How Andy Cohen became the ringmaster of America’s insane celebrity circus

Emily Yahr

THE WASHINGTON POST- Andy Cohen bounced in his seat and pumped his fist. Diane von Furstenberg, one of his guests on his Bravo late-night show Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen, had just gone there – dished about her long-ago “brief love affair” with Richard Gere, not just on live TV but in the most deliciously, bluntly vulgar terms.

“Iconic! Iconic!” Cohen cheered, leaning over to give the fashion designer a high-five as his studio audience screamed.

Cohen, a reality-TV innovator behind the camera long before he became a talk-show host, has an uncanny radar for juicy details of famous and semifamous people’s lives. That may be why his show has become a nightly raucous confessional for bona fide celebrities – even if they don’t always plan on it.

The Gere story wasn’t new news – von Furstenberg revealed it in her 2014 memoir – but it was new enough, or at least fun enough, to light up Cohen’s audience that March night, as well as Page Six, People and dozens of other gossip-accumulating sites the next day. Yet it wasn’t even the biggest scoop from that one 30-minute show. Cohen went to the phones to take questions from viewers. One asked his other guest, actress Julianne Moore, why she abandoned the leading role in Can You Ever Forgive Me? which turned into an Oscar nomination for Melissa McCarthy.

Moore, who had just set down a glass of white wine, winced. “I didn’t leave that movie,” she said, her voice light.

“I was fired.”

A gasp rose from the small audience. “Were you?!” Cohen exclaimed, then shifted into reporter mode: “Was there a reason? So you started shooting it? Did you see the movie?” She replied quietly: Creative differences. It happened during rehearsals. No, she hadn’t yet seen the film.

“It’s still kind of painful.”

Cohen, 51, who sharpened his interview skills at CBS News before deploying them at Bravo Real Housewives reunion shows, isn’t afraid to ask any question – or hand over the mic to a call-in fan who might have thought of a better one.

“I’m pretty sure there’s some kind of endorphin released in me every time someone reveals a secret,” Cohen said in a recent interview with The Washington Post. “Whether the question came from me or not.”

If he isn’t the architect of this decade’s celebrity culture, Andy Cohen is certainly one of its ringmasters – a gleeful scholar of the intersection of social media, reality TV and gossip, dedicated to breaking down the barriers between the A-list and the C-list, and between fan and star, just so we can, well, watch what happens.

Spending most of his career behind the scenes, he was a key part of the Bravo team that transformed reality TV – both with unscripted shows (Top Chef, Project Runway) that translated coastal urbanity and creative-class coolness for the masses, and with the Real Housewives franchise, which presented a smeared window into the messy drama of the sort-of rich and mildly famous and monetised the great American hunger for schadenfreude.

ABOVE & BELOW: Cohen with a stuffed version of his dog Wacha on the set of his show ‘Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen’; and showrunner of ‘Watch What Happens Live’ Deirdre Connolly. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST

“We embraced the idea that real people are as interesting, if not more so, than scripted characters,” said former NBCUniversal Executive Lauren Zalaznick who brought Cohen to Bravo.

“Andy himself really embodies that. His own human nature is a great deal of what makes him a superstar.”

It was 10 years ago this summer that he started hosting his own show, no longer just a wrangler of big personalities but one in his own right. Watch What Happens Live emerged as the late-night stop where A-listers are most likely to let their guards down in an era known for intense self-curation.

On WWHL, they divulge the hardest drug they’ve ever taken (for Gwyneth Paltrow, it was ecstasy); what they really think of Ben Affleck’s back tattoo (his ex-girlfriend J-Lo hates it); or how long they’ve reigned as “master of their domain” (“a reasonable period of time,” Jerry Seinfeld said). Howard Stern, one of Cohen’s broadcast heroes, may score as many scoops with his celebrity interviews, but Cohen manages to work his magic in a mere 30 minutes, including commercials.

“We are very proud at the amount of water-cooler churn that we generate on the show,” said Cohen, who has described WWHL as “Playboy After Dark meets Wayne’s World meets Larry King Live“.

His pot-stirrer techniques don’t always charm. This summer, a fan texted into the show to ask guest Tituss Burgess how he liked working with Eddie Murphy on a new movie.

Burgess had not been watching much WWHL, where most stars anticipate personal questions and even bask in the awkwardness. (See: Mariah Carey’s slyly pleased expression when given a chance to shade her nemesis, Nicki Minaj, in a May 2016 appearance.) Cohen never wants guests to leave angry, and they are allowed to designate certain topics as off limits. But he also recognises that Bravo viewers love a good train wreck.

“Say what you will about that episode with Tituss, but it was a half-hour episode of television where he was not feeling me, and you saw it – and we’re not cutting around that,” Cohen said. Viewers, he said, “crave” authenticity. As for his VIP guests: “They also might see that when they do this show, it generates a lot of extra attention,” he said. “And isn’t that the point of doing late-night talk?”