Bethenny Frankel probably first appeared on your radar as the witty, candid “Real Housewives of New York” star known for her memorable one-liners (“Get off my jock!”) and business savvy. During the Bravo show’s first season, she concocted a multimillion-dollar idea: the low-calorie “Skinnygirl margarita,” which she later sold (as part of the Skinnygirl Cocktails brand) for a reported $100M.
She shrewdly retained creative control of Skinnygirl, allowing her to spin off the brand into food and, most recently, clothing: Skinnygirl Jeans will launch in September.
Alongside her business success, her TV career is also thriving. Her popularity on “RHONY” led to more Bravo shows chronicling the evolution of her personal and professional life, including a real estate show with broker Fredrik Eklund of “Million Dollar Listing New York.” She’s also a guest shark on ABC’s “Shark Tank.”
Here, the business and entertainment mogul opens up about her money life—from her financially insecure childhood to how she hustled for cash on the side—and the art of negotiating the best deals.
Before joining “RHONY,” you had $8,000 in your bank account, a $2,600 monthly rent payment and no salary. What were your best savings strategies back then?
I consolidated debt after college, slowly but surely paid it off, and never got in credit card debt again. I walked everywhere except at night. I didn’t go out to dinner unless someone else was paying, and I hustled by cooking for people and selling items in my closet. I would always find ways to work for extra cash.
You negotiated a clause into your contract (referred to as the “Bethenny Clause”), stipulating that Bravo wouldn’t receive a cut of any business you promoted on the show. It’s since become a reality TV standard for networks to get a piece of the pie. What are your top negotiation techniques?
I was being paid $7,250 for the entire season, so everyone got a good deal. I am very straightforward in negotiating; I am fair and not greedy, [and simply state] what I should be paid for my value. That first season I had no value. Now I have a different value. It is no different [when I’m negotiating with an entrepreneur while filming] ‘Shark Tank’ or selling a house. Everyone needs to walk away thrilled yet slightly uncomfortable.
At first, you had trouble convincing distributors to get on board with Skinnygirl Cocktails. What made you persevere instead of giving up?
I had trouble getting any partners to believe in my idea. None of the large liquor brands got it, [although once my product was successful they] pursued me. Bartenders everywhere said every girl was ordering it. I kept pushing until I found someone to partner with me. I’m nothing if not persistent.
It’s important to note that everyone who said no was a man. Liquor was a male-driven business, run by men, marketed to men. Skinnygirl was the first low-calorie, ready-to-drink cocktail. I created a category and cracked the code in alcohol, said the highest ranking executives at the largest tequila company in the world.
What made you decide to turn Skinnygirl Cocktails into a lifestyle empire that includes snacks, shapewear and now jeans?
I always envisioned it on a jeans pocket. That category and product was what made me do an unprecedented deal in selling a brand for so much money yet keeping all of its intellectual property besides alcohol. That is as creative as you can get in deal-making.
You also own a production company, are a best-selling author and invest in and flip real estate. How do manage your time?
I am extremely organized and efficient, decisive and communicative. Time is more valuable than money. Whether working or relaxing, I do not waste it. I am answering these questions as I relax by my pool. I am great at delegating. I never procrastinate, and I get things done.
Your charity, B Strong, has raised upwards of $50 billion for disaster relief, and it’s one of the largest privately run humanitarian efforts in U.S. history. You've said that you treat charity as an investment. How so?
You must know exactly to whom your money is going and what it is being used for. We have to be in control of our investments, and where you spend your money is within your rights to understand.
What do you consider your smartest investment?
I invest in myself so I guess that has proven to be smart. Facebook wasn’t too bad either.
In a recent interview, you described your family’s financial lifestyle growing up as “money noise.” What’s that?
We would have six cars in the driveway one week and be broke the next. Our whole house was completely empty and we ate off a card table, but my room was perfectly designed. We would go to Coney Island in a limo, then my stepfather would ask me to borrow money from my piggy bank to cover football bets with a bookmaker. Money came and went. I grew up the child of horse trainers and gamblers. Financial stability was not an expression I would use to describe my childhood.
What money rules do you live by today?
I am indulgent but sensible. I have what I call “the pile” saved, and I rarely touch that. The rest of my expenses are paid for with what I make annually. I do treat myself on jewelry and vacations, and I am charitable. When I sell a house, I buy one. One out. One in. I am an investor.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
*Photo Credit Jamie Cody