In February, the Bravo host and executive producer Andy Cohen sent his beagle, Wacha, to live with his animal trainer in Connecticut. Experts said Wacha needed to be rehomed for his safety and that of Mr. Cohen’s one-year-old son, Benjamin. “It truly was so traumatic, and so upsetting.” Mr. Cohen said recently. “I thought, ‘Wow, 2020 really stinks. Like, it could never, ever get worse than this.’”
He had no way, of course, of knowing that the next month, and the next nine months after that, things would get so much worse, unbelievably worse, just so, so bad, and that he, specifically, was going to experience those things — coronavirus; stay-at-home orders that forced the workplace online; figuring out how to parent during all of this; social justice, the election and cancel culture — in a deeply personal way.
And so, in the realest year in recent history, things got really real for the king of reality TV: Andy Cohen.
In the waning days of 2020, a man who presents himself as an intuitive psychic on Instagram posited that the Real Housewives series will “end up emerging as one of the most evocative living records of these unprecedented times.” The suggestion is so preposterous that you’ll be tempted to dismiss it completely. In a day or two when you realize how deeply right it is, you will laugh in quiet devastation. But let’s put a pin in that.
If any year has bent our sense of reality, it’s been 2020. You think you know someone and then all of a sudden a pandemic hits and you find out your neighbor Lisa is deeply into QAnon. And that guy you went to law school with? Oh, now he’s a left-wing radical prepper. Your mother-in-law won’t wear a mask to the grocery store.
At the end of this brain-melter of a year, because of filming schedules, people who watch Bravo are watching March and April unfold all over again, but this time it’s through the network’s wine-splattered lens.
“It’s a bummer to relive,” Mr. Cohen said of the Covid-19 shutdown arc at the center of three shows currently airing, “but it’s kind of sociologically fascinating to see how people that we are invested in dealt with it.”
Mr. Cohen, 52, isn’t humble about the cultural significance of his shows, and he thinks anyone who doesn’t value them appropriately is clueless.
His friend Anderson Cooper, a year minus a day older, with whom he hosts “New Year’s Eve Live With Anderson Cooper and Andy Cohen” on CNN, agrees, up to a point. “From what I’ve seen of time capsules, frankly, they’re generally disappointing,” Mr. Cooper said. “So this would be the most entertaining and compelling time capsule that one could possibly imagine opening up years from now.” Entertaining the idea of Mr. Cohen as Ken Burns, he added with a laugh, “I would hope for our future generation that that is not all they would see. But it’s certainly part of who we are.”
In production in March when stay-at-home orders were issued, “The Real Housewives of Orange County,” is in Mr. Cohen’s view, “a microcosm of a rainbow of sentiments relating to Covid, from wacky theories to the Fox News perspective, to just trying to take care of your family.”
He points to a similar tableau unfolding on “Southern Charm,” a show that follows a multigenerational group of friends living in South Carolina. “Now, let’s go down to Charleston and that show that started as a kind of romp through a beautiful city about a bunch of lovable and sometimes clueless fops” — but in the past two years, has tackled story lines that include sexual assault, the glorification of Confederate culture and the summer’s social justice movement.
“As much as you might try to tell a story of X, Y or Z, real life will come barging through the doors,” Mr. Cohen said. “And that’s what these shows are about. Those are sociological intersections that I can appreciate and celebrate.”
You Be the Judge
In 2020, sociological intersections turned into collision courses, and cancel culture came for Bravo. Consequences for racist behaviors, both on- and off-camera, were that several stars there lost their places on our TVs.
Mr. Cohen called the firings “decisions for that moment,” but he’d much rather the shows’ stars — and we — stick around as their journey plays out. Some fans in online forums thought Bravo should take the show “Southern Charm” off the air, and he bristled at the suggestion. “Why shouldn’t it be on? Do we want to cancel the South?”
In an increasingly polarized country, Mr. Cohen is making good TV in the murky, mucky middle by doing, in the language of 2020, the work with people. “I’m the guy that people have their reckonings with. On Bravo, I’m the designated debate moderator.” Some think Mr. Cohen lets his stars too easily off the hook for their transgressions, a complaint which he dismissed because he sees it as his job to remain neutral and let the audience do the judging.
He has another reason to maintain neutrality: While the predominant “voice” of the Bravo viewer leans blue, the network’s audience is actually split fairly evenly between conservative and liberal. “Tomi Lahren, the great conservative voice, was advocating that Bravo should do a ‘Housewives’ of all conservative woman,” he said. Mr. Cohen’s response to that was, “Watch ‘The Real Housewives of Orange County,’ watch ‘The Real Housewives of Dallas,’ watch ‘The Real Housewives’ … maybe … of ‘New Jersey’ and maybe ‘Salt Lake City.’ I would argue, even, maybe a little ‘New York?’”
Mr. Cohen’s name was even invoked as a potential moderator of the 2020 presidential debates.
“Mainly by Andy,” Mr. Cooper said with an audible twinkle.
“Whether people were kidding or not — and I think there’s a big leap there — that’s a conversation I’m flattered to be a part of,” Mr. Cohen said.
If it sounds ridiculous that the face of Bravo seriously aspires to one day host a presidential debate, consider Mr. Cohen’s uncanny ability to shape-shift. Some people find him pernicious and manipulative; others think he’s hopelessly corny. He’s like the Macarena in that way.
Another way in which he is like the Macarena is that he’s just a lot of fun.
Mr. Cohen quarantined in New York while he was sick in March. Of course Mr. Cohen got Covid. If it happened in 2020, it happened to Andy Cohen. “It was lonely,” he said of being isolated in his apartment, “hearing my son down the hall but not being able to see him. I don’t want to overdramatize it, because I didn’t think I was going to die, but there were a few moments at the beginning of feeling like, ‘OK, well, this is incredibly isolating, this is scary.’”
He stayed even after recovering. “It was important for me to stay. Everyone else — ” Mr. Cohen stopped himself — “I mean, not everyone — a lot of people that I know, you know, went to the Hamptons.”
He talked about walking Ben, who loves to clap, through the West Village to applaud frontline workers every night at 7 p.m.; about the 9/11-feeling of it all; about handing out sandwiches to homeless people because “it became a way for me to kind of feel useful.” And just when his storytelling veered into treacly self-aggrandizement, here comes Mr. Cohen with his big “Hey, macarena!” energy, doing a bit about how an empty New York City made for desperate paparazzi.
“There were paparazzi every time I walked outside. I kept saying to them, ‘Well, you guys must be really — I mean, honestly — there must be no one here.’ And they were like, ‘There’s no one here.’ At one point they told me a list. They go, ‘It’s you, and Amy Schumer, and like two other people.’ I was like, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, guys. Listen, this is bleak. This is really bleak.’”
After the long New York spring, Memorial Day weekend arrived and an exhausted and thin Mr. Cohen (“I was, like, my high school weight. Which I didn’t hate!”), decamped for his home on Long Island where he and Ben frolicked, and where Mr. Cohen indulged. He grew his hair out. He hit the rosé and the carbs. He said, quite proudly actually, “I got lazy.” Mr. Cooper disapproved of this period of post-Covid sloth. “Why would you ever do that?”
Mr. Cohen slips easily into a really very good impression of Mr. Cooper, sputtering in full WASPy indignation when Mr. Cohen told him, totally unapologetically, “Look, I just want you to know I eat like almost a pint of ice cream every night.”
‘That’s like, Whoa’
For all his openness about his fame, his waistline, and his place in the discourse, when asked if he’s single — possibly taking a note from the Housewives and remembering that if you don’t say it, it can’t be held against you — Mr. Cohen went literally tight-lipped.
He typically has not liked to speak about his personal life, but he softened when asked what choices he made knowing he was entering fatherhood single. “The only thing that I knew was that he had to live in a home that was alive, and that there were people around,” Mr. Cohen said, “and that I was going to need my friends and family to help me.”
His guard thus dropped, Mr. Cohen charged headlong into the matter of his dating status (his last public relationship was with John Hill, a musical theater actor). “In terms of what did I decide about dating? I didn’t decide anything. I just decided I’m going to let this happen.” He described himself as a complicated person to be involved with romantically, even before he had a kid. “I’m fairly set in my ways. There’s a lot of baggage that comes with me, whether you want to call it good baggage or bad baggage, it is baggage. And add a child to that? That’s like, whoa.”
Mr. Cohen talked about going on dates, about excitedly taking out his phone to show off photos of baby Ben, “which I think wound up freaking people out?” He paused. “Yeah. You know, whatever. I’m still single. What can I tell you, OK?”
Part of his challenge is having to adjust, to consider new boundaries, as the line between Andy Cohen, reality TV executive and Andy Cohen, star of actual reality (?), blurs.
While lamenting the state of Mr. Cohen’s hair, Mr. Cooper noted that “short of living in a TikTok house, this guy produces more content than anybody I know. He goes around the corner to the grocery store and he’s produced three incredibly funny Instagram stories.”
Mr. Cohen made a pact with his family to stop showing his son on social media, but then real life came barging through his doors, too. “That totally went out the window when I started doing my show from home,” he said. (His coterie of Bravolebrities, he said, also needs a social media check.)
Evaluating on- and off-camera behavior is what Mr. Cohen called a “delicate balance” for producers when making casting decisions.
He thinks affronted Bravo fans asking ‘why her but why not him and her and them?’ or ‘why is this still on?’ are overcorrecting, unwilling to bear witness to ever-changing norms, no matter how uncomfortable it may make us.
“It’s more interesting to sit in the moment with people that you have a rooting interest in and watch them find their way than it is just turning out the lights and forgetting it existed.” he said. This is his own measured approach, even with issues that are personal to him. “This is an unpopular opinion,” he said of a certain controversial arc on “Vanderpump Rules.”
“It didn’t seem so shocking to me that someone’s family pastor in Kentucky was homophobic,” Mr. Cohen said. “I’m not condoning homophobia. I’m saying it exists.” He’s proud of Bravo’s willingness to show reality — not just reality as we might like it to be — and consider different viewpoints. “We’ve been able to build a big tent.”
Indeed, in 2016, his talk show ran a poll that showed Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump evenly matched at a time when the predominant narrative on the left was that Mr. Trump had absolutely no chance of winning. Ask to similarly play soothsayer for 2021, Mr. Cohen sighed deeply.
“I mean, I’m scared to predict.”
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