Long before Camille Grammer 1.0, Jill Zarin and Brandi Glanville took up the torch as Housewives we loved to hate, there was Danielle Staub. A single mother of two girls with a murky criminal past, Danielle blasted onto our television screens on the first season of the Real Housewives of New Jersey with the promise that "you're either gonna love me or hate me. There is no in between with me." After her two seasons as a Housewife, viewers came to realize that truer words had never been spoken by a Bravolebrity.
In a show all about family, Danielle was the lone 'Wife on the outside of the thicker-than-thieves Manzo/Laurita/Giudice clan. Introduced as a friend of Jacqueline Laurita, Danielle spent the very first episode getting stood up on a blind date by a nameless man she'd met on the dating website WealthyMen.com (apparently a real thing) and with whom she'd had plenty of phone sex. Talk about a polarizing first impression. She also proved to be a very, shall we say, intense friend, expecting unfailing loyalty and support from Jacqueline and Teresa at all times. Anytime she met up with the girls, the conversation was strictly about her problems and the things going on in her life. Any advice or opinions contrary to what she already thought were not welcome. Jacqueline and Teresa were to be supportive soldiers, always agreeing and nodding "yes" to Danielle's myriad troubles.
From the beginning, Danielle served as the catalyst for much of the show's interpersonal drama. Prior to the start of filming, she'd gotten off on a bad foot with Dina Manzo, the self-proclaimed "zen bitch" and youngest sister in the Lauritas' large Italian family. Setting herself at odds with the sassy blonde didn't earn Danielle any love from her fellow 'Wives and forced Jacqueline squarely into the middle of the brewing tension between her friend and her sisters-in-law. Even in the first episode, Danielle crashed some girls night out prep time at a salon to confront Jacqueline about why she hadn't been invited to Dina's GNO. She seemed to desperately crave the respect and friendship of the other women - something that's difficult to earn quickly in Italian-American culture. The Manzo ladies were wary of newcomers and outsiders, always warning Jacqueline about her new friend, and in Danielle's case their instincts turned out to be correct. Partway through the season, Danielle's criminal past was revealed when Cop Without a Badge, a juicy tell-all detailing her alleged involvement in prostitution and a kidnapping and extortion plot 25 years earlier, became public knowledge throughout Franklin Lakes. According to the book, Danielle's name was originally Beverly Merrill, and she had chosen to adopt a new identity to escape a past riddled with criminal acts and Colombian drug cartels. After these revelations came to light, Dina, Caroline and Teresa's fears about their co-star's character seemed to be confirmed and a line was officially drawn in the New Jersey sand. Danielle immediately tried to recruit Jacqueline to her side, explaining her arrest record as being a naive victim of circumstance and attempting to paint Dina as the bad guy Jacqueline should be worried about. (She blamed Dina for the rumors about her past circulating in Jersey's gossip mill.) The disconcerting thing as a viewer was watching Danielle essentially try to turn Jacqueline against her family by constantly urging her to "remember who your real enemies are." To me, this was very creepy and trying to get in the middle of a family, especially an Italian one, is never a smart idea. By the time the season finale arrived, Jacqueline had officially sided with her family and broken off the friendship. With no allies left on the show, Danielle confronted her castmates by quite literally putting it all out on the table at Teresa's dinner party, which prompted the infamous table flip heard 'round the world. "PROSTITUTION WHORE!" During the Season 1 reunion, accusations continued to fly, when it was revealed by Caroline that Danielle had tried to get Dina's daughter Lexi taken from her custody (a claim Danielle vigorously and continuously denied.) After a season of rumors and scandals, it seemed that Danielle's true colors were finally revealed.
It's important to remember that when RHONJ premiered in May 2009, the Housewives as a franchise was still in its relative infancy. Orange County had been running for a few seasons, while NYC and Atlanta had just finished airing their second and first seasons, respectively. The franchise was still documenting the lives of these women rather straightforwardly, with the drama reaching only an occasional high point. The other shows had given us plenty of Vicki "woo-hoos," Kelly Bensimon's "I'm up here, you're down here" rivalry with Bethenny and NeNe's iconic "close your legs to married men" line directed at Kim Zolciak, but we hadn't seen any of the epic feuds, fights and storylines that would come to define the franchise once it found its footing. In a way, Danielle's presence in New Jersey helped catapult the Real Housewives into the reality behemoth it became by willingly embracing her role as a villain. Her feud with the Manzo family set the stage for the first epic Housewives war, and fans flocked to the drama - as this was the first time they had been given someone so deliciously devilish to root against.
By Season 2, the battle lines had been carved into stone: Caroline, Dina, Jacqueline and Teresa were the good guys; Danielle as the bad guy. However, Danielle also entered the season on a new spiritual quest, claiming to be all about "love and light." However, this new Danielle was a hard sell as she attempted a drive-by of Caroline's house during the season premiere, after not being invited to a party there. Though the two camps spent much of the season trying to avoid each other, the drama continued to escalate. After a charity event gone awry at the Browstone (the Manzo family business) where Danielle brought an entourage of hired thugs to protect her from her co-stars, Dina left the show, citing Danielle's drama as the reason she refused to film any longer. In a final sit-down between the two at Chakra, what started as a conversation about boundaries inevitably turned into an argument, with Danielle going on the attack playing the victim and Dina effectively cutting the "crazy" out of her life.
As the story was rehashed again and again, Danielle exaggerated the story more and more, painting Dina's desire for boundaries and calm demeanor as a lunatic "piece of sh**." Meanwhile, Jacqueline's 18-year-old daughter Ashley jumped into the fray by creating anti-Danielle Facebook pages and sticking up for her mom and aunts. A child engaging Danielle via email was nothing but a bad idea, and fueled much of the drama for the second half of the season following Dina's exit from the show.
The next cataclysmic event of the season occurred between Danielle, Jacqueline and Teresa at the annual Posche fashion show - a yearly highlight of the Franklin Lakes social calendar. Somehow, a hello between the two parties descended into chaos, with Danielle antagonizing Teresa and claiming the Giudice's home was in foreclosure. What happened next is almost beyond description: insults and accusations flew, lawsuits were threatened and a panicked Danielle was chased by a mob through the North Jersey Country Club on a pair of broken heels. Outside, the pandemonium continued, climaxing in Ashley pulling Danielle's hair under the guise of protecting her mother. The incident went down as the OMG moment of the season, and led to Danielle filing assault charges against Jacqueline's daughter.
In the season finale, Manzo matriarch Caroline asked Danielle to a one-on-one meeting to discuss dropping the charges. Keep in mind that this was the one and only time the two had interacted during the season. They hadn't seen or spoken to each other since the Season 1 reunion. The sit-down proved to be a clash of the titans. As Danielle's armed bodyguards waited in the wings, the two attempted to talk out the events from the last two seasons - from the Manzo family's "attacks" on Danielle's character to the chaos at the country club. Caroline was going to bat for her entire family - Dina, Jacqueline, Ashley and Dina's daughter Lexi included - in an effort to end the drama once and for all. Danielle was looking for a fight. After Caroline called Danielle a "clown" and pronounced her entire life a "joke," Danielle had had enough and walked away from the confrontation. The Manzo family washed their hands of the situation while Danielle ranted to her bodyguards about the perceived injustices against her. With that, the volatile season came to a close.
Then came the Season 2 reunion. Sharing a couch with Caroline, (but seated as far away from the matriarch as possible), and opposite Teresa and Jacqueline, the target was on Danielle from every side. When Danielle accused Teresa of not acknowledging her newly-born nephew, Teresa went into a rage - screaming in Danielle's face and tossing Andy Cohen into his seat like a rag doll. In one of the first presentations of evidence at a reunion, Danielle also came armed with a fully-wigged mannequin head to demonstrate how hard Ashley must have pulled her hair to rip out a chuck of extensions. However, the demonstration didn't exactly work in Danielle's favor, with Andy pulling as hard as he could to no avail. The reunion ended with a strange and intense apology from Danielle to Jacqueline, in an awkward hug that seemed to last for hours. Following the reunion, Danielle chose to walk away from the show, closing a chapter on the epic first two seasons and paving the way for the Giudice-Gorga feud to come.
Even following her departure, Danielle remained a presence on the show. Her name was mentioned sporadically by the other 'Wives and in Season 4, in the midst of the seasons-long family feud between the Giudices, Gorgas and Wakiles, it came to light that new Housewife Melissa Gorga had been in regular contact with Danielle in a scheme to take down her sister-in-law Teresa. (This is where the nephew accusation from the Season 2 reunion came from.)
Though the villain ante was upped in later years by Camille in Season 1 of Beverly Hills and Kenya Moore from Season 5 to the present day in Atlanta, Danielle Staub will be remembered as a trailblazer in the world of Housewives. Never before had the viewers been given a villain so polarizing to both love and love to hate. In the seasons since, fans have clamored for Danielle's return to the Real Housewives of New Jersey. Hopefully one day, that wish will be granted by the Bravo gods and we'll get to see what the original bad girl of the Housewives is up to next.