By Jason Lamphier
Originally published on Advocate.com September 09 2009 8:00 AM ET
“I couldn’t be gayer.” As Andy Cohen makes this proclamation, he couldn’t be prouder. It’s 9:30 a.m., and the Bravo executive is in a seersucker suit, seated in a Sirius XM Radio studio in midtown Manhattan. He’s a guest on The Gayle King Show and has been asked to sound off on Whitney Houston’s highly anticipated comeback, a topic he’s thrilled to discuss. From Madonna to Sandra Bernhard to the ubiquitous Real Housewives his network is churning out, Cohen loves his divas. Tieless, the top two buttons of his lavender shirt left open, his hands circling through the air, he is on. His excitement about Whit’s new album is not unlike that of a 15-year-old girl gushing over the Jonas Brothers at her cafeteria lunch table.
Then, as if they were tasked with proving Cohen’s previous statement, he and King start to sing along to Houston’s new single, “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength.” Cohen sways in his chair, snaps his fingers, and swings his head back and forth in front of the mike. Watching the silver-haired, impeccably tan, 41-year-old former CBS News producer surrender to his inner pop tart, you’d have to agree -- this man couldn’t be gayer.
Cohen’s trademark smirk is materializing everywhere on Bravo. Since 2006, shortly into his tenure there, he’s been the face of the brand: He writes his celebrity-focused blog for BravoTV.com; has grilled everyone from Tim Gunn to Diane von Furstenberg on his streaming online show, Watch What Happens; hosts the widely popular television reunion specials for Top Chef, Flipping Out, and The Real Housewives; and serves as a pop pundit on TV and radio talk shows.
Since he was a closeted teenager growing up in St. Louis, Cohen knew he wanted to work in television. Though he’s aspired to become an on-air personality since graduating from Boston University in 1990, he started his career as a producer for CBS News’s 48 Hours and CBS This Morning. In 2000 he became the vice president of original programming for the defunct pop-culture network Trio, where he developed and oversaw a slew of acclaimed documentaries, including 2004’s Gay Republicans. In 2005 he landed at Bravo. As senior vice president of original programming and development, Cohen oversees the production of more than a dozen shows, including Top Chef, The Rachel Zoe Project, and the entire Real Housewives franchise. His work as an executive producer for Project Runway, Top Chef, and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy has earned him seven Emmy nominations.
Half an hour after his radio interview, Cohen is in a cab, heading to his office at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, tapping out a blog post on his phone, and mentally prepping for a day packed with meetings: a brainstorming session for programming and marketing; a status report for a spin-off of Work Out; a casting meeting for a forthcoming artist reality competition executive-produced by Sarah Jessica Parker; and another focusing on the lineup for Cohen’s most recent project, his late-night talk show, Watch What Happens: Live, which premiered in July and airs live Thursdays at midnight.
An offshoot of his online series, the 30-minute program features Q&A sessions with his “Bravolebrities” (i.e., the Housewives, Top Chef contestants) and celebrities like Parker, Kelly Ripa, and Anderson Cooper. As with his reunion specials, Cohen sips cocktails with his guests and peppers them with questions submitted by Bravo watchers. The online and TV programs grew out of Cohen’s dishy e-mail updates from the sets of the shows he was producing to Bravo executive vice president and general manager Frances Berwick and president Lauren Zalaznick, who loved the dispatches so much they asked him to start blogging and doing video interviews with judges and just-eliminated contestants.
In the cab he looks up from his blog post, a plug for the premiere of season 2 of The Real Housewives of Atlanta. Airing after Atlanta, the talk show is part of the network’s reality show–behind-the-scenes–outtakes–audience participation feedback loop. “The goal is to highlight viewer interactivity,” Cohen says. “We have the most passionate, engaged audience on TV, studies say. People into Bravo are really into Bravo.” If he’s giving Bravo watchers exactly what they want, he’s also giving them exactly what he wants: “I’m just as engaged as everyone else. I’m the number 1 fan of Bravo.”
“I don’t think Andy’s ever made it a secret that he’s wanted to be an on-air host,” says Michael Davies, the executive producer of Watch What Happens: Live. “His passion for the subject is what this show is about.” Cohen is a rarity in television. Not only is he the sole TV host representing a network’s executive office, he is currently the only openly gay man in America with a talk show on a major national cable channel. “We were really gay with the first two episodes,” Cohen says. “We’re kicking back with a cocktail and laughing, talking with Isaac Mizrahi about his orange toenail polish and what happens when you stay awake on Ambien.”
Cohen uses Twitter and blogs daily. His blog mainly exalts Bravo series and offers insider tidbits, but sometimes lambastes celebrities such as Jessica Simpson and former Hills stars Heidi and Spencer Pratt. All this may seem like shameless next-gen branding and juvenile oversharing, but when you’re Andy Cohen, a man with an uncommon, insatiable, adolescent-like appetite for pop culture, sometimes you just can’t help yourself. A reality show fanatic, a Diana Ross worshipper, a man who once blogged about a sweltering pitch meeting with Cybill Shepherd where they both ended up shirtless, Cohen is the embodiment of his network. As the bright smile of Bravo, he’s made it clear, much like his Bravolebrities, that he’s not afraid to lift the curtain, giving viewers more than a peek into his life as a big-shot exec and celebrity obsessive.
In the game of crafting content with a gay sensibility, Bravo hits the disco ball out of the paisley park. Its landmark series Queer Eye for the Straight Guy transformed the channel from an artsy-fartsy niche network to an audacious voice that captured the nation’s post–Will & Grace zeitgeist. With its brazen camp and cattiness, its strong focus on style and etiquette, and its shrewdly veiled diversity training, Queer Eye prefigured the programming that would come to define Bravo.
Queer Eye’s less successful gay-specific partner, Boy Meets Boy (both premiered in July 2003, but Queer Eye ran for five cycles), demonstrated that a gay-as-novelty recipe wouldn’t be enough to sustain even gay viewers’ attention indefinitely. But in December 2004, Bravo struck ratings gold with the premiere of what would become its most popular series to date: Project Runway. Gays had pivotal roles on the show as key players in the fashion world -- the competition did not call attention to the sexual orientation of mentor Tim Gunn, judge Michael Kors, or the contestants, but simply depicted them without much comment or confessional hand-wringing. Bravo continued introducing gay characters on nearly every new show that followed, from Work Out’s hot-tempered fitness trainer Jackie Warner to prickly real estate investor Jeff Lewis on Flipping Out to the endless cavalcade of queer contestants on Top Chef, Shear Genius, The Fashion Show, and now on its latest competition series, Launch My Line, hosted by Dsquared2’s gay twin-brother duo Dan and Dean Caten, in which established designers pair up with industry professionals to create a fashion line.
“Three or four years ago we looked at our shows and put them into categories,” Cohen says later in his office, taking a short break between meetings. “Funnily enough, those categories were the five categories the Fab 5 characters on Queer Eye symbolized: food, fashion, beauty, design, and pop culture.” These clearly defined themes soon became Bravo’s modus operandi for the brand, sealing the deal with its gay viewers but also freeing it from any sort of gay confines. Bravo proved it was more than a one-hit wonder and that these five motifs could manifest themselves in programs like Project Runway and Top Chef -- shows that weren’t exclusively gay.
Cohen recognizes the “gay channel” tag informally but firmly affixed to Bravo, but modifies it a bit, calling it a “bi” network. Unlike the MTV Networks–owned channel Logo, and here! TV (owned by The Advocate’s parent company, Here Media), which both create programming specifically for and about gay people, Cohen and Bravo’s major players claim it doesn’t matter who their series “go home with” -- they are merely holding a mirror up to their audience.
“I feel like we’re gay in 2009 in a way that so many people are gay in 2009, which is that we happen to be gay,” Cohen says. “We’re not hitting you over the head with people’s sexuality. Millions of women and their husbands are huge fans of Flipping Out or Work Out, and they’re saying, ‘Wow, you know, these people happen to be gay.’ Brad [Goreski] on The Rachel Zoe Project happens to be gay, but the show isn’t about him dating men. That is such a powerful way to present gay people in 2009.”
“We don’t present a world as we want it to be,” says Lauren Zalaznick, president of NBC Universal’s Women and Lifestyle Entertainment Networks, which include Bravo. Like Cohen, Zalaznick reemphasizes Bravo’s observational approach to gay culture. “There’s no plotted agenda. We present a view of the world as we see it and inhabit it. That’s a very big distinction.”
Randy Barbato, who executive-produced Bravo’s real estate series Million Dollar Listing, agrees. “Bravo has had a history of being inclusive, and not just on a reverential level,” he says. “There have been a variety of gays and lesbians on their network, from gays who are highly functional to gays who are highly dysfunctional. It’s a real, modern approach to being gay from a modern gay: Andy Cohen.”
Bravo has clarified that it isn’t targeting a queer audience, but rather “the affluencers,” well-educated, fashion-conscious viewers with a fondness for intelligent pop culture. They include the Andy Cohens of the world but also the straight married couples who have fallen for gay Bravolebrities and make up a considerable portion of the network’s demographic.
“Our audience absolutely has a gay core,” Zalaznick says. “But more than that, we know a much bigger circle of our viewers has an enthusiastic, sophisticated, entertainment-based, aspirational view of their own lives, whether they’re gay or straight. We have our PTA trendsetters, our ‘Wills’ and ‘Graces.’ We’re building on an urbane, witty viewer base, but when you recognize and serve a gay audience at your core, it’s a winning formula.”
It’s a winning formula for Bravo’s young, plugged-in audience, but it’s also great for business. About 25% of Bravo viewers make more than $100,000 a year -- an advertiser’s fantasy scenario. According to Nielsen Media Research, 53% of Bravo viewers remember the names of brands featured on Bravo, and 20% say that after seeing a brand on the network, they have a better impression of the product. The network acquired nearly 100 new advertisers last year and posted double-digit revenue growth, making 2008 its best sales year ever.
“We’ve been able to demonstrate that an advertiser will do better in proximity to Bravo, specifically if they’re trying to reach that upscale audience,” says Berwick, who as Bravo’s executive VP and general manager coined the term affluencers. But does the network ever promote or defend its gay sensibility to prospective advertisers? “I don’t think we’re perceived as a gay network,” Berwick says. “We’re perceived as a gay-friendly network. Advertisers targeting gays can buy into a network like Logo because they’re going after a specific niche, but they’re probably also going to target Bravo, which will include some of the same viewers. If you buy into the concept of 500-plus-channels and ‘more is better,’ then you have networks that are micro-targeted, others that are broadly targeted. Bravo is in a great place because we’re both.”
Perhaps owing to the idea that Bravo executives don’t see the network as gay, Cohen acknowledges there’s room for more than one option for gay television. “There are more channels than I can count for music and news and pop culture, so why can’t gays have a choice? We’re fickle -- we need it.” He does assert that Bravo is vigilant about gay issues, tackling them from every angle. “We tell every story that happens under our watchful eye,” he says. “There’s a bachelor/bachelorette challenge on Top Chef this season that angers some of our gay chefs because they can’t get married -- we tell that story. We follow Jeff Lewis and Jackie Warner and Madison Hildebrand [of Million Dollar Listing] -- those are stories of gay people in America.” On Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-list recently, Griffin went door-to-door advocating for gay rights and raised money for the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Transitional Living Program, befriending youths in that program. Cohen continues, “One of the things I love about Bravo is that we started with a groundbreaking show like Queer Eye, then we eventually arrived at a season of Project Runway where of the eight guys, seven were gay.”
That show, which once defined the network and arguably cemented its relationship with the “affluencers,” was the subject of a public, heated, and protracted legal battle between the Weinstein Co. (which produces the show), Bravo, and Lifetime, the network to which Project Runway has moved. Bravo ultimately lost. “You go through different stages of grief when you lose a child,” Cohen admits. “What’s great is that in the last year we’ve had our best ratings ever without Project Runway. We had five great seasons. Do I want to watch what Lifetime did to Project Runway? Not particularly. It’s kind of like going to the prom and watching someone who broke up with you dance with their new boyfriend.”
Cohen certainly has earned his bragging rights, and the network owes most of its victorious run in 2009 to a group of loaded, bawdy women who put the smack down as much as they do their platinum cards. The show that inaugurated the phenomenon, The Real Housewives of Orange County, completed its fourth season with its biggest viewership ever, as did season 2 of TRH New York City. TRH New Jersey became Bravo’s highest-rated first season Housewives franchise to date. The July premiere of TRH Atlanta’s second season was the most-watched premiere in the franchise, and on August 6 the second episode became the highest-rated Thursday night telecast for the network.
Some critics maintain that shows like Housewives and this summer’s series Miami Social and NYC Prep represent a shift at Bravo, from highbrow reality (Project Runway and Top Chef) to low-pedigree drivel. “It seems Bravo’s programming has become a bit more interchangeable, and there’s a real sense of betrayal from the network,” says Robert J. Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. Nevertheless, Thompson admits that the shows’ kitsch factor is what makes them enticing to their viewers. “That campy title Real Housewives paired with New Jersey? It almost gives me goose bumps to utter it. And it delivered.”
The camp element of these shows is exactly why gays have made Housewives weekly appointment TV. The franchise represents Bravo’s next wave in its enduring gay appeal. Every few years, a new pack of commanding, blunt, over-the-top women waltz into gay men’s homes and make them clutch their pearls, often as the women rip each other’s off (to wit, Dynasty, Designing Women, Absolutely Fabulous, and Sex and the City). In an era when reality TV reigns supreme, it was only a matter of time before the gays latched on to a batch of soapy real-life divas like Bethenny Frankel, NeNe Leakes, and Dina “Bubbies” Manzo -- actual women with actual careers with actual problems -- at least actual enough for popcorn TV.
According to Cohen and company, Housewives is providing its gay viewers with exactly what they crave and expect from the network: faux-aspirational, self-referential, self-parodied, relatable entertainment.
“Bravo characters are larger than life but also true to themselves,” Zalaznick adds. “We get the camp factor -- and we get it that [gay viewers] get it. And camp, unlike what most people think, is based on such a strong understanding of authenticity that you can step outside of it and present a version of that authentic self for the rest of the world.”
“Gays love these shows for the same reason gays love drag queens. They’re an exaggerated portrayal of women, what gay guys want women to be in their twisted fantasy lives,” Cohen says. “The Housewives live out loud. Do they all yip and yap in each other’s faces? Yes. Are they fighting about inconsequential things? Absolutely. But to me, this is anthropology of the rich. You won’t find a more fascinating look at human behavior than the Real Housewives franchise.”
It is 11:55 p.m. in New York City’s Tribeca neighborhood, a few hours after Cohen’s last of back-to-back appointments that day, 14 hours after he crooned along to Whitney Houston, just minutes before Watch What Happens: Live airs. Resembling a pop-inspired study, the show’s low-budget, stifling set is stocked mostly with furniture, memorabilia, and flashy knickknacks from Cohen’s own West Village apartment. Again, the line between the host’s business and personal lives seems razor-thin.
Cohen is just off set, eagerly taking a yellow highlighter to a sheet of paper with printed questions on it, itching to probe icy Atlanta housewife Sheree Whitfield, tonight’s guest. When asked if he’ll ever take the stage full-time, Cohen tilts his head in consideration. “I wanted to be on air when I was in college, but right now I love being a TV executive,” he says. “All this side stuff is just extracurricular gravy.”
If Cohen’s sensibility is so perfectly attuned to the audience Bravo is serving, if he is the archetype of the “affluencers,” then he is uniquely suited for his position. But what happens if Cohen, in his success, loses touch with reality? He seems unfazed by the question. “I’m all right with myself,” he replies nonchalantly. “Do you know how many 24-year-olds I hang out with? I don’t feel like I’m 100% in touch, but that’s why I talk to the 24-year-olds in my office to see what they love and what they’re talking about.”
His only in-person audience is the mostly 20-something assistants and production crew making Watch What Happens: Live happen. They are all baking in the stuffy heat of the studio. But many of them are also gushing in celebration: They’ve just discovered that Sheree is the number 1–trending topic on Twitter. Her fierce contretemps with her incompetent party planner, Anthony, was the closing scene for The Real Housewives of Atlanta’s season 2 premiere, which just aired twice in a row on Bravo, right before Cohen will welcome her onto the set. His show is bound to be a hit tonight. As he mops his brow and takes his seat before the cameras, Cohen’s grin is even wider than usual.