Lisa Vanderpump isn’t what you’d call a typical housewife. More obvious descriptors would include businesswoman, style icon, activist and, of course, reality TV tour de force. But thanks to Bravo, it’s the title of housewife—or rather, Housewife—that’s made Vanderpump a brand name and national celebrity.
A decade has passed since America was introduced to the Housewife, capital “H.” Unlike the lowercase version, the Housewife wasn’t your average, stay-at-home mom—or even necessarily a wife—but a wealthy, sometimes nipped-and-tucked and often outburst-prone woman of a certain age who had agreed to let cameras invade her daily life.
Since the March 2006 debut of the first installment, The Real Housewives of Orange County, there have been no fewer than 96 Housewives across nine cities. Only a handful of cast members has broken through the reality glass ceiling to earn true celebrity status—New York’s Bethenny Frankel (creator of the Skinnygirl empire), New Jersey’s Teresa Giudice (whose recent incarceration made her a tabloid staple), Atlanta’s NeNe Leakes (who parlayed her fame into an acting career).
And Vanderpump. The 56-year-old Brit has become the de facto star of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and the force behind the spinoff Vanderpump Rules, which follows the exploits of the staff at SUR, one of three Los Angeles restaurants Vanderpump owns with her husband, Ken Todd. (There’s also the elegant Villa Blanca and Pump Lounge.) With her stream of witticisms, no-B.S. attitude and hyper-glamourous lifestyle worthy of a Jackie Collins novel, she has engendered a fierce loyalty among fans that hasn’t wavered in six seasons of often ruthless television.
Vanderpump has managed to parlay her popularity into numerous branded products, from a line of pet accessories (Vanderpump Pets) to liquor (LVP Sangria, Vanderpump Vodka). But she’s also an ardent activist, using her fame to bring awareness to causes including LGBT rights (she’s worked with organizations like Glaad and The Trevor Project), animal rescue (she’s currently owner of eight dogs, two swans and a pair of miniature ponies) and the fight against the Yulin dog-eating festival in China (for which she’s organized marches, the World Dog Day campaign, and even testified before Congress).
We sat down with Vanderpump—fresh off shooting her seventh season of the Real Housewives—at her picture-perfect Beverly Hills home to discuss her roles as TV star, businesswoman and advocate, as well as her surprising connection to the advertising industry.
Adweek: We’ve gotten an inside look at your life over the past six years on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, but let’s talk about your life before the show.
Lisa Vanderpump: I was a young actress. When I was 9 or 10 I think, the first thing I did was [the 1973 movie] A Touch of Class with George Segal and Glenda Jackson. When I met my husband, he had a wine bar, and after we were married, we went on to open wine bars, clubs, restaurants—I think we’ve had 32 in total. I’d always had a real affinity for design, so even now I design and create, with my husband, all the aesthetics and visuals for our restaurants. I’m passionate about things like that. I’ll go and do the flowers myself. I decorate my own houses. I just like to create, and that’s something that’s very near and dear to my heart.
Where did that passion for design come from?
Well, I’ve learned over the years that a lot of things you inherit, so to speak, and then other things you educate yourself about. My father was a creative director [in advertising], so I was brought up with quite a sense of style by somebody that was very interested in aesthetics.
How did you end up joining Real Housewives?
I was asked two or three times, but I said, “No, I don’t think so. I don’t think it’s for me.” And the third time I thought, “OK, I will go in [for an audition].” I didn’t think I gave a great interview, but then they came to interview me at my house again after that. [Bravo personality] Andy Cohen now says that I was the reason he green-lit Beverly Hills because he says he saw something different, something quirky in me.
Is there anything that’s off-limits?
I don’t care if the cameras follow me 24 hours a day. Maybe I don’t want to be filmed in the shower or something [laughs]. The only thing I was sensitive to is that when my daughter got married—I felt that I’d signed up for the show, not her.
How did your family respond to your decision to do a reality show?
They weren’t thrilled. Initially I felt a little sense of security in the fact that the show [didn’t air in England], but it’s becoming quite big over there. And now it’s even more in their face because I have a show called Vanderpump Rules and that’s my family’s name. A classic example of this was when my nephew was staying with me and I said to him, “We’re shooting Housewives. I mean, you’re here, would you just be in it?” And he said, “Actually, Lisa, not really my thing. Thank you so much, but I’ll pass” [laughs]. … I’m very cognizant that the show has given me such a platform. I feel that when you’re a celebrity—and I do use that word loosely—and when you’re in the public eye, you have a responsibility to stand up and draw attention to things that you believe in.
There were reports over the summer that you had been hesitant about doing another season of the Housewives and told Bravo that you’d only return if more of your charity work and activism were featured on the show.
Yeah, it was something we talked about. I was so beaten up last year. The audience has always stayed with me, so that indomitable support has really seen me through. But from the other women, that kind of haranguing and—I don’t like to use the word bullying because everybody uses that word and it’s so cliché—but just feeling totally persecuted by them, screaming at me, I just felt I couldn’t do it anymore, and I said that to Bravo.
Did you ever worry about your association with a reality show actually hurting your brand?
No, not at all, because I’m never going to be the Housewife that’s rolling around on the floor trying to pull somebody’s weave out. That’s not who I am. I do say wildly inappropriate things I think are funny—it’s my British sense of humor—but I’m not somebody that’s going to lose their shit. So no, I’m not worried. My brand is me and this is an accurate depiction of my life, so I’m happy with that.
You launched LVP Sangria. It seems like every Housewife has her own liquor line. Why do you think that’s such a popular category?
For me, being in the restaurant business for so many years, of course a wine and alcohol brand is something that I really identify with. I mean, we’ve had our own wine in Villa Blanca for eight years that’s never been sold [outside the restaurant]. We sold sangria in our restaurants for years, and we thought, “Let’s bottle it and make it fantastic,” and my kids [daughter Pandora and son-in-law Jason] created the business and ran with it. But I do oversee everything. Am I involved in the day-to-day business? No. But is it my recipe? Yes. Is it my aesthetic? Yes. Now we’re doing a rosé, and it’s the same with that. We’re working out labels and what it’s going to look like and pricing, making sure it’s going to be great.
What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever been asked to endorse?
I think pool cleaner. What would I know about pool cleaner? I don’t even know how to clean the pool!
Are there other categories you want to explore?
I’d love to have a brand of Vanderpump salad dressings. I would love to have Vanderpump frozen food … and I’d love to do a perfume. I would love a makeup line. I love everything!
Let’s talk about Vanderpump Rules. How did that get off the ground? A show about a bunch of waiters doesn’t sound like it would be interesting, but it’s been a huge hit.
After the first season [of Real Housewives], I remember saying, “Well, I’ve done one season now, but I don’t think I’ll do another one. It was fun.” And [another network] offered me my own show, so Bravo contacted me and asked if I wanted to do something on my own—they were probably just trying to keep me because somebody else was asking me to do a show—and I said, “Well, maybe.” They asked if I wanted to do a show about Villa Blanca, and I thought about it and said, “OK, I’ve got it. I want to produce a show about my staff at SUR, but I don’t want to be in it.” … I wanted to produce it because I was really interested in the production side, but Bravo said, “You have to be in it.”
And now everybody from The New York Times Magazine to The New Yorker has written about how addictive it is.
It’s just taken on a life of its own. … When you get a group of people that have known each other for 10, 12 years and they work together and they live together and they date each other and all that, the stakes become much higher than when you’re orchestrating a group of people that don’t even know each other. And I think that’s why Housewives worked in the first season. Adrienne [Maloof] lived across the road, Kyle [Richards] and I knew each other, Camille [Grammer] lived in Beverly Park as well. It was a group of women that knew each other, and I think then you become more invested in it.
It’s interesting you mention that because when Bravo brings new Housewives into the mix every season, the dynamic often seems strange at first. You can tell that you’re not really friends with most of the new women.
Yeah, I think that’s precarious, and I think we’ve learned our lesson that if you try and just bring somebody into a show that you’ve met once or twice in a social gathering, nobody’s really invested in it. The new girl [next season, Dorit Kemsley] is a friend of mine, so I have backup [laughs].
How much control do you have over how you’re portrayed on the Housewives?
Zero. I’m a statue. They can shit all over you. But on Vanderpump Rules, I’m the pigeon.
On every season of the Housewives, somebody ends up getting the “villain” edit. It seems like the show has tried to do that with you a couple of times, but it’s never really stuck.
They have. Well, I think the other women have tried to do it. With the producers, they normally think that unless you’ve got something really bad—unless they catch me boiling a baby—it really isn’t going to stick. But I think that [my having another show] has probably created certain feelings over the years. I mean, a lot of opportunities have come my way, and I’ve taken them.
But the producers obviously do want to create certain storylines. Have they ever tried to steer you into a situation you weren’t comfortable with?
Oh, yeah. For example, I had a big falling out with somebody that was on the show that turned out to be a real nightmare—I won’t mention names, but I’m sure you know who I’m talking about—so when they say, “We want you to have lunch with them,” maybe naturally I’d just tell that person to bugger off and never see them again, but you know that the audience wants to see that progression. So sometimes, yeah, there’s creative license, and you have to make allowances to develop and progress the story.
What’s been the hardest thing about doing the show?
I think when the women have attacked me. That’s devastated me. I’m not a victim, but it’s been very hurtful. When they accuse you of stuff, I mean, that’s been hard. Sometimes I haven’t been able to watch it. Or when they’re lying about you, and it’s out there. But we’re lucky enough to have a production company that has integrity—I know it’s a rarity in this world—and tries to show the accurate story. And if they think somebody is bat-shit crazy and they’re accusing you of something, they’re going to show it. And luckily, the audience sees the truth.
How much longer do you think you’ll keep doing Housewives?
After the first year, I said I wasn’t coming back. After four years, I said I wasn’t coming back. I think I’ve always said that. This year it was a really, really difficult decision. It was just not about money. It was about whether I could go through what I went through again. I didn’t think I could. And I still don’t know if I made the right decision. But after a couple of weeks talking to them, I went, “All right, I’ll do it—so help me, God” [laughs]. I remember our showrunner jumped up and kissed me and said, “OK, you won’t regret it!” And I said, “I might, but I can never forget what the show has given me.” I mean, would I be at the United Nations? Would I be at Congress? Would I be starting Vanderpump Pets? Would I be able to fight Yulin? Would I be able to have the Vanderpump Dog Rescue? And there have been some wonderful moments on the show. It’s been like a very expensive home movie. That’s been the best.
Assuming someday you do leave the Housewives, what’s your plan?
Well, I would like to actually go into producing more. We’re looking at a couple of scripted ideas. And I would like to, basically, design everything. I would like Vanderpump to be a lifestyle brand. I would like the name Vanderpump to be about every beautiful thing in life!
This story first appeared in the October 10, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.
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