Bethenny Frankel has never been afraid to get her hands dirty.
In fact, she’s actively sought out the opportunity, going back to one of her first gigs as an erstwhile club promoter: She’d throw house parties as a teenager, work at a bakery to help foot the bill and make an extra buck by charging admission.
And years later, she continued that DIY-style hustle on The Real Housewives of New York. Counter to the primped and pampered mold of her ladies-who-lunch castmates, Frankel percolated a business in her one-bedroom apartment and shilled her low-calorie Skinnygirl Cocktails at every turn during early seasons of the Bravo series. She even drove a car shrink-wrapped in her budding company’s logo while her haughty co-stars shook their heads and clutched their Gucci.
These days, presiding over an empire that counts 120-plus consumer products across booze, candy, hair care, coffee, clothing and more, Frankel is still rolling up her sleeves. She calls it being “in the grit.”
The grit involves efforts both sweeping and small. (The devil is in the details, as the saying goes, and so is Frankel, who weighs in on everything from the consistency of her snack bars to the grommets on her knit tops.) Her to-do list of late included hawking her Skinnygirl jeans line on HSN (she’ll be on the channel once a month, starting in March, after her first appearance in October moved every piece of product), helping to rework the packaging on her protein shakes (“It needed to pop,” she says) and leading disaster-relief efforts via her B Strong initiative in places like Puerto Rico, Texas and Guatemala.
She’s juggled those tasks while keeping up a consistent dialogue with her diverse fan following (3.5 million combined on Twitter and Instagram) and guest judging on ABC’s Shark Tank, where she recently offered to appear with her dogs, Biggie and Smalls, on packaging for a new pet product. (Contestants ended up flubbing the deals, with one pair of inventors trying to slash the profit on her proposed investment, earning only a dressing down from Frankel, who said, “I don’t want to be partners with somebody who doesn’t know my value. You really should be taking this deal with me. I’m really good at marketing, beyond belief. I have incredible ideas and an army of women.”)
The serial entrepreneur and challenger brand creator, who sold her flagship tequila drink in 2011 to Beam Global (now Beam Suntory) for a reported $100 million, often says she’s “building the plane while flying it.”
“I see a void that can be filled,” she tells Adweek, “and I go with my gut. I don’t look at what everyone else is doing. Then I wouldn’t be able to have my own original thoughts.”
While she leans heavily into her instincts, there’s nothing haphazard about her approach, says Jack Gross, CEO of One Jeanswear Group, her apparel partner.
“She’s taking risks, but they’re calculated—she’s not shooting from the hip,” Gross says. “She moves fast, and yet her decisions are thoughtful. She wants to make sure she hits the target.”
The New York native, whose degree from NYU is in communications and psychology, not business, nurtured her brand by exercising “quick-twitch muscles” and assembling a curated group of advisers and collaborators who do the same, says Jarrod Moses, founder, president and CEO of United Entertainment Group, who works closely with her.
“She comes from the school of hard knocks and common sense,” Moses says. “She draws on her personality and perseverance.”
In less than a decade, Frankel went from having an $8,000 bank balance to becoming a multimillionaire mogul with a thriving charitable organization. She owns 100 percent of her privately held brand, aside from the Beam portfolio, and has taken it into products ranging from deli meat and microwave popcorn to body scrubs and bomber jackets. She and her partners provided Adweek with a peek into some of the high-water marks along her professional journey.
On paper, Frankel—a natural-food chef who had at various times imported pashmina shawls and waited tables to make ends meet—didn’t fit the bill in 2008 for then-nascent nighttime soap The Real Housewives of New York. She was single with no kids (though she is now a single parent of 8-year-old daughter Bryn, from her marriage to Jason Hoppy), and didn’t breathe the same rarified air as the socialites in the cast.
Plus, she’d already been on an unscripted show (she finished as runner-up on The Apprentice: Martha Stewart), which turned off some Bravo execs who were looking for TV novices, says Frances Berwick, NBCUniversal’s president of lifestyle networks.
“But she gave us a different story to tell and a relatable point of view,” Berwick says of the outspoken, take-no-prisoners Frankel. “And she’s obviously very charismatic.”