Bethenny Frankel on success built on authenticity: "Not everybody likes me, but people trust me"

Watch the "Real Housewives" vet and "Skinny Girl" founder share her tips for getting ahead on "Salon Talks"

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published May 26, 2022 5:00PM (EDT)

Bethenny Frankel attends the Creative Coalition's 2019 Television Humanitarian Awards Gala at Ocean Prime on September 21, 2019 in Beverly Hills, California.
 (Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic)
Bethenny Frankel attends the Creative Coalition's 2019 Television Humanitarian Awards Gala at Ocean Prime on September 21, 2019 in Beverly Hills, California. (Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic)

Over eight seasons as one of "The Real Housewives of New York City," Bethenny Frankel built an empire out of being herself. Whether as the founder and CEO of the lifestyle brand Skinnygirl or the host of the podcast, "Just B with Bethenny Frankel," she's always thrown herself wholeheartedly into everything she does.

In partnership with Global Empowerment Mission, she established the BStrong initiative, which has raised $125 million in aid and counting for relief in Ukraine. Now, she's sharing the secrets of her success and offering advice in her new book, "Business is Personal: The Truth About What It Takes To Be Successful While Staying True To Yourself." Frankel sat down with me on "Salon Talks," which you can watch here or read a Q&A of below, to talk about why authenticity is good for business, about the "47-layer dip of insanity" of the Amber Heard and Johnny Depp trial, and how failure can be a win.

The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

That book title is a mouthful, but it's all in there.

I'm excited about this book because it comes at a pivotal time when I have succeeded at so many different things — not without failures and obstacles. We've also come through a time where non-traditional entrepreneurs are really rising. I just think it's good wisdom for anyone who is a mogul, anyone who's a mom, anyone who just has aspirations to do more, do better and just improve in business. 

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This is not just a book for an aspiring entrepreneur, or someone who wants to be a one-person brand like you. It's for anyone trying to figure out, "What do I want to do in my professional life, what do I want to do in my personal life, too? It's really about relationships.

Yes. I talk about relationships and staffing and teamwork and crazy things that have happened on this journey, and that my personal life is very intertwined with my business life. They're one. And how you are in your personal life is how you should be in business. You shouldn't see someone acting in a way outside of the business space in a way that they wouldn't feel proud to portray themselves in the business space, and vice versa.

There is still so much misconception about what it means to be successful, and this idea that you have to be a toxic person to get respect and to be the alpha. Your book is about how you've got to be authentic. You've got to own your mistakes. You've got to take accountability. Why is that step one in getting ahead in a world where that is not always the go-to philosophy?

I just think that it's much more liberating and easy to be authentic, and then you're taken seriously. Once you establish that you're trusted, it's something that just stays with you. Not everybody likes me, but people trust me, people believe me. I can be scary to people and aggressive in business, but they do not think I'm screwing around or playing games. They just know it's what it is and it's what it's not. 

"Not everybody likes me, but people trust me."

There's a deal that I'm working on right now. I was back and forth and I said, "Now we are here. This is how I will walk away if we don't get this done now." I'm very serious, and I'm serious in my personal life, too. Not that I'm not humorous and I'm not an ultimate joker, because humor is actually the most important thing to me besides sleep, but you want to be taken seriously, and by being straight and honest and authentic, you get there.

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Let's talk about that walking away part, because that is a big part of this book. You walked away from "Housewives," you walked back, you walked away again. Your story that is about knowing when to make that next leap, and that can be so scary. What do you say when someone's saying, "I don't know if it's time for me to leave the table?"

If you have in your gut that you might want to leave the table, you might have to go with it because when you jump, you fly. It's not that it's so scary. It's that it's also so exhilarating and it feels really good.

It's not something that should be emotional. People bluff. It's not to bluff and to tell someone else you're leaving and then actually not, because then you'll never have credibility again. Even in disciplining your kids. You can't say, "If that happens, this is going to be the consequence," and then not follow through. Sometimes that sucks because you have to follow through and you just don't want to do the punishment. You didn't think your kid was going to push it.

It's the same thing in business. If you say, "I'm walking," you've got to walk. Ultimatums aren't a great idea, unless you're really going to exercise the option. But saying no means saying yes in so many ways. Having the courage to leave something that's not working for you opens up other opportunities.

"I'm very in tune with what women are thinking, feeling and want. "

There is a story in the book about me not going on live television to sell swimwear with five minutes' notice for HSN. It wasn't that popular. It's tens of thousands of dollars of merchandise. But I have a relationship with this audience. The swimwear was ill-fitting. I wasn't selling them a garbage product. I took the financial hit. I took the risk of being sued. I wasn't selling crap, and I have that reputation. Literally two days ago, the actual swimwear now came, by a new manufacturer, and it's perfection. I'm proud and I feel good about it.

So that's not a failure. That's a success. That's me having the courage to get on the phone with the head of HSN and say, "I can't sell something that's not good," and them saying, "We agree with you. You're right. Your partners aren't correct. Your business managers aren't correct. You should not be selling something that's not good because it'll give us a whole problem 10 ways from Sunday." Those are the times that the failures are successes. You walk away from something and you leave millions of dollars on the table, then you see the door open in so many different ways and you say, "Oh, that's why that happened."

As someone who is launching two daughters now out into the world, I'm thinking a lot about those first steps of, what do you want? You start with saying how it's not enough to have a good idea, it's not enough to just say, "I want to make money." You have to have a why.

In that moment, yes. But when you're young, you don't. What do you want to do right now? Go do it well. That could be working as a barista, it could be cleaning someone's house. Do whatever you're doing well or don't do it. Just get on the damn board. Get a job, do something, learn something, whatever that thing is you think it's not going to matter. A lot of things you use later. I was a bartender. I created a liquor brand. I had an event production company and I learned all about food. I became a natural food chef.

Success comes in many different shapes and forms, and experience comes in many different shapes and forms. You don't have to be at the right place at any time. I didn't become what most people would consider successful till my late 30s, which is late bloomer. But I had a lot of different jobs and I learned a lot. Then once you are up to the plate, you have so many experiences and such a skill set. You're such a toolbox that's more full than other people, because young kids think they have to know the answer to everything and be at the right place and be on the right trajectory. A, that's boring. B, it's pressure. C, you're likely not going to end up in the industry. You're not going to marry the first person you date, odds are, and you're not going to end up at the first job you have, odds are. There are many exceptions. I would say if you don't know what to do, just get somewhere and do it well.

Bethenny, when I look at your career, I see the story of someone who sees a need, whether that need is women wants a drink that caters to them, or whether it is bringing relief to people who've just been hit with a disaster. There's something there that is in your why. What is your why?

I think I'm very in tune with what women are thinking, feeling and want. Kevin Huvane, the head of CAA, once told me, "You could be the greatest communicator I've ever met." He said something more. I'm embarrassed to say what he said. He says, "I mean, you could end up being the greatest communicator of our time," which I think is overshooting the mark. But I think I'm a good communicator. Being transparent and communicating and being organized and good with efficiency in your words and style is very helpful in raising money for philanthropy. 

"Most businesses are run like s**t and most charities are run like s**t."

Being very communicative about beauty products and the BS right now in the beauty industry, it's just resonating with people. Not because of the beauty products, but because of the message about, "You don't need to spend all this money," and I'm cutting through. The cocktail was a solution. I think women just want to drink a margarita. Let's not drink other things because we really want that. How do we get that? It's just very two points and a straight line. I'm not a swervy kind of gal. I'm just direct, "How do we get people what they want now?"

And applying the same principles across the board. In the past few months with the challenges in Ukraine, have you found anything unique that you've had to think about or problem-solve?

My partner Michael at Global Empowerment Mission is doing most of the operation and logistics. In the past, I've been more physically there. It's funny because my fiance says, "I don't think that the CEO of Coca-Cola is putting the liquid in the bottles." Sometimes I spread myself too thin. I want to be there and I want to be here and I want to be on the computer and raising the money and doing the message and doing the press. It's too much. That's difficult because I don't do philanthropy 100% of my time.

But in business or in learning to snowboard or starting something new, in the beginning, you get sore and it's harder and you get more tired and stressed out. Once you understand how to do something, you have that skill set. This is the same thing. You make the mistakes when things are smaller. Then now you're at the big Super Bowl of philanthropy efforts and your game is tight. My partner Michael has learned a tremendous amount also on his end. It's like you're working out smarter. You're not getting out of breath. You've got this. We're lean, we're efficient. We do more on less than any other initiative.

People need to only trust charity initiatives that they understand. If we know that not everyone's a good business person and not every business is a good business, why do we just assume that anyone posting a link that's doing charity knows what the hell they're doing? Most people don't, because most businesses are run like s**t and most charities are run like s**t. Sorry, I know you're trying to do something good, but if people can't see exactly where the dollars and cents are going and they don't know who you are as a business person, why would they trust you with their money? People are donating because they know that I'm not playing any games. We could make mistakes and there's always brushing with mistakes and corruption, and it's insane doing disaster relief, but we're tight and right. People are doing that because I think they know I'm involved and I've got a decent track record in business.

It comes down to accountability.

Yeah. If I screw up, I'll say I screwed up. If there was an error — which there hasn't been — but if there was ever an error, I'd have to cover it.

Talking about those learning curves and mistakes, you talk in the book about the power of restraint. We live in such a reactive culture. When things are going sideways, you say, "Don't react until you gather your power," which is an incredible thing to remember and a very hard thing to do, Bethenny. Why is that so important?

Because you make your best decisions when you're calm and when you're going from sleep to wake and when it's not a disaster. While I have the skill set of scrambling and hustling and figuring it out, cooler minds do prevail. You have to collect yourself and then figure out how to tackle something. You can crowdsource. I like crowdsourcing, talking to different people. You're getting a bunch of different recipes for one thing you want to make — and then you have to ultimately figure out what you're going to put into that recipe.

You ask people, you think about it, you play with it, you go upside down. If it doesn't click, you wait, because it will click. Most problems can be resolved. I've been in some serious, serious s**t and figured it out, but it's certainly not immediate. One step at a time.

You've talked very openly about going through a breakup that lasted for years and was playing out in real time, hearing things that were just not true, and having to take that moment of being in your power and not reacting.

Now you've been talking about another famous case. You have more insight into that kind of a situation than almost anyone right now with Amber Heard and Johnny Depp, and you get what it must be like for someone who has been on the inside of an ugly, ugly breakup.

Everybody in that situation seems like they contributed in some way. But Johnny Depp having to sit back and watch his career deteriorate because in the eye of the #MeToo storm was a woman saying that he was abusive, it's not that popular to be a white male in Hollywood. He's in Hollywood, he's a white male and he is being accused of being an abuser. He's sitting back and he's waiting till his day in court because I'm thinking, how are they going to court? What they're doing, I thought it was probably a couple of million dollars, what this is costing minimum and scrutiny and the time. And anything can happen in a courtroom. It's risky for everybody. Literally, someone could say they ate a tuna fish sandwich and if they really ate turkey, you could get the whole case thrown out. It's risky.

I now understand that he really needed to have his day in court, and/or he probably felt he was never going to be able to get out of this. Like it was a tiny ant buzzing in his ear that was never going away. He could have a life and go on with his day and have his kids. But there was something chronic, not acute, and now they're in court and the truth does usually come out. I felt badly that Drew Barrymore got in trouble for saying it was a seven-layer dip of insanity. I said on my podcast it was a 47-layer dip of insanity.

It's crazy. Both of them stayed with each other under what seemed like beyond adverse, insane and toxic circumstances during the relationship, not just when they broke up. I had a situation once where there was a breakup and not so positive experiences during the relationship, but not like that. People cannot stay in situations. If at any point, one person has ever put their hand on another or put feces in your bed, it's time to go. There's a line, so this is another level.

Yeah, I think that's a red flag.

It's a red flag. I have experience with a lot of things that I hear now. That's why I'm never really talking about the people. This isn't about Amber Heard because she's famous or about Kanye West because he's married to Kim Kardashian. It's about things that they're publicly doing that I have seen because I've seen it all. I've seen every shade of divorce and custody and all that stuff, so I consider myself an expert on that topic, oddly.

Bethenny, you are all business, but you're not all business all the time. You've also been a pioneer in the world of spirits and cocktails. As a woman who also likes to, at the end of the day, kick back, I want to know — what do you drink now?

I drink a lot of different things. I drink vodka with olive sometimes. I drink wine. I'll make a tequila drink. I will drink a fruity sweet drink. I'm an equal opportunity employer of the cocktail. I do not discriminate. Long Island iced tea, I would drink if it was in front of me.

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By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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