The tribe has spoken, at least for Emily Simpson. Season 15 of The Real Housewives of Orange County marks Emily's third on the show, and the 44-year-old tells ET she feels like she can finally breathe with longtime cast members Vicki Gunvalson and Tamra Judge out of the picture. Both women departed the series at the end of season 14 earlier this year.
"I feel like the dynamic among the cast members is much more real and authentic," Emily shares with ET over video chat. "I don't think there's a lot of the normal manipulation going on where, you know, you feel like you're not on a reality show, you feel like you're on Survivor, where you're trying to make alliances with people so you don't get kicked off the Housewife Island."
"That's really basically what I felt like for the last two years was, like, I'm just trying to be friends with someone so that I don't get kicked off the Housewife Island," she adds. "This season, I felt like I was less on the defense and more able to be myself and just have real relationships with the other cast members."
Season 15 is all about change, from seeing the show's longest-lasting cast members make their exits to having to pivot the entire production around the coronavirus pandemic. RHOC was about five weeks into shooting when the world essentially shut down in March. The cast self-shot footage while in isolation (Emily expects that to be one episode at most) before resuming filming under COVID-19 safety protocols.
"We really all rallied and did the best we could," she says. "It's a very bittersweet season. … It's not as many episodes as normal, but I think the fact that we managed to come out with 13 or 14 or whatever it is I mean, I think that's a huge accomplishment that should be applauded instead of people saying like, 'Oh, we're not on the season, so that's why there's only 14 episodes.' I mean, give me a break. We're dealing with a worldwide pandemic here. Like, don't make it about you."
Emily is referencing an Instagram Live that Vicki and Tamra did in August with former Real Housewives of Dallas star LeeAnne Locken. All three women poked fun at the fact that their respective series would reportedly have shorter seasons, not-so-subtly suggesting it was because the shows needed them to drive the story.
"It doesn't just focus on the pandemic," Emily promises of season 15. "Obviously, we had to film during that, so it comes up … and for me, I think it's interesting, because I don't know what the other five women were doing. I don't know how they dealt with it. I don't know what they were doing in their houses 24/7. I don't know how they were dealing with their significant others and everything and all the challenges that we had."
The season 15 trailer shows Emily in tears, telling the camera, "I don’t know what to do." She says fans will have to wait and see what that dramatic moment is all about, but says it's a defining moment for the season and for her, personally.
"The second half of the season is really interesting because some very deep and very, very -- I don't even know what the word is… traumatic, maybe, things come up that no one really knows about that wasn't in the press," Emily teases. "I think it's really interesting for people to hold on and watch the entire season, because I think they're going to be really surprised by things that happen."
Emily says the mysterious, traumatic event actually brings her and Shannon Beador together. The two have never been close in Emily's years on the show, something that Emily blames on Shannon's association with Vicki and Tamra, aka the "Tres Amigas." Vicki and Tamra have been very vocal on social media that they don't agree with that assessment.
"I went into season 15 and I didn't want to hold a grudge with Shannon," Emily says. "I really like Shannon, I'm glad that I have the opportunity to get to know her and I feel like without Tamra being on the show, or without Vicki, it opens up a whole new Shannon."
"She's una amiga right now, but she needs some otras amigas," she adds. Emily jokes that Bravo should add a ticker to the episodes to see how many times Shannon asks her if "fun Emily" is coming out to play.
"I wanted to be like, 'Shannon, I've always been fun. You just never gave me the opportunity!'" she admits. "Like, you never even talked to me before, so how would you know if I was? And I wasn't fun last year. I do have to take ownership of that. I had a bad year. I was in a lot of pain. I just wasn't in a good place. In my marriage and my life and my health. I'm a new woman this season."
Emily ended season 14 with a "life-changing" hip replacement (her season 15 tagline shouts this out), undergoing surgery just a week before shooting the reunion, where she and her husband, Shane, faced a tough line of questioning about their relationship and Shane's abrasive personality. Emily says she hopes season 15 shows the softer side of Shane.
"If I took in every piece of criticism, I would have divorced him two years ago," Emily says of the audience's reaction to her husband of more than 10 years. "I really have to focus on the Shane that I know versus everyone bombarding me with what I should do."
"We do have a really good relationship, and there is a very strong, solid foundation," Emily adds. "I think every long-term marriage goes through years where you have really high highs and you have really low lows … and I'm proud of the fact that we didn't just get divorced and become another Real Housewife statistic."
"Both of us really made a big effort to change, to recognize the other person, to treat them better and to build a better marriage," she continues. "I don't think that Shane and I will ever be one of those Housewife statistics. I think that we made it through a really hard time and we came out the other side."
Emily admits that Shane doesn't always pick up social cues and that's led to many of their uncomfortable moments onscreen, like when he repeatedly tried to force her to eat bread while she was on a diet.
"He thinks it's funny and he can be amusing, the problem is that if you only watch him on a show where you get small snippets of him, you don't understand the full [picture]," she says. "But there's also a very, very funny, witty side to Shane, too."
Today, Emily says she and Shane are in a good place (even if he still hasn't passed the California Bar Exam), and she notes it was a "huge, huge accomplishment" to not kill him during quarantine.
"During that quarantine, I really focused on Shane and our relationship and my kids and our family," she says. "I came out of it just knowing that my priority was my husband, my marriage and my children and then everything else just trickles down from that. And so that's where I'm at in my life."
While Emily’s quarantine seems pretty low-key, her co-star Kelly Dodd's pandemic-related behavior has sparked plenty of controversy. From sharing false information about COVID-19, to traveling all around the country and seemingly making light of the Black Lives Matter movement, Kelly is under fire with the fandom as season 15 begins.
"I think Kelly is just Kelly, and I think she has a good heart and I think she's a good person and I think people are quick to jump on her and criticize her," Emily says in response to the backlash. "Kelly does say things that are insensitive and can be taken the wrong way, and I get that, but the thing about Kelly that makes her such a good reality star, per se, is the fact that she's completely unfiltered at all times."
"When she's on a show and she tells somebody off, and she's completely unhinged, people think it's amazing and call her a queen," she continues. "But when she's the same way about something going on in life, they don't like what she says. So, it's just… it's who she is. She's not going to be politically correct on one hand and then, like, outrageous on the show. She's always going to be outrageous."
Overall, Emily says she wishes the fans would spend less time digging into what the 'Wives are doing on social media and just enjoy the show for its entertainment value.
"I think it’s a waste of time," she says of looking for things to attack the women over online. "I think people need to really take this time to focus on things that are positive, and their families and children, or friends or whatever."
Emily says she's not sure if anyone confronts Kelly about her behavior on camera this season because they weren't able to film a ton of group events once production started back up under health and safety protocols. They shot a lot of two-person meet-ups, outdoors with social distancing.
Fans might be happy to learn that Kelly did follow some COVID-related protocols for her recent wedding to Fox News correspondent Rick Leventhal. The Napa, California, event was all outdoors and none of Kelly’s RHOC girlfriends were on hand to see her say "I do" because she had to limit the guest list.
As far as Emily's other co-stars, she says season 15 brings her and Gina Kirschenheiter back to the closeness they had on their first season together, season 13, and that fans should get ready for all that newbie Elizabeth Lyn Vargas brings to the table.
"I think she's bizarre and eccentric, but I mean that in a good way," Emily says. "I even tell her that to her face. I'm like, 'You're so weird, but weird in an interesting way.' Like, there's a lot of layers to her. … I think she's great on the show, because there's so many different things that come up about her and she has a great personality. She's very, very bubbly and friendly and that comes off really well, I think, and she really makes an effort to be friends with everyone."
While Elizabeth may have become a pal to all, it seems that Braunwyn Windham-Burke may have actually lost all of her friendships this season. The mom of seven recently revealed that she's not speaking to any of her RHOC castmates.
"She's not talking to any of us because we all unfollowed her," Emily clarifies. "Each one of us kind of unfollowed her for different reasons, and on our own terms."
Emily says she chose to unfriend Braunwyn online after Braunwyn's behavior at the cast's finale party.
"It was the last time that we were allowed, all six of us, to be together and I just I didn't particularly like the way she acted and the way things went down," Emily teases. "I didn't block her or anything. I just unfollowed and, you know, there's a lot of things that need to be resolved with her."
Earlier this month, Shannon confessed to ET that the group questions Braunwyn's authenticity this season, a statement to which Emily agrees. She says she’s fully prepared to bring a binder of evidence against Braunwyn to the cast's reunion at the end of the season.
"I've got materials. You name it, I've got it," she says. "I'm an attorney, so I analyze things and I like facts. I don't think anybody should jump on someone else out of emotions or anything like that. So, I do have a very factual, analytical argument as to things that she's done that I find completely inauthentic and, you know, I'm ready and willing to address those."