When I meet Lisa Rinna in the back of an empty dance studio on Melrose Avenue on a recent weekday, there’s no video crew to document our shenanigans. No wine glasses fly when I bring up her husband, actor Harry Hamlin. No stuffed bunnies are exchanged. And she doesn’t pull out her phone to read me the definition of Munchausen syndrome.
And yet it still feels like I’m making a cameo on “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.”
We’re rolling our hips and patting our derrières — under the private tutelage of Rinna’s friend, dancer-choreographer Robin Antin — as the Pussycat Dolls coo over the loudspeaker about loosening up buttons. It’s the sort of staged activity that’s typical on the Bravo reality series, which follows a group of wealthy women as they bond, feud and struggle to understand what constitutes a barbecue in Beverly Hills.
Rinna is not a professional dancer per se, but she’s played Roxie Hart in Broadway’s “Chicago” and competed on “Dancing with the Stars,” so she slinks easily across the hardwood floor. I, on the other hand, look like I’m trying to get gum off my shoe.
“Oh, my God, this is so fun!” Rinna exclaims after our first run-through. She’s clad in leggings patterned with plump pink lips — working almost like an optical illusion in conjunction with her own signature pout — and her trademark shaggy bob has hardly tousled in the midst of all our movement.
This is what it’s like spending the morning with one of the “Housewives.”
Rinna spent the early part of her career in the scripted soap TV market, first on daytime’s “Days of Our Lives” and later on prime time’s “Melrose Place.” But at 55 she’s gained more fame playing the character she knows best: herself. While most actors look down on reality TV as a career-killer, she saw its potential to boost hers.
I didn’t care whether I was a great actor. I just wanted to be famous and was going to do whatever I had to to get there.
Over the last five years, Rinna has fostered a persona as one of the reliable pot-stirrers on “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” — part of Bravo’s popular, multicity franchise, which has cemented itself as a modern-day soap opera with a die-hard fanbase that includes some of Hollywood’s elite … and, uh, me.
“I’ve never been more famous than I am at this point, because of the show,” she says matter-of-factly.
By now, we’ve moved to the restaurant next door. Rinna tells me what it’d be like if we were filming a scene for the show: a camera on both of us, a sound guy and producers in the back. We’d recap the class we just took and maybe turn the conversation to a fight we’d recently had with someone else.
Rinna clearly gets what makes good TV. It gets us talking about whether an actor on a reality series can ever really suppress the inclination to perform — and if she views the Lisa Rinna viewers have come to know on “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” as a character.
“I see her as a character because it’s not all of who I am,” Rinna says. “I’m watching Lisa on the ‘Real Housewives’ — or Rinna, as I like to call her. She’s funny. I get a kick out of her actually. When I watch her, I’m like, ‘God, she’s the comic relief.’ ”
Rinna joined the cast in the show’s fifth season in 2014, making her introduction at Kyle Richards’ famous white party before leaving to attend a “Mad Men” bash (Hamlin was on the series at the time). Since then, she’s endeared herself to viewers with her self-deprecating attitude — poking fun at herself, including her enhanced lips and the haircut she’s sported for decades. And she’s had a hand in some of the show’s most memorable moments. This season, she prompted a dinner debate over Brett Kavanaugh at the time the Senate hearings about his Supreme Court confirmation were underway.
“What you see is what you get with her,” says longtime friend Denise Richards, who joined the cast this season. “She’s self-deprecating, she calls it like it is, and she’s not afraid to say when she makes a mistake. And that’s what I love about her, and that’s why she’s been on the show for so long.”
I’ve never been more famous than I am at this point, because of the show.
Ever since she was a pipsqueak growing up in Medford, Ore., Rinna has wanted to be famous. To be someone like Carol Burnett or Cher or Lucille Ball. Those were her idols growing up.
“I just wanted to be a star,” Rinna says. “Harry’s much more like, ‘I’m an actor. It’s about the craft.’ ... I didn’t care whether I was a great actor. I just wanted to be famous and was going to do whatever I had to to get there.”
“She was quite an experience to raise,” her mother, Lois Rinna, jokingly describes Lisa by phone. “But she was always a good kid, a fun kid. She always knew what she wanted.” She reveals that Lisa’s penchant for trying to get people to own their actions (as seen on TV with her “Own It!” declarations) has always been there, recalling the time a young Lisa tattled that her older half-sister was smoking in the bathroom.
At 18, Rinna dropped out of the University of Oregon after being rejected for an acting course and moved out of her parents’ house. She did some modeling in small markets before making her way to San Francisco, where she started acting in commercials: “I think I got my SAG card doing a Mervyn’s commercial!” She eventually made her way to L.A., getting her break on “Days of Our Lives” in 1993.
But even with a decent roster of screen credits, Rinna sensed she would need to make a pivot to stay in the game: “I knew as an actor, I would never be able to continue to make money and have a big career. I just knew it in my gut.”
A four-year gig as the host of “Soap Talk,” she says, taught her that she should lean into gigs where she could be herself. So she did. She’s been a contestant on “Dancing With the Stars” and “Celebrity Apprentice.” There was even a time she and Hamlin had their own reality series on TV Land, “Harry Loves Lisa.”
“I couldn’t really get an acting job anymore because I had now become a reality star,” Rinna say. “And I was like, ... now what do I do? By the time ‘Housewives’ came along, I wasn’t afraid of it. I knew it was a direction I had to continue to go on.”
She was in the running to appear on “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” from the outset nearly a decade ago. And feeling stuck and insecure about her family’s financial stability — their two-location boutique, Belle Gray, had closed — she wanted it. She was just starting her QVC fashion line and felt the “Housewives” platform would help propel that business.
“I was looking at it from a business angle,” she says. “I saw what it did for Nene Leakes, [Lisa] Vanderpump, Kyle [Richards], Bethenny [Frankel].”
But not everyone was on board. Hamlin, her husband of more than 20 years, was convinced it was too risky to their careers. “I actually told her— because I’ve been married a couple of times before — that I had my divorce lawyer’s number on my phone,” Hamlin says in a later interview. And Bravo’s Andy Cohen, a “Real Housewives” ringmaster of sorts, was wary of hiring a recognizable actress, feeling it would change the vibe of the show.
They both eventually came around to the idea. Hamlin, who is occasionally seen on the show baking one of his famous pies, says there have been no regrets. And Cohen now considers Rinna one of the best additions to the franchise.
“She’s fun to watch,” Cohen says. “She’s funny and she makes fun of herself. She understands her place in the world, and she’s very secure with herself. I just think she’s entertaining.”
More important for Rinna, she got that platform. Her QVC appearances have been well-documented on the show, making a star out of her line’s duster cardigan. Since its launch in 2012, the Lisa Rinna Collection has sold more than 3.1 million units, and that duster has sold 180,000 units this year, according to a QVC spokesperson. Her daughters, Delilah Belle and Amelia, have benefited from the exposure as well, landing modeling gigs for the likes of Tommy Hilfiger and Dolce & Gabbana.
“It’s been great,” Rinna says, “I’ve been able to get deals through my social media platforms and get extra income in that area. I don’t even know where to begin. All kinds of things are constantly coming.”
But how many more seasons does she have in her?
Our conversation comes a couple of weeks before Rinna will tape this season’s reunion — the first installment airs July 16— and she’s aware of some of the criticism surrounding the season’s focus on the Puppygate scandal — a dispute over a problematic puppy that led to an endless series of recriminations and gossip and ultimately resulted in the departure of longtime favorite Lisa Vanderpump from the series (“Our show tends to be like a dog with a bone. We don’t move on quickly.”)
It prompts her to comment about the intensity of the show’s fandom at times: “It’s gotten to a crazy level. … I mean, I’ve had death threats.”
Rinna says she’s been close to leaving the show. She notes that the Munchausen fight that hijacked Season 6, in which Rinna engaged in conversations about whether then-cast member Yolanda Foster (now Hadid) was faking her Lyme disease, was tough. The show is heading into its 10th season, and casting decisions have not been finalized.
“My contract is up, I can tell you that,” Rinna says. “So whether we re-up it I guess is up to the Bravo gods. I would like to go back.”