The former ‘Real Housewives’ star opens up to The Hollywood Reporter about doing her part to aid those in need through her disaster relief initiative, BStrong. “We’re not all just sitting around in quarantine watching the news waiting for more doom and gloom,” she says. “We’re focused on solving the problem.”
Bethenny Frankel is no stranger to helping those in need.
After launching her BStrong diaster relief initiative in 2017, the former Real Housewives of New York City personality has consistently provided real-time emergency assistance to people in crisis. So far, she has offered substantial aid — including the distribution of millions of dollars — to individuals impacted by catastrophic events such as Puerto Rico’s Hurricane Maria in 2017; the Bahamas’ Hurricane Dorian in 2018; and the wildfires that ravaged Australia in 2019 and were finally contained in mid-February.
Now, Frankel is focused on the coronavirus pandemic. As the virus continues to spread across the globe — with more than 78,000 cases in the U.S. and at least 1,135 deaths to date — BStrong, in partnership with Global Empowerment Mission, has marshalled a small but mighty team to raise funds and distribute essential medical-grade protective gear to those who are fighting on the frontlines as the country faces a shortage of supplies.
Masks, goggles, gowns, sheets and more items are currently being delivered to vulnerable hospitals nationwide — the result of hard work, swift mobilization and maybe even a few sleepless nights.
“I have thousands of messages on my socials of people just begging and pleading for something so basic like a mask, gown or any kind of protective gear,” Frankel tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I wake up in the middle of the night and get through all these messages, email with people and come up with plans. We’re working 24 hours a day. This is all we do. We don’t make a dime and 100 percent of the money we raise goes to the effort. This is our entire life at the moment and for the foreseeable future.”
Below, the multihyphenate star — who, in the midst of giving back, continues to run her Skinnygirl lifestyle brand while producing new series in a pact with Mark Burnett and MGM TV — talks more with THR about fighting for those threatened by the coronavirus.
First of all, how are you doing right now?
Oh, you know, I’m just super relaxed. (Laughs) No, it’s a little much. I couldn’t find a Spanish sentence book for my daughter [Bryn, 9] last night that I had bought, and that just made me want to come to tears because that’s really not what we want to be focusing on. You’re spending $50 million on protective gear and the $3 Spanish sentence book is what you’re going to have a meltdown about because it’s just been entirely crazy.
How are you staying sane throughout all of this?
I’ve been taking hot baths once a day to relax me. I’m trying to get a decent amount of sleep, which is also critical — for everybody. I’m trying to stretch and keep calm in the moments that I can. You get very activated. Things are very time-sensitive and it’s a lot of pressure and there’s so many people on the phone at the same time. You’re dealing with different governments, comments, politics, letters of intent, financial statements. It’s just been a real roller coaster. It’s so dire.
At what point did you feel BStrong had to step in?
I have thousands of comments and messages on my socials of people just begging and pleading for something as basic as a mask, gown, a shield or any kind of protective gear. It’s been something I never even imagined in my life and I’ve seen a lot. Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico was the worst thing I’d ever seen and then Dorian in the Bahamas was even worse than Puerto Rico, which was scary. And now the coronavirus? This is another level of desperation. Everyone has anxiety, and everyone’s panicked. But me and my team? We’re not all just sitting around in quarantine watching the news waiting for more doom and gloom. We’re focused on solving the problem.
As this goes on, do your priorities continuously change? How do you keep up when the virus is moving so fast?
Every day, something new is the big problem. You have to be able to pivot. Once it starts, you don’t realize what the need is going to be. In the beginning, I didn’t think I was going to get involved in this. We were just planning on delivering “corona kits,” which were hydration, immune-building, sanitization, money and medical information for people who were too poor to get hand sanitizer gel or people who relied on sending their kids to school because they couldn’t afford to pay for their lunches. But when everything began shutting down, hand sanitizer and that kind of thing became less of a priority. It’s still important and we’re still delivering those kits. But then I was able to figure out, more than a week ago before most people, that the masks were going to be a real problem. The masks, the gowns, the shields, all kinds of protective gear. So, I started to pivot and used my worldwide contacts to help on that front.
You’ve been working with politicians on the state level to help with relief efforts in places such as New York, Massachusetts and Arizona. How has that been helpful in your relief efforts?
We’ve never worked with governments as closely as we are now. We’re working neck and neck with Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office in New York, we are working with the governors of Massachusetts [Charlie Baker] and Arizona [Doug Ducey]. We’re working with several other states in similar capacities. We’re also working directly with hospitals, so we are really coming together to work and solve the problem. It’s really an interesting thing to see.
It seems like BStrong and these state governments have responded to this crisis with more urgency than the federal government and President Donald Trump, who hopes to lift virus-related restrictions by Easter. How do you think they’ve handled the situation and what is your message for Trump’s administration during this time?
We don’t blame, and we don’t complain because we don’t have the time. I think the federal government has so much going on right now with what they’re dealing with — whether it’s coming up with ventilators, coming up with a cause, or coming up with a way to fix the economy now that the world has basically shut down. Maybe they don’t know how to balance the fact that no one is leaving their home while making sure the economy is OK? I don’t’ know where their funding is going, I don’t know how they’re organized, and I don’t truly understand what FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] is focusing on in particular because they don’t work with me. With us, we’re not complaining or explaining. We just pick up the broom to help clean up the mess. State governments are writing me big checks right now to secure what they need — and in a timely fashion, so if the federal government wants to do that as well, that’s great. But I just don’t know how they work.
As a New Yorker, how has it been working Gov. Cuomo?
Cuomo has been great. He’s even said to some people, ‘”Go with Bethenny on this one because she’s going to be able to get it done faster.” So, they’re not trying to hold it and run it up the flagpole for three days when people are dying. They’re trying to get the problem solved. New York has been excellent to work with because they’re communicative about what they need and what their No. 1 priority is. Right now, that’s protective gear for medical professionals. Massachusetts has also been outrageously cooperative. Here’s the National Guard to pick it up, here’s the money, here’s the letter of intent — and boom! — let’s transact. We’re working really well with governments that just want me to get their problems solved and want to plug the hole.
Has your success in this space ever made you think about running for office one day?
Everybody says that I should run for politics and that I should run for mayor. I don’t know much about politics. I just know how to get things done. If that’s what politics is, then I guess I’d be a good politician. But if I have to wait five days to get a check cleared to order what I need to order, I can’t work like that. I don’t have the time. I just do what I need to do to solve the problem. Even for Puerto Rico, we were there before the government. We were in the Bahamas when the hurricane was still hitting, so I know a lot about relief work and disaster relief. I don’t know a lot about the government. I’m learning a lot about state government. This is a college education in government and politics and problem-solving. I like working with people who want to get it done and get it done fast.
You’ve also had support from Hollywood. How does it feel to have people like Ellen DeGeneres, Amy Schumer, Mindy Kaling and so many others back you up?
People are really spreading the word and it feels great. I’m so appreciative. Ellen, who’s always been an amazing supporter of BStrong and donated three planes to our Puerto Rico efforts, she was the first one to post something about what we’re doing with the coronavirus. And then Amy, Mindy, Nina Dobrev, Shaun White, Maria Menounos, Katie Couric, Jenna Bush Hager, Meghan McCain, Christie Brinkley, Michelle Pfeiffer. The list goes on.
What does your operation look like and how long do you plan to work at this level?
We were in Australia two weeks ago with things to do related to the fires they had. We’re still building schools and houses in the Bahamas. We just were in Puerto Rico because they had an earthquake and we were distributing cash cards to people in shelters, which is all to say that we don’t desert these people. We connect and follow through. As far as staff goes, I have four people that are on sourcing, connecting, liaising and executing the overall architecture of the plan. And then we have about five to 10 ancillary people who support them. And then in the warehouse, we have anywhere between 10 to 35 people depending on what we’re assembling.
Where are you sourcing your materials?
All over the world, but it’s preferable when we find protective gear in the United States. And that’s because I can get them on a truck and get them to you tomorrow. That’s super important. I need to know where my stuff is coming from. I need to be able to touch it, see it and get it on a truck.
What would you like to say to the medical professionals, grocery store workers, pharmacy workers and all those who are on the frontlines right now?
We’re there for you, we understand what you’re doing, we understand that you’re afraid, we understand that you’re walking into work every day with complete anxiety. They are the firefighters who are fighting this fire and we get that. And they don’t have the proper equipment. It’s like a firefighter walking in to fight a fire without their helmet. We hear that, and we feel that. I’m really sorry for them and we applaud them. And everybody else should be staying home so there are fewer people with them to have to battle with every day in their war.
How has this all impacted your current ventures with Mark Burnett and MGM TV, particularly your upcoming show with HBO Max, The Big Shot With Bethenny?
It’s funny because I’m on the phone with them all the time about the show, new show ideas, this, that and the other. And now they’ve never seen me so quiet. For two days, I’ve had a call with them that I keep pushing back. The casting notice for The Big Shot is ready to go up and I just have said I don’t feel like this is the right time to promote a TV contest for a job, to promote capitalism in New York City. At the end of this, everybody is going to want a job and it’s going to be great to talk about capitalism in a minute but, to me, it doesn’t feel right currently. I’m very focused on relief efforts because this is more important right now. And my partners understand that.
What else can people do to help?
I do feel weird because people are worried about their jobs and their source of income. I do understand the desperation. I beg people to donate but if they can’t, I ask them to please spread the word and to post it on their socials. But the fact of the matter is that we need real money from people who really have it. That’s what we need — real serious, serious money. This isn’t the time to donate a cute amount. I never really pressure people, but we are transacting millions and millions of dollars. Five dollars is great and that will get one mask and that is wonderful, but we’re not buying one mask. We’re buying millions of masks and more kinds of protective gear: gowns, goggles, swabs, sheets and everything.
When you first started out on reality TV all those years ago, did you ever imagine you’d eventually be doing this kind of work?
It’s surreal. I just got an email from HSN asking about dates I was thinking about going on to sell my Skinnygirl jeans. It seems like a lifetime ago now that I would go on Instagram to post a picture promoting my salad dressing. It’s just different now. It’s changed me.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.