Eboni K. Williams Is Self-Made For This Moment
Eboni K. Williams is familiar with being first. Whether that’s meant breaking down barriers inside the cutthroat legal world, or bringing her worldview and perspective to cable news outlets—including Fox News— she has made a living out of being a pioneer in less-than-cozy arenas.
Now, she makes perhaps her most public (and certainly most dramatic) pivot yet: becoming the first Black cast member on Bravo‘s The Real Housewives of New York City. Williams, who continues to host the TV program Revolt Black News and her podcast Holding Court, views her venture into reality television not only as a chance to evolve professionally, but personally, as well. For the first time, she’s letting her guard down. A noted and devoted Housewives fan, she knows how to play the game, and as most die-hards will tell you, that involves being as honest and vulnerable as humanly possible. Williams understood she had to shed the facade, which meant being okay with the good, the bad, and the sometimes ugly being shown to a national television audience.
She did it the only way she knows how: by breaking the mold. Ahead of Tuesday’s RHONY season premiere, Williams talked spoke with Interview about going from fan to cast member, the show’s lack of diversity, the legal troubles of some fellow Housewives stars, and why she took the job so seriously.
DANIEL TRAINOR: Hi Eboni! Having just watched the premiere the other day, I have about eight million questions for you.
EBONI K. WILLIAMS: Oooooh, great! What did you think of the episode?
TRAINOR: I thought it was really fun. Are you prepared for the fact that you’re about to become a Housewives fan favorite?
WILLIAMS: Well, listen. I am a true Real Housewives of New York fan. I have to tell you, Daniel. I guess I started with Orange County. But I very much watch New York in real time. It’s so exciting, honestly.
TRAINOR: Okay, I’m so happy to hear this. Because so often, these new girls will come on the show and they’re like “I’ve never seen the show before!” You have. You aren’t fooling us!
WILLIAMS: I have to say, I really don’t believe that. Maybe for some people that’s true, but it’s just not my nature. I’m a Virgo and I’m a lawyer by trade, so I’m classically trained in risk mitigation. I would never enter a world in which I was not already pretty familiar.
TRAINOR: Who have been your favorite Housewives of all-time, whether in New York or otherwise?
WILLIAMS: In terms of New York, Dorinda. Dorinda was so iconic. She was so straight to the point. And not for nothing, but Dorinda served looks, honey. She really showed up aesthetically. New York is one of the fashion capitals of the world, so I always expect to see some fashion, and Dorinda delivered.
TRAINOR: Would you like to see Dorinda make a return?
WILLIAMS: As the kids say, that decision is above me. But, under the right circumstances, I think it would be incredible.
TRAINOR: It felt like her break came at the right time, both for her sanity and ours. But I agree. She could come back and be a force of nature.
WILLIAMS: Yeah. I’ve never met Dorinda, but she was very nice when I was announced as a new cast member. She sent me a lovely DM. But as a fan of the show, I’m always looking for the opportunity for some kind of resolution and evolution.
TRAINOR: As a viewer, how conscious of the show’s lack of racial representation were you? Were you frustrated by the fact that the show didn’t reflect the diversity of the city?
WILLIAMS: For me, it was really glaring last season when Luann was doing her fantastic work with the Fortune Society. But I realized in that scene, where Lu is with all of these women of color doing a spa day and talking about everything that they’ve been through, I was like, “Well this is kind of fucked up.” It was the most concentrated number of women of color we had ever seen on the show and it was in that context. It was palpable.
TRAINOR: Coming on the show, did you feel a certain weight or pressure on your shoulders as the first cast member of color?
WILLIAMS: I didn’t feel any more pressure than I felt at various points in my life as the first Black woman in a space. It started very early for someone like me, as it does with other Black people who find themselves in incredible spaces. Whether it’s being the first Black kid in my academic and gifted program in first grade, whether it’s being the first Black kid in the advanced classes in high school or being the first Black woman at the firm where I started my legal career in Charlotte, North Carolina. I was only the second Black person to ever work there as a lawyer. As sad as it is, I’ve been the first many times in my life. So, joining this cast was an experience that I was prepared for and it’s one that I took very seriously. New York City is full of beautiful, brilliant, hard-working, dynamic, incredible Black women and women of color. To be able to step into that space as the first, I was very humbled.
TRAINOR: The Housewives franchise has become undeniably more political in recent years, certainly in Atlanta and Potomac. Did the fact that these cities aren’t shying away from progressive political conversations play into your decision to join the show?
WILLIAMS: Not really. I don’t really give a shit in terms of the direction of the show. I was going to bring what I was going to bring. I’ve had a storied career in journalism with media outlets that are not known for progressivism. I’m not somebody who waits on the platform. I’m totally comfortable pushing the platform. It’s a nice coincidence that Bravo had already prepared itself to do some of this work, but I’m used to it.
TRAINOR: Which one of your cast members surprised you the most, either positively or negatively?
WILLIAMS: Oh, definitely Sonja Morgan. It was such a beautiful surprise. As a fan of the show, I knew Sonja liked to party and was the straw that stirred the drink. I got to know Sonja in such intimate ways. We connected over things like childhood trauma, our current-day quests for love, being businesswomen. I just love her. I revere her and respect her in ways that I never expected to.
TRAINOR: You know, I have to say, joining the cast is one thing, but making the decision to come on the show in the midst of a new romantic relationship was bold.
WILLIAMS: Oh, that was ridiculous. [Laughs]
TRAINOR: What was it like having that play out in front of cameras?
WILLIAMS: Well, what’s interesting is that I started the conversation about joining the show while I was still engaged. When I started that process, I was engaged and planning a wedding. We had a venue, we had deposits down, we had a videographer. We were in. But like a lot of couples, the pandemic made us tell the truth about our relationship. I made the decision that it was not for me anymore. So not only am I starting a new relationship, I’m still grieving what I thought was going to be my forever. I’m doing that as I’m signing up for a reality show. Crazy. Prior to the show, I had been fiercely private. You couldn’t find anything about my man, my ex-husband, nothing. This was a huge departure for me. But it’s one that I felt was necessary at this point of my womanhood, if I’m going to continue to be impactful in the space of diversity. That’s just about being able to connect. I don’t know if you can connect with somebody while being so compartmentalized and guarded. I just made a decision to do it all the way. I called production and I said, “I ended my engagement, I don’t know if that’s a problem.” Anyway, dating the new guy… you’ll see how that plays out.
TRAINOR: Uh oh!
WILLIAMS: That was a risk.
TRAINOR: What is life without a little risk, Eboni?
WILLIAMS: Exactly, exactly. You’ll see.
TRAINOR: I need to ask you about Jen Shah. Where were you when you read the news about her arrest? And can you believe that people go on reality television with such skeletons in their closets?
WILLIAMS: Let me say this, Daniel. For the record, I’m an attorney. These remain allegations.
TRAINOR: Of course.
WILLIAMS: I have been in Miami doing my podcast and reporting for Revolt Black News as my condo is being completed in New York. I was here when the news broke. What I can say about the allegations against Ms. Shah, and even the ones against Erika Jayne in Beverly Hills? Well, here’s what I see. It’s America and there is such an attractiveness and an expectation, at a certain point, of a level of affluence and excess. At some point, it becomes unattainable. Sometimes the cracks start to show. Our inability as a society, I think, to give grace around that can lead to some of what we’re seeing play out. That’s why I am so brutally self-deprecating and honest about my own financial struggles. There was a time when, honey, the Beemer was totally repossessed. It was a hot ass mess. Trying to transition from a practicing courtroom lawyer to a national broadcaster, no one tells you that a lot of that work you do in order to get to that level as a broadcast talent is not paid. For four to five years, I was doing all these hits. I looked great! I was on CNN. I was on HLN. I was on Fox News. I was on NFL Network. And it was all for free. I was trying to pay bills making $20 an hour working as a document review lawyer, which is the most boring, mundane shit in the world. That’s what we do to tide us over. At some point, something gave. But that was my reality. I felt like it was so important to share with the viewing audience, so when they see me now living in the Four Seasons and this condo in Manhattan with a Birkin and all these things, know that there’s a process, and know that there was tremendous amount of sacrifice to get to this point.
TRAINOR: Now that you’re on a show that’s all about excess, how will you make sure you don’t fall into the same traps?
WILLIAMS: I have a more holistic value system. Of course it’s Housewives”and it is about opulence and affluence and being fabulous. Luckily for me, that is organically aligned with the lifestyle that I live and I’ve earned. I worked for it. I think that’s the difference.
TRAINOR: That’s fascinating.
WILLIAMS: I’ve curated this lifestyle from the ground up. Literally. I didn’t marry it. I wasn’t born into it. I had to curate this for myself. I’ve had setbacks and false starts along the way. But here I am. I’ve paid my dues, honey. I’ve done the grunt work. I was a practicing attorney and then, a year later when I moved to L.A. in 2010, I was a fucking bottle service girl at a downtown nightclub. That’s the difference.
TRAINOR: So, looking at the entire experience, what was the most shocking part of filming, and have you given any thought about coming back for a second season?
WILLIAMS: Oh god. So many decisions have to be made. Not just by me, of course. That’s very much a network decision. On my end, it’s an assessment of how having this platform impacts my day work, the work I do as a journalist, a storyteller and a social justice activist. But what surprised me the most is that I thought the show would be a side aspect of my life. You know, two or three days a week, maybe. No, no, no. This is a full-time commitment. It really is. I thought maybe because we were in a pandemic, it would be different. I asked Ramona [Singer], who has done the show for thirteen years straight, “Is this abnormal in terms of the amount of time?” But she was like “not really.” From when you start until you wrap, it’s full throttle. That was the biggest surprise. People see 44 minutes for 20 episodes, but you have to fully commit to the process. I will say this for every single woman on this cast, because I can’t speak for any other franchise—we made a commitment early on that we would deliver. Every single day, every single person. I’m very proud of that.
TRAINOR: You’re giving me goosebumps. That’s all we want!
WILLIAMS: You’re going to see, honey. Me and Lu? Me and Ramona? We went fucking through it. Everybody fucking showed up.
TRAINOR: I appreciate you taking the job seriously.
WILLIAMS: We really did. Let me tell you, Daniel. I don’t care if I’m invited back—I don’t know if I want to come back—but I gave 100% of myself to this experience.