When it comes to reality television, much of what is shown in episodes has happened and been reported on months prior. In the case of Mob Wives, this couldn't be more true. And, considering the subject matter, news related to the show's going-ons isn't always the most pleasant, and often hits extremely close to home for cast members. Case in point: The recent news that main cast member Renee Graziano's ex-husband, Hector "Junior" Pagan, had given information about Renee's father to the FBI after he became a criminal informant.
Series creator Jennifer Graziano is arguably the closest to it all. In addition to her professional attachment to Mob Wives, she's also the sister of aforementioned cast member Renee, and has known the women in the cast for years, dating back to before the series was ever in development. Though she admits that making the decision of whether or not to keep filming when something so personal happens is incredibly difficult, she eventually decides to let the cameras roll. In her eyes, the bottom line of the series is simple: Tell the story of women who have forge ahead alone and grapple with a difficult-to-handle lifestyle.
Decisions such as that one are what Jennifer has to make on a daily basis, and the popularity of Mob Wives certainly attests that she's been making the right ones; in addition to bringing solid ratings to network VH1, the series has also become so popular that a spinoff has been green-lit and is currently filming in Chicago.
Complex spoke to Jennifer about how she came up with the concept for the series, what she thinks makes Mob Wives all so popular, and what she's got planned for its future. Here's a hint: We could soon be seeing Mob Wives in other major cities sooner than you think.
Interview by Tanya Ghahremani (@tanyaghahremani)
Where did the inpiration for this show's concept come from?
A while back, I started to write a scripted show based on my life growing up, and I started to realize and look at the scope of television; seeing how the reality shows were really becoming popular, and, in particular how the Housewives franchise was taking off, I realized maybe I want to do both versions, actually. Let me turn this concept into a reality show, which is honestly an easier way for me to get into TV, and then ultimately do the scripted show after. Second to that, I realized I had the cast under my nose the whole entire time.
Was it easy to sell this show to a network?
Actually, it was very easy. The first network I brought it to made an offer, and then from there I actually realized I should shop it around and see what else I can get. In the interim, I ended up bringing the show to Harvey Weinstein, at The Weinstein Company, who absolutely loved it, and wanted it from the very beginning.
We did a field based on this show and the scripted show that I was writing, and a couple of other ideas I had, and Harvey gave me an overall deal with his company to partner up on Mob Wives and a couple of other shows and take them out together. From there, we brought in Ben Silverman and Electus, based on his TV career and his international prowess, and I went from having one offer to five offers. I call that the Harvey-Ben factor.
So you’re working on other scripted shows right now?
Yes, I have one in development right now. I have a couple of shows in development, both scripted an unscripted.
Can you tell us anything about them?
Well, I don’t want to give it away yet, but… I have one that’s definitely not in the same genre of the Mob Wives. The unscripted shows, they cover a vast array of topics, from competition shows to other Housewives-esque formatted shows. There’s a potential spin-off to Mob Wives that I’m working on as well; we’re filming in Chicago now, so that franchise is expanding.
Chicago is greenlit, filming, and set to air in June, and then I’m also testing out the waters and casting in Florida, Boston, Philly, and Vegas. I’m taking a page out of the Housewives book; like I said, that was kind of my quote-unquote inspiration to turn this show into a reality show.
When it comes to this show, the original Mob Wives, you’ve known the women for years, and obviously Renee’s your sister. But how did the casting process go. How did you settle on exactly who was going to star?
Well, I’ve gotta be honest: I cast Renee last. Truthfully, I always knew that she would be on the cast, but based on all the torture she put me through over my life, I decided to play with her a little bit. She would come to me, like, “Can I at least just do the wardrobe? I’m a stylist, can I at least just do the styling for the show? Like, do the make-up?” And I’m like, “Yeah, I’ll think about it, don’t worry,” ultimately knowing that she was going to be a star of the show.
And Drita, I’ve been quote-unquote Drita’s manager since we were about 20-years-old, and I’ve always said to her, “I’m going to put you on TV one day,” never knowing that I myself would be a producer or a creator, just knowing and thinking that she had TV potential and qualities. So she was definitely one of the first people I had in mind for this. Karen, of course, the huge background and the family name, a friend of mine since I’m 13. Actually, I had Ramona in mind for Season One, but she couldn’t do the show because she had some personal and legal issues precluding her from participation, so I said to her let me know when that’s all cleared away and we’ll think about it for another season.
And then Carla, I was looking for that kind of quiet to the storm. She’s a little bit more laidback than the rest of the girls, that kind of person that balances out the rest of the cast, that’s not exactly the same but a little different, with a sexy look, and I remembered Carla who was actually Renee’s friend throughout the years because they grew up together since I think 17 years old. I ran into Carla at a family member’s party and I approached her about it and thought she’d be perfect. That perfect calm to the storm.
Ang! Ang was definitely on my mind from Season One, as well. Ang, basically, is a family friend; she’s my oldest sister’s best friend and my aunt’s best friend, and I knew that she was a little bit older. She knows Drita from growing up around the bars and the neighborhood, but the connection is really through Renee, so my goal for Ang was really to build the Mob Wives franchise first with the women who had the four closest relationships, always knowing that I was going to put Ang in the mix, and knowing that she only has that Renee connection, really. She’s a little bit older than the other women... et me build this franchise first, get it to where it’s successful, and then bring Ang and really make a splash.
Is there anyone else you’d like to bring in for the next season?
I’m always talking to people for potential cast members; you never know what’s going to happen season-to-season, and what’s going on in each person’s lives. So if there’s something that’s going on in their lives that has to do with a person outside of the show that’s really interesting and really would make for a good story inside the show, I’m always open to adding that person in, whether it’s part-time or full-time. I’m always on the look to bring in whatever I think is going to elevate the show to the next level.
I’ve read that you’re a much more private person than the rest of the girls. You never wanted to actually appear on the show yourself?
No, I’m definitely much more private and reserved. I have to be honest, I do get the bug every now and then and think, “Oh, I should do this,” but, really, for the most part, I want to be famous for business, not for being a personality. My goal has always been to become an executive and really take it as far as I can take it—to the top, really.
What exactly do you think it is about the show that’s made it so popular?
First and foremost, I think that people are voyeuristic by nature, and they always want to get a look into somebody else’s life. What makes this show special is, they’re getting a look into what most people consider a secret society, and they’re getting the feeling that they’re seeing something that they would only see if they were apart of this lifestyle. So, the mob to me, as a whole, whether it’s a backdrop of the show or not, is a character in and of itself, so I think that’s what makes people so intrigued.
Second to that—actually, first to that—is the personalities of the women; they’re insane, in a great way. Not insane crazy, but the personalities are so big that it’s insane. They’re just fun, they’re drama-ful, they’re colorful. With the women, if you put five women or four women in a group every day of their lives, they’re gonna fight and bicker. And I just think that, in this instance, they really only have each other because only people in this lifestyle understand what they’re going through so they can only rely on each other. That also lends to the fact that they start to take things out on each other as well, because they really can’t take their issues outside the group.
The show’s received a lot of criticism over its subject matter, and it’s been said that it promotes stereotypes. How do you respond to that?
Stereotyping Italian-Americans? Well, I don’t think we’re necessarily representing a culture—we’re really representing ourselves and what we went through in our own lives. We just happen to be Italian. I know tons of Italian-Americans, and of them, maybe five-percent are in the mob. So, that wasn’t my goal, to set out and stereotype anybody that way, but we’re representing who we are, and we can’t do that without showing the backdrop of the mob. That’s who we are.
I read in the Los Angeles Times a while back that your father was not at all happy about the show—how does he feel about it now, after it’s reached a pretty significant level of success?
He was never really happy; he's still not one-hundred percent happy about it, but I think as he’s seeing more and more that it’s not about the men—it’s about the women and the effect of a lifestyle on the women and their daily activities and what a certain mindset has led them to believe and then act on. We’re not giving away any secrets of the mob, we don’t know any to give away, and I think that’s kind of lessened the blow for him. He’s still not a hundred-percent happy, but, at the end of the day, I’m his daughter, and I’m sure he’s secretly proud that I’ve done something successful, even if it’s on a subject matter he’s in agreeance with.
[It] wasn’t my goal, to set out and stereotype anybody that way, but we’re representing who we are, and we can’t do that without showing the backdrop of the mob. That’s who we are.
Was anybody else pissed off when the show aired?
Yeah, there was some backlash in the community, but, again, I just stuck by my guns and told everyone it’s not about you, it’s not about your secrets; I don’t know anything, they don’t know anything.
I look at it like this: We lived it. No matter what it is, it’s no different than a daughter of the fireman who worries about his father every night when he goes out to put out fires. They don’t know if he’s coming back or if he’s going to be burned or hurt, and that can take a mental and psychological toll on a child as well. It’d be no different than that daughter going and putting her story out there, saying this is how I’ve grown up in fear. Or, even the daughter of a doctor, that daughter grows up proud and happy and the doctor’s life still affects that child. It’s basically what happened to the daughter or the wife, as a result of another person’s lifestyle.
Concerning the spinoff in Chicago, what was the casting process for that?
Actually, I went through a couple of family friends that knew some of the women down there. One of the women from Chicago, my sister and I knew from a while back; our fathers actually were in jail together out in Minnesota, so that’s the connection there. Another one of the women was a family friend, as well. For the most part, I went through family friends, and people who, quote-unquote, know... Well, lets just leave it at that: family friends.
I read that you were in Chicago last year to scout the place out for the new series, and a reporter for the Chicago-Sun Times, Mark Brown, said that in Chicago, the wives and daughters of the mob are supposed to stay out of the public eye. He talked to some lawyers and they said that they didn’t think it would “meet with approval” there.
Well, it’s no different than New York. He’s not wrong in saying that—that is the tradition, but as time goes by, traditions change and things break down. There’s some truth to it, but, at the end of the day—and we face that same truth in New Yorki—t’s not about the men. It’s not their particular involvement in anything; it’s about the women and their lives and what they’re doing to better them.
What I personally love about the show is that a lot of it doesn’t feel forced; with most reality shows, you get the feeling that much of what you're seeing was orchestrated by producers. Is there ever any pressure to make sure there’s a certain amount of drama in each episode, or does it naturally create itself?
Absolutely never a pressure—it’s there. Sometimes there’s a pressure to stop it. They are inherently drama-ful, the nature of the subject matter brings with it drama in itself. Like I said, each one of the women are going through something terrible in their lives.
I’m sure you’ve heard about what’s happening with Renee, Drita’s getting divorced, Ramona’s just getting back from a foreign country without her husband and money, and Karen’s still dealing with the aftermath of her father, so there’s drama inherent just because of the lifestyle. And then you get these women with all these pressures on them—like I said, they only have each other – so, pressure explodes between them.
Has that ever been a problem while filming, then, to make sure things don’t get too out of hand?
Well, no. You’ve seen episodes one and two of this season—there was the big fight at Renee’s party.
That’s what I was thinking of, actually.
Yeah, it’s not out of control. I’m just saying, we don’t have to force the drama, it’s just there.
Are we going to see anything about the situation with Junior on the show?
Yes, the one thing that I pride myself on is making a true-to-life show; it is reality, so I want to stick to reality. If that’s what’s happening in Renee’s life, then that’s what you’ll be seeing.
How exactly do you deal with filming something that’s so close to you guys?
Well, I’ve got to be honest: It’s very difficult. My first inclination was to shut it down, and not film it, but Renee is such an open book that she wants the world so see what she’s going through. She looks at it from the perspective of, if I could survive it, I could teach someone else to survive what they’re going through, so I have no problem showing what’s real in my life—and she never has, honestly, way before the show.
Renee, she’ll go to a hairdresser, and within five minutes you know everything about her, that’s just the way that she is. So, knowing that about Renee, and knowing that I signed on as a professional, I’m going to keep it professional, and I’m going to keep the cameras rolling even if it hurts a little bit.
Interview by Tanya Ghahremani (@tanyaghahremani)