During Thomas Kelly’s first year as a producer on The Real Housewives, he was assigned to work on Season 5 of the Beverly Hills iteration. It was the summer of 2014, and the cast was swapping their 90210 area code for an international getaway in Amsterdam. Shortly after landing in the capital city, they headed to Yolanda Hadid’s local restaurant of choice, Werck. Kelly anticipated a “low-key group dinner scene,” but within minutes, Kim Richards was going head-to-head with that year’s newbie, Lisa Rinna, threatening to “talk about the husband.” Wine glasses were thrown, voices were raised, and before he knew it, Kelly found himself at the foot of Richards’ bed at the Hotel De L’ Europe with the task of figuring out what dirt she had on her co-star’s husband.
“I felt I’d been thrown in at the deep end and my adrenaline was off the charts,” Kelly recalls, but this was the job of a freshly minted producer of Bravo’s ratings juggernaut. “You just have to embrace the chaos.”
In 2021, Kelly left the franchise to oversee another Bravo favorite, Southern Charm, but is open to someday returning to the behemoth that shaped him. “It’s where I grew up professionally,” he says of The Real Housewives, on which he worked as a producer, executive producer, and showrunner at various points and locales, from Beverly Hills (Seasons 5–7) and Orange County (Seasons 10–16, minus 13) to Dallas (Season 3) and Potomac (Seasons 3–4).
Below, Kelly pulls back the curtain on The Real Housewives, which is also currently running in New York City, New Jersey, Miami, Dubai, Atlanta, Salt Lake City, and via an Ultimate Girls Trip spinoff.
Casting The Real Housewives
Talk me through the early casting process. What usually happens?
It all begins at the show’s production company, which will have a dedicated casting department to start the process with outreach. This usually involves contacting or researching women who’ve piqued their interest. Perhaps they have a large and intriguing social media presence, they’re a pillar of their community, or they’ve been recommended by someone in the industry.
Can existing Housewives influence that process?
Not the final decisions, but if a current cast member knows of someone they think would be a great fit, they’ll be encouraged to pitch them to production, especially if they have an authentic connection to the group and live within a reasonable perimeter of where the show’s filmed.
What are the green and red flags producers look out for in a potential Housewife?
Producers want someone [who’s] smart, interesting, funny, attractive. Being an open book is a must. If a housewife doesn’t want to talk about something, the first question from producers will be “Why?”
A major red flag is when a candidate is guarded or not willing to express themselves in a meaningful way. Take Elizabeth Vargas from RHOC Season 15, for example. She was unfiltered throughout the interview process, but when the cameras started rolling, there were a lot of legal limitations regarding her ex-husband. We basically couldn’t talk about him.
Once the casting department has a list of potential Housewives, what happens next?
They’ll be interviewed face-to-face. From there, casting directors compile a list of the best candidates and pitch them to higher-ups at the production company, who will vote on their favorites. That short-list is eventually presented to executives at Bravo, who’ll select their favorites and give the green light to pursue any potential newbies.
What does that process look like?
It can mean going into their homes and filming them in their environment with their husband, children, or parents — whoever’s in their world. That footage is edited and sent back to Bravo, who’ll make final hiring decisions. It can be an arduous process. A couple years ago in Orange County, a candidate was great on paper, but the dynamic with her husband at home was so awkward. That’s why a home shoot, as we call it, is a necessary part of the process.
Firings On The Franchise
Who makes the decision to fire a Housewife?
The powers that be at Bravo make that decision, but they can be influenced by a number of factors, including the opinions of the producers [or] social media. Look at Tamra Judge and Lisa Rinna. I love both of them on the show — Rinna is a reality TV genius — but fans online were starting to feel like they were intentionally pot-stirring. The modern reality TV fan can sniff out inauthenticity. I am not saying they were inauthentic, but once fans have this impression, true or not, it can be hard to shake.
What other factors come into play?
It’s usually time to move on from a Housewife if they have no place in the cast anymore, [like] if nobody likes them. [There are also] network focus groups, who watch the shows and give feedback, [and] if a Housewife starts to hold back elements of their life, she might find herself on the chopping block. An example is Heather Dubrow after Orange County Season 11 wrapped. Some believed she had crossed a line by not giving full access to her house on the show, and by giving an exclusive to E! Entertainment. So Bravo decided to step away.
The 4-1-1 On Filming
What are the logistics of the filming process?
Production will meet about a month before filming commences to prepare for a new season, which usually films for three to four months. During this time, we film Tuesday through Saturday. Seasons usually require three crews, which consist of two cameras, an audio person, and some other folks who help make the magic happen. Typically, each crew will film two scenes a day, or two “moments,” as we refer to them. Each moment is filmed for roughly two hours, but depending on how interesting the footage is, that might be edited down to a two-minute scene or less.
What are producers generally looking for during filming? How do they push for it?
We’re looking for a compelling story. We’ll meet with the cast during filming and in pre-production to discuss what’s going on in their lives and their partner’s lives. [For the moments], we’ll have an idea of what we want, because we’ve already spoken to the cast individually. Perhaps a Housewife wants to address something with another cast member or somebody has a major announcement to make — we’ll nudge them to do so while filming. Otherwise, the cameras are rolling without any purpose.
What’s the process for filming confessionals?
The confessional interviews are scheduled in increments throughout principal photography, starting around four to six weeks into filming. The questions usually come from the post-production department, which is editing the show. Once a Housewife is in “the chair,” as we call it, a producer will typically interview her. Some of the best responses come from off-the-cuff or follow-up questions.
Talk me through the cast trips. How do they work?
Producers will start by asking the ladies if they have any travel plans during the filming months. That’s an easy motivation for an all-cast trip. I remember Kyle Richards had a Fashion Week event in New York, and Erika Jayne was booked to perform in Europe. It gives us a good starting point.
Once we land on a location, producers will need somewhere for the Housewives to stay, preferably a house or villa. We don’t really want them staying in separate rooms scattered around a big hotel. And as for filming, the cast trips usually last three or four nights. We arrive, film for 12 hours a day, and hope to get two or three episodes of footage.
What challenges can producers face during filming?
One challenge can be adjusting to a sudden story pivot. Ahead of filming and during production, we have a rough idea of what story we’ll be following. This can change at any moment, and we have to pivot in real time. Capturing high-level drama as it happens is tricky. Not that producers don’t love it. We do. A good example is the Beverly Hills Season 5 Amsterdam fight I mentioned earlier. It was mayhem! But our job is to keep tracking the story. Before I had time to think, I was running through the rainy streets of Amsterdam with an umbrella, following the women. I had to keep focused on chasing the story and not interfering.
Also, dealing with bad or unacceptable behavior from cast members always poses a challenge, especially if they refuse to film.
Do you have any specific examples of that?
Heather Dubrow’s Season 16 sushi party. Heather wanted to put the cameras down and told us she was going to leave RHOC. That’s not something you want to hear during your first week of production. It was hard to navigate, because a lot of the uncomfortable conversations that night were playing out off-camera. It got very heated behind the scenes, and there was some shocking behavior on display, which doesn’t make filming easy.
Creating A Compelling Storyline
What makes a good storyline?
There are two channels of storytelling with Housewives: the personal journey, and the interpersonal relationships between the cast. The strongest storylines are compelling, full of surprises, humor, and are just plain fun. Viewers also crave natural relationships, so any authentic storylines born out of reality always make for a better show.
And a bad one?
Anything that’s fabricated. When Housewives adjust their behavior for the purpose of the show, the audience will pick up on that. When things get too dark or malicious, it becomes a little off-brand for The Real Housewives, which is ultimately a lifestyle show. It’s great to have drama and darker storylines when necessary. That’s real life. But we also need glamor and some comic relief.
What is the most shocking storyline you’ve watched unfold?
Without a doubt, the Brooks and Vicki Gunvulson cancer-gate story. The whole cast except Vicki was accusing Brooks of faking cancer. We were reluctant to follow the story at first, but it wouldn’t go away. The women kept presenting us with new information that implied he wasn’t telling the truth. Eventually, we were like, ‘Holy s***, this is the season.’ So we started to embrace the scandal. The more we explored the accusations, the more our heads were spinning. It was shocking at the time and even more riveting to look back on. Forget Scandoval. That was the original Bravo scandal.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.