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How To Survive As A Reality Television Family

After five years on The Real Housewives of New Jersey, Caroline Manzo and her family are continuing their on-camera lives with their spin-off Manzo’d With Children. Now reality veterans, they reflect on how to stay real in the world of “reality.”

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On an October Monday afternoon at Little Town, New Jersey, a restaurant venture from Albie and Chris Manzo on Sinatra Street in Hoboken, the Manzo family, of The Real Housewives of New Jersey-fame, is gathered around a table. With an array of appetizers spread before them, the conversation flows freely. It could be any Manzo family gathering — minus Al Sr., who is working at the Brownstone in Paterson, plus two Bravo publicists and me.

With a little encouragement, they take a break from typical lunch chatter and are reading hate-tweets aloud.

"'Lauren Manzo, you're a bitch,'" middle Manzo offspring Lauren says. She searches through the at-replies on her phone for a more exciting example of the kind of ire she receives regularly on Twitter, particularly after a new episode of Manzo'd With Children airs on Sunday nights.

She stumbles on a gem and laughs, reading the approximately 100-character jab: "'Lauren Manzo is such an effing C, jaded from all those fat years. I thought fat people were jolly.'"

Lauren wasn't editing the vicious words from an anonymous account; the viewer was actually thoughtful enough to censor the words "fucking" and "c*nt" in the midst of spewing hate at a stranger.

None of this is new for the Manzos, but now, they're receiving a little extra attention. Caroline, who spent five seasons on RHONJ before jumping ship; her husband, Al; and their adult children, in birth order, Albie, Lauren, and Chris, are wrapping up their own spin-off, Manzo'd With Children.

"I will never understand," Chris says. "Nobody has ever pissed me off so bad that I'm like, in 140 characters I'm gonna tell them everything I possibly had."

Nodding, Lauren adds, "I watch certain reality shows and there's people that I'm like, Oh my god, I cannot stand her. But I would never not like anyone enough to literally write the most horrible things to them."

Caroline concludes, "That's why you can't take it serious."

There is an oddly zenlike quality to all of this. The ability to shrug off punches must be learned because it's hard not to bristle at the insults flung at the Manzos, whether you're one of them or not. Throughout lunch, they are laid-back and overwhelmingly practical about their lives as members of a reality show family. Albie likens Manzo'd With Children to grad school, a "more intense version of things" after the college experience of Real Housewives. And they're happy to offer a crash course on how to survive reality television.

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1. Be honest about who you are.

Over the years, audiences have heard plenty of reality TV cast members espouse the "What you see is what you get" cliché, but the Manzos seem to have perfected living it. On Housewives, that was less of a big deal: The Manzos were frequently presented as the most stable of the families, with Caroline the perpetual voice of wisdom.

On Manzo'd With Children, however, the family has been forced to expose more of themselves — for better and for worse. But as far as Caroline is concerned, that's not a problem.

"We are not ashamed to put who we are out there," she says. "For instance, last night they argued. They argue." The episode she was referring to was one in which Albie and Lauren had a particularly explosive fight. "I only worry about showing the resolve because there always is a resolve. I just wanted that to be shown. But we're not ashamed of anything we do. They act goofy. I act poorly. That's life. I think that's what resonated over the years, that we remained true to ourselves and who we are."

Caroline has indeed always been upfront about her flaws. She brings up the Season 4 RHONJ reunion, during which host Andy Cohen asked about her butting heads with Teresa Giudice, Caroline's most dramatic confrontation since she'd locked horns with Danielle Staub in Seasons 1 and 2.

"[Andy] said, 'Caroline, people are saying you were a bitch. What do you have to say for yourself?'" she recalls. "I said, 'I was a bitch.' … I wasn't happy. I didn't like what was going on. I was a bitch."

For Manzo'd With Children, it was important to the family that they continue to reflect their true personalities rather than try to portray characters, a reality show pitfall they've made a point to avoid.

"You do Season 1 of a show and you're yourself because you've never been on TV before. And then it airs and you see how it gets cut up and people respond to certain aspects of your personality," Albie explains. "Then you go to shoot Season 2 and you say to yourself, People love it when I do this. Imagine if we did the ham game. People loved it so much in Season 2, and then [imagine] all of Season 3, Chris is just throwing ham every frickin' scene. It would be like, What are you doing? But people do react that way because you don't realize that the reason people like you to begin with is you were just being yourself, and then all of a sudden you try to tailor it to something that you're really not."

2. Never blame editing.

Since the Real Housewives franchise began, the most maligned cast members have claimed the "bitch edit," the idea being that nefarious Bravo producers have edited the footage to make them look like the villains. But as the Manzos — and other reality stars — are quick to point out, producers can't put words in anyone's mouth.

"If you don't say a ridiculous or stupid thing, they can't edit you to say a ridiculous or stupid thing. It's really that easy!" Chris says. "You'll see somebody say something out of control and be like, 'That's editing.' Not really! … We're not lucky. We don't get edited so great. We don't owe anybody flowers. We say ridiculous shit, but we don't say offensive, ridiculous, hurtful things."

Though "you're gonna get a little seasoning here and there," Albie admits, producers can't use footage that isn't there.

"We've never made that phone call: 'Why'd you make me look like that?'" Caroline says. "I look like that because that's the way I behave. And that's OK. There's no Brady Bunch."

As far as Albie's concerned, the editing defense — or the similar "we're here to entertain" excuse — comes down to a disconnect between how people see themselves and how they really are. Once your personality is reflected back at you from a TV screen, you might want to put some distance between yourself and the "character."

"If you're portrayed a certain way and the public doesn't respond and you don't like what you see, it's like a weird sense of denial," Albie says. "'Oh, that's not how I am in real life. I'm just here to entertain you.' No, you're either being yourself and seeing it for the first time, or you're stepping outside of who you are and you're acting for people to watch, and we never really had that problem. When we look bad, we know we look bad."

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3. Live in the now.

One of the hardest parts of being on a reality show is having to constantly relive the past. Fights that happened months ago air as brand-new television for viewers. Cast members are sometimes even asked to write blog posts, putting themselves — as best they can — into the mind-set of whenever the episode's events took place.

Our lunch was the morning after an episode aired that saw Lauren and Caroline clashing with Albie over his girlfriend Brittany Parks. Right after we sit down, Lauren gets a text from Brittany.

"Look! She's texting me now. See?" Lauren says. "We're on good terms."

Caroline reveals that she actually watched the last episode with Brittany. "It doesn't make you proud to look at it, but that's the way I felt," she says. "So what do you want me to say? You want me to lie? I'm not gonna lie. Because that's the truth of what happened."

On Housewives, things were harder, "because it was just so many of us," Caroline says. She wouldn't necessarily know what fellow cast members like Teresa, Caroline's sister-in-law Jacqueline Laurita, or Melissa Gorga had to say behind her back until she saw their confessionals air during episodes. Those one-sided interviews, tailor-made for GIF sets and easily quotable, could reopen old wounds, even long after the fight was over.

But that's not the case with Manzo'd With Children. "It's OK because we talk about it," Caroline says. "If someone's getting upset with tweets, it's like, 'Stop it, step back. Don't get involved in this fight again. Don't let the fight come to life again.' There's enough respect here that we talk it through. Because it's not easy."

But Chris notes that reliving old conflicts, as painful as it can be, can actually be a valuable exercise. Just as Albie says seeing oneself on-screen gives reality stars a truer impression of how they come across, Chris believes that seeing his own bad behavior has given him valuable insight into what not to do.

"We thought we were being funny, but then I see it on TV," Chris says, referring specifically to a time on RHONJ when he gave Lauren a hard time about her struggles with losing weight. "I see, OK, she did have a weight problem. She was serious. She wasn't joking. I was kind of being a dick. I now know when I can joke and when I can't about something like that. It was honestly really helpful for me, because it's nice to see yourself be wrong. You're always gonna defend yourself, no matter what it is, and it takes a long time to say, Wow, that was stupid of me. That was mean of me."

4. Don't spend beyond your means.

Much has been written about the economic struggles of Real Housewives stars. And BuzzFeed's Kate Aurthur recently summed it up: "Conceived during the late stages of the housing boom and meant to be somewhat aspirational (or at least pornographically/laughably consumerist entertainment), The Real Housewives accidentally coincided with the implosion of the debt economy after its 2006 peak. As the markets (real estate in particular) began to crash, the franchise, which soon expanded to New York, Atlanta, and New Jersey (and eventually D.C., Beverly Hills, and Miami), became the inadvertent chronicler of the downfall of the artificially rich."

Caroline has a simple response to keeping her head above water: "If you don't have the money, don't spend it."

It seems obvious, and yet, it's a concept that has evaded plenty of fallen Housewives. Those who seemed to live the most luxurious lives, RHONJ's Teresa and RHONY's Sonja Morgan, for example, have had to deal with very public bankruptcies — not to mention legal troubles for the former.

"Don't get me wrong, we love nice things," Lauren says. "But Vito [her fiancé] saved for my engagement ring for literally the whole five years we were dating. He didn't get it for free. It's not stuff like that. We work really hard. We all work really hard. My brothers bust their ass. I bust my ass. And my mom is always there if we need her. My dad busts his ass."

There is "a lot of ass-busting," Chris confirms. But the Manzos are also utterly disinterested in "keeping up with the Joneses" — or Giudices, as it were.

If there is pressure for Housewives to maintain a certain lifestyle in order to perpetuate the image of the franchise, Caroline has never felt it. That's not to say she and her family don't live well — just that they're careful not to put too much stock into a particular high-socioeconomic Bravo aesthetic.

"The compensation is not what you expect it would be for this show, so you have to be smart with your money and where you put it and how you invest it, and things like that. I'm certainly not going to waste money on a car," says Caroline.

5. Don't speak out of turn.

Teresa Giudice isn't Caroline's favorite subject, but it's one that has come up with some regularity since Teresa was sentenced to 15 months in prison on Oct. 2. (Her husband, Joe Giudice, was sentenced to 41 months.) While promoting Manzo'd With Children, which premiered Oct. 5, Caroline was tasked with offering her take on Teresa's impending imprisonment.

"I'm tired of it," Caroline says frankly. "Because no matter what you say, it's never right. So that's exhausting. When you don't delve into it, they're like, 'Why don't you want to talk about it?' When you do talk about it, they're like, 'Mind your business.' When you say you feel bad, 'Well, you didn't feel bad on the show.' You know what? There's no winning."

At this point, she's run out of things to say.

"I don't know what person with any kind of heart could look at that and not say, 'Those poor kids.' Who could not say that?" she continues. "Beyond that, I don't want to talk about it. Because I don't know anything about it and she's not a part of my life. If I thought for a moment that me making a phone call would give her some sort of peace — or her kids, more importantly, some sort of peace — I'd do it. Because as a human being, how could you not? Did I call her? No. Did I text her? No. It wasn't my place. We don't have a relationship."

This is another lesson of surviving reality television: Be careful about what you say off-camera, too. Everything is reported and dissected endlessly, especially when it comes to behind-the-scenes Housewives drama. Caroline in particular is cautious about what she will and won't talk about. She name-checks her past co-stars, including her sister Dina Manzo, with whom she has a long-running and much-speculated about feud, but when reflecting on the questions she won't answer, she says vaguely, but firmly, "There is no answer. If there was an answer, I'd give it to you."

Housewives questions are the ones Caroline is most tired of being asked, so she controls the message. "The Danielles and the Kims [DePaola and Granatell], and the Dinas, and everything else … that's behind me," Caroline says. "Right now I have something that I want to build on, and I've been given an amazing opportunity. We have to leave the negative behind us."

6. Understand that it's all temporary.

The Manzos are all too aware of how quickly this can all end. With Season 1 of Manzo'd With Children coming to a close on Nov. 2, a second season remains up in the air.

"Reality's strange," Chris says. "We have no talent as a family that put us on TV. We have talent in certain ways, but we're there for being ourselves."

Reality television often seems to bring out the worst in people eager for their 15 minutes (or more) of fame, which is part of the reason why so many of these would-be stars fail so spectacularly. But lasting fame has never been the primary focus for Caroline, who is the only member of the family who has even made reality television a full-time job.

"The day the show reflects on who we are as a family in a negative way is the day I quit," she says. "I don't care how successful it is, because it's not worth it. You see so many reality TV families crumble because of it."

Lauren has heard her mother talk this way before. "There were so many times that we would be fighting [while filming] and she would be like, 'We will quit this show right now and we will never do it again,'" Lauren remembers. "She was like, 'I'm not doing this if this is gonna happen.' I think we really will. Because it's only gonna last so long and when it's over, we're all each other has."

At some point, Manzo'd With Children will be over — and barring another spin-off, the reality television Manzos will become, simply, the Manzos. It's an inevitability that is on their minds, not as something to fear but rather as a future to prepare for. If they've made a point to live their lives as "normal people," it's because they know that "normal" is the constant.

"They have to make something of themselves that is a career," Caroline says. "The reality TV is just gravy. It affords them to be able to hopefully one day have a down payment for a house or whatever the case may be. It's not their career. They have real careers and real jobs that they have to worry about and go to every day."

Her facial expression is affable but bullshit-free, clearly having given this plenty of thought over the years.

"Here today, gone tomorrow," she adds. "That's reality TV."

The Manzo'd With Children season finale airs Sunday at 10 p.m. on Bravo.

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