On a recent Wednesday evening, Ramona Singer, a blond-haired, brown-eyed bombshell mom of indeterminate age, was sitting in an Italian restaurant near her home on the Upper East Side, waiting for her teenage daughter, Avery, to return home from school.
“My daughter sometimes asks me, ‘Mom, are we rich?’” said Ms. Singer. “I don’t like that word. I tell her, ‘We’re well-to-do.’”
Currently, Ms. Singer, her husband, Mario, and Avery split their time between a plush four-bedroom condo in Manhattan and a swank mansion in Southampton, with water views and a pool in the backyard.
“We live a comfortable life,” she added. “But there are people who do much better than us. There are people who do much worse than us. In New York, you can lose perspective.”
On Tuesday, March 4, at 11 p.m., TV viewers will get a new perspective on the wealth of, um, well-to-do New York women when Bravo premiers the The Real Housewives of New York City—a spin-off of The Real Housewives of Orange County. Ms. Singer is one of the five Gotham “housewives” starring on the new series.
Ms. Singer took a sip of her Pinot Grigio. “It’s a fun show,” she said. “I don’t know what the other women are portraying. But I’m portraying, hopefully, that I’m a grounded mom, who also believes in having fun. I’m not some little wallflower.”
Ms. Singer grew up in a small town in upstate New York. Her father was an engineer for IBM. Her mom was an old-school housewife. Decades ago, after earning a degree from the Fashion Institute of Technology, Ms. Singer went to work as a buyer for Macy’s. One day, she was on a date with a guy who had his own business in the industry. “I said, there’s something wrong with the equation,” she recalled. “He’s making a lot more money than me and working a lot less hours. So I jumped to the other side.”
For the past 20 years, Ms. Singer has run her own business, called RMS Fashions, which purchases excess inventory and resells it to discount stores. “It’s very lucrative,” said Ms. Singer.
She crossed her arms. She was wearing a crème-colored cashmere sweater with a plunging neckline over white designer pants and brown Sergio Rossi boots. A gold Hermes scarf was looped around her slim waste. A curvy cross of imitation diamonds dangled around her neck. She explained that she had designed it herself—part of her line of faith-based jewelry, which she sells at truefaithjewelry.com.
In addition to running her warehouses, raising her daughter, taking tennis lessons, managing her jewelry line, supporting various charities and—of course!—sneaking off with her husband for the occasional hot-and-heavy getaway, Ms. Singer said she recently teamed up with a plastic surgeon to develop a low-maintenance, easy-to-use line of anti-aging skin care cream.
“I’m not telling you my age,” said Ms. Singer. “But I know I look young for my age. Does my skin look good? I do a little Botox, I admit that. Why not? I want to look young for as long as I can naturally without surgery.”
Indeed, Ms. Singer is a kind of housewife we’ve never encountered before. Is she ever actually in her home?
And why, with her already packed schedule, would she want to participate in a reality show? Ms. Singer said that she hoped to provide a positive role model for young women and to pass along some of the wisdom she had received from her mother. Have faith. Believe in yourself. Be strong.
“I work and I’m financially independent,” said Ms. Singer. “I think in our society, with all these books about Cinderella and Snow White and stories about how the men will rescue you, it’s very important to teach girls that they can work and have a family and have it all.”
Indeed! But still, it’s hard to imagine most New Yorkers suggesting that their own 13-year-olds, who probably need strong role models the most, tune into Bravo’s latest number for an educational experience.
THESE DAYS, BRAVO airs essentially two types of reality shows. Tightly formatted competitions such as Project Runway and observational documentary-ish series that follow around rich personalities living outrageously. The Real Housewives of Orange County, which debuted in 2006, falls into the latter category. Over the course of three seasons, the show had developed into a solid hit (the season-three finale on Jan. 22, drew some two million viewers), by obsessively chronicling the lives of a handful of middle-aged women in the Coto de Caza gated community in Southern California, as they jockey for love and status and pleasure.
Last year, in an essay in the Atlantic, reality TV guru Michael Hirschorn argued that the series did a better job than its scripted counterparts, such as The O.C. and Desperate Housewives, at capturing the “spiritual decay of life in gated communities, where financial anxieties, fraying families, and fear of aging leave inhabitants grasping for meaning and happiness.”
Recently, Mr. Hirschorn (previously of VH1 and now recent founder of Ish Entertainment) elaborated on his fandom to The Observer. He said the series revealed, with a “novelistic” gaze, what new money looked like—Tommy Bahama shirts, Botox house calls, cubic zerconia-encrusted hubcaps—in a previously underexamined corner of America. He pointed out that the lives of women of a certain age, as they navigated a world that didn’t exist a generation earlier, came alive with conflict (career vs. family), personal dilemmas (Pilates classes vs. boob job) hope (margaritas!) and peril (divorce).
“I think [Bravo] found a seam of these upper-middle-class women who were highly vulnerable,” said Mr. Hirschorn. “You had that sense that at any point they could fall through to the lower classes. There was a certain sense of grasping and striving and very human quality of holding onto the ledge of affluence. That made the drama quiet compelling.
“Also they’re sort of unencumbered by taste,” he added.
Bravo programming executive Andy Cohen said that when casting The Real Housewives of New York City, the producers sought out charismatic mothers, preferably with big personalities, little self-consciousness and—cue the real estate porn!—huge houses in the Hamptons.
The cast includes a brassy clique of New York go-getters. Jill Zarin: a fast-talking fabric mogul with a penchant for playing matchmaker with her friends. Bethenny Frankel: a seen-it-all 30-something socialite with her own health food company and a yearning to settle down. LuAnn de Lesseps: the onetime Vanna White
of Italian TV-turned-wife of a French aristocrat looking for more broadcast exposure. And Alex McCord: a Brooklyn—gasp!—brownstone-owning graphic designer, fighting feverishly to get further ahead.
Ms. Zarin, for one, said she thought the new series would diverge from the original. “Sociologically, Californians are different than New Yorkers,” said Ms. Zarin. “We talk faster, we move faster, I don’t want to say we think faster, but some of us do.”
“We’re all a bit of a train wreck,” said Ms. Frankel, who is undergoing her second tour of duty on reality TV, having already survived The Apprentice: Martha Stewart. “I’m a train wreck sometimes, too. That’s life. People like to stop and watch. When they stop talking, start worrying. I don’t read the blogs. Who cares? It’s fun. And you never know what you’re going to get out of it.”
Back at the Italian restaurant, Ms. Singer ordered a second glass of wine.
She told a story about how early in the series, her husband was out on the town, and happened to forget his wedding band. “So this other girl was talking to him,” Ms. Singer said. “She was like, how was I supposed to know? He wasn’t wearing a ring.”
She grinned and pantomimed a backward slap to the head—whose face, husband or hussy, it wasn’t clear. The Observer chuckled and asked about how her husband had reacted to the scene in the Hamptons in which Ms. Singer and her friend flirt with their well-toned, shirtless tennis instructor.
“My husband hasn’t seen that one yet,” she said, laughing. “But he knows that I love and adore him. We’ve been married 15 years. I think we have a very healthy relationship compared to most people. We’re still very attracted to each other.”
To judge by the first few episodes, Ms. Singer isn’t exactly shy about showing off her amour. Along the way, she grinds on the dance floor with her coquettish husband, claims that making her own money is an aphrodisiac, observes that you can never have too many short skirts in the Hamptons and debates, poolside, with her bikini-clad friends which one of them dances more like a stripper.
Eventually, one of her friends sizes up their shapely posse and declares their crew a bunch of straight-up MILF’s. All of which had the adults in stitches, and Ms. Singer’s 13-year-old daughter in a huff. “You’re so embarrassing,” she called out. “What’s your problem?”
Ms. Singer looked out the window at the taxis cruising by on Third Avenue. The sun had set. The next morning, she and Avery and Mario were going on vacation in Palm Beach. She was looking forward to some warm weather.
“We have the same problems as everyone else,” said Ms. Singer. Balancing work with family. Scheduling time with your husband. Working through issues with your daughter.
“She’s 13 now and judging me,” said Ms. Singer. “She never judged me before. She always worshipped me. Now she’s like, Mom, that outfit is O.K. Or, Mom, why are you wearing that. At this point, I can’t look too sexy.”