In September 2012, Barack Obama was weeks away from beating his GOP rival Mitt Romney to win his historic second term in office as America’s first Black president. The United States seemed like a place of endless possibility and hope – as well as a series of trials, complications and deadly contradictions.
Perhaps nowhere was that more evident than on reality TV, where Bravo’s “Don’t Be Tardy” and E!’s “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” were shows people inexplicably watched.
Meanwhile, on VH1, Sheree Zampino was about to get her first taste of reality TV fame on “Hollywood Exes,” essentially a more grounded version of “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” that debuted two years after “Housewives.” “Exes” starred Zampino ― the ex of actor Will Smith and NFL player turned pastor Terrell Fletcher ― and the ex-wives of other notable celebrities in Los Angeles, including Nicole Murphy, Andrea Kelly, Mayte Garcia and Jessica Canseco (the respective exes of legendary comedian Eddie Murphy; now disgraced and incarcerated R&B star R. Kelly; dearly departed musical genius Prince; and Major League Baseball star Jose Canseco).
And I was into it. Majorly. (And not just because Zampino, at the time, was married to a fellow St. Louisan who went to school with my eldest sister.)
It was glamorous while being relatable. Who hasn’t been hurt or abandoned by an ex, like Andrea Kelly, or somewhat hung up on an old, iconic love, like Mayte Garcia? But then there was Nicole Murphy, who’d made it to the other side and came out on top. She spent most of her screen time hanging with her gorgeous, model-ready daughters and buying things with then-boyfriend Michael Strahan’s black card.
And Zampino, who studied fashion design at Manhattan’s Fashion Institute of Technology, was fashionably there, supporting her friends with fun side-eye and commentary while tackling her own drama within her soon-to-falter marriage.
“Even though we don’t talk every day, it’s like one of those things where, when we connect, it’s like we pick up where we left off,” Zampino now says of her “Hollywood Exes” cast mates. “There’s a true sisterhood, a true bond there that I believe is like, you know ― it’s a lifetime.”
The VH1 series lasted three seasons and prepared Zampino for the over-the-top, at times cutthroat world of Bravo’s “Real Housewives” franchise. She joined “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” this season as a friend to the show’s first Black cast member, the fan favorite Garcelle Beauvais.
“What gave me a little bit of security and confidence is because I did Hollywood [Exes],'” Zampino said. “I did know that this was on a whole other level. I just didn’t realize how. But I went in with just being present.”
“I’m a fan, so I’ve watched it for years and you have your opinions and all that,” she continued. “And I understand that with reality [TV], you don’t see everything. They have a story that they’re trying to tell on the back end, the production. So I said, I wanna go in and be fair and just have an ‘in the moment’ experience with these ladies, like a real-time experience. And I think that worked for me. It gave me a lot of peace and I was pleasantly surprised.”
We’re a long way now from 2012, and the “hope and change” days of the Obama administration. In our dystopian, disease-riddled present, “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” has also taken a dark turn, this time with cast member Erika (Girardi) Jayne going full reality-TV villain over the plight of the “widows and orphans” whom her estranged husband and his law firm allegedly defrauded.
But Zampino has been enjoying her time on the show. And she has even ― gasp! ― enjoyed some of her time with the heavily maligned Girardi.
“Some of the ladies that I didn’t think I would like, in terms of what characters, what they were giving, and what my opinions were based on what I saw as a fan, I was pleasantly surprised. Like with Erika, I actually thought she was fun. I had a good time with her. I saw her reality and I’m from New York,” Zampino said. “So I love people that are real and you know exactly where you stand.”
Also a surprise to her? Lisa Rinna, soap opera star and wife of actor Harry Hamlin.
“I saw a very nurturing side to her, which I didn’t really know that side,” Zampino said. “So, yeah. Pleasantly surprised.”
As a “Housewives” fan (I predominantly use “Real Housewives of Potomac” GIFs on Twitter because Karen Huger, Ashley Darby and Candiace Dillard Bassett are the GIFs that keep on giving), I had a lot of questions for Zampino, mostly concerning her thoughts on fashion. Who is bringing it daily among the wives? And who could use her FIT-trained help the most?
(Psst. It’s Potomac’s fashionably challenged and “reasonably” shady Gizelle Bryant, right? She wanted to say Gizelle.)
“You are so messy with this question, and someone comes to mind immediately,” Zampino said. “I don’t wanna say it.”
“Is it Gizelle?” I said, obviously being messy.
“I don’t, I don’t want to say it,” she said.
“I forgive you. But in my heart, it’s Gizelle,” I said. “I can say that as someone who loves her.”
“Keep pretty,” Zampino said, frustratingly still not naming names. “I can’t say it. I can’t say you’re wrong. I can’t say it, but I can’t say you’re wrong.”
And who are the most fashionable Housewives in Beverly Hills? Zampino had a lot of love for Rinna and label addict Dorit Kemsley.
“Who I’m really digging her style is Rinna. Ah, Rinna I burn. I love her style because I know my boobs are too big to kind of wear some of the things that she wears, but I love a woman wearing suits,” Zampino said. “I love that kind of androgynous chic. I like the way she rocks her suits, and she’s bold with her color choices. Yeah, I like her vibe. I love them. I like her style. And then, of course, Dorit. Dorit has amazing style. Dorit just goes to Louis Vuitton and says, ‘I’ll take it all.’ Then she’s gonna wear it all at the same time.”
So who does Zampino find to be the most relatable, and who did she mesh with the best outside of Beauvais? She named relative newbies Crystal Kung Minkoff and Diana Jenkins, who’s already become controversial among fans in her first season on the show.
“Crystal is just sweet,” Zampino said. “I think she’s a sweet girl. She’s a lot more fun than how she’s portrayed, than what you see. I think she’s a fun girl. She’s sweet. And Diana is ― first of all, I love the way Diana rolls, okay? She’s doing everything, everything top, top, top, top of the line! And she’s real. She’s just unapologetically her.”
“I like to know where I stand with people,” she went on. “You don’t have to like me, but don’t tell me you do, and then behind my back ― you know what I mean? I like to know where I stand. So it’s refreshing in this town, in LA, when you meet somebody who is like, ‘This is me, take it or leave it.’ I like that.”
When it comes to who’s “shadiest” on the show, Zampino name-checked the adorably awkward Sutton Stracke, whom I’ve found to be a charming Southerner with chronic foot-in-mouth disease.
The realest? Her daughter, Garcelle Beauvais. The funniest? Zampino nominated herself. So rich they’re out of touch with reality? For Zampino, it’s Jenkins.
“Maybe it is Diana, because remember, she didn’t know something that was basic,” she said. “I can’t remember, but we’re like, ‘How do you not know that?’ It was an outlet. I think somebody mentioned an outlet or something.”
“Oh, the outlet malls,” I said. “That was Crystal. She was talking about, ‘Have you ever been to the outlet mall?'”
But as for who’s the “least” rich on a show about very rich women, Zampino, again, chose herself. She said Beauvais is the one she’d trust most with a secret, and the one she’d trust the least is… Kyle Richards, who’s often jokingly described online as an uncredited producer on the show.
“Kyle’s gonna like, she’s gonna tell it!” Zampino said.
“She’s like a producer, practically, at this point,” I said.
“Exactly. She’s sold out. She’s completely in… all in, all in!” Zampino joked.
The meanest on “RHOBH”? Even though Zampino clearly likes Girardi, she had to say it.
“The most fiery one that I’ve ever seen on the show has been Erika,” she said. “Erika be bringing that heat, so let’s say Erika.”
“Erika is the only one besides you and Garcelle on ‘Beverly Hills’ who I think could survive on ‘[Real Housewives of] Atlanta,’ because those women are vicious,” I said.
“Let me tell you something, you couldn’t pay me enough [to be on ‘Atlanta’],” Zampino quipped. “You could not pay me enough. You couldn’t give me, you could give five diamonds. ‘We’ll give you 10 diamonds!’ No ma’am! No, sir. No, sir!”
Speaking of diamonds, does Zampino want to be a full-time cast member on “RHOBH”? From HuffPost’s pages to the ears of the “Real Housewives” god ― that would be executive producer and “Watch What Happens Live” host Andy Cohen ― Zampino is down.
“I would love to be offered a diamond,” she said.
C’mon, Bravo. Make Zampino another jewel among a cluster of diamonds. She’s delivered on reality TV before. She could definitely do it again.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that “Hollywood Exes” debuted two years before “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.”