Before I can even ask Heather Dubrow a question, she’s already signaled to the waiter to bring over two perfectly chilled glasses of champagne.
Most interviews could certainly benefit with some bubbly, but with Dubrow, who’s returning to Bravo’s “The Real Housewives of Orange County” after a half-decade hiatus from the series, it’s essentially a prerequisite.
Her return to the show, which launched the now globe-spanning reality TV juggernaut 15 years ago, goes down just as smooth and, thankfully, arrives right on time. For seasons now, “The Real Housewives of Orange County” has been stuck in what fans have almost universally dubbed its flop era. Recent years have consistently underwhelmed in the ratings and driven even some of the most faithful viewers elsewhere. The most recent COVID-impacted season was indeed a new low, suffering from a clearly fractured cast, forced drama and whatever controversy freshly departed cast member Kelly Dodd decided to spark that week.
“I didn’t watch the show when I left, but from what I understand, it kind of went off the rails a little bit,“ Dubrow tells me in between sips at Saks Fifth Avenue. “Bravo said to me, we want to bring the class back to Orange County. We want to bring this kind of inspirational, aspirational lifestyle back.”
And so she did in the Season 16 premiere, which aired on Wednesday. Fully understanding the directive, the episode begins with Dubrow opening the doors to her 22,000-square-foot Southern California home, which, yes, includes an actual champagne button in her master bedroom closet. Dubrow refused to let Bravo cameras film the mind-bogglingly opulent estate her first time around ― only to later release a 17-part video tour on YouTube after her exit. By the premiere’s end, she’s hosting her first event at the home, catered by the celebrity eatery Nobu, as her fellow cast members react with both glee (“This house is legit!” Gina Kirschenheiter exclaims) and thinly-veiled envy (“It brings up a lot of memories,” a clearly triggered Shannon Beador admits after scoping out the kitchen’s refrigerated drawers).
But Dubrow knows that relying on a palatial property and a healthy bank account does not a reality TV star make. As one of the rare women to get a second chance at the “Housewives” game, she’s keenly aware of how both she and the franchise have evolved since her exit.
“When I think about leaving the show, I was done. I was very done,” she recalls. “The show was going in a different direction. I was not happy with it. I was just not myself anymore. I feel like I was being non-compliant and I couldn’t even participate. Age, time and the pandemic have given me a different perspective. I’m much more relaxed and not worried about what anyone else is doing or talking about. I’m just playing the cards in front of me and living my life.”
“Look, having a big house or fancy cars ― those are just trappings,” she continues. “The truth is we’re all dealing with the same kind of dynamics. We all have children, partners, or parents that are getting older. Whatever it is, those conversations I do find interesting and I’m willing to open up my life to get them started.”
The bar for a successful Housewife has never been higher and Bravo is a much different network than the one Dubrow left all those years ago. The women must be aspirational, but not overly vain; shady but not cruel; confrontational but not aggressively hostile ― all while social media picks apart their every move. Cast members no longer just break the fourth wall ― the moment a person acknowledges they are actually filming a hugely popular TV show. Now, they regularly take a sledgehammer to it. The lily white series (well, a slightly more orange shade of spray tan when it comes to “RHOC”) has also seen efforts to diversify its ranks. This season marks the arrival of Noella Bergener, the first Black woman to join the cast in the 15 years since it debuted.
“It’s definitely not the same show and nor should it be. The show has to evolve with life, right? The landscape of television has changed,” Dubrow says. “I love that we break the fourth wall. I love that it feels a little more raw. I love when you hear one of the producers talking because it is a reality show. Or else just give us a script and let’s call it a day.”
There’s also a true crime wave sweeping across the cities, as Erika Jayne’s legal troubles dominated the most recent season of “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” while Jen Shah over in Salt Lake City was charged with wire fraud and money laundering as one of the alleged masterminds behind a nationwide telemarketing scheme.
“The whole thing is just so crazy, sad and unfortunate,” Dubrow says of Jayne’s case. “I hope she didn’t know.”
“It always comes back to this authenticity is what sells,” she adds. “So if you want to manipulate your character or what you’re portraying to the audience, the truth always comes out. It just does.”
While “RHOC” might never feature a cast member nearly getting arrested on camera in the parking lot of a Botox clinic, Dubrow says the new season provides plenty of personal drama. As a born and raised New Yorker of Jewish descent, who came from the world of scripted television, she was something of an outlier among the almost uniformly blond and conservative cast. Early on, the other Housewives gave her the nickname “Fancy Pants” and bristled when she would correct their grammar or politely inform the table what temperature wine is supposed to be stored at. This dissonance proved to be rather threatening to the facade so carefully erected by her fellow cast members, which Dubrow calls her “biggest pet peeve.”
“I feel like a lot of the women in Orange County think they’re very perfect and everyone’s children are geniuses and everyone’s a sports star or a supermodel,” she says. “I always felt like, why doesn’t anyone talk about these things?”
She’s intent on showing a different type of family this season. What initially drew Dubrow back into Bravo’s orbit was the chance to give viewers a window into highs and lows of parenting, especially after the support her family received when her daughter Max came out as bisexual last year.
“My kids are at a different age now and they’re different genders and sexualities,” she explains. “They’re super interesting and all in cool moments in their life and figuring out who they are in the world. I thought, wow, wouldn’t this be cool if I come back and show what our version of a normal family looks like? Maybe we can start those conversations for other people may be helpful.”
But no Housewife comes out of a season unscathed, and even a self-identifying “control freak” like Dubrow couldn’t anticipate the chaos the first episode brings. Case in point: a drama bomb is set off by longtime frenemy Shannon Beador at her perfectly put-together opening party. The event comes to a crashing halt when Dubrow seemingly shuts down production after a rumor about a lawsuit involving her husband, plastic surgeon and “Botched” star Terry Dubrow, is brought up on camera.
“It sucked. Honestly, when I watched the episode ... I felt bad for me because there was plenty of opportunity to have a conversation,” she says, noting that the drama was compounded by past issues she’s looking forward to airing out at the eventual reunion. “Yeah, it was pretty explosive. It was very disappointing.”
In the moment, a “completely blindsided” Dubrow reconsidered her choice to come back to the show in the first place, telling herself, “Uh, we’re done. This is a mistake. We should not have done this.”
But this time around, Dubrow is fully submitting to the process whatever it may bring ― the good, bad and the messy. She hopes viewers, who fell for her all those years ago and might’ve jumped ship since her exit, will pick up right where she left off. Sure, the glitz and the glam might be the initial draw, but more than anything Dubrow seems eager to reintroduce herself on her own terms.
“When I first got on the show, I was meeting you, the audience, and you, the other girls, for the first time,” she said. “It’s not that I was trying to portray something else. That’s how I am when I meet someone and get to know them. What I would say this time is I feel like we know each other. We’re good. And if I’m coming back, you know, I’m coming back. You know who I am. I know who you are. All right, let’s do it.”
“The Real Housewives of Orange County” airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m./8 p.m. CST on Bravo.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.