Jill Zarin on the 'Good' Side of 'Real Housewives of New York City'

Another interview, this one is about the kind of good you can do with the spotlight that a show brings! Enjoy.

What’s the upside to being part of a guilty-pleasure Reality TV phenomenon? Shining a spotlight on some really good causes.

Reality TV isn’t exactly known as the bastion of giving back. Backstabbing, cheating, lying, hurting, stirring up drama at any cost? Sure. Every bit of it makes for great guilty-pleasure viewing, and there’s certainly no shortage of drama to go around on Bravo’s The Real Housewives of New York City.

But unlike some reality fare, the Real Housewives franchise as a whole — from Orange County, to Atlanta, to New Jersey, and presumably even the upcoming D.C. and Beverly Hills editions — tends to revolve around “socialites” who are inextricably tied to charitable causes.

So what do the cameras and all that attention from millions of viewers do for those causes?

Surprisingly good things. Just ask RHONY’s Jill Zarin.

“Just the other day,” she tells Tonic (in that so-familiar New York accent of hers), “some stranger came up to me who has arthritis, and thanked for me for doing all the work I do.”

For Zarin, whose teenage daughter, Ally, suffers from a form of arthritis called Spondyloarthropathy, there couldn’t be a cause closer to her heart. And so, it seems, fame — even Reality fame — can lend itself to good.

“When Haiti happened, I raised a lot of money for HelpForOrphans.org,” Zarin notes. “I couldn’t go and I was scared to go, to be honest, but my friend Sarah who founded this got on a plane and went. I did a Twitter campaign to raise money [from fans], and [in part because of those donations] she’s opened up an orphanage down there.”

The orphanage isn’t much more than “four walls and a floor,” she notes. But it’s something that was needed and that’s helping people on the ground — in part, because of her Reality fame.

When Zarin’s stepson was diagnosed with Still’s disease — on the same day that RHONY premiered two years ago — her newfound fame allowed her to produce a series of videos to educate people on the little-known disease, “so the next person who’s diagnosed can find this real how-to on YouTube.”

The causes she supports tend to be small and well-focused. “I really don’t go after the big, big ones. I can’t dent the Cancer Society or the Arthritis Foundation. I do my little projects,” she says — from helping to raise the $5000 needed to put electricity in a single school in Kenya, to supporting her daughter Ally’s green efforts as she preps to major in Environmental Studies at college next year. “The show has given me a national platform to promote whatever I want to promote.”

And while sometimes the promoting is for personal gain — the family business, Zarin Fabrics, hasn’t been hurt by the exposure; and Zarin has a book, Secrets of a Jewish Mother, coming out on April 15 — the bulk of her national platform has been for good.

“We’ve done a lot,” Zarin says — adding with a hint of this season’s very heavy Housewives’ tension: “I can’t speak for the other Housewives.”

While Tonic didn’t get a chance to catch up with the rest of the RHONY gang for this story, a little research shows that plenty of good causes are benefiting from their collective spotlight. Alex McCord and her husband, Simon Van Kempen, have donated pieces from their family’s fabulous wardrobe to Bottomless Closet, appeared in charity fashion shows, and more. (They also have their own book hitting shelves in April, Little Kids, Big City: Tales from a Real House in New York City.) Ramona Singer is a big supporter of AfricaFoundation.org. Countess LuAnn de Lesseps supports the American Cancer Society, The Auditory/Oral School of Brooklyn, and the Soho Partnership. Kelly Killoren Bensimon makes the rounds at countless charity events in Manhattan. And, among other things, Bethenny Frankel has put herself entirely out there for PETA — posing nude for a PETA billboard in Times Square (a shoot that was featured in last week’s premiere episode).

“If anyone could be naked on a 50-foot billboard,” Zarin notes, “it’s Bethenny — personality, body, everything. She’s got the full package. She’s a sexy voluptuous woman, and even more voluptuous now!” she notes, making allusions to Frankel’s pregnancy with boyfriend Jason Hopper.

Oddly enough, the charity work itself has led directly to some of the big drama on the show. The first time Zarin met Bensimon was at a charity event for HelpForOrphans.org in the Hamptons. The second time she ever spoke to her was at a planning meeting for the arthritis event Zarin was putting together last season — the infamous moment when Bensimon refused to “lend her name” to the cause before learning more about it; a moment that set off a series of heated arguments between Kelly and Bethenny, and led to tension between Kelly and pretty much everyone on the show.

“I now understand what Kelly meant by that. She was thrown in to a group with 5 strangers, like being a transfer student at a high school,” Zarin notes. “We’re a pretty intimidating crowd, and she knew already that Bethenny had it in for her. Bethenny didn’t like her. Would she have normally shown up at that charity meeting? No! She didn’t even know me. She shows up at a meeting that she was called to and said, ‘I want to use my reason and judgment, and I don’t know if I want to participate.’ If Kelly was as calculating as Bethenny, she would have faked it and said, ‘Oh my god, I’ll do whatever you want!’ But that’s not who she is. She wasn’t calculating. She was being honest about whether she wanted to be involved or not. It wasn’t meant to be condescending. I know Kelly now… but that’s a reality show.”

“Kelly is honest. You don’t have to like her, but she’s honest,” she adds — not so subtly hinting that perhaps her former friend Frankel isn’t so honest?

Sorry, RHONY fans. Zarin doesn’t want to get into it, and doesn’t want to give too much away. “There was a straw that broke the camel’s back, which you saw, or started to see, in the first episode,” she says — but the details of the rift between her and Bethenny happened off-camera, before Bravo started filming the third season.

As for what to expect the rest of the season? “Some people who you thought were nice you may not like anymore, and some people you really hated, you’ll start to like,” Zarin says. “It’s all messed up – and it’s all real. It really is.”

“Everything I do is real,” she adds. “I have a hard time separating ‘reality’ from ‘Reality TV.'”

But that’s a good thing for a some really good causes.

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