Lisa Vanderpump is feeling charitable. The longtime Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star and the grand dame of its spin-off, Vanderpump Rules, is best known to many reality TV fans for her decadent lifestyle and arch one-liners. But recently, she’s been devoting most of her available free time to her philanthropic efforts—particularly her animal rights advocacy. “It’s really important to me,” she says, “my fight against Yulin.”
She’s referring to the annual festival in Guangxi, China, in which festivalgoers eat dog meat; Vanderpump has been a vocal critic of the event, drawing attention to it with rallies and making frequent television appearances to denounce the subject. The day before her first gala to benefit her Vanderpump Dog Foundation, she’s invited me to her Beverly Hills home for tea.
It’s a beautifully maintained menagerie. Encircling the main house is a moat in which two swans float placidly; inside, there are eight dogs, all impeccably groomed and yipping good-naturedly. Vanderpump, who juggles running three Los Angeles restaurants and appearing on two reality shows, says she's been consumed by planning the gala. Still, she took time to discuss not only her philanthropic work but the upcoming season of Vanderpump Rules (returning for a fifth season Nov. 7), the enduring legacy of the Real Housewives and what makes for great reality TV.
TIME: Have you always been so passionate about animals?
Lisa Vanderpump: It was never a normal situation at home. There would always be ponies in the kitchen and I rode the horse to the village in my pajamas and we had ducks on the bed. Now it’s the Vanderpump Dog Foundation. We started off doing a rally to the Chinese embassy, which Bravo covered. Thank God for reality television—there’s some good! This normally isn’t on their charitable aspirations, but they covered it! They were initially reticent to get involved—they don’t like to make political statements. I said, “Well, this isn’t a political statement. It’s kind of a bipartisan issue.” Nobody thinks we should be torturing dogs. So they said, “We’ll cover it.” And it had a certain feel-good factor about it for Bravo—to not just see women rolling around on the floor or having a manicure.
Is that part of why you’re still doing Housewives?
I didn’t start until two weeks after everybody else. I was unsure, because I have Vanderpump Rules and I’ve been beaten up so badly on Housewives. I just thought, I don’t know if I can go in for another round. Anyway, we decided, okay, go in once more, but would they try and show some of the things I’m really involved in? So we’ve done the rallies; we’ve done the placards, which we’ve sent all over the world encouraging other countries to support us; we’ve done the t-shirts; we did the PSA, and Sharon Osbourne was good enough to help me on that; we did a song that was given to me by Diane Warren, who’s fantastic, and Leona Lewis is singing it. And now we’re doing a documentary, which shows activists on the ground in China trying to put an end to the festival. In China, we set up a rescue situation where we infiltrated the meat trucks and took dogs off there that were going to be slaughtered, bringing dogs over as Yulin ambassadors. But it's unsustainable for me to work in this capacity all year long because I've got my own business.
What do you think has made Vanderpump Rules successful, as opposed to many other reality spin-offs?
One, the casting. I knew and I chose these people. I knew the stakes would be high because their friendships were real. It was an incestuous situation, and to be that honest—or dishonest, as the case may be, or honest about your dishonesty, is unusual. Take Jax: If he’s not in the middle of the situation, then he’s in the middle of the conversation talking about the situation. That’s who Jax Taylor is. He was like that before. This is a great season—it really is.
Everyone on the show owns being a little bit racy, which is something you do as well on Real Housewives. The other women can be more prudish.
I don’t understand that. If I put a glass of wine in my hand, I’m in control of my life. It’s the same with Vanderpump Rules. It’s like, are we making a show about what we want them to say or what they say? There are some things that have hurt my ears, but I’ve never said, “Take anything out,” in 250 episodes of both shows. For what? If I make a mistake, I’ll live by it. I know I said it. I’m not stupid. I know why I said it at the time. I’m sure there’s a reason for it. I think that’s about having confidence in who you are. If you get berated for it, learn from it.
Why have the other Housewives characterized you as being manipulative?
Maybe if you’re smart, you get accused of that. Manipulated the audience into supporting me—maybe that’s their beef—or manipulated Bravo into giving me a spinoff when they haven’t. Maybe that comes into play—I don’t know. Aren’t we all, if we’re striving for something, manipulative? If they think that I’m sitting around thinking of how I can manipulate the dynamic between Lisa Rinna and Eileen Davidson, they’ve got another thing coming. I’m manipulative, but I’m going to manipulate something that’s important to me—not that bullshit. I don’t want to be guilty of manipulating the other women. We’re making a show about six women with six different opinions. That’s what makes a good show. Have your own opinion! I said to Yolanda when she first came in: “I want to hear what you’ve got to say, not what I’ve got to say. I don’t need you to bolster me.” Bring your own shit. If you can be manipulated by me, well, shame on you. That means you’re manipulatable! Like Rinna last season: “She made me say that.” No, I didn’t! You said it of your own volition. Own it! If I could manipulate her, I would. Go get me a cup of tea, Rinna!
Some storylines on Real Housewives have gone to unexpectedly dark places—like the suicide of Taylor Armstrong’s husband Russell, for example. Did the producers have any idea what they were getting into?
How can you? It could have closed the show down. In the show’s defense, this was a person that had signed up for the show for the first season, then willingly signed up for the second season. Was he prepared for his whole life to suddenly be on display? I don’t know. On a reality show, if you’ve got skeletons in your closet, they will come jumping out of that closet like a jack-in-the-box. If you’ve got something to hide, my advice would be, “Don’t do a reality show.” If you’ve got a drink problem, we’re going to see it. You can’t spend months interacting with people in the close proximity that we do. [Producer] Alex Baskin is so smart. We’ve got two great showrunners that know how to play the game and bring in a good show. [Producer] Bill Langworthy does an extraordinary job on Vanderpump Rules. They sit back and they listen to everything. Even when you’re not filming, they know what’s going on in your lives. If you think you can pull the wool over people’s eyes, maybe you can at a dinner party. Maybe you can if you go away with somebody for a weekend. If you go on a reality show for six months, with a production company, and you think you’re going to get away with your shit you’re hiding, you’re not.
So why do people with skeletons come back to the show? What’s in the psychology of someone who says, as they’re circling the drain, “I’m going to go on TV”?
Why do we all come back? It’s a quest. Is it a quest for fame and all that has to offer? When I talk about people as “my fans,” what are they a fan of? Me being me? But the advantages it can have! I’ve spoken at the United Nations. I’ve spoken at Congress. I have a star on the Walk of Stars. All the incredible things it’s given me philanthropically—to be able to create my own foundation and speak up for things I’m passionate about, and wonderful things that aren’t altruistic, like Dancing With the Stars. People crave that. We’ve seen, in America, that fame supersedes a hell of a lot. If you’re really famous, you can run for President. It doesn’t matter if you’re f---ing qualified or not. That’s America’s own doing. They’ve put people on television on a pedestal, and sometimes they have no right to be standing atop it. So if Trump can do it, maybe I can. Vandertrump for President!
Would you ever go into politics?
I would like to be a goodwill ambassador. I don’t think politically, I’ve got what it takes. I’m way too naughty—way too salacious.
Being salacious is no longer a barrier to entry in American politics.
Please don’t compare me to Trump! But nothing gives me greater pleasure than when I feel that I’m achieving something—getting somebody to listen to something I’m passionate about. I don’t think I’ve got what it takes—I look at the stamina these people have to have. Never say never. I actually said I would never do a reality show, so go figure.
Do you regret it?
I have no regrets whatsoever. Well, sometimes I’ve regretted doing a particular season—there have been tough times for sure. Season two was a moment where it was so difficult.
But that was also a season that brought to the fore issues like addiction and domestic violence.
There’s this perception that it was going to be some glittery, fluffy thing. I don’t think that would ever be Evolution’s intention, as a production company. They’ve always said to us, “What’s going on in your life? We’re interested.” Alex Baskin says, “Lisa, if it’s important to you, it’s important to us.” It does bring things to the forefront. It does create conversation. I think that’s why reality TV is so fascinating. It’s about conversations that might not necessarily be had. It’s about seeing the ripple effect of alcoholism. How it didn’t just affect the addict, Kim Richards—who’s a wonderful woman—it affected her sister. You see the ramifications.
If production stopped tomorrow, would you make a point to continue spending time with these women?
A couple I would pass on, definitely. But there’s a history. With Kyle Richards, we very rarely pick up the phone and actually talk to each other. We pick up the phone and for the first minute, we’re laughing, because it’s so ridiculous—the situation we’ve put ourselves in.
How do you think Real Housewives has changed television?
Initially there was incredible snobbery about reality television, with some of the first reality shows. Housewives, especially Beverly Hills, felt very much like you were sneaking in somebody’s life and taking a peek behind closed doors that you normally wouldn’t have access to. When you start seeing politicians—albeit, it’s Sarah Palin—signing up for reality television, it’s become a much broader spectrum. It’s become much more acceptable. Now people get very invested in the characters. The women thought they’d won last season and hammered me into the ground. The audience came up like lions protecting their cubs. We’ve also seen the longevity of this franchise. You have Teresa Giudice come out of jail, and she’s back there wearing her evening dress, shaking her ass, flapping her feathers. They’re invested in Teresa Giudice because she’s a great reality star. She’s emotionally available. That’s what makes good reality stars.
Do you believe the “bitch edit”—the idea that producers selectively edit certain cast members to make them appear more villainous than they really are—is real?
If you’re a production company, and you know you have somebody with an opinion and you’re going to be shooting them for six months, you don’t want to change that stance. You don’t want to try and make them out to be something they’re not, because it’s hard to back it up. Evolution believes that reality is way more interesting than anything they could orchestrate. They don’t want producers going in and trying to manipulate. Yes, they go up and say, “Tell us what’s on your mind.” You might think that [someone] is a silly tart and she’s late all the time and it irritates the hell out of you. In reality, you might not say anything. In a reality show, it's a prerequisite to say what’s on your mind. When you say, “Oh, it was the editing”—until now, I’ve said no. But if I get a bad edit now, then f--k you, Evolution—it was the editing!
Do you think Vanderpump Rules will have a similar longevity to Housewives?
We’ve seen a couple come out of it—Stassi and Kristen. Then new characters like James and Lala come in. Next you’ll see Ariana’s brother. It’s a revolving door when you have a restaurant. Now whether it becomes Vanderpump Drools and it’s me walking through those doors on a zimmer frame at some point—that might be another question. We could do another season next year. I’ve got a dynamic that might change everything.