Manhattan apartment, where she was straightforward and characteristically direct about herself and her recent activities, pointing more than once to the newly dark circles under her eyes. She’s been busy. Frankel began in Houston after Hurricane Harvey, through connections with the charity Dress for Success. From there, she was drawn into the disaster that followed the Mexican earthquakes — drawn, perhaps unexpectedly, by connections she’d made after organizing a helicopter trip to Tequila, Mexico, for the most recent season of Real Housewives of New York. After traveling to Mexico and once again experiencing the process of trying to deliver aid to people in desperate need (using the same helicopter logistics she’d used to deliver a clutch of soon-to-be-tipsy Housewives to a day-long tequila-tasting event), Hurricane Maria hit.
“I was sitting at home and I was thinking, everyone’s saying ‘You can’t go there,’” Frankel recalled. “And I’m thinking, ‘You can’t go there’? If they don’t have anything and you can’t go there, then you’ve got to go there.”
Frankel’s sudden deep dive into large-scale humanitarian organizing has put her at the center of two trends that feel distinctly representative of the country in 2017. The first is a growing, nongovernmental response to what feels like the Trump administration’s model of government in absentia. The federal government will not help you with health care, it will not protect you from deportation, and it will not step in after a hurricane destroys your home (or at least, not in a timely fashion, not if you live in Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands). Instead, private companies, nonprofits, and citizens are left to do their best, if, like Frankel, they look at the world and feel suddenly moved to help.
Frankel is also in the undercurrent of another national issue, although unlike crisis relief, it’s one she says she has not chosen, and wants little to do with. We’re in the midst of our first reality-television presidency, and for a significant majority of Americans, it’s not going very well. And while we’re currently paralyzed by the all-consuming, slow-motion car crash of the now, Trump’s election raises questions about what the future of elections will look like in this country. His reality-TV ascendency has destabilized conventional wisdom about the politically possible, and the pool of electable potentials may be drifting dramatically in the direction of those with fame, media presence, and the ability to put on a show. Now, Kid Rock’s prank Senate bid feels less like a goof and more like we all dodged a bullet. Now, we all look at Dwayne Johnson and wonder.
Now, a reality TV star who suddenly devotes much of her time and energy to highly visible national-disaster relief causes a surge of tweets calling for “President Bethenny.”
Still, it feels like an unexpected turn for Frankel, who’s spent more than a decade as a reality-television personality not especially well known for international-aid work. Or, perhaps, she’s better described as an entrepreneur who just happened to use reality television as the best platform to achieve her goals. Her first major TV role was as a finalist on Martha Stewart’s The Apprentice; her early years on Real Housewives of New York followed shortly thereafter and were defined by her focused, unwavering efforts to build a brand. It was an unusual position for a Housewife. The first season of the New York franchise is marked by Frankel’s absolute devotion to turning Skinnygirl into a profitable enterprise (she hawks her wares at a grocery-store sample station, she throws celebratory parties, she debates logos), and by her fellow cast members’ occasional eye-rolling at her efforts.
The original conception of the Real Housewife is that she’s a woman with wealth, social status, a lovely well-groomed family, and nothing but leisure time. The whole premise of the franchise is supposed to be that these are women who have already made it. Frankel’s a climber. Her cachet has always been that she’s a little on the outside of the Housewife world, and while everyone else’s ambitions and insecurities are hidden inside layers of protective Chanel, Frankel’s are out in the open. Her audience hasn’t much cared that she’s always seemed to be in it for herself, because she’s been so honest and forthright about it. It seems antithetical to the original Housewife image to be constantly working — effort, after all, is a sign that you don’t have it yet. But Frankel’s work ethic and her honesty about having goals are what have made her so appealing in the reality-verse.
Work ethic and transparency are also the primary connections between Frankel’s life as a Housewife and her move into relief organizing. Whatever else she’s conveyed in her years as a reality personality, Frankel has continually telegraphed a take-it-all-on, let’s-get-it-done capacity for dealing with things. When she speaks about the past several weeks, it’s obvious that part of her fascination with crisis relief is exactly the same kind of task-oriented problem solving that one might expect from a finalist on The Apprentice. She talks about exactly how far away a hard-hit town is from San Juan, how best to distribute cash cards in an equitable way, how to get the right-sized diaper onto the right-sized baby. Whatever impact will come of Frankel’s efforts, it’s clear it’ll be the result of what she forthrightly calls her “entrepreneurial spirit.” “I like putting things together,” she says. “I love the puzzle pieces; I love inception to completion.”
It’s also what’s made this particular project challenging, because once you’ve seen it, how can you ever extricate yourself? “I have to get my act together now because I gotta finish this for a lot of people,” she says. “I gotta get out of this thing.”
For someone trained to work toward results, Frankel’s found the recent avalanche of natural disasters to be overwhelming. Her main goal now is get all the relief she’s collected from around the country out of a warehouse in Miami and onto a cargo ship bound for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, in the hopes that this will constitute something like a natural end of her mission there. Or at least, “a little crisis break,” so that she can “take a little minute.” Because even as she talks about needing to find a way out, she’s also imagining the future. “Next time around I’ll be a little more guarded,” she says. Frankel’s experience in charitable giving has taught her that big companies often promise to help, and then fail to actually follow through; it obviously angers her. She’s learned a lot, and she seems intent on putting those lessons to good use: “Whether it’s fortunate or unfortunate, I think crisis is my calling.”
And her audience has responded. They tweet at her in droves, blessing her efforts, thanking her for her work, cheering her on. In one exchange, a fan quotes one of her Puerto Rico tweets with the familiar “nothing but respect for MY president” meme. It’s a phrase Frankel had seen fly through her Twitter mentions over and over, and she finally responded, not understanding that it’d been meant as a compliment. “I thought they were saying, ‘great, Bethenny, what you’re doing, but I have respect for my president. What he’s done is amazing,’” Frankel explains. She now knows it’s meant to be flattering to her, but says she finds that equally unnerving. “In the beginning, people were saying ‘Oh my God, you’re doing more than the president.’ I didn’t really want to be put in that category,” she continues. “I don’t want people fighting over politics on my page.’”
Bethenny Frankel does not want to be president (I know because she’s tweeted it, and also because I asked her). And she doesn’t particularly want to start naming names or spark conversations that put her in the same sentence as Donald Trump. That said, you are more than welcome to draw the comparisons for yourself, and if you need any help, she will happily point you in some suggestive directions. “I didn’t go playing the blame game because I don’t know what all the priorities are,” she says, but, “I know I’m [in Puerto Rico] before the president […] I know somebody dropped the ball. I know that.” She doesn’t claim to know who, or why — “Did somebody delegate to somebody else who’s not good at this? And they’re not good at it because it’s Puerto Rico? Or they don’t care? Or there’s some other political agenda financially? I don’t know.” What she does know is that she was there 13 days after the hurricane, in towns quite close to San Juan, and no one had yet been there to help. You can draw your own conclusions.
And whether Frankel herself likes it or not, we live in a time when a reality star who takes a sudden interest in highly visible charitable work sparks those conversations anyhow. Not to mention someone who’s from New York, who’s used her franchise to build her business, who’s taken an increasing interest in real estate. Who was on The Apprentice, and who comes across in interviews as a middle-of-the-road nonpartisan just focused on getting things done. Who has succeeded in turning her name into a brand, so much so that it feels odd to refer to her as “Frankel.” (Her one-season daytime talk show was called Bethenny, her two Housewives spinoff series were Bethenny Getting Married and Bethenny Ever After, her charitable organization is B Strong, and her Twitter handle is @Bethenny.)
And even though she’s unlikely to ever be a political player, the ways she’s used her reality platform are worth examining as a model for what could come. Trump feels like a one-off, a fluke. From an electoral standpoint, he may well be. But Frankel is a further demonstration of exactly how much power someone with a reality platform could have, if they chose to wield it. In about a decade, through relentless, reality-TV-based hustling, she’s gone from an unknown to someone who became part of the national conversation about disaster relief in Puerto Rico. If she did decide she wanted to be president, could we afford to dismiss her? What about some other, more politically focused Housewife, who suddenly woke up one morning and decided she had the best solution for the country?
Successful reality stardom is training for how to build and manage a base. Frankel has a powerful understanding of how to provide deliverables in a social-media driven, personality-packaged world: she’s sincerely intent on providing relief aid, but she’s similarly attentive to her audience’s need to see her doing it. Part of the issue with the Red Cross or other massive charitable funds, Frankel feels, is that people give money and then can’t see where it goes. Thus the Instagram photos and videos; thus the Twitter feed full of quoted responses to people asking for help — it’s skillfully, instinctively performative. It’s perhaps why her social feeds have also now begun to swing back toward the usual photos of herself and discussions of her pets (her much-beloved dog Cookie, who featured prominently on Real Housewives, recently died). Frankel knows her audience, and she knows what they want from her. Her feeds may have been full of disaster-relief details, but her relief-work-related tweet that went viral was distinctly Housewife-y: “I need 70 cocktails 40 xanax, sex, a spa, a massage, medical marijuana, a bath, an IV, a manicure, a cupcake, and a hug.” It is the same lesson Trump was so good at manipulating in the campaign. Audiences (voters) want someone who’s good at providing the entertainment and personality they expect, even — especially — if it’s in a new, more serious context.
As I walked out of Frankel’s apartment at the end of the interview, she asked, “You’re going to compare me to Trump, aren’t you?” I suggested I probably would, and she said I wouldn’t be the first one. “As long as you say I’m the better one,” she called after me.