Leah McSweeney, whose business ventures include selling sweatpants and coffee mugs with Real Housewives of New York slogans on them, is about to be very rich. This enrichment process is standard-operating-procedure for Real Housewives, which takes already rich women and makes them richer using a scale based entirely on the level of drama, subterfuge, and chaos they bring to any given network television time slot. But how much value does someone like McSweeney, a younger and fresher face, bring to RHONY, to an ancient franchise battling the changing tides of popular culture? Apparently a lot.
While I’d describe McSweeney’s first season as “refreshing,” her castmates have called it crass, rude, loud, un-ladylike. Some viewers might be divided, but the overwhelming majority of the “tea” blogs and Reddit pages call for her to be installed as the new Queen B of the New York City, on a throne that has sat empty since reining girlboss Bethenny Frankel vacated it to guest star on Shark Tank sometimes.
And now McSweeney is getting a raise. Page Six reported Thursday that after threatening to walk over low pay and a celebrated first season, she will head into next season making $10,000 an episode, a sizeable bump from her current salary of $3000 per. In total, that puts her estimated worth to the franchise at around $240,000, give or take, plus any sponsorship deals or boosted sales to “fashion brand” Married to the Mob that might come with that. (After Bravo takes it a sizeable chunk of royalties, naturally.)
In the grand scheme of Bravo’s nebulous checkbook, which grades pay scales on still-unknown metrics, $240,000 is pocket change: Estimates put legendary Real Housewives’ salaries, like those of NeNe Leakes and Bethenny Frankel, in the millions. Even lessers like Denise Richards have come into their first seasons making $1 million per, should they be blessed with pre-existing fame and notoriety. Adjusting for “inflation,” Lisa Rinna’s $450,000 salary for her first season on Real Housewives of Beverly Hills in 2014 is almost comparable. (Let me stress that almost, a fact I’m sure burns Rinna up inside.)
I wouldn’t be surprised if Bravo sees Leah McSweeney as this show’s next Bethenny Frankel. She has a business, speaks her mind, and is significantly younger than most of her castmates, infusing each week’s proceedings with some much needed vigor.
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Bethenny Frankel raked in millions during her tenure because she enriched Bravo, both culturally and financially, with her various business ventures and social cachet. She’s also credited with creating a “Bethenny clause” for herself, which guaranteed she did not pay Bravo any royalties, because of the power she held inside the network. Meanwhile, NeNe Leakes was a verifiable meme machine, her visage becoming almost synonymous with the Real Housewives entirely, every sentence she spoke launching a billion different gifs and screencaps and listicles. Denise Richards was incredibly famous, for a brief minute, until the Real Housewives made her famous for entirely different reasons.
Leah McSweeney, meanwhile, is not really that famous. She isn’t even very notorious, except for in certain dark corners of Manhattan where she peddles her “streetwear.” This first season on Real Housewives of New York has changed that somewhat. Now, when sensible RHONY viewers hear McSweeney’s name, they think of the woman who tore the foundation out from underneath one of Bravo’s longest-running, and most beloved, franchises. In a single season, she managed to stand her ground against Ramona Singer and tame the wild demon that lives inside Dorinda Medley. A quick perusal through the #RHONY tag on Instagram or Twitter reveals droves of viewers celebrating McSweeney’s girl-bossery, or “take-no-shit” attitude. She’s a truth-teller—never mind what, exactly, that truth might entail—who swears on national television and isn’t afraid to tear up a swanky Rhode Island dinner party or show up in a room of Upper East Side Republican Super PAC donors sporting a sheer dress and angel wing tattoos that sit right above the pussy.
It’s those Upper East Side conservatives that have become hard to ignore on this show, as of late. When these women go to their fancy lady parties, or attend the charity ventures of their Hamptonite friends, the general vibe of the room is overwhelmingly regressive: buttoned up attire, fretting over manners, and the policing of women like McSweeney’s dress or manner of speech. McSweeney obviously took note of this in her first season, and often remarked on red-blooded Ramona Singer’s extended circle of friends, who she saw as frighteningly conservative. In the season’s most memorable moment, she pulled the “tiki” torches out of Singer’s lawn, hurled them, and screamed, “THEY SUCK!” After Tinsley Mortimer inquired about her anger towards them, she retorted, “You don’t read the news enough.” (Later, McSweeney told Andy Cohen that Singer’s torches reminded her of white supremacists in Charlottesville.)
Yet it doesn’t take very long to peel back the thin veneer of progressivism that McSweeney brings to RHONY. In her frequent columns for Penthouse, which ran from 2018 to 2019, she decried the “insanity” of “radical leftist” protests, and claimed that a boyfriend criticizing Bari Weiss and Jordan Peterson made her feel like “a Twitter mob had invaded my bedroom and was attacking me with the usual insults: alt-right, a liberal trust funder, white-supremacist, self-hating whitey.” In another column from 2018, she claimed that Harvey Weinstein couldn’t have possibly raped Asia Argento because she “went on to have a consensual relationship with Weinstein for several years.” She also wrote that Argento and Rose McGowan were “not brave” but “disingenuous,” writing that “rape and sexual transactions are worlds apart, and they need to stay worlds apart.” In an interview with “comedian” Andrew Schulz, she praised his ability to riff on the “usefulness of the word tranny.” (You can watch a full set of Schulz’s “comedy” routine here, which obviously made McSweeney laugh hysterically.)
McSweeney’s current worth to Bravo is $240,000. As her castmates begin their slow fade into the distance, I expect this number will climb. She will probably relaunch her fashion brand in some way, and resume her very recent activities as a political commentator, even if her political beliefs are really just a gussied up, millennial version of what has made this franchise so tiresome in recent seasons. The world will turn, and Leah McSweeney will be the only surviving O.G. on RHONY, a title I’m sure she will love, considering her fondness for the word gangster.
But McSweeney’s value to Bravo, and Real Housewives of New York, is not that she brings some much-needed progressivism or youth to a franchise plagued by Trump supporters. No, her supposed value is that she updates that overwhelming conservatism with a fresh coat of paint.