To understand where Bravo TV executive and talk show host Andy Cohen gets his prodigious energy and gift for gab, one need only meet his mom. Evelyn Cohen, 75, silver-haired and diminutive, proves that big personalities can come in small packages.
On this spring day, mother and son are having dinner at one of the Palm steak houses in Manhattan. Evelyn arrived in the afternoon from Clayton, Mo., the St. Louis suburb where 43-year-old Andy and his older sister, Emily, were raised (and which he fondly refers to as “Pleasantville”). They are dining on separate orders of filet mignon, Andy having announced preemptively, “I don’t want to split with you; I want a whole one for myself.”
Cohen’s appetite is well earned. He has already finished up work at his day job, as executive vice president for development and talent at Bravo, and had a session with his trainer. Next he will head to his second gig, as host of Watch What Happens Live, a half-hour, five-night-a-week celebrity chatfest that airs live on Bravo at 11 p.m. on the East Coast. Evelyn is coming along to watch him work.
“She texts me a review of my show every night,” says Andy, holding up his iPhone as proof. “She’ll say, ‘Fantastic.’ ‘You seem drunk.’ ‘Funny one.’”
Evelyn chortles. “‘Too dirty,’” she chimes in.
“‘Not our demographic.’ ‘Get some sleep.’ ‘Didn’t laugh once,’” Andy continues.
“I feel a need before I go to bed to text him,” Evelyn explains.
“I like it,” says Andy. “And my staff now asks, ‘What did your mom say?’”
Evelyn may be critical of individual episodes of her son’s show, but she’s his biggest supporter. “Andy was a magnetic personality from the time he was a little boy,” she says. “He brings this energy with him and makes people happy.”
The rest of the country is only now catching up with Evelyn in fully appreciating her beaming baby boy. After a career spent behind the scenes as a TV news producer and programming executive (overseeing Top Chef and the Real Housewives franchise, among other popular Bravo reality shows), Cohen has in recent years become a recognizable face himself, as the host—or, more accurately, referee—of the Housewives reunions as well as Watch What Happens Live.
The freewheeling gabathon that is Live broadcasts from a tiny, bric-a-brac-filled studio that Cohen has dubbed the Clubhouse. Typically, it features an actor or singer promoting a project and a second guest who’s often a Bravo personality (a.k.a. a Bravolebrity). Liam Neeson, Anderson Cooper, and Sarah Jessica Parker, all friends of Cohen’s, have sat in Live’s swivel chairs, as have Housewives NeNe, LuAnn, Teresa, and many others.
Part of Live’s shtick is that Cohen and his guests imbibe freely, and there’s an on-set bartender. “Anyone else need a refill on their Fresquila?” Cohen will ask, waving his tumbler of Fresca and tequila. (He also quaffs Maker’s Mark bourbon mixed with ginger ale on the air.) Then he’ll urge viewers to tweet him, contact him via Facebook, dial in with questions, post to Live’s website, and otherwise interact with the show.
This month, Cohen also published a breezy memoir, Most Talkative: Stories From the Front Lines of Pop Culture. Mixed in with the boldface names are warm family tales and reminiscences of growing up Jewish, gay, and television-obsessed in the Midwest. Why a book now? “I’ve been working in TV for 22 years, so I don’t want anyone to think that I just showed up and all this happened,” he says of his newfound fame. “Besides, I had good stories and I love to write. I just needed a deadline.”
The surest sign that Cohen has arrived came last month when he and his talk show were parodied on Saturday Night Live. SNL cast member Taran Killam lampooned Cohen as self-adoring and obsessed with the trivial. “Look, I’m wearing floaties,” the faux Cohen announced, waving colorful blow-up water wings on his arms.
Cohen says he regards being satirized as an honor. “It was funny; I revere SNL,” he says. (For the record, he has never worn floaties.) Mom is markedly less pleased. “It hurt my feelings as a mother,” says Evelyn. “Lou [husband Lou Cohen] and I turned it off. Andy is nothing like that. He isn’t an egotist.”
Cohen grew up in Clayton glued to All My Children (a passion his mother came to share), Battle of the Network Stars, and CHiPs (he had an early crush on Erik Estrada). “He’s always been about TV,” says his sister, Emily Rosenfeld. Young Andy used to yak for hours into a hairbrush, pretending it was a microphone. “He never shut up,” Evelyn says. During high school, Cohen had internships at St. Louis TV and radio stations; he then majored in communications at Boston University and landed a summer internship at CBS News in New York.
It was during college that Cohen began telling good friends that he was gay. One of the first was Amanda Baten, with whom he remains close today. “He had gotten to a place where he was about to burst,” says Baten, now a psychologist in Manhattan. “He felt comfortable enough with me to take that step, and it was a positive experience.”
Positive enough that not long after, he told his parents. Although supportive, they needed time to adjust. “I cried for six months,” Evelyn says, explaining that back then she knew almost no other gay people; she also worried about AIDS and thought that Andy would have career trouble. Then a neighbor told her, “Andy is Andy. He’s still the same today as he was yesterday.” Realizing that was true, Evelyn, who had always been involved in community and volunteer work, turned activist: She helped establish Doorways, an interfaith organization in St. Louis that provides housing for individuals affected by HIV/AIDS. “That really speaks volumes as to who she is,” says Andy. “I love her for it.”
Upon graduating in 1990, Cohen was hired as a news clerk at CBS This Morning. Distinguishing himself with his enthusiasm, he rose quickly. “It was a great place for him to learn how TV works and what works on TV. Every cell in his brain was geared to learning that,” says his friend Harry Smith, who was an anchor on the program. “I told him once, ‘You’re gonna end up with your own show.’”
Cohen booked celebrity guests (Oprah Winfrey, Susan Lucci, Joey Buttafuoco) and crisscrossed the country producing hard and soft news stories. “He had good story ideas and was passionate about selling them,” recalls Paula Zahn, then co-anchor with Smith. After a decade at CBS, Cohen became a programming executive at the start-up cable channel Trio. “It was like cable boot camp,” he says. His next job was programming and development at Bravo, where he also began blogging and conducting interviews on the network’s website. At the suggestion of his bosses, Lauren Zalaznick and Frances Berwick, Cohen served as host of the second Real Housewives reunion show (Orange County, 2007), and his career as a TV star was born. (This despite the fact that one of his eyes wanders a bit—something a CBS producer once warned him could keep him off the air. Cohen says he consulted an eye surgeon a couple of years ago who said the problem wasn’t serious enough to warrant correction.)
Since Live expanded to five nights, Cohen has cut back some on his executive responsibilities at Bravo, though he still goes into his office—a corner perch on Rockefeller Center’s 46th floor, where he keeps a mini refrigerator stocked with Diet Cokes—three days a week and watches rough cuts of shows.
What’s missing from Cohen’s life is a significant other. “I would like a boyfriend,” he says. “I’m a very happy person and it is the final, final piece of the puzzle. I’m looking for that shout-it-out-from-the-mountaintops, fall-in-love person.” Evelyn worries that he’s too busy to meet Mr. Right. “Is life passing him by because he’s working so hard?” she asks at dinner.
“Maybe I just haven’t met the right person,” Andy tells her.
After dinner, they head to the Live studio. Evelyn sits in while Andy goes over the lineup—singer Monica and actor John Benjamin Hickey (The Big C) are the guests—then takes a seat in the Clubhouse as Andy runs through his lines. She objects to off-color dialogue in a Big C clip that he plans to show. “Too dirty,” she winces (a frequent reaction).
Once the show starts, Evelyn laughs at her son’s jokes and kibitzes with him and the crew during commercial breaks. When Live finishes, Andy walks over and holds his cell phone aloft. “‘Good show,’” he says, reading his mother’s texted review.
“It was,” she says, beaming. “So good I sent that text before the show was even over.”
Category: From Hollywood