is not too tired to twerk. Yes, she has been up since 5:45 a.m. and has already taped two episodes of her new syndicated talk show, Bethenny (topics included how to keep underwear in place: "We put a man on the moon," she asked, "so why can't we solve thong trauma?"), but on a recent Friday night in downtown Manhattan, the 42-year-old reality star turned Skinnygirl mogul still has enough energy to shimmy in her black tutu at a party she's hosting. When the fete finally ends, she doesn't leave until she's sure she has packed 3- year-old daughter Bryn's lemonade kit in the trunk of the car. "I'm going to go home, put on my pajamas and then it's lockdown," she says with a tired smile. "Tomorrow is Mommy Day, and we're making lemonade."
Frankel always has had a knack for making lemons into (low-calorie) lemonade. Nine months after splitting from her husband of two years, Jason Hoppy, Frankel and her ex are still fighting in court over the terms of their divorce. Yet as the star begins rebuilding her life, launching her new talk show, managing her ever-growing Skinnygirl empire and caring for her daughter, she says she has no choice but to focus on the positive. "I'm surprised at how much we can endure. I'm stronger than I ever imagined I could be," she says during an unfiltered interview, which takes place over the course of a jam-packed day, first in her dressing room (legs curled up, stilettos kicked off), then as her glam squad preps her for the night's party (stripped down to her underwear and bathrobe) and on her way home to her sleeping little girl. "It's a marathon, not a sprint," she says. "I just hope I'm on the 18th mile. You have to say, 'We're going to get to the other side.' "
That would be a welcome relief, after living through what she has described as a "brutal time," ever since last December, when she and Hoppy, 42, announced their split. Though fans watched the former Real Housewives of New York City
star meet and marry Jason and then welcome Bryn on Bravo's Bethenny Ever After
, the marriage began to show signs of strain after the first year, with its implosion eventually providing a plot line for the show. "You never think you're going to be in these situations, and then suddenly you are," she says. "I finally realized that you can have it all ... but not all at once. I had talked about that regarding food, but I didn't realize it also translates to life."
Now, as their divorce battle rages on (at issue is her Skinnygirl fortune, estimated at $100 million by Forbes, as well as custody of Bryn), the exes remain locked in a standoff. Since neither Frankel nor Hoppy will relinquish rights to the Tribeca loft purchased at the peak of her success, she often stays in hotels and at a friend's apartment when necessary. Frankel has remained in the home in part, "so there will be a sense of stability [for Bryn]," who sees her father regularly, a source close to Frankel explains. (Calls to Hoppy were not returned and his lawyer would not comment.)
While Frankel declines to address specifics about the divorce for legal reasons, she has resigned herself to her dysfunctional present, while maintaining the same no-nonsense attitude that helped her survive everything from a hellish childhood to the insanity of reality TV. "No moment—no matter how stressful or difficult it is—is ever going to be life or death," she says matter-of-factly. But that's not to say that it has been easy. "If I've had eight hours of sleep, then I'm on top of the world," Frankel says, "but the next day you can feel like you're just pulling through." This divorce "has been hard for her. She mourns the loss [of her marriage]," says her close friend and college roommate Amy Kalikow. "But the show is a distraction, and she's a glass half full kind of person. She functions well in the craziness—it's calming for her."
In many ways that craziness marks a return to the Bethenny that fans first fell in love with on Housewives
. The ambitious only daughter of an absent father, and a mother whom she's characterized as unstable, Frankel stood out as a tough-talking broad whose sarcasm belied a surprising vulnerability. She "has something about her that makes her feel like the underdog," says Bravo executive and talk show host Andy Cohen. "She's still searching, still going after the next big thing. She's had a tough year, but beneath that tough exterior, she'll crack. She lets it all hang out, and that's what's always made her so watchable." Adds her friend Today
host Hoda Kotb: "She's always lived her life out loud. She's the first to admit she has screwed up things in her life. But I think that just makes her more real."
She's never been shy about her quest for Mr. Right. "Part of my identity was always looking for a man. I always wanted to meet someone - to complete you, take care of you," says Frankel, who was briefly married in 1996 and engaged four times overall. Now, with her divorce still unresolved and her ex in close quarters, "it's very unfamiliar to me not to want to meet anybody, to not feel a need to fill that void," she says. "And I've accepted the fact that I might never find that great love and that authentic real relationship the way that it's supposed to feel," she adds, her voice cracking as tears come to her eyes. "I'm not entirely sure I believe in the fairy tale anymore. It's ironic. By the time you're reading fairy tales to your kids, you're discovering they might not come true."
Still, Frankel insists she hasn't given up on love - even if she isn't seeking it out. "I don't believe in The One or only one soulmate," she explains. "Maybe there is The One, but that doesn't mean it's the person you live with your entire life. Your soulmate may or may not be the person you married. It doesn't happen often." Though she's been linked to billionaire banker Warren Lichtenstein, 48, with whom she recently vacationed in Saint-Tropez, Frankel insists they are "just friends." "Men aren't a priority right now—at all," she says. "It would take away from important things that I'm not willing to sacrifice. With my talk show and my daughter, there's little room for anything else."
When it comes to sex (or the lack thereof) Frankel doesn't go for an easy wisecrack but instead turns emotional. "A lot of me is shut down right now. I'm a little fragile," she concedes. "Intimacy wouldn't be so bad, but it's hard to bridge the gap." As she notes in her latest book, Skinnygirl Solutions, sex is No. 8 on her list of priorities. And soon enough, a quip emerges. "I'm a quality over quantity kind of person. And since I'm emotionally unavailable," she jokes, "it may be a chilly winter."
But maybe not. Though Frankel is now skeptical of fantasy romances, she has seen at least one come true. "Fairy tales come in different packages. Having the most beautiful daughter in the world is mine," she says. "So is having the opportunity to connect to women." They'll have to wait for the next episode of her show, though. Tomorrow's happily-ever-after is all about a little princess and that lemonade stand. "Connecting with my daughter," Frankel says, "is my definition of love."