Don’t tell Jennifer Graziano that crime doesn’t pay
It wasn’t until the fourth grade that Jennifer Graziano, creator and executive producer of the VH1 reality series “Mob Wives,” suspected that her father, Anthony Graziano, might be in an unusual line of work.
“The teacher was going around the class, and everybody was reciting what their parents did for a living,” Graziano, now 38, recalls. “I was like … ‘I don’t know what my father does.’ And I didn’t. I really didn’t.”
Graziano may have been in the dark about her father’s alleged Mafia connections — according to prosecutors, he was for years the consigliere of New York’s Bonanno crime family and is currently in prison — but these days Graziano has not only accepted her family’s checkered past, she’s used it to make the leap into a career as a television producer.
“Mob Wives,” which concludes its first season June 26, follows four tough-talking, telegenic Staten Island women with personal ties to organized crime: Drita D’avanzo and Carla Facciolo are married to men in prison for mob-related activities; Karen Gravano is the daughter of FBI informant Sammy “The Bull” Gravano; and Renee Graziano is the ex-wife of alleged gangster Hector “Junior” Pagan, as well as Jennifer Graziano’s older sister. In something of a rarity for reality television, the women have known one another for decades, and their complicated histories add a note of authenticity to the show’s many alcohol-fueled catfights.
The series — produced by Bob and Harvey Weinstein and Ben Silverman’s Electus — melds “Real Housewives"-style drama with imagery familiar from pop-culture classics like “The Sopranos” and “Goodfellas” and interstitials designed to look like surveillance footage.
Graziano initially won over the cast by promising that the show would not broach any subjects that aren’t already a matter of public record. “We always use the word ‘alleged.’ We are not confirming anything 100%,” she clarifies.
By turning the cameras on her friends and family, Graziano put herself in a complicated position. While filming the season, Graziano’s former brother-in-law, Junior, was arrested along with 126 others in an unprecedented raid — the kind of serendipitous event that reality television producers dream about. For Graziano, it was bittersweet.
“Renee called me 5 a.m. in the morning, hysterical, crying. I’m like, ‘Let me put you on hold,’” she says, then mimics dialing the phone. “ ‘Get the cameras to Renee’s house right now!’ I felt like such a bitch.”
Unlike her sister — who is, as Facciolo puts it, “way too into the mob thing” — Jennifer Graziano says she has long been immune to the perks of being a Mafia princess. As a teenager, she and Renee frequented the legendary Bay Ridge nightclub Pastels. Arriving via limousine, Renee would strut past the velvet rope, reminding everyone of her powerful family connections; Jennifer would slip quietly to the back of the line. It was part modesty, part survival mechanism.
“The stuff the movies are made about — the furs, the money, the parties, the respect — it’s all great, but then at any given time the other shoe could drop and you’re going on prison visits and having to pay commissary and living your life absent of your husband or father,” Jennifer says. “Mob Wives” plays up both of these extremes. The women talk about the difficulty of making it on their own, yet their closets remain conspicuously well-stocked.
In contrast, Graziano has always defined herself as a career woman. After earning a master’s degree in psychology from New York University, she dabbled in the music industry, writing a song for the R&B singer Frankee that reached No. 1 in Britain; later, she launched her own marketing firm. About five years ago, she began to develop a scripted series about Mafia women, but with the success of “The Real Housewives” franchise, she realized a reality show might be more feasible. After all, she already had a cast in place: Her own family and friends.
After pitching the show to the Weinstein Co., Graziano and the cast charmed company executive David Glasser during a fortuitous run-in at Nobu, and a deal was soon made. Harvey Weinstein reached out to Silverman’s newly minted Electus, and together they sold the project to VH1.
“I call it the Ben-Harvey factor,” Graziano says. “I went from having one offer to five.”
For an industry novice like Graziano, it was a major coup. Silverman says he was won over by her steely confidence. “She believed in herself from the very first time we met,” he says. The colorful cast didn’t hurt either: “I knew they were alternative programming gold.”
Though “Mob Wives” focuses on the personal drama of its cast and not the inner workings of the Mafia, the show has, according to Graziano, prompted criticism from some “in the community” — most notably, her own father. “He’s not happy at all with the show. We’re not on the best of terms right now,” she acknowledges.
One source of contention is Graziano’s 25-year friendship with Karen Gravano, which began with a chance meeting at the Staten Island Mall. The girls, both 13 at the time, figured out their fathers were colleagues (of a sort), and became inseparable. The relationship was tested when, in 1991, Gravano’s father testified against mob boss John Gotti in exchange for a reduced sentence.
At the time, Graziano’s parents forbade her from talking to Gravano, but she stood by her friend throughout the ordeal. “Yes, my father taught us never to rat, but he also taught us loyalty,” she explains. However, as Graziano is careful to add, her forgiveness does not extend to Sammy the Bull. “By having Karen on the show, in no way am I condoning anything he did.”
Despite the lingering family tension, Graziano is on a roll professionally. She and the Weinstein Co. have launched a joint venture, JustJenn Productions, with offices in New York and Los Angeles, where she’s developing a slate of reality and scripted series. VH1 just renewed “Mob Wives,” which averaged a respectable 1.2 million viewers, for a second season.
Her burgeoning career is a far cry from the lifestyle depicted on “Mob Wives,” and that’s fine by her. “I don’t want to be known as anyone’s sister or daughter or wife,” she says.
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