Perched on a sofa in her hotel room at theWit Chicago, Bethenny Frankel keeps using the word “emotional.” The TV star and business mogul uses it to describe the reaction she received from local women at a book signing in Naperville earlier that August day: “It was deep and intense and emotional … it was a sobfest.” She uses it again when discussing the upcoming premiere of her talk show, explaining the pressure she feels to make sure it’s a success. “I’m responsible for 150 people’s jobs. Sorry,” she says, tearing up. “It’s been an emotional day.”
It’s that type of raw sentiment that makes Frankel ideal to host her own talk show, “bethenny,” which premiered Sept. 9 on Fox. Being completely candid has certainly worked for her so far. The Long Island native made her TV debut in 2005 as an unabashedly honest contestant on “The Apprentice: Martha Stewart” and later rose to fame as a cast member on the 2008 season of Bravo’s “The Real Housewives of New York,” offering up blunt commentary and advice on everything from her peers’ bad behavior to their romantic relationships.
Frankel’s brazenness — combined with her razor-sharp wit and intellect — caught the public’s attention, and when she left “Real Housewives” in 2010, Bravo immediately cast her in two subsequent spinoffs: “Bethenny Getting Married?”— the premiere of which had the highest ratings in Bravo’s history — and “Bethenny Ever After” (both documented her life with her now-estranged husband Jason Hoppy and their daughter, Bryn). Concurrently, Frankel, a graduate of The Natural Gourmet Institute for Health and Culinary Arts and a former chef, created the Skinnygirl Margarita, a low-cal alternative to the classic cocktail. It was an instant hit, leading Frankel to develop an entire Skinnygirl brand, which now encompasses everything from shapewear to nutritional supplements to five best-selling books.
Frankel, 42, credits her success to being a woman who knows what she wants — and isn’t afraid to ask for it. “I’m not every woman, but there’s a group of women like me that want things to be a certain way. I know what we want. I know what problems to solve, and I know what we’re bothered by. And I just go with my gut,” she says. “That’s what I tell women all the time — go with your gut, not with your heart or your mind. And never assume anyone is smarter than you.”
It’s a tactic that worked well for Frankel when she sold Skinnygirl cocktails to Deerfield-based Fortune Brands’ Beam Global for an estimated $100 million in 2011. Though she gave up ownership, Frankel was adamant that she stay involved in the brand’s continued development. When she has disagreed with Beam’s ideas for new ingredients or flavors, she’s said so. “You have to push the envelope until it feels right in your gut,” she says. “That’s why the products are trusted — they’re directly from me.”
Frankel is bringing that fearless sensibility to her talk show too. “Women will reveal themselves when someone else reveals themselves. I reveal myself so much [on the show] — not for me, but so that there can be a place where we can talk every day,” she says. She firmly believes that “bethenny,” which boasts Ellen DeGeneres as its executive producer, will fill a significant gap in the arguably oversaturated talk-show market. “I don’t think anyone’s speaking to women in the way they actually speak,” she says. “Not everyone can afford therapy, and women want to talk about what they’re going through, but they’re afraid.”
Later that same evening at theWit’s sky-high restaurant, ROOF, Frankel repeats this thought to a roomful of women who’ve gathered to meet the star, sip drinks and preview the show. This time, she adds, “It’s therapy while having fun, having a cocktail. Wouldn’t it be great if you could drink during therapy?”
The women are uproarious, and Frankel is visibly moved. “You guys are just passionate and tough. Chicago has been there for me since back in the day, when I used to live next to the Elbo Room,” she says, referring to the brief period she spent living in the city in 1999 while engaged to a local trader.
During a Q&A session, the attendees ask Frankel for business advice (“An idea is just an idea; be an executor”), for relationship help (“A guy just wants to get laid; that’s his No. 1 priority, whether he’s married for 97 years or three months”) and what she’d pick as the theme song for her life (“ ‘Fifty Ways to Leave your Lover’ comes to mind,” she jokes. “No, I think it’s ‘Girls Who Run the World.’ ”).
Frankel says she’ll cover all of these topics and more on “bethenny,” crediting the wide range of subjects to her own unrelenting curiosity about life. “Every day, there are 20 different things I want to talk about. As silly as the fact that women can’t get their underwear out of their butts — no matter how many different types of underwear are designed — to as deep as thinking that your husband is gay, entering a nontraditional marriage because there’s such a high rate of divorce, gender roles, who has the upper hand, how to keep the balance,” she says.
If the latter issues are on Frankel’s mind more than usual, it may be because she’s in the midst of a high-profile divorce from Hoppy, something she can’t comment on for legal reasons. The two were married 2 ½ years and had Bryn in 2010 before separating last December. What Frankel will discuss is the joy she derives from Bryn, 3. “I don’t like to miss any moments,” she says. “When I’m working, I’m working, but when I’m a mother, I’m 100 percent focused on being a mother.”
As for her love life, Frankel insists she has no time for one. “I’m focused on doing something that I’m proud of, creating an environment where people are proud to work,” she says. Launching the show while presiding over her stable of brands, raising her daughter and ending her marriage “is a lot,” she admits. “I’ve got a handle on it, but I’m holding onto the edge.” What gets her through, she says, is her famous sense of humor. “Having a great laugh is so cathartic. I’ll take the chance of being offensive or inappropriate because a laugh is worth it to me.”
In her very limited free time, Frankel is working on finding herself again. “I don’t really have an identity as a single person now, so I’m just trying to enjoy it, make the best of it,” she says.
Frankel’s forthrightness about her setbacks and continued self-discovery will likely only serve to deepen her connection to her female fans, who look up to her because, according to one at theWit, “She’s had a lot of trials and triumphs in her life, and she’s a real person. I feel inspired by her.”
It’s exactly what Frankel is aiming to do, and it’s the reaction she recalls most affectionately from the Naperville book signing. “One woman said that she’s happy I televised my therapy [on ‘Bethenny Ever After’]. One said her daughter started a business because of me, and that she thinks I’m a good role model, which is very touching,” she says. “I want to continue to connect with women. Today was just a small group — I want to have helped a lot of people.”
Looking back on Bethenny
Frankel is a contestant on “The Apprentice: Martha Stewart”
Memorable moment: The natural food chef won runner-up on the short-lived series; recently, Stewart told Bravo’s Andy Cohen that when she fired Frankel, it was a “big mistake.”
Frankel rises to fame on the Bravo series “The Real Housewives of New York City.”
Memorable moment: The feud and eventual falling out with former best friend Jill Zarin, whom sources say was resentful of Frankel’s success.
Frankel stars in “Bethenny Getting Married?” which documents her engagement and marriage to Jason Hoppy and the birth of their daughter, Bryn.
Memorable moment: A very pregnant Frankel has to use the bathroom pre-ceremony, so her assistants pitch in by holding up her dress — and a bucket.
Frankel lands a follow-up series, “Bethenny Ever After.”
Memorable moment: Frankel dons a platinum-blonde wig and sunglasses and ducks behind bushes to spy on her misbehaving dog at the dog park.
Frankel’s talk show, “bethenny,” premieres.
Memorable moment: It’s a tie between twerking with Nick Cannon and feeding salad to the (shirtless) Zesty Italian Man.