Bethenny Frankel on her latest business ventures and how she became a self-made mogul
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You may know Bethenny Frankel from her years on reality television, from The Apprentice: Martha Stewart to Bravo’s Real Housewives of New York, or her five New York Times bestselling books. You could also be familiar with her Skinnygirl cocktails, popcorn, coffee, jeans, supplements, or preserves. Or maybe you’ve become acquainted with her philanthropy initiative, BStrong, which provides relief for natural disasters like hurricanes Dorian, Irma, and Maria. To put it simply, she’s everywhere.
Though she recently left the Real Housewives cast, Frankel has plenty keeping her busy. She is investing outside of her business for the first time in her life and has an HBO Max show (The Big Shot With Bethenny) and a podcast (Just B With Bethenny) in the works.
Frankel spoke with Fortune about her approach to business, television, philanthropy, and more.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Looking into your business dealings, my first question is just genuinely, How on earth do you do all of this?
I do sleep, and I don’t really have a big social life. I’m just either with my daughter or working. But it’s funny because I was talking to some people this weekend that were saying that they get overwhelmed that they have to set their alarm and hit the ground running at 9 a.m. and get their workday going, and I couldn’t be more opposite. I really relax a lot, but I’m always working: I’m always thinking, I’m always executing, I’m always delegating, and I’ve just always got something going on. So I have an interesting way of doing things where I’m never ever at a desk, never at an office. I’m just more nontraditional about things, so I have many different things going on, but I don’t procrastinate. I just execute and check the box and then get on to the next thing.
You’re a top 10 earner on Cameo, and you invest in the business. How did that come about?
They approached me for a while. They kept coming to me for about a year, and I wouldn’t do it unless I had equity in it. I said I’ll do it, but I want to be able to invest in it. They only allow a small handful—smaller than the top 10—to invest. That was Series A, which was years ago. And then I invested again in Series B. And now I’m also going to be in their next round, which I think is in the fall. I invested because I believe in it. But now I really really believe in it, so I want to be vocal about it that I’m invested in it, and I use it and I really like it.
It’s always like a husband loving his wife and saying how much he appreciates her and wants to tell her in all these different ways. It has this way that you can just inspire [people] and say, “You’re loved.” It’s just a vessel in communicating, but it’s me connecting with all these fans. They get so excited, and I love it, so I invested in it. I’ve asked other big name talent to invest too, not because of me, just because I thought they should. And at the beginning, they pooh-poohed it, and now there’s major names on it. So it started out as the clown show, and I was part of the clown show because I believed in it, and now there are real A-list names in it and growing.
I love that it’s the first time I ever really invested in something in this way that’s separate than my business. A lot of the time, I work with a partner, but they put up the money, and I put up my marketing and sweat equity, but in this case, I also invested money. So it’s great—and it’s worth like 10 times what it was at the beginning.
And by the way, I don’t promote Cameo, and I didn’t allow them to promote me. I’d sometimes get annoyed with them if they were promoting me on it because I wasn’t a spokesperson, and I wasn’t being paid to do it. I sat like a cat and waited to see how this is gonna do. And now, I’m speaking about it, even though I’ve invested since the beginning, and I could’ve promoted myself and gotten myself 10 times the amount of Cameos I do. But that’s how I am at that business. Until I start running around doing the dog-and-pony show, I want to sit back and see what I think. There’ve been a lot of articles that they’ve done about all of the people on the app, and that’s great for them, but I just wanted to talk about it not in a fluffy, pop culture aspect. I wanted to talk about it as a business and as a business investment and a wave of the future—in times when we’re making our own studios and I’m doing appearances by Zoom.
What’s so interesting about the business side of Cameo to you?
The money I make is like a down payment on a substantial house—it’s real. And it’s doing something really nice, and it can also be a gag gift and doing something really funny. And you know, obviously, now it makes sense. In the very beginning of the pandemic, I was reaching out and asking them when’s the next round, because I knew this was gonna blow up. I am part of the world that does personal appearances, and I know that a lot of them are now Zoom. People are down, and people want morale, and people can’t go out and buy the perfect birthday gift. It did really well for Mother’s Day. It’s always someone’s birthday, and wedding season and things like that. I just don’t see what could be bad about it.
I remember my publicist at the beginning was like, “Oh, I don’t want to promote that because it’s Z-list talent.” A lot of people pooh-poohed it, and I love things like that. Everyone pooh-poohed my Skinnygirl cocktail idea. So, I just like it. I think it’s fun; I think it’s great for everybody. I like that it’s also moving into doing more business-centric, motivational speaking. It can grow in different ways.
You said this is your first foray into this type of investing. Have you done any more since Cameo’s Series A?
No, but basically, because of the pandemic, everyone is finding different ways to work. I’m not going to HSN, so I’m in my cottage with a whole setup and lights, so I’m coming from a place of yes with that. Basically, if someone comes to me and says we want to do a social deal, and if I like it, I really believe in it, now’s the time. It’s harder to make money, and it’s harder to find business, so I want more of a back end [equity]. I’d rather have a bigger, eat-what-I-kill back end. That’s happening in more situations. It might not be that I’m putting my own money in, but it’s money they would’ve paid me.
Let’s look at your new show. You’ve been on TV pretty nonstop for about 15 years now, right?
I think that’s correct. That’s crazy.
What makes you keep coming back?
I like getting more and more behind the camera. I have another show that I would be producing, and I will not be starring in, and multiple ideas that we are in the process of pitching and selling.
The Big Shot With Bethenny comes from a legitimate need, a legitimate void in my business, and it’s possibly an impossible position to fill because it’s such intense business, yet so intensely personal that it’s a little jarring with the blurred lines. (Editor’s note: The show is a competition, and the winner will get a spot on the Skinnygirl executive team.)
MGM and Mark Burnett have been amazing, interesting partners. HBO Max is so legitimate that it’s just working with another level of production and caliber and attention to detail and standard. That’s really different; I hadn’t worked with that. It’s just a different level of amazing. Obviously, I know the brand HBO and how powerful they are and how top-notch it is, but I didn’t know exactly what HBO Max was when we were selling to them because I’m not that educated on it, and they just own up to being part of the HBO world. I’ve worked in TV production with a lot of different people, and it’s just several notches above.
It’s a bad example because Barneys went bankrupt, but the way you used to feel when you went into Barneys vs. more of a mass store—you didn’t know where to be, and it was quantity over quality. It feels like it’s an elevated quality of programming, and you can see by what they’re airing that they’re really taking care. By the choices they’re making, you can tell it’s a curated collection, and that makes me feel really special because it’s not a chop shop, and it’s not like there’s one look for every single show on their whole network. They are intense about language when we’re promoting it, or who’s producing it, and how it’s gonna go, and what the level of the show is is great. That’s what I’m looking for. I’m a perfectionist. I’d rather not do it if it’s going to be shoddy.
What does your TV future look like?
Mark Burnett and MGM are my producing partners, so who better than to do a modern business competition show? It hopefully will have the worldwide franchise success of The Apprentice, but it is based way more in the personal aspects of my life because they do overflow into business. And it’s based not on random tasks from outside businesses [like The Apprentice was]. Because Delta Airlines and other things like that was not [Donald] Trump’s business, it was him having a business competition show with other brands.
All of the projects that we’re working on, and all of the competition—which is going to be much more scary than that show was because I’m a little more outrageous because I’m just a different breed—it doesn’t need to live and breathe in a conference room. It can exist on all my real brands that are doing well. I have real microwave popcorn that does millions of dollars of sales. I have real shapewear that does millions of dollars of sales. I have real preserves and salad dressings, supplements, and apparel, and all kind of things that do millions of dollars of sales. I have partners like HSN. Everything is authentic and not just an integration. It’s an authentic integration. It’s my real podcast. It’s all really happening. So, for Mark Burnett to do a juggernaut competition show like that, he’s the perfect person who’s done Shark Tank to Survivor for 30 seasons or whatever.
So that’s great, but we’ve sold, and we’re producing other shows, and they have a great reach and great relationships. They’re just a machine. I always say they’re the “Not Fuckin’ Around Crew.”
But I can be on-air talent in other things, meaning I can do a show with Mark Burnett for Bravo, or I can be on Bravo pretty much in any iteration that I wanted. In many ways, I can do what I want, but in most ways I’m choosing to be aligned with Mark Burnett.
Are you thinking of giving the fans what they want and going back to the Real Housewives of New York?
There have been a lot of questions about that and a lot of rumbling. And I’m humbled by the threads and the comments. I honestly am stunned. I haven’t been watching. I saw the first episode and part of another one, so I don’t know what’s going on there. There’s a lot of talk about what’s going on there, and I read comments that people say to me, “Please come back,” and “Please save the show.” It’s all flattering, and I wish the girls well. I’m doing other things though, and I just don’t know how that really would fit into my life as is.
I want to talk about your philanthropy, particularly around the coronavirus pandemic in partnership with the Global Empowerment Mission.
First was the corona sanitizing kits, then was the PPE, which was astounding. Like, I didn’t even know I was capable of accomplishing something like that.
I read the New York Times story about your path to find PPE for medical workers. You got into some crazy shit.
We got into some crazy shit, and that’s not the end of it. To be continued. It’s very fraught with peril and corruption. All relief work is because it’s a time of hysteria and panic, and people can jump in and do illegal and criminal things because people are just in a panic. And then the small business thing definitely has a massive impact, but was not as challenging and terrifying and almost next to impossible as the PPE. The PPE almost killed us all; it was insane.
I live in New York, too, and I felt the paralyzing fear in mid-March. I could barely get my butt off the couch to do anything but read the latest coronavirus news. How did you jump into action so quickly, and what made these the right moves for you and for BStrong?
The only way to do disaster work is to move intensely quickly while the storm is happening. You are building a plane while flying it. You just have to have the personality for this and something just to drive you and propel you in a way that normal work wouldn’t move you. Nothing beside protecting your child or something your kid wants makes you move in that way and gives you that superhuman strength that you didn’t even know you had. Our missions are well planned out, but the intention of the mission is not. You basically come alive.
I didn’t know this was a disaster. We were all watching this story at the same time not knowing what we were entering into. So I did not know that we were entering into a pandemic and what this would be. You’re sort of just playing double Dutch, figuring out if and when you’re going to jump in. We were just going to do the sanitizing kits as our relief effort at first. But once you get in, and you see where the issues are, and see where it’s needed, you just find an entry point. PPE and masks in particular became that initial entry point. Then you announce to the public what you intend to do, not what you know you can do and not what you’re positive you can do, because you don’t even know what you’re doing. So you announce your intent and then people start donating, and it’s momentum. And then you have to make sure you execute because now it feels like you have people relying on you, and you said what your intent is. And I don’t like to disappoint, and I never like to not finish through a job.
And then more things come and more requests come, and you have to figure out how to stay on the ride and when to extricate yourself, and it’s not that easy. Because everything happens in the world all the time, people are messaging me saying, “Why aren’t you doing this about this?” They’re angry at me because we’ve shown this skill set, and we’ve shown that we can accomplish a lot. I am a mother. I’m a person. I have to worry about my health. And it’s extremely unhealthy to do that sort of thing to be honest. I didn’t sleep for three weeks. You’re drinking a glass of vodka at night to try to calm down; it’s not a joke. It’s a balance like the rest of my business. I’m just very good at accomplishing and opening tabs and closing them.
Let’s get into the podcast. Your fans love you for your tell-it-how-it-is, frank style. Will podcasting let you do more of that? Are you more free to speak your mind in this medium?
I haven’t been on that many podcasts, and I’ve never listened to a podcast. I’m not a podcast person because I’m not a tech person. It’s like another era for me. So, I haven’t been a big podcast person, and also I don’t really have a ton of time, so if I’m going to go do something like that, I’m going to try to go meditate or do some yoga.
Andy Cohen—he gets credit, I always like to give credit—was the one who was like, “Oh, my God, you need to do a podcast. It’s what you’re meant to do, born to do. I’m good, but you’re better.” I don’t agree with that, but I don’t listen to him on the radio, so I wouldn’t even know. And I don’t mean that as a negative thing; I just don’t listen to a ton of radio or podcasts. So he urged me.
To everyone that I really respect, I said, “I’m going to say a lot of crazy stuff that I feel,” and they said it didn’t matter. This is all after I had signed on—in the beginning I didn’t ask anyone’s opinion. When I decided to do a podcast, I just decided to do a podcast. And I said, “Holy shit, what are my finances, what is my 401(k), because I know that this could be the end.” And I mean that from the bottom of my heart. I’m well aware that I’m gonna say several things that are going to be very problematic for people. But I can’t do it if I’m not gonna do it. And I’m not saying that for the sake of shock value or anything. It’s just my natural opinions are going to come through.
I am so disappointed in next to everyone who is famous or is a public personality because everybody, unless they’re doing it for shock value, is terrified. I’ve had very well-known people tell me, “I can’t. I got trolled for this,” “I’m afraid to say that,” or “I can’t say this.” And I get it because people’s careers are being affected by the things that they’re saying. It’s happening everywhere. And some of the things they’re saying are really negative, and some of the things they probably didn’t even know what it meant, and they didn’t mean to say it. And if they could, they’d take it back. And everyone’s not forgiving right now. So it’s a scary time to do something like this right now for a person like me, but fuck it.
I’m not interested in just having famous people on. What the podcast is is people who are starting from the bottom, and now they’re here. They’re self-made. They’re people like Bozoma [Saint John], the new chief marketing officer for Netflix; Mark Cuban, who’s a visionary and a legend; and Gary V. And other people like Kevin Huvane, who I’d like to have on; and Ryan Murphy, who’s a friend; and people who are total gangsters in their fearlessness and what they’ve done. They’ve done it their own way, against the grain. It’s not about their scandal, not about their politics. I’d like to have Steve Cohen on, the billionaire, but I don’t want to talk about any scandal. I’d like to have Mark Burnett on, but I don’t want to talk about any politics. I want to talk about why they are successful, what got them here, who they are, and how the sausage gets made. That’s what I want people to hear. Especially now in this time with unemployment at record rates, business is different, people have to shift, pivot, navigate. Now is the time to hear from these people what you have to do that others don’t. I gotta dig deep, but I have a chance to do something because now it’s like a level playing field in many ways. Many industries are demolished.
The podcast is described as letting listeners in on the art of the self-made mogul. What do you think is the biggest reason you were able to succeed in such a big way without the head start that so many moguls came into the world with?
I am cluttered with sweating the small stuff—that is a big part of my life. I only sweat the small stuff. That being said, I have clarity of vision. I know what to do: I’m decisive, I delegate, I execute. I won’t know what to do about what we’re ordering for dinner, what pasta I’m eating, I won’t know what to do about nonsense. But on a massive deal, or a house, or having designed something, or what to do with the business, I have clarity of vision. I just understand what to do.
I knew when I got on Bravo that I would have a spinoff. I don’t know why. I knew that I would one day be on Shark Tank in some capacity. I’m not saying every single thing I’ve ever said was true is going to happen, but a lot of it does. I am Michael Phelps: I look at that wall; I swim for that wall; I don’t worry about what this person’s doing or what that person’s doing. If I’m worrying about them, it’s slowing me down, and it’s already been done. And that’s what so many people do in looking at what I’m doing. This one wants a liquor line, that one wants to monetize the way that I did on the show. Do your own thing. Do what you’re doing. Only you know what that is, and it needs to be authentic to you.