Welcome to Jersey: Checking the latest Real Housewives

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By Kimberly Chun

Real Housewives of New Jersey: down-to-earth, grown-up Jersey girls - or The Sopranos with big hair, McMansions, and surgically enhanced “bubbies”? I was dying to know after getting sucked into the show’s sneak-preview special - now being aired nonstop on Bravo - so I took a peek into a conference call arranged by NBC Universal-Bravo. On the line: the tough-talking, red-headed matriarch Caroline Manzo, who comes off as softer and much less malevolent sans dramatic edits, and her dark-eyed, down-low sister-in-law Jacqueline Laurita. The Real Housewives of New Jersey premieres tonight, May 12, with a new episode every Tuesday night on Bravo.

Q: Caroline, my first question’s for you. I was just wondering if you could tell us a little bit about the early years leading up to the life you have now.

Caroline Manzo: Sure. I met my husband actually 28 years ago. We will be celebrating our 25th anniversary this July. And when we first started the Brownstone was a very, very young business in its infancy, at least for the Manzo family, and we struggled. My husband, at that time, made less than $200 a week, and we lived in a small apartment above the Brownstone, and we lived there for a couple of years, and then we had our first son, Albie.

We lived there in the one-bedroom apartment with Albie, as many people do, with his bassinet and crib in the bedroom, which probably a 10-by-10 bedroom, and it was a third-floor walkup in the Brownstone and we struggled. And then we were fortunate enough to buy our first home. And again, we didn’t have a lot of money, and I chose to stay at home.

I used to work for the Board of Education, and once I had Albie, I stayed home and decided to be a stay-at-home mom, so that kind of made life a little more difficult for us, because there was only one salary coming in. And because he was building a business, every dollar counted, so his salary was minimal, at best, and we struggled.

[My husband] would buy used cars from his cousin, who was a car dealer, and he would get cars from his cousin’s lot and put signs on them “for sale,” and he was kind of like a moving advertisement for his cousin, because we couldn’t afford two cars.

And he drove around in his cousin’s car, and they would get a bite, and the car would be sold he’d get another car and drive around in that car. I remember it was a Ford Taurus wagon, and it was new, and I thought I was it. I had this Ford Taurus wagon, and it was a beautiful white car, and I was so thrilled to have a new car. And he always was you know kind enough to let me have the nicer car, and still is to this day.

Q: Jacqueline, a question for you. It seems like from the special that you’re put in the middle a lot. How did you handle that, and what was it like through taping? Did you get squeezed a lot?

Jacqueline Laurita: Yes, it was very stressful. It’s hard you know because I love my family, and you know, we’re a very close family. And then, you know, sometimes when people you know come in, and maybe not everybody gets along. And I kind of like everybody to get along, and, you know, want harmony with everybody, and it just doesn’t always happen, but you try to make it work. And you know there were some behind-the-scene, you know, things going on. It was – it was a very stressful situation, but you know, I always try to see both sides to every situation, so I was, you know, trying to see the good and the bad, like, hearing out everybody.

I just tried to be as true to myself as possible, and honest as I could be and, you know, just wanting to try to keep the peace as much as I could.

Q: I'm sure you must have been familiar with the franchise before this, and so I was just wondering, especially given that some of you are family members, weren’t you concerned – you’ve seen in these previous seasons how so many fights break out and feuding - about how this would affect the way you all relate to each other?

CM: I’ll take it, Jacqueline. This is Caroline.

You have to remember, when this process initially began, the only show that was on was O.C. And O.C., at that time, had a very warm and fuzzy feel to it. And as the programs evolved, and people got to know each other that’s where things happened.

Now, as far as our relationships and worrying about things - you know what, if something as crazy as this television show is going to break us, we have bigger problems than that – you know what I mean?

We’re family, and family understands, and the good news is we get to talk things out and come to a general understanding with each other that, well, gee, why’d you say that, and this is why I said it, and then it’s understood, and it’s forgiven.

And that’s, I think, an advantage we have, because when you don’t have the history, you don’t have the love that’s there. We know each other, and there’s this history here, so we know each other’s personalities, and we know each other’s, you know, shortsighted aspects, and we understand and we forgive. So you know what it’s almost an advantage, rather than a disadvantage.

Q: I could see that – that’s a good point, and I didn’t think of it that way. After this show, do you feel differently about any of the cast members?

CM: Again, these are people that I’ve known – you know Jacqueline forever, 13 years, Teresa, again, 13 years, and, obviously, I’ve known my sister from the day she was born. To feel differently, no. You know it’s probably brought us closer. As far as Danielle goes, she is a newcomer into the group, and we’re just getting to know Danielle. So, I can’t give you my opinion on do I feel differently or not, because I just met her.

As far as the rest of us go, no, I think it’s brought us closer.

Q: So, the last family, the New Jersey family that we saw on TV were the Sopranos. Do you guys feel like people are starting to make comparisons there?

CM: Caroline again. I think that The Sopranos was such a (phenom) in the area, in the country itself, I think it’s brilliant marketing on Bravo’s part, but to go there with that, I think once the show airs you’ll see a marked different in who we are and what The Sopranos’ portrayed. However, we are Italian Americans and there are going to be some real similarities. The similarities being a love of family and tradition, and you’ll see that with the New Jersey people, and the similarities being saying what’s on your mind. I think the similarities stop there though.

Q: I know that there have already been some articles out there of people digging into your personal lives and your past. Is that something that you thought about before you signed on to the show and is it upsetting to you when you see those sorts of things?

CM: Of course we thought about it, and I’ve got nothing to be ashamed of and nothing to hide about my past. If nothing else, it just shows that you know the American dream exists.

Q: Caroline, my question is for you. You know when I think of a housewife, I don’t think of someone who owns businesses.

CM: This is true, and I’m glad you asked that question. When my children were first born – you have to remember, my children are 20, 21, and 23 - as I said to the reporter earlier, I made the decision to leave work and stay home. Once my children became of school age, I got my real estate license and I started to work. With that it was part time, the hours that they were in school. At 3 o’clock, I was home. That’s my choice and that was my belief that you know when you become a mom, you make the conscious decision to I think dedicate yourself to the raising of this child, and it takes a lot of sacrifice. And you know could I say, well, gee, my life would have been different if I worked all the time? I don’t know. I don’t know. I can’t answer that question because I chose to stay home. Do I think that you should give up who are you because you’re a mother and lose your identity – absolutely not. There are some people that have no choice but to get up and go to work every day, OK - and you can’t lose respect for these women because that’s the cards that they were dealt, and they may be single moms, or whatever the case may be. That was not my story.

I’m at a funny point in my life because I’m kind of having that empty nest syndrome, where you know with one hand I’m pushing them out the door, and with the other hand I’m pulling them back and saying, “Don’t go.” So, now it’s my turn, OK - to be Caroline. Because I’m at a different point in my life, and I can’t stay home and wish that they were still there to tie their shoes. That’s not where I am now, so now it’s my turn to have fun. And no matter how old you are, if you have a dream follow it and that’s what I’m doing.

Q: Have either of you been impacted negatively by the recession?

CM: It certainly has impacted us. I know my husband took a pay cut because of it.

Q: Really? A big one?

CM: You know, what defines big? I don’t know. It was …

Q: Fifty percent or more?

CM: It was a good one. It was a significant one, let’s put it that way.

JL: Yes, my husband has different aspects of his business, and some areas it greatly affects, and then other areas it hasn’t affected, so it’s balancing itself out at the moment, but definitely there are areas where it’s affected. We’re not like big spenders, but we’ve cut back a lot on a lot of things – really we have, and its fine. I mean, you do what you got to do. My husband’s a very generous person, so the people that its affected that work for my husband, he does whatever he can to help those people that are being affected, that had to take pay cuts and things like that, so I think everybody’s affected by it. It’s a hard time for everybody.

CM: The thing is you have to respect what is and you have to respect the situation we’re in. But, at the same time you know you don’t crawl under a rock and die because of it, and it’s my philosophy if there’s a problem you come out swinging and move forward in a positive direction and that's what I think we all should do. We have to respect the issue at hand, but don’t let it defeat us.

Q: This questions for Caroline. I heard that there was some tension between you and Danielle on the show, and I just wanted to know why that was.

CM: Well that’s something you’re going to have to wait and watch and see.

Q: OK, then could you tell me who your favorite housewife is from the other shows – both of you.

CM: Caroline – I can’t say that I have a definite favorite. There are those that I relate to more, again, one being Gina, because of the age of her children I would have to think that she and I are going probably through the same kind of things – feelings in our life, as far as our children go, and letting them out into the world. I kind of relate to Jill a little bit, because she tells it like it is and she shoots from the hip, and so do I, and I respect that about her.

JL: I can pull a little bit of myself out of everybody. There's really not one person – I might like the sense of humor of one person, and different aspects of everybody’s personality. But it’s really hard to make a judgment by watching the girls, just because I know how editing works, and you just see like a small portion of the whole person.

I don’t like to pick one over the other, but Jill’s been very friendly, very nice, and I like Tamara’s sense of humor on the O.C..

Q: And how are you guys going to be different from Atlanta and New York and O.C.?

JL: The family aspect of it is different. They’ve never had that before – sisters and the sister-in-law. And I think with every show it’s different, because you have different women, different personalities.

Q: The question I wanted to ask - I always get offended when people knock my home state, and you know there was an article in The Washington Post last week that said, “The Jersey housewives are especially awful because they don’t come with a cloud of elitism or privilege that hovers over other women – they’re from New Jersey, for heaven’s sake, not Beverly Hills.” How do you respond to people criticizing you or the state like that, and do you think that the show is perpetuating a stereotype of New Jersey in any way?

CM: This is Caroline. Again, the only stereotype that I think they’re going with is The Sopranos, and I guess that makes good press. As far as being compared to Beverly Hills, so what, you know? We are who we are, and that’s what I think New Jersey is – so what, you know? We tell it like it is. We are about family. We’re about having fun, and I don’t necessarily think that living in a mansion, and going to the elite parties and to be seen in – you know, to be seen and heard defines you as a person. And I think in New Jersey you get such an eclectic mix of different cultures, and different levels in life, and that’s everywhere. So, the stigma with The Sopranos - I get it. Sopranos was great, and I guess that’s what going to sell the show, but I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised when you see the group of us that we’re moms, we’re sisters, we’re daughters, we’re friends, and we’re housewives for real. We’re the real deal.

Q: Jacqueline, just a quick follow-up question. I heard a rumor that – from people in the town and Franklin Lakes - that [the show’s staff] came into the beauty salon there, near the Market Basket, and sort of asked them to help them find women who would fit the profile of what they’re were looking for the show. Is there any truth to that rumor?

JL: Well, yes, I was approached by the owners of the salon, and I didn’t really know much about the show. They just said it was Jersey moms, or something like that, and they had approached by sister-in-law, (Deena), as well. And so we were just kind of playing with the idea of it and – I mean, our family has always joked around – if we were a reality show it’d be so funny. We have such a big family that it was like a joke because we were always laughing, and having fun, and there’s always drama, and you know conflicting things going on. We just thought it would be funny, so we were just not really taking it that serious in the beginning. We didn’t really know what the show was or what it was about, and so we were just kind of playing with it.

Q: I was wondering why both of you got involved with this show? What did you hope to get out of it?

CM: I’ll go first, Jacqueline. It’s Caroline. I did it for one reason – my philosophy in life is life hands you situations – and I teach this to my children every day. When something comes to you take it – OK – and you learn from it, and you experience it. You only one go round in this world. You only have one life to live and it’s meant to be lived, so you do something, and you take the good from it, and you take the bad from it and you learn.

I think, as a family, it hopefully will be a tremendous experience. You know, who could say that they’ve done something like this in their lifetime, to have everything documented, the good and the bad – OK – and to look back on it and say you know what this is what living is. It’s meant to have fun, laugh, enjoy, and if something rotten comes out of it, well, you learn from it.

As far as my expectations, this is all too new to me. I run two businesses, and I’ve got a family and a husband and house. I didn’t think that far ahead, and I'm not at that point right now. Right now I think we’re all feeling a little overwhelmed, as to really the reality of all this. You know you’ve got the reality show of the housewives. We’ve got the reality of being a housewife and we’re learning. I’m not at that point to say, well, what am I going to get out of it, because my initial thought process was to do something fun as a family, and to say, you know, you took the bite out of the apple, basically.

JL: Yes, for the adventure of it, just the kids being in school all day, and you know I thought it’d be something fun to do with the family and to look back on. As I was saying before you know we always joked around when the family was together, because we’d always be laughing, and having fun and doing all these things – the whole thing. And we’d always joke around about, oh, my God, if we had reality show what would that be like you know. And then this opportunity was brought to us, and it just seemed like something fun for the whole family to do, and you’re comfortable with the people you’re doing it with. And didn’t understand the impact it would have on our lives. We really didn’t look that far ahead.

We were just like not realizing how big this show actually was. O.C. was the only one that was out, so we hadn’t seen any of the other shows at the time that we signed.

Q: What kind of impact has it had on your lives? So far it hasn’t even really started, but the special’s been running a lot.

CM: Well, just – this is Caroline – you know to be recognized, number one, and for someone to ask you for your autograph, number two. It’s just surreal, and it’s like, all right, you know, why do you want my autograph? A month ago I could be walking down the street, and nobody cared about me, and nobody cared to ask for my autograph, and all of sudden, it’s, like, “Oh, my God, it’s Caroline.” It’s hilarious. It’s just such a departure from who we are – you know, at what we’re used to.

JL: I'm a very low key – I’m like home all the time. I don’t really go out a lot, or go a lot of places, and especially now, because I’m nesting. I haven’t really had that impact of people recognizing me right now. I think it may be I’m a little unrecognizable. But you know like yesterday we were out in New York City going to different interviews all day long. I mean, that’s not something I would normally do in my routine. So, things like that are – you know changed a little bit, but I’m trying to keep my life as normal as possible. I hear the other girls that are out there getting recognized. It is really a surreal feeling. I don’t really understand it yet.

You know, and I read these magazines all the time, and all of a sudden, our pictures in there. I'm like, what am I doing in there. Like, that's so weird. Like, I'm nobody, you know.

Q: Did you feel like the producers allowed things to unfold naturally, or do you feel like sometimes the drama was kind of amplified for various reasons? Was there a lot of interaction with the people who made the show?

CM: You know what, again, I would imagine that, you know, they’re producers, and they know how to push buttons. Can I say, you know, without a doubt yes, they did it? I don’t know, you know, because I’ve never done a TV show before, you know.

Every now and again, they’d say, “Well, why don’t you do this,” or “Why don’t you do that,” and if I didn’t feel comfortable with it, if it wasn’t what I would normally say or do, I didn’t do it, you know, so …

JL: I was going to say, you know, they’re constantly in touch with you, and they’ll say, “Well, what’s going on with you and your daughter?” And if I had an issue going on with me and my daughter, you know, they would not want me to discuss it with her until they were there with camera, and then they would film it.

So it was really things going on in my life, but sometimes you would have to hold off or – they want to catch everything on camera - so you got to kind of be aware of that. Like, OK, I’m not going to talk to her until the cameras are there, so there’s a little bit of that, but it’s all real, you know - what’s really going on.

Q: I was wondering, were you worried about how your reputation might be affected and how you’ll be portrayed with the editing after watching the preview episode?

CM: You know what, we’re all big girls – OK – and we are who we are. And you know I say all the time – I said it yesterday a million times – I am what I am – that’s all that I am – OK. I can’t please everybody. And I know who we are as women, and who we are as moms, and wives, and sisters, and friends and daughters, like I said before. I can’t live my life worrying about what somebody’s going to think of me. I might as well just hide under the bed then – OK. I don’t hurt anybody and I don’t do anything wrong – OK. So, if that’s not good enough, I can’t apologize for who I am because that’s who I am.

JL: Yes, it doesn’t bother me at all. I never worried about that because I have a lot of people in my life that do know me, that love me and accept me for who I am, and the same. And if people are going to judge a television show, and they’re going to take it that seriously, and they get angered, or don’t want to know me, then I didn’t know them anyway and that’s fine.

But you know I’m always open to meeting new people. I love meeting new people. And you know I welcome anybody who wants to be a part of my life, but if someone is judging me before they even meet me then they’re probably someone that I don’t need in my life anyway. I’m not worried about what people say behind my back, because regardless if I was on TV or not it would still be happening. I mean there’s always women in the town who prejudge you, or have their opinion anyway.

CM: And I hope you know that they take it in the spirit that it was intended to be - and that’s ...

JL: … Entertainment.

CM: … Just fun, and you know are we going to connect with everybody in the town? No. Are some people going to relate to us? Of course, you know.

Q: OK, Caroline. Now, I know it’s tough having cameras in front of you all day and you might forget, so was there any instances that you kind of wished they weren’t there, or regret that they caught something on camera?

CM: You know what, it was so long ago and I don’t remember. I’m going to say that I would have to imagine the answer is yes.

Am I perfect? No. Is anybody perfect? No. Are we human? Yes. But guess what, that’s my moment. I’ll deal with it. I’ll own it, you know.

Q: And what’s it been like seeing yourselves on TV?

CM: That’s been difficult.

JL: That’s the hardest part. I’d never liked myself in pictures. I don’t like the way I look on video, so I can pick myself apart, but it’s actually been very freeing, because I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t even care anymore. I’m fine with it. It doesn’t bother me.

CM: Well, that’s the thing – what I was saying before. You know you did this and you’re going to learn from it, so you see things about yourself that, OK, I need to lose 10 pounds, or I don’t like when I say that word. I don’t like the way it sounds, or I don’t like when I do this. So it’s an education on yourself, because you have the luxury, and not many people have this luxury, of seeing yourself in a whole different way. You know what I mean?

So, that’s one of the things – you know what, I’m going to learn from what I’m seeing. And it’s not an easy process, because when I hear my voice I want to crawl under the bed.

JL: Right – I sound like that?

CM: Yes. You know, that’s my voice. I can’t change my voice, so that’s fine, but guess what, now you learn – all right, Caroline, you have a tough voice. Don’t say that because it doesn’t sound right coming out of your mouth, you know.

JL: I have a good sense of humor, so I can laugh at myself, so thank God, because otherwise I don’t know.