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Real Housewives, Real Workplace Misconduct Allegations

Former RHONY cast member Leah McSweeney alleges unrelenting pressure to drink on the show and a lack of support from Bravo in a new lawsuit.

Former "The Real Housewives of New York City" cast member Leah McSweeney on "Real Housewives: Ultimate Girls Trip."
(Still via Peacock)

In March 2022, Bravo god-emperor Andy Cohen framed the network's reboot of the Real Housewives of New York as a search for a new group of women who could "best reflect" the "most multicultural, diverse, and energetic and exciting city in America"—a piece of PR wizardry that sent me down the rabbit hole of tortured recapping of a very boring season of television. Now, a new lawsuit from OG RHONY cast member Leah McSweeney, filed on Tuesday, undercuts Cohen's "real New York" pivot. It's far more likely that what actually happened was that reality caught up to RHONY—and, in turn, Cohen.

In characteristically headline-making Housewives fashion, McSweeney has leveled, among other things, "Defendants' Conspiracy to Commit Employment Law Violations Constitutes Racketeering in Violation of the Racketeer Influenced And Corrupt Organization Act (RICO)" charges at Cohen, along some of the franchise's other executive producers, Bravo, and the Warner Brothers reality TV production offshoot Shed Media. The suit also tosses in an allegation—candy to Bravo acolytes everywhere—that Cohen frequently indulges in cocaine with his favorite Housewives. What? NO! It can't be true! 

To make matters worse for Cohen and co., this is just the latest bombshell dropped by a former RHONY Housewife—in a blockbuster Vanity Fair report from October, McSweeney hinted at some of the alleged abuse that would make its way into this lawsuit, while Bethenny Frankel talked about the "Reality Reckoning" movement she's leading against the network (which I just won't get into in front of normal, sane people like the average Hell Gate reader, sorry). The Vanity Fair piece also detailed a network investigation into alleged racism from cast member Ramona Singer, who reportedly used the n-word to a Black producer while filming the final season of OG RHONY. (Damningly, Singer subsequently used an abbreviated version of the same slur when responding to a Page Six write-up of Vanity Fair's reporting, which led to her getting dropped from the network's annual convention and reality star meet-and-greet, BravoCon.) 

The allegations in McSweeney's suit are brutal and paint a picture of an endemically toxic work environment. The lawsuit describes how, over the two seasons she was a cast member on RHONY and her stint on 'Housewives' spinoff "Real Housewives: Ultimate Girls Trip" (again…can't get into it…):

 "Defendant Cohen and Defendant Producers discriminated against Ms. McSweeney’s mental health and alcohol use disorders by intentionally planning scenarios intended to exacerbate Ms. McSweeney’s disabilities throughout RHONY season 12. Upon information and belief, Defendant Producers did this to drive Ms. McSweeney to the brink of insanity and force her to break her sobriety because it would create morbidly salacious reality television."

Cohen and other Bravo higher-ups allegedly baited McSweeney to drink, despite knowing that she was in recovery from alcohol use disorder; they allegedly denied her requests for mental health accommodations during episodes of anxiety and depression, sometimes linked to her bipolar disorder and sometimes allegedly brought on by the treatment she was receiving while on the show. Bravo also allegedly withheld food and medical help from McSweeney during a trip to Thailand in apparent retaliation for her decision to stay sober.

The lawsuit also alleges that the denigration of OG RHONY cast members by Bravo higher-ups wasn't limited to just McSweeney; producers allegedly called former RHONY cast members Dorinda Medley a "mean drunk" and Sonja Morgan "pathetic," in front of McSweeney, while praising Luann De Lesseps for starting to drink again after she pursued sobriety in the wake of a Palm Beach arrest that served as a major storyline for RHONY season 10. According to the suit, these comments were made to McSweeney "with the implication that Ms. McSweeney should be a 'fun drunk' and not a 'mean' or 'pathetic' drunk—blatantly ignoring Ms. McSweeneys requests for a reasonable accommodation request, namely for Defendants to respect and not interfere with Ms. McSweeney's sobriety."

This is the context viewers deserved from Bravo when watching the latest, more diverse, and far more sober iteration of "The Real Housewives of New York City." It's easier to empathize with the reboot cast's seeming discomfort with behaving carefree on camera and the show's deliberate move away from booze-oriented activities into stupid shit like bumper cars or disgusting indoor minigolf. These decisions—or should I say precautions?—made for what I still consider to be a very boring and subpar season of "Housewives"—but ultimately, I'd rather be annoyed at a show than be entertained by a new coterie of women undergoing the suffering McSweeney describes in her lawsuit.

If torturing women is what it takes to make "good" television, then RHONY should be put out of its misery instead of forced to limp along with a lackluster new cast—and Bravo owes it to its employees like McSweeney, and to its audiences, to create a workplace that supports its on-screen talent (in acting deranged) instead of antagonizing and taking advantage of them. If that means more artifice, or less explosive fighting, or even more work for executive producers besides allegedly doing blow and getting people drunk, then so be it.

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