‘We just set the table’ – executive producer of Real Housewives of Auckland

On Monday night, the drama will commence as the six Real Housewives of Auckland tick tack their stilettos onto Kiwi television screens for the first time. And as much as New Zealanders of all persuasions will likely publicly deny watching the nation’s latest dose of reality TV, rest assured morbid curiosity will lead many to tune in and have a look. But be warned, much like all the most addictive substances in the world, sometimes that first sweet hit is all it takes.

While reality TV is often presented as a chaotic collection of random interactions between people, there is, in fact, a lot of careful planning that goes into making a palatable product.

Charged with the responsibility of turning copious champagne drinking into addictive reality television is Real Housewives of Auckland executive producer Hayley Cunningham.

Over the last few months, Cunningham has been working tirelessly behind the scenes, pulling the show together.     

“I started casting for the show back in December, after getting a call from Matchbox in Australia,” Cunningham says.

“For a lot of unscripted television, they do a call to action via online and radio promos, but this wasn’t that show. We were looking for a very select group of women, who live aspirational lives and who must have an opinion.”

At first, perhaps due to the perception Kiwis are overly humble, Cunningham says she was concerned about finding a sufficiently flamboyant cast for the show.  

“We just started phoning people, who would connect us, and then the circle just started spreading wider and wider,” Cunningham says. 

“I thought it would be a lot harder than it actually was. I thought we’d find it tough to find a strong cast, and I wasn’t entirely sure that Auckland would have the group of women we were looking for, but we turned out being spoilt for choice.”

Once the team had settled on the cast and the cameras started rolling, Cunningham realised that she had found exactly what the show needed. 

“We’ve got a cast of women who love to party,” she says. “They love to have fun and they’re also not scared to share an opinion… We’ve got six really strong, really beautiful women.”

As has been seen with the international versions of the show, bringing together a group of such strong personalities will invariably lead to a hefty does of drama. And Cunningham says fans certainly won’t be disappointed by what’s served up on screen.

“It’s up to international standards,” she says.

“When you put a group of six intelligent and outspoken women together for a period of time, there’s always going to be drama. So, without giving any specific away, yes, there will be drama.”

Given the consistency of the drama across every series of the show, there have been claims for years that the show is actually scripted. However, Cunningham denies this is the case, saying it’s a “truly unscripted show”.

“It’s not a drama series,” she says. “We don’t sit down and write lines for the women. What we do is set the table. We put them all together. We might talk to them beforehand about what they like do, what their interests are… But once the table is set, we let them go for it.”

She says the role of the production team is really just to keep the story on track and make sure the ten hours of television screening on Bravo flows coherently.

The Real Housewives of Auckland premieres at a time when many are questioning the portrayal of women across media. But asked whether she was concerned about backlash against the show, Cunningham said she wasn’t concerned.

“The wonderful thing about this show is that it gives women of a certain age a voice on primetime television,” she says.  

“These women aren’t in their early 20s. They’re not bachelorettes. They’re not up-and-coming newsreaders. These women are in their 40s, 50s and 60s. And you don’t see these women on television. They don’t have a voice.”

Cunningham bemoans the fact women older than 40 are quite often excluded from primetime television in favour of those on the younger side.   

“I love the fact that we’re giving these women a platform to air their voice,” she says.

Cunningham also adds that one shouldn’t read too much into the title of the show.  

“The title is a bit of a [misnomer], because many of the women have successful careers or have had successful careers to varying degrees,” Cunningham says.  

“If you look at Louise Wallace, she had an incredibly successful career as a broadcaster fronting 60 Minutes and 20-20… We’ve also got Gilda Kirkpatrick, who most New Zealanders know as a socialite married to a man 45 years her senior. But what people don’t know about her is that she’s a trained architect and she runs her own advertising and marketing agency.”

No doubt as the action starts to roll out on Monday night, we’ll learn a few more facts about Kirkpatrick, Wallace and the other four women sharing the limelight.  

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