Though you may be familiar with reality television star, entrepreneur, and producer Bethenny Frankel as a cast member of the Real Housewives of New York, over the years, she’s added philanthropist to her résumé. It’s an appropriate title—most recently, she has been one of the few celebrities to put her money where her mouth is in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
This is not the first crisis Frankel and her BStrong initiative have addressed: in September, she flew to the Bahamas to aid the Hurricane Dorian relief efforts, and raised money to relieve those affected by the Australian wildfires.
This particular leg of the initiative started with “BStrong coronakits,” which included masks, gloves, antibacterial wipes, and hand sanitizer, to be distributed to health-care workers and those at higher risks of contracting COVID-19 during the pandemic. Additionally, Frankel has collected funds to distribute to parents who cannot afford for their children to not go to school and collect lunches.
There is currently a shortage of protective masks in U.S. hospitals and medical centers, leaving health-care workers highly susceptible to contracting the coronavirus. Frankel is taking all BStrong funds, and working directly with manufacturers to provide masks.
BStrong “allocates,” meaning donates the money hospitals and medical centers need to purchase masks. The goal, according to Frankel, is to make this a global empowerment mission, providing the funds to purchase and distribute a million masks within the next few days.
Frankel hopped on the phone to get real about what she needs to accomplish her charitable goals, the lack of assistance from billionaires, and why she’s okay with footing the bill.
What motivated you to spring into action in response to this particular crisis?
Like my career, and like everything else, I don’t have these big grand plans. I don’t have this big chess board of all that we’re going to do. I just get inspired by something and then I feel the need to insert myself and execute and help. After doing this all over the world for years now, I have developed a skill set and feel that it’s sort of my responsibility and what I was born to do. Coronavirus wasn’t part of that because it’s not really traditional disaster relief effort, but in wanting to start with the Coronakits and helping people who were not yet on lockdown, and whose kids might be out of school and they couldn’t afford to pay for their lunches, and to give them sanitization kits for their interfacing with the subway or malls or restaurants or just life around the country. These kits would have protective gear, hydration kits, vitamin C for immunity building, and medical information.
What makes BStrong stand out from the other initiatives and charities that are accepting donations in response to the coronavirus pandemic?
Most charities usually aim for one goal throughout the year and they can communicate it in one newsletter. After an event, they know what their goal is, and if they hit it. This is a moving target at all times. I realized very early—earlier than, I think, anyone—about the mask problem. I was hearing from people in specific hospitals. So I pivoted to dealing with masks and protective gear and gowns and working with state government and hospitals and individuals and executing the acquisition and the distribution of these masks for the most critical problem that we’ve ever had, which is that our health-care workers are basically firefighters fighting with out equipment. They’re panicked.
When you read the statistics and see the numbers of infections and deaths from COVID-19, it seems to be getting worse in a lot of places each day.
It’s like war time; people begging for scraps. I’m getting thousands of emails a day from nurses, and doctors, and hospitals, and friends, and people, and store clerks just begging me for masks. So I got into this on a multi-tiered level, with hospitals and government—allocating funds for masks I can help them get, and help distribute. Also, the money that we’re raising from BStrong, we’re using that to help the smaller hospitals that can’t help themselves, and the clinics and the urgent care to help them be able to get what they need for their offices.
Even though FEMA said that they would reimburse hospitals and medical facilities for masks, gowns, and goggles that they order, a lot of people can’t afford to lay out the money first. Not to mention the price gouging, not to mention the shortage, not to mention things being out of the country and wondering if you can trust them, and not to mention scammers and corruption. It’s just the wild, wild West. Half the world doesn’t have any idea what’s going on.
How do you manage those funds as a member of the private sector?
Personally, meaning me and my boyfriend, we give 100% to the effort. We are not a 501C3 that basically takes 60-70-80% for bureaucracy, for the rent, to have money for a rainy day. This is not what we do. We give every single penny to the effort. So when we’re dealing in $25 million and $50 million, I’ve got to put up personal money. I’ve got to wire ahead of time because I can’t wait for the funds to come through the donations, which they won’t. They won’t get to this number unless people start really stepping up to do it. So you’re constantly doing a dance and you’re negotiating and you’re talking to governments. You’re not going to mess around when you’re talking to the governor of Massachusetts or the governor of New York, the mayors of Chicago, the governor of Arizona. This is real. We’re not playing games. They are amazingly working with the private sector, because we are all in this together on the state level, just working together to solve the problem.
How are you working together on the state level?
States are helping other states. We’ve sent a large, large order to Massachusetts, which said they’d be willing to share with New York. People are understanding the problem. And then there are other gross people, which Governor Cuomo has mentioned, that are grabbing from other people and negotiating against each other, and it’s psychotic. You have to have the right stomach for this. You have to be a business person, you have to be a negotiator, you have to be willing to close deals, willing to move quickly, willing to put the pressure on people to get you their money and their letters of intent.
You’ve worked with BStrong to respond to crises before, like Hurricane Dorian and the Australian wildfires. For many people, it’s hard to know which charities are actually effective and which places are good to donate to. But what have you learned about navigating the system now that you’ve been doing this for such a long time?
In what regard what have I learned? I’ve learned everything. I’ve done every kind of disaster from volcanoes to earthquakes to hurricanes. So what do you mean, what have I learned?
Has your work with various disaster relief efforts made you think twice about the way the U.S. government works? What has your work taught you about dealing with politicians and government officials to donate and allocate funds to those in need?
Listen, you could be planning a party and you’re worried about the flowers and the music and the guests and the food and one thing goes wrong—the whole party blows up and we don’t understand why. I just don’t know. And I never have known. We were in Puerto Rico on the ground before the government. We were in the Bahamas on the ground while the hurricane was still going. We have a run-and-gun mentality. People that we’re working with now, with the government and governor’s offices, have agreed to work with us because we can move faster than the state government. They understand there’s red tape and you can’t just sign an invoice and send it without going through 25 people.
What about on a larger, federal level?
On a macro level with the government, they’re worrying about the respirators, worrying about their party, worrying about the economy, worrying about what they’re going to say the next day on TV. They’re worrying about who they fire, they’re worried about their PR. I don’t actually know. That’s why I just get things done and I don’t worry about who did what wrong or who did what right. Because I don’t necessarily understand it. I know that in many lifetimes, no one has ever seen anything like this. So I don’t know what the priorities on the federal level are right now. I think it’s probably curing the virus and probably calming the country down and probably figuring out how to run a country that’s not running. No one’s doing anything and trying to figure out how to calm down people who are freaking out about the market and their unemployment. I would imagine they are ripping their hair out. I would imagine that they don’t know what to do. And I don’t know if they’re prepared with a disaster crew.
Do you think New York is prepared?
Governor Cuomo has brought in other people from the outside that he used to work with who are consultants, and they’re working amazingly with me because I’m delivering. I’m a proven business person. I’m a New Yorker, and I have a home in Massachusetts. I think it’s a great idea for people like me from the outside come in and take off some of the weight and be like, I got this, check that box, I got this, I got that, you need stuff. And the immediacy is the issue.
This is like the stock market: in three weeks, supplies could cost nothing because there could be such an influx of all these scammers trying to come in and capitalize on the market. All I know is three weeks doesn’t matter to me. Tomorrow matters to me—tomorrow, and the next day. A lot of people are saying they’re going to make their own masks. They have to be very clear about what they’re doing. Making your own masks does not do anything for the medical community or the health-care community. It may do things for, I guess, a store clerk or a delivery person at your door, I assume. I don’t know. I can’t screw around with anything that’s not FDA approved and medical grade approved and there are even levels to that. It’s like the Depression, when people were desperate and begging for things that they would never normally be begging for. Like begging for masks.
A lot of people on social media are begging for billionaires to step in and save us. Who else do you think has stepped up to the plate in response to this crisis?
Financially, no one has really stepped up to the plate except for the state government. Ellen DeGeneres has stepped up financially with her partner, Shutterfly, and the currency of her support. And frankly, Ellen DeGeneres is the most powerful woman in media, there’s no denying it. So her support in backing me up is worth millions of dollars in credibility to me, because people trust what she says. And she takes a risk by vouching for me and backing me up. Amy Schumer, Vanessa Hudgens, Mindy Kaling, they’re supporting me.
Have there been any disappointments you’ve experienced, with those who have not stepped up to the plate?
I know that people need to step up and not just try to save their own face and just say, “Oh, we’re donating here,” even though they don’t know where that money’s going. The trend in Hollywood is to say we’re donating here and here’s a link. And they don’t know if that place gives 60-70-80% away. They need to see where the money is going immediately: like, here is the money and then next week here is the equipment, and then here’s the plane. Not just, “I passed the buck and said my name and added it to something so I feel better.”
How do you navigate what you share on social media at a time like this? Are you resisting sharing fun posts in lieu of spreading awareness about BStrong?
No, last night my daughter was singing a sweet song and I was really stressed out. It was a crazy day and it was a pivotal day and a lot of stuff almost fell through the cracks, and I was panicked and we pulled it out as we always do. I was with my daughter, and I said, “Will you sing the song, ‘You Can Count On Me’ by Bruno Mars?” So I just posted that because I thought it was a good message. I’m not aligning Hollywood to sing The Beatles, it’s just my daughter singing a sweet song. It made me feel good, so I thought everyone could hear a little song. And I posted me making my ravioli looking crappy on a plate, just like every other person, not here looking like I’m a master chef, just in my pajamas every day, looking like an animal. I’m just posting the truth of what’s going on, because I’ve never done more television interviews with a ponytail and barely brushed teeth before. I’m so busy that [my publicist] Jill will call me, be like, “Oh, hi. CNN is in five seconds,” and I’m in my pajamas and I’m just like, “All right, I guess I’m going out no bra on CNN.”
Some celebrities have been more vocal, calling for a revolution of sorts, like Cardi B. Are you in support of that? Do you think there needs to be a revolution in the way that our society responds to a crisis of this scale?
I don’t know exactly what she’s talking about, but I’ve been saying ad nauseam, I think this is a global reset and everyone I know personally who I respect and care about, cares about the right things and they’re realizing what’s important. And I am the first one to say that I have been in reality TV in a superficial way. I’ve never loved social media. I love social media for relief work, because it’s a switchboard, and it’s how I learn how people are living and dying, and getting solutions and trucking companies to help me get things to Albany for Cuomo and all that amazing stuff.
What do you say in response to those who might say that, as someone who was on reality television for so many years, you’re part of a culture of materialism?
I grew up where you took a picture, you developed it and you prayed for the best and you usually looked how you do in your driver’s license picture. Now, nobody looks like what they really look like. Everyone’s phony and full of crap and people will say I’m part of it, and I get it. I do have to say that 50% of the time I post myself in pajamas and tried to compete with how bad my hair looked the day before. My meaning in this is that I’m now seeing things and people differently and it’s just poetic that I left The Real Housewives after all this time. I didn’t leave because I wasn’t getting money. I was going to stay because of money, and I felt like that’s not who I want to be. That’s not who I am. This is not who I am anymore, if I was that.
For people who don’t have enough funds to donate to your initiative or maybe they’re living paycheck to paycheck, but they still want to help, what do you suggest that they do?
They have helped. Their awareness, their posting, their talking and their ideas, they are a part of the solution. We’re all part of the change and part of the solution. Without them, I don’t do this. Without them, I don’t know anything. I don’t know about nurses and doctors. I don’t know about their friends in Seattle and in Stonybrook Long Island and Staten Island and Baton Rouge. Without them, this does not exist. When I ask a question about a trucking company and I get 50 messages, because I’ve got to get 20 trucks to Albany, they’re helping. The people who are poor are the ones who are donating. It’s not the people that are rich, with the exception of a small group. We need awareness. They can get us money because they can get us awareness. They can pressure people to donate, meaning the wealthy who can afford it. A hundred percent goes to the effort, but it’s hard for me to foot a $50 million bill for protective gear.
How are you staying calm? Are you staying calm?
I have my activated mania sessions, and then I make sure I take a lavender salt bath and I have my daughter do the same. I do really major snuggles with my child, and artwork with her—cook and watch TV. I’ll do stretching or yoga. I bought this really inexpensive Barbie elliptical, like a very small elliptical that could fit in one of the rooms in my house to just feel like I could be moving versus just pacing my house. I’m trying to get to sleep by 11:30 p.m. to 12 a.m., sometimes I sleep two hours a night, but I’m trying to to get like seven hours of sleep to feel like I wake up and am sort of sane.