When she was first announced as a new addition to the cast of The Real Housewives of Orange County in 2019, Braunwyn Windham-Burke didn’t seem all that different from the women who had cycled in and out of the series over the preceding 13 seasons. The hair, the physique, the name — all seemed like classic Orange County. And yet, Windham-Burke turned out to be a wild child who instantly rocked the boat, locking lips with fellow cast member Tamra Judge and earning the derision of RHOC OG Vicki Gunvalson.
Season 15 saw the departure of Judge and Gunvalson, and the arrival of a whole new Braunwyn. In the October season premiere, she announced that she was an alcoholic, and in Wednesday night’s season finale, she came out as a lesbian in a confessional (she previously shared the news in a December GLAAD interview that took place after the season had finished filming). Between those pivotal moments, Windham-Burke sheltered in place amid the coronavirus pandemic; attended Black Lives Matter protests; navigated an increasingly complicated 26-year marriage with her husband, Sean; and — in true Housewives fashion — accused several women of lying.
With nearly a year of sobriety under her belt, and a slew of headlines about her girlfriend, Wyndham-Burke talked to Vulture about one of the most eventful sophomore seasons in Real Housewives history.
Suffice it to say, it’s been a big year for you. Looking back on where you were before you started filming this season, could you have imagined ending up here?
My one-year sobriety date is January 30, in about two weeks. I keep flashing back to, what was I doing at this time last year? Because right before I got sober wasn’t pretty. No, I don’t think I could have. When I stood on that ski slope and said to my producer, “I’m an alcoholic; let’s do this,” I had no clue what I was really getting into. I had no clue how hard it was going to be.
But it’s been amazing and it’s been great, and there is a strength to living your truth and being authentic. There’s an inner strength that I’ve found that has really gotten me through the hard times.
Early on in sobriety can be a really precarious time, and you were doing that in front of the cameras. But there’s also built-in accountability being on a reality show. Did filming make it easier or harder on you?
There were some hard moments. There was a party at Shannon [Beador’s] house that I ran from. The camera crew followed me back to my house. I had every intention of drinking that day, when I left Shannon’s house. I tried to kick the camera crews out. So on one hand, was it hard to film that? Absolutely. The other side of the coin is, production stayed with me. They knew I was going to drink, and they didn’t leave me, and they ended up driving me to one of my first AA meetings, which was beautiful.
Drinking has been a big part of the Housewives universe for a while. When you joined the show, did that encourage you to drink more?
I think the filming aspect that people don’t realize is, we’re in a bubble. We’re in a very safe bubble. We’re surrounded by people who will take care of us; we know we have a safe ride home. We’re kind of insulated when we’re filming. People don’t come up to us. There was a sense of safety, and there’s also a sense of, You can do whatever you want, and that’s okay. You ask for a bottle of tequila, it just magically appears, and there’s no judgment because that’s not production’s job. They don’t judge us; they just film us, as it should be. So there was definitely a sense of, I can do whatever I want. That was quickly replaced with a lot of nights where I blacked out.
In the finale, Kelly [Dodd] said that sober Braunwyn is not the same person as drunk Braunwyn. Do you agree that you’re a different person than you were your first season on the show?
Absolutely. I think this season was a lot of growing pains for me, a lot. You guys were living my life with me in real time, getting sober during those first few months, so it was hard. Who I am now, as I get close to a year, is nothing like who I was a few years ago.
Does that unsettle people like Kelly? Yeah, of course it does. A lot of times when you start to get better, people take it as an insult on them. They look at their own choices. And it’s a pretty common thing in sobriety that you lose friends, and the people who are the most critical, for the most part, are ones who don’t want to look at their own behavior.
You said that you anticipated people would have this reaction that you getting sober was just a story line for the show. Did knowing that was coming prepare you for it, and how have you been able to deal with that reaction?
I knew it was gonna happen, and I knew exactly the cast members it was gonna come from. They are very judgmental, they’re a little bit petty, and they’d rather take the cheap shots to get their five seconds of having their name out there than really taking the time to pick up the phone and call me.
It’s not fake; it’s not a story line — find something else. This is too important to me and to other people. I’ve worked hard. It’s almost a year. I have fought for every single one of these days, sometimes literally sitting on my hands not to drink.
Let’s talk about a more joyous public revelation. The Housewives franchise obviously has a huge LGBTQ+ viewership. Why do you think it’s taken this long to see an out lesbian Real Housewife?
I think it’s very easy to get stuck in our comfort zones. A lot of the country is not okay with this. I was saying to my husband the other day, when I walk down the beach with [girlfriend] Kris, holding her hand, it’s still very different than holding Sean’s hand. There still is a lot of criticism and a lot of judgment. And I think a lot of people don’t want to be the first ones to rock that boat.
I was wondering if you could talk about the timing of your GLAAD interview, which happened midseason but after you were done filming.
TMZ had some photos of me and my girlfriend, and they have a policy of not outing people. So they came to Bravo PR, and they said, “We have these photos, but we’re not gonna run them.” And [Bravo PR] came to me and said, “Okay, this is out there; it’s gonna get out there.” Because I wasn’t hiding it. Kris came out of the closet 12 years ago; I was not gonna push her back in. How can we do this the best way? And I really wanted to find a venue that was respectful and that would really tell the story.
Was it hard for me to say it the first time? Yes. If you look at the GLAAD interview, you can see me. I’m shaking. I’m shaking through that whole video. But now that I’ve gotten to the other side of it, I’m glowing and lighter and happy.
You’ve become very politically outspoken over the past year. How did you end up — in this largely white, largely conservative city — protesting with Black Lives Matter?
We had [the murders of] Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd so close together, and here I am in my home, I have nowhere to be, and for some reason that was a light-bulb moment for me. I couldn’t tune it out. I thought, I have to post this. I had never posted anything on my Instagram that was controversial or would upset people. I always kept my political opinions quiet. I didn’t want to rock the boat. But watching a man being murdered was like, I’m done.
It just kind of took off from there. How can I get involved? What can I do? [Activists] said, “You’re a middle-aged white woman, just show up. Because your body can keep a person of color safe. You’re not gonna get beat up or arrested.” And it’s true, I never was beat up, and I was never arrested.
You also talked to the women on the show about BLM, and why you were protesting. It seemed like some were more receptive than others. Did you find that experience illuminating?
Talking to Gina [Kirschenheiter was] amazing, and that’s what you want to happen. You want someone who — like me, like Gina — didn’t really realize what’s going on to go, Okay, I get it; what can I do? I want to do whatever I can.
Talking to Kelly’s like talking to a wall. It’s painful. Talking to Emily [Simpson], like a wall. They are so ingrained in their white privilege that they can’t even see another side to it. Kelly throws out, “Well, I’m Mexican.” Well, you’re awarded all the privileges of a white person. When you were arrested, you were let out. That wouldn’t have happened if you were a Black woman, let’s be honest.
When I go to the beach, I’m surrounded by Trump signs. So was I surprised? No. Was I disheartened? Absolutely. Did it make me question why I live here and why I raise my children here? Yes. I think Kelly and Emily are pretty indicative of how most people feel here.
Traditionally, it’s been the Black Real Housewives who are the most outspoken about their politics and supporting progressive causes. The white Housewives tend to not talk about these things. Do you see that changing?
The more seasoned Housewives, no, I don’t think they’re gonna speak up. I don’t. I think they’ve found their groove. They have their followers; they have something that works for them. But I definitely think you’re going to get some more young, progressive Housewives. That’s the direction that I’ve seen on the other shows. And I do hope that Orange County does that. There are a lot of young, progressive people here who want change. That does exist, just not necessarily on our show.
Thinking about your future on the show, do you see yourself finding common ground with these women — and people in Orange County at large — who might be more judgmental about your politics or your identity?
If you voted for Trump, I’m not gonna find common ground with you. I don’t want to. I don’t. If homophobia, sexism, and racism aren’t deal-breakers for you, I don’t want to know you. I don’t. We will never find a common ground because — I’m sure we’ve all been watching the past week. If you still support Trump after all of this, you are so intrinsically broken.
As far as cast members, we’ll see. Gina’s been great. Shannon and I will be fine. Kelly and I — no, I don’t think Kelly and I will ever get over it.
Everyone else, yeah. This show has a way of taking twists and turns you never saw coming. I think any long-term viewer knows that there are friendships and relationships that you never thought possible.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.