By Charlotte Pearson Methven
Real Housewives star KYLE RICHARDS may be aunt to the Hilton sisters and live in a mansion in Beverly Hills, but, as Charlotte Pearson Methven discovers, she’s endearingly fun and down-to-earth.
I am breakfasting with perhaps the most famous housewife in Beverly Hills. But rather than the bleach-blonde twiglet one might expect, across the table from me at Claridge’s hotel in London is a curvy brunette tucking hungrily into a goat’s cheese omelette. The only giveaway that Kyle Richards – maternal aunt to Paris and Nicky Hilton and one of just two Housewives to have survived all seven seasons of the reality series The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills – is someone of significance is the Hermès handbag demurely tucked in next to her.
‘I’m in love with London,’ Kyle gushes, superlatives tripping off her tongue. ‘The architecture is magical. I spent time here when I was younger, then I came back for Nicky’s wedding [to banking heir James Rothschild] two years ago and now I’m, like, “You know what? I’m going to come all the time.” I even love the weather. After so many years of waking up on Christmas Day to 30 degrees, I embrace the rain!’
Beverly Hills is, arguably, the most popular in the Real Housewives franchise (its swiftly growing list of locations includes New York City, Dallas, Melbourne and Cheshire) and Kyle, 48 – who became a child actor at the age of five, with roles in Little House on the Prairie and the horror film Halloween – is very much at its centre. She is the peacemaker, the relatable one you feel you could be friends with. In one recent episode she gets ticked off by one of her fellow housewives for wanting to wear Birkenstock sandals to a shindig at a Bev Hills hotspot, because ‘they’re comfortable’ – and who can’t relate to that? Talking a mile a minute, her speech punctuated by a dirty laugh, she is as likable off-screen as on.
‘When you see all the drama on the show, you’d probably imagine it’s not fun to film, but we have so much fun,’ Kyle says. ‘All the women in our cast are amazing – beautiful, smart, great mothers… I don’t have to agree with what they say or do all the time, but I still love them. I am the one who keeps the peace, but if someone makes me angry, I’m no pushover.’ The other Housewife to have been there from the very beginning is British-born Lisa Vanderpump: ‘I love Lisa. We’re very close.’
And how does Kyle explain the cult following of Real Housewives? Michelle Obama and Lady Gaga are said to be fans, and such is the popularity of the show – and others, such as Keeping Up With the Kardashians – that a dedicated streaming service, Hayu, has been introduced to allow viewers to watch more than 3,000 episodes of reality TV on demand across mobiles, laptops and TVs. The majority of the US shows debut on Hayu the same day as their TV launch.
‘It’s interesting,’ Kyle reflects. ‘There have been seasons where people haven’t got along and those have been our worst. I had such bad panic attacks I had to be medicated in season two [due to tension with her sister Kim, more of which later]. But for the most part, we really are friends – if those friendships weren’t real, the show wouldn’t work. People assume, “Oh, the Beverly Hills housewives, they’ll be the fakest of all,” but the opposite is true: we are real women with real problems. There’s Kim’s alcoholism, Camille [Grammer’s] painful divorce [from Frasier actor Kelsey], Taylor [Armstrong’s alleged] abuse [by husband Russell]… We just happen to have big houses and drive nice cars. Initially, people tune in just to see Beverly Hills, but they keep tuning in because we are real.’
Kyle is insistent that none of the dramas are ‘staged’, as is the case on some reality series. ‘I wouldn’t know what happens on the other shows because, believe it or not, I don’t watch reality TV. But on our show nothing is set up. They turn on the cameras and see what happens. The producers have a sense of who might not be getting along’ – one of last season’s dramas involved one housewife ‘going commando’ (not wearing knickers) in easy eyeshot of another’s husband, setting off a catfight. ‘As I am best friends with the crew, I tell them if something happens that they should keep an eye on,’ she giggles naughtily.
The one downside to all this authenticity is that people can come to feel too familiar with the cast. ‘A woman tried to break into my home,’ Kyle reveals. ‘It was really sad. As the police took her away, she was crying out, “But we’re friends, I know you!” The police say this is a big problem: people get so fixated on these real-life soap operas they actually believe they know us.’ Kyle now needs security ‘for big events’, but otherwise life is pretty normal.
‘I have never taken exception to the term housewife. Being a mother and a wife is the best job in the world. When my husband comes home I want everything to look perfect and for it to be the best place he’s been all day, with candles lit and music playing.’ Kyle has been married for 21 years to high-end real-estate broker Mauricio Umansky, who is Jewish and originally from Mexico, and she has four daughters: Farrah, 28, from a brief first marriage, and Alexia, 21, Sophia, 17, and nine-year-old Portia with Mauricio. ‘My poor husband is overpowered by women! We have five dogs, too – and four of them are female.
‘Being called a “Real Housewife” is ironic because we’re all businesswomen. I was an actor growing up, then I had my first daughter at 19 and was a proud stay-at-home mother and housewife – with a small “h” – for many years. But now, thanks to the show, I’m producing my own TV programme [a 12-part series, American Woman, inspired by her childhood in the 1970s, with Alicia Silverstone playing her mother], I have six clothing boutiques [Kyle by Alene Too] and have written a book [Life is Not a Reality Show, published in 2011, in which Kyle shares her tips for keeping it real].
I have nothing to prove. I’ll say to my husband, “I’m not a businesswoman”; when I have to negotiate, I beg him to do it for me. But he’s, like, “No, you are a businesswoman. You can do it.”’
Kyle is clearly still smitten with Mauricio, for whom she converted to Judaism. The pair met at a party in LA. ‘Someone told him I was Demi Moore’s sister, so he introduced himself,’ Kyle laughs (she does bear a striking resemblance to the actress). ‘When he found out I wasn’t, he still wanted my number.’ Of her conversion, she says: ‘I was raised Catholic and though I never felt religious, I liked the sense of there being a higher power. When I started learning about Judaism, I thought, “I connect with this.” Now, we go to temple on religious holidays and do Shabbat once a month.’ Kyle’s daughters have attended a Jewish school in LA, studying Hebrew daily.
The girls have all appeared on Housewives, but ‘they don’t care about the show. If they get home from school and the cameras are rolling, they’ll usually walk right past. They might drop their backpacks and stop to talk for a bit. They’re totally unfazed – especially Portia, who was little when the show started. I don’t think of her life in terms of years, but in seasons. I’ll say to someone, “Remember when Portia was two seasons old?” She’s the only one who wants to be an actress.’ Is mothering in the public eye and in the social-media era tough? “My girls have a lot of confidence. They’re on Instagram and Twitter, with pretty big followings, but if anything negative gets written, they laugh it off. Someone commented that one of my daughters looks like Chewbacca [the hairy creature from Star Wars] and she was falling over laughing. She didn’t even bother to delete the comment.’
Kyle herself is not overly image-conscious. ‘I want to look good for my husband and to be healthy – I lost both of my parents to cancer so I worry a lot about that – but I can honestly say I do not feel pressure to look a certain way on screen or to fulfil some impossible ideal. I think viewers relate to me because I’m not a twig – I’d be letting them down if I got skinny!’
She has also been very hands-on as a mother, which may explain the girls’ groundedness. ‘They’re growing up the way I fantasised about, with happily married parents and a tight-knit family. I do have a housekeeper, but I’ve never employed someone who can drive, so the school runs fall to me. That was something my mother – who was very involved – drummed in to me. She’d say, “Never let anyone else pack your children’s lunchboxes!” And the one time I did – the housekeeper did it before I could stop her – I got a call from school saying there was a Weight Watchers snack bar in there, which they didn’t think was appropriate. I think a dog treat may have made it in, too.’ She collapses with laughter. ‘I looked up and was like, “OK, Mom, you win. I know you’re looking down now. You were right.”’
Kyle’s mother Kathleen died of breast cancer when Kyle was 33 [her father had died four years earlier]. The void left by her parents – who divorced when Kyle was young – has, she says, made her extended family of sisters, cousins and nieces particularly close. And one gets the sense that the legacy of her mother – who Kyle won’t criticise, but who, by most accounts, was a fairly pushy ‘stage mom’ – is very present. ‘My mother studied acting but then got pregnant young and had Kathy [Hilton, Kyle’s elder half-sister, mother of Paris and Nicky], so that was that. She moved from New York to California and, one by one, got us into acting. She was someone who lived vicariously through her children. Kim’s first TV series aired when she was five, and when I came along it was, like, “Oh, we don’t want Kyle to feel left out.” I loved acting – it helped me to overcome my shyness and the attention I received prepared me to deal with the way social media intensifies fame so much now.’
Kyle and her brood are tight with Paris and her sister Nicky. ‘I recently visited Nicky in New York,’ Kyle says excitedly. Have her nieces ever called on Kyle for advice to deal with the megastardom they coped with as It-girls in their 20s (in Paris’s case this involved a leaked sex tape, paparazzi and a whole lot of trolling)? ‘No, never! It’s amazing to look back at Paris, in particular, and her level of fame and how young she was. I don’t know how she did it. Some of the things people said were so cruel, but she took it all in her stride. If anything, I could take advice from her.’ Kyle was also impressed by another famous sister duo, Gigi and Bella Hadid, whom she met when their mother Yolanda was on Real Housewives: ‘Not only are they drop-dead gorgeous but, more importantly, they are the nicest girls: beautiful, sweet and well-mannered.’
Kyle’s lowest moments came when tensions with Kim over her alcohol addiction and drug use were played out on screen in the first, second and fifth seasons of Real Housewives. Kyle tried to protect and support her sister, who often lashed out at her, and the two fell into the classic competitive sibling bickering trap that made what was probably the show’s most enthralling storyline. ‘It was a private family matter and not something I ever would have talked about publicly, but there it was for all the world to see. I was filled with anxiety. I didn’t know if we would ever speak again. It made me miss my mother because she was always the one who would fix things.’
Kyle also fell out on air with co-star Lisa Rinna when she accused Kyle of being ‘an enabler’ for not taking a harder line with her sister. But she has forgiven her now. ‘Vanderpump says I forgive too easily, but Rinna is not a bad person – she just says what’s on her mind. It’s easy to say you should walk away [from an alcoholic], but that’s hard to do with someone you love. You need to lift that person up. That approach seems to have worked with Kim – she’s in a great place now.’
Has the experience made her wonder at how families such as the Kardashians are able to put it all out there? ‘We aren’t that different to them, and I know my mother wouldn’t have liked it. My advice to anyone going into reality TV is that they should be prepared for everything to come out: the good, the bad and the ugly. It’s not going to be all rainbows and unicorns. I hate confrontation and sometimes am afraid to speak up for myself, but having to be assertive on screen has shown me the value in doing it!’
Given the emotional toll it can take and the years she has already invested, how many more seasons does Kyle have in her? ‘I take it one season at a time. People think I’m going to leave now I’m producing my own show, but I don’t forget for one minute that I would never have been approached [by the producer behind ER and The West Wing] to make a series based on my life if it wasn’t for Housewives. And not so many people would turn up to my stores either – though it does help that the one in Beverly Hills is located just down the street from the doctors’ offices where everyone gets their Botox!’ And with that she lets out another of her raucous laughs.
For all her insider-ness, Kyle is no hostage to the Beverly Hills bubble, and has a great sense of humour about how her life might look ridiculous to those on the outside. For instance, she admits that her dogs are more work than her children, but thankfully, where she lives, ‘a pooper-picker-upper’ is an actual job, so she has been able to hire one. ‘I mean, you can’t ask a housekeeper to do that and I was scared the gardener would quit.’
After this trip to London, she’s going on holiday in Europe and then it will be back home to Beverly Hills. ‘It’s hard for me to be objective about where I live,’ she says. ‘For me, it’s my small town, my little community. I know everyone. I have my local restaurants. Sometimes, though, I’ll be driving down Rodeo Drive with the sun shining and all the beautiful palm trees, and I’ll think, “Ah, so this is how people see Beverly Hills.”’
Cool for Kyle
★ FASHION FAILSAFES I love Gucci and Marc Jacobs, plus Jonathan Simkhai and Self-Portrait for dresses. I tend to gravitate towards the classics – I won’t spend a lot of money on something trendy.
★ WORKOUT REGIME I exercise six daysa week: two days each of hiking, Spinning and hot yoga, and I have a personal trainer.
★ DIETING DOWNFALLS Carbs are my weakness. I find it hard not to reach for the bread basket and I can’t say no to a cookie.
★ SIGNATURE DISH Chicken and veg. One of my daughters is vegetarian and another is pescatarian, but I can’t please everyone.
★ BEAUTY SECRETS Botox is my friend – it works for me. I won’t do fillers, though.
★ FAVOURITE ESCAPES I needed hypnotherapy to conquer my fear of flying and am now making up for lost time. I love Europe, especially Capri. We like to travel by boat with our children so we have every meal together and they can’t get away.My husband grew up in Mexico and I love going there, too, especially to Punta Mita.
★ MOTTO It’s so clichéd, but treat others as you want to be treated.
★ WHO DO YOU MOST ADMIRE? I recently watched a documentary on Nora Ephron. She was so creative and smart, and spoke her mind. She could be difficult, but I think that is a good thing. I can be too much of a people-pleaser.
All seasons of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills are available to watch on hayu.com