Chapter One: On Pause Chapter One ON PAUSE
In August of 2020, I was gearing up to start the next season of filming for The Real Housewives of New York City, just as I’d been doing for the previous six years. My life in those six years had taken on a new rhythm. For four months, while we filmed the show, I ate, drank, and lived The Housewives twenty-four hours a day. And then, for the rest of the year, I was making plans for the upcoming season. Participating in the show was a bit like the Olympics or opening night at the opera. You have to prepare yourself mentally for months before filming. You watch reruns. You think about what you want to showcase. You strategize. You arrange parties. You brainstorm places that would be fun to go as a group. And then, before you know it, it’s show time again.
If you aren’t on a reality show, you’re probably not thinking about how to play a dramatic game of chess with your friends, but when you’re on reality television that’s exactly what you’re thinking. You’re like a military general in high heels, strategizing and attacking, perpetually reevaluating your situation and thinking about how to win. And in the world of reality television, the definition of “winning” is very different. If you’re too nice, your castmates will perceive you as being vulnerable. If you’re too mean, the world will.
If you think the show is scripted, it’s not. You walk in never knowing what’s going to happen. You paste on a poker face of confidence, ready for the prospect that at any moment you could be blindsided. And you’ve got one shot to get it right, because there are no “redos” or “reshoots.” For all your planning, the strategy usually goes down the drain in the heat of the moment—which can result in what they call reality TV gold. Sometimes you come up with a zinger out of nowhere. I wasn’t thinking about how “not well, bitch” would become a phrase I could put on a mug when I first said it, for example. Sometimes you say something you never intended to say or even meant when you said it, but you have to go with it or else you’ll be eaten alive. Housewives are like sharks. They can smell blood in the water, so you better be sure not to bleed.
Even when you apologize, there is often no space for it, no way for it to land securely in the way you might want. Sure, I can say I’m sorry and mean it when I say so, but that doesn’t mean that I know how it will be received or how it will be portrayed on the show. You can’t stop the boulder once it’s started rolling downhill. You just have to let it land where it lands and hope you don’t get squashed in the process.
The goal of a reality TV show, and of any TV show, is to entertain, and a lot of the entertainment on The Housewives stems from conflict and interactions. Because, let’s face it, would you honestly watch the show if it were a documentary about a bunch of women sitting around at a dinner table being nice to one another? Of course not. That would not be very interesting. Reality television is empathetic escapism. For an hour, you get to live someone else’s life. Life is messy and complicated, and without the dirty details it wouldn’t be very relatable. When you film a reality TV show, you’re not looking for thoughtful responses from your audience; you’re looking for big reactions—the types of reactions that make you spit your beverage out of your mouth and jump to your feet.
Ironically, for a reality TV show, filming the show enters you into a different type of reality. It has some semblance of the real world but in other aspects is totally removed. The process has a fun way of making your real life fade into the distance. There is no longer enough time for the people you love; there’s no longer any room for the things that make you you. For a brief period, you enter a parallel universe where the camera crew, the production staff, and your castmates become your whole world.
The sudden stop that comes after filming is totally disorienting. It’s a bit like vertigo—the feeling of movement and spinning goes on even when you are standing in place. And the anxiety, don’t get me started on the anxiety! You’ve stated your case, and now the jury is out.
The other thing is that if it doesn’t happen during the filming season, then it kind of doesn’t exist. A lot of times, what you don’t see is just as important as what you do. Scenes you thought were great sometimes get cut, and scenes you wish you could forget become the main focus. There is one characteristic that binds all the Housewives to one another, and that’s bravery. For a second, imagine what it would be like to have someone documenting everything you do and say, knowing that millions of people are going to judge you for it. You have to be fearless or you simply won’t make it.
After filming, I do my best to leave my Housewives drama behind. I go back to my life as Dorinda Medley and as Hannah’s mom. I go on long walks with friends; I watch funny Instagram videos; I think about getting a dog and then decide against it; I leave the city and go back to Blue Stone Manor—my house in the Berkshires—and spend time with my parents. I’m not Dorinda the New York Housewife anymore. I’m Hannah’s mother, John and Diane Cinkala’s daughter, and a friend to my many friends. I’m me again.
You don’t really forget about the show after you stop filming the season, but you do kind of put it in the back of your mind. There is no denying that in the quiet moments at the end of the day, when I was doing the dishes, or washing my face, or worst of all just lying in bed watching Law & Order, thoughts about the show would creep into my head. I’d find myself watching what we filmed play out on my bedroom ceiling, and I’d start thinking about what I could have done better. After filming, the questions you consider over and over are, Who will I be when this new season airs? What will my parents think? What will my daughter think? What will the world think?
While the process can be stressful at times, the positive definitely outweighs the negative overall. Filming is fun and you laugh your ass off more often than you cry your eyes out. Taking the plunge into the outrageous is liberating because you are able to lean into the most exaggerated version of yourself. In the world of the Housewives, being uninhibited is a good thing and social niceties fall out of the window—which is great for me because I hate small talk. There’s a lot of joy that comes with being on reality television. It’s fun and exciting and I always felt lucky to be a part of it. It takes a village to raise a child, as they say, and it takes an even bigger one to make a season of The Real Housewives of New York City. It’s an intense experience for everyone involved, and the crew and producers become your lifeline. They’re the only people who understand exactly what you’re going through. It’s like a family or a sorority.
So, back to 2020. As I was gearing up to film Season 13, everything that had happened in Season 12 was on my mind. Honestly, watching Season 12 unfold was a lot. To some degree, I had expected this, because the reality was that I’d had a rough year. I broke my rib. My father got sick. My house flooded. All the remnants of my life with Richard were floating in our basement. As I watched the dump trucks take it all away, I felt like I was right back to where I had been ten years before. It wasn’t just that he was gone. It was that our life was gone. It was like a big aquatic monster had broken into my house. We had to put major holes in the walls and use extraction heaters to dry out the house. There were cracks in the plaster and paint peeling from the walls. Our house, meaning mine and Richard’s, was ruined. The last time I had renovated this house was with Richard, and for years I took comfort in being surrounded by the decisions we made—and now all of that was literally falling apart before my eyes. I had to redo the home we made together, only this time I had to do it alone. I just remember crying so hard to my mother and thinking, I can’t fall apart; I have to fix everything by the time filming starts. I have to get it done for our seasonal Berzerkshires episode.
Instead of giving in to my sadness, I picked myself up again. I took the flood as a sign that I needed to let go of my old life, to begin anew. It was time and I knew it, but that didn’t make it any less painful. I ended my relationship with my then-boyfriend, John. The hardest decisions are almost always the right decisions, and although we loved each other, I realized it just wasn’t meant to be a relationship that lasted for the long term. It was wonderful for a while, and then it was meant to end. We broke up because it was time for me to move forward and I needed to do that on my own. I still care about John a lot, and he will always have a seat at my table.
I got the house done in time for the show, but when we started filming I wasn’t in a great place, and that definitely came through in Season 12. Because of my brutal honesty and the fact that I’m always willing to fight, I’m often a somewhat villainous character. This season, though, it was more intense. I remember saying to a friend, “This was not my best season, but next season will be better.”
And then I got the call from production.
“Hi, Dorinda, we’re going to take a pause. We want you to take a year off and really enjoy your time and then we’ll revisit this next year.”
I was shocked. “What? I don’t want to take a pause.”
But they insisted. “No, no, we’re going to take a pause.”
I just couldn’t believe it. Wasn’t I a beloved character? Weren’t my ratings high? Didn’t I have a ton of Instagram followers? To a normal person, all this might sound unimportant, but in the land of reality television these are measures of success. In this land, numbers count. Social engagement counts. Fans count.
“I don’t understand,” I said. I was in tears.
The production company reiterated what they’d already told me. The conversation was going nowhere and I was too emotional to continue, so I got off the phone.
A few minutes later, Andy Cohen called. He said many warm things to me. He told me I was iconic and reminded me that it wasn’t necessarily good-bye forever. It was just a pause.
I didn’t understand this word. Pause? If Bravo wasn’t going to extend an offer for the following season, wasn’t that like being let go? Wasn’t it like being fired? And if I was being fired, then why were we using the word “pause”?
As I mentioned before, I’m not into façades. I don’t like sugarcoating things. I just don’t understand it. If I’m wearing a white shirt and somebody tells me they love my pink shirt, what am I going to say? I’m not going to say, “Thank you.” I’m going to say, “Thank you, but it’s a white shirt.”
“Andy, it sounds like I’m being fired,” I said.
Andy insisted it was a pause, and a friendly one.
I still didn’t understand what was going on, but there was no point in fighting. “Thank you for the opportunity,” I said. “It’s been a fantastic six years.”
Honestly, I felt like a big fat loser. Being rejected is painful. And I’d never been fired from a job in my whole life. I have an excellent work ethic and I take pride in that. I believe that any job, big or small, should be treated with total respect. That’s how I’ve treated all my jobs. When I was a waitress, I never missed a waitressing shift. Even if I was dying, I would still show up for work. In six years, I rarely missed a day of filming for The Housewives. I was never late. I was fully devoted to it in the same way that I fully devote myself to anything I’m doing. The Housewives had become an enormous part of my life, and I was heartbroken that it was ending for the moment.
I didn’t ask why I’d been put on pause. I didn’t want to know. To me, that part wasn’t important, because it wouldn’t have changed the result. The decision had already been made. But, of course, since I’m only human, I had to wonder why. Had I done something wrong? If so, what?
I knew that because it had been a hard year for me, I hadn’t shown up as my best self. I also knew that I’d never been a passive character on the show. My honesty is one of my greatest strengths, so I’ve been told, but it also gets me into trouble sometimes. I’m not always nice in my delivery. Once in a while, I hurt people.
I don’t like injustice, and when something unjust is happening around me I can’t stop myself from calling it out. When I was a kid, I used to stand up for the kids at school who were being bullied. I’ve always spoken the truth, even when my opinion isn’t popular. And that’s what I did on the show.
Here’s a little saying I enjoy: Believe half of what you hear and all of what you see.
For so many people, what they see is not connected to what they say. The mouth is not connected to the heart. I think this is especially true for women, because there’s so much pressure to pretend. Sometimes I think my life would be easier if I were a woman who was willing to pretend. If I just went along with things and stayed quiet, people would be less angry with me. But it’s not in my nature to go along with things that are just plain incorrect. I hate pretending. I find it unbearable. When there are lies in a room, I feel like the room is full of elephants. I can’t ignore them. I have to speak up. What I’m trying to work on now is how I speak up, because I realize I can come across as abrasive at times.
I’m fully aware that I’m more abrasive when I’m drinking. During this rough year in my life, I was drinking more than I wanted to be. When I’m in a good period of my life, I drink to have fun, but when I’m in a dark place, it just makes things darker.
So, after I got fired, did I have some regrets? Yes. I also knew I couldn’t have done anything differently. The past was the past, and there is no point in wallowing. I did allow myself to be upset the night I got those calls, though. I sobbed like a child and called my mom, who talked some sense into me, as she’s been doing all my life. Then I invited a few friends over and drank wine and kept sobbing.
The next morning, I woke up knowing that a new chapter of my life had begun. I posted a picture of myself on Instagram with a caption about gratitude. I thanked Bravo and NBC for the opportunity and wished them success in the new season.
I felt good about my public reaction. Even though I believe in honesty, there are times when it’s best to just say thank you and walk away. And I’m good at walking away. Even though I hate change, I’m able to let things go quickly and move forward.
When the news of me being put on pause went public, friends started calling me and asking, “Are you okay? What are you going to do now?”
The truth is that I’m not doing anything differently than I would have been doing otherwise. Yes, we’re in a pandemic, so that sort of changes things, but otherwise, my life is the same as it’s always been. Hannah asked me if I was still going to decorate for Christmas last year, even though it wouldn’t be filmed, and I said, “I’ve been decorating for Christmas for forty years, Hannah. Of course I’m going to decorate this year!” Beneath all the changes in life are the things that never change. I’m always going to love being a part of my family. I’m always going to love decorating. I’m always going to be outspoken. I’m always going to be essentially myself. As I told Bethenny Frankel on her podcast, The Housewives didn’t make me. I was a fully baked cake when I arrived, and I gave them a slice.
It’s funny that I was a Housewife for six years, because that time span marks a pattern in my life. Every six years or so, things change in a drastic way. I lived with Hannah’s father, Ralph, for six years before we separated; I was later with Richard for six years, and then with John for about another six.
Since I was raised Catholic, it’s hard not to draw a parallel between the number six and the devil. Every six years, it’s like the devil invites me for a little dance. At first it’s horrible, but then it becomes a place to transform. Funnily enough, the devil card in tarot signifies transformation.
When major shifts happen, after I get over the initial blow I sink into a quiet, determined place, where I reconnect with my soul and my purpose. The reason I’m able to do this is that I’ve built myself a strong foundation. My family is a foundation for me, and so is my connection to my soul, or to something greater than myself. It’s easy to get lost in the drama and hoopla of life, but in the end, none of that matters very much.
What I remember in every moment of change is that I don’t need to define myself by one label. Labels aren’t helpful, and I see a lot of women getting stuck on who they think they should be rather than looking ahead to who they can become. I’ve had many labels in my life so far. I’ve been a waitress, a salesperson, an aerobics instructor, a clothing designer, an expat, a mother, a wife, a hostess, and a Housewife, to name a few. I’m not any one of these labels, though. I’m just a woman moving through her life creatively.
After the shock of getting put “on pause” wore off, I realized that it wasn’t a failure. It was freedom. I’ve never had a “pause” in my whole life. And failure isn’t real anyway. It’s just an opportunity to rise up again. To be honest, there’s something I enjoy about getting knocked down. I do well when I have less. It gives me energy. It makes me curious about the future. What can I learn during this time? What are the next six years going to look like?
Right now is a strange moment in history. The whole world is on pause, wondering what’s going to happen. Of course, I have no idea what’s going to happen, but I do know that no matter what the future holds, I’ll always be me, Dorinda Cinkala from Great Barrington, Massachusetts.
If you don’t know yourself, no one will be able to know you.