“My husband and I joke around about ‘which sweats are we going to wear today?’ ” she said of her and spouse Aaron Phypers’s increasingly casual quarantine look. “ ‘Are they going to be our daytime or nighttime sweats?’ ”
Even under regular circumstances, it’s hard to imagine a more down-home girl from the heartland, albeit a very rich and successful one. Richards is the type of woman who nurses her insomnia by watching instructional Martha Stewart videos on how to cook artichokes and fold fitted sheets, and who forbids her daughters from dating until they turn 16. But she’s also the woman who became a household name via a steamy threesome in the ’90s teen caper “Wild Things,” and who made tabloid headlines throughout her tumultuous 2005 divorce from Charlie Sheen.
That dichotomy is one her “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” co-stars seemingly struggle to comprehend. While Richards has talked freely in front of the Bravo cameras about the size of Phypers’s genitalia, she bristled when the women began discussing threesomes at a backyard party within earshot of her brood: Sam, 16, Lola, 15, and Eloise, 9. Faced with accusations of “mom shaming” from her co-stars, she’s repeatedly explained with growing exasperation, “There are adult conversations, and there are kid conversations.”
“My openness definitely bit me in the ass a bit,” Richards said of her past “Housewives” candor. “It’s a learning process. I went into the show just being myself, and I never wanted to try and play a part. I am who I am. People can believe whatever they want, but ‘Wild Things’ was not a documentary.”
Like most reality shows, “Housewives” thrives on drama — the pettier the better. And in the midst of real-world upheaval, watching a group of privileged women scream at each other across an immaculately set dinner table can provide precious relief. Richards partly chose to join the franchise last season for the same reason she filmed her 2008 E! reality show “Denise Richards: It’s Complicated”: to show people a different side of her than what they read about in those early aughts he-said, she-said tabloid stories or saw on the big screen. But her second season with the Beverly Hills crew has seen her once again at the center of the chaos, often playing defense against the rest of the cast.
One unexpectedly savage moment came when co-star Kyle Richards (no relation to Denise) branded Denise a “ragamuffin” and Denise retorted to the confessional camera, “I am f---ing Denise Richards, Kyle. I don’t think these b----es know I’ve been on every f---ing magazine cover you can possibly imagine that they would want to be on.” And the entire season has been building toward former castmate Brandi Glanville’s claims that she had an affair with Richards, fueling reports that the actress then secretly quit the show. Glanville fanned the flames in recent weeks by sharing what appears to be a liplocked photo with Richards and leaving suggestive comments on Richards’s Instagram.
But Richards shot down those allegations — “I did not have an affair,” she told The Post succinctly. “There’s definitely consistency with the subject matter that comes up on this ‘Housewives’ season, and that’s all I’ll say” — as well as rumors that she and Phypers have an open marriage. “If I had an open marriage, I would be open about it,” she said, adding that she would return for a third season only “if it makes sense.”
Losing Richards would likely be to Bravo’s detriment. While her relationships with the other Housewives have unraveled (Richards said she’s only stayed in touch with Garcelle Beauvais and Dorit Kemsley during the pandemic), her unapologetic, relaxed attitude simultaneously made her a fan favorite. A scan of comments on the network’s Instagram page reveals that nearly everyone is “Team Denise” in each passing feud-of-the-week. But after 30 years in the industry, it’s still difficult to predict Richards’s next move.
Born and raised in the suburbs outside Chicago, Richards didn’t arrive in Southern California seeking fame. Her telephone engineer father was tired of climbing power poles in the frigid Illinois winter and simply longed for a locale with a more pleasant climate. Once resettled in the sunny surfing village of Oceanside, Richards — cherub-cheeked and bold of brow — was quickly scouted as a teen model and set her sights on becoming an actress.
“My dad looked up the statistics of actors in [the Screen Actors Guild] and saw how many don’t work,” she said. “So I told him, ‘I promise I’m going to be one of the ones who work.’ ”
And work she did, beginning with bit parts on shows like “Married . . . with Children” and “Beverly Hills, 90210” and graduating to a string of late ’90s breakout roles in “Starship Troopers,” “Wild Things,” “Drop Dead Gorgeous” and the James Bond movie “The World Is Not Enough.” Acting on mostly male sets in a pre-#MeToo Hollywood, Richards said she personally only had “a good experience.” And while she endured late-night talk show appearances with hosts who frequently fixated on her looks and sex symbol status, she innocently charmed them, like the time she gifted Jay Leno tiny hats for his cat.
Feedback on her Bond role, however, was less than kind. It came with a Razzie Award for worst supporting actress and criticism for wearing skimpy attire to play a nuclear weapons expert named Christmas Jones. “I was so crushed,” she said. “But I was thinking I’m a Bond girl playing a scientist. Would they want me wearing a lab coat and dressed conservatively? It’s tongue in cheek.
“I try to block out a lot of stuff, but I’m also human. I’ve had to develop a very, very thick skin over the years.”
If Richards had it her way, she’d next be starring in a Quentin Tarantino film and joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But neither entity has made an offer and, she said, “I’m not one that will just call someone up and say, ‘Hey, will you consider me for this part?’ I wish I was like that, but I’m not.”
Her history with Sheen could fill an entire miniseries. When they married in 2002, he was sober and Richards chose to believe he’d changed from his hedonistic past. When she filed for divorce three years later while six months pregnant with their second daughter, Lola, however, she simultaneously sought a restraining order alleging he’d made death threats against her. Years of bitter custody battles and public mudslinging, mostly by Sheen, followed.
Then, in 2013, when social workers removed Sheen’s 4-year-old twin sons from the home of his third ex-wife, Brooke Mueller, Richards offered to care for them. And one Thanksgiving, when Sheen showed up at Richards’s house with a sex worker in the car, Richards invited her in and set a place for her at the family table. Now, Sheen lives five minutes away in Malibu and, for the most part, they are amicably co-parenting their teenage daughters. Sheen and Phypers even “have a wonderful relationship,” according to Richards, and she’s been able to gloss over Sheen’s past insults (a 2015 diatribe included labeling her an “evil terrorist” and “worst mom alive”) as smoothly as she retailored her “Charlie” ankle tattoo into one of a whimsical fairy.
“For years, it’s been different ups and downs. But I’ve always tried to maintain protecting the kids from seeing any of that or being privy to any discord,” she said. “I never wanted to tarnish the relationship with my girls with their dad. That’s their relationship. So, I’m so happy that things are in a great place.”
Talking to Richards, there’s an infectious optimism that makes you want to see the world the way she does. “I’ve tried to just look at the positive to get through different things,” she said, “because I have had a lot of, obviously, dark situations.” Still, it’s hard to fathom how a person could be this sincere, a purported human ray of sunshine, after decades of drama in the spotlight. Is it a byproduct of her Midwestern Catholic upbringing? Part naivete? (She seemed stunned at the suggestion her daughters might watch “Housewives,” saying, “It’s an adult show.”) If it’s an act, it’s one she’s kept up for decades. But according to her good friend and ex-boyfriend, actor Patrick Muldoon, it’s just Denise being Denise.
“Denise is tough as nails on one side, and then on the other side, she’s very innocent and salt of the earth,” said Muldoon, who met Richards in an acting class when she was 19. He later starred with her in “Starship Troopers” and has cameoed on “Housewives.” “Somebody that beautiful definitely could have played the game in her career, but there’s a groundedness to her. I see somebody who’s sensitive and vulnerable, and then has that bar of iron personality she got from her mom to be able to deal with things.”
After Richards’s mother, Joni, died of kidney cancer at age 54 in 2007, Richards began looking into alternative health treatments for herself. That research eventually brought her to a frequency healing center run by Phypers. His career is mysterious, to say the least. A discussion of his work on “Housewives” saw Richards nervously tell him to “be careful” talking about technology that he said is sought after by NASA and has led to them being tailed.
Two days after announcing their engagement in 2018, they got married, and he’s in the process of legally adopting Eloise, whom Richards adopted as an infant in 2011. Because Eloise has a neurological condition and is nonverbal, they’re working on sign language and in the process of getting her a guide dog, as well as collaborating on the nonprofit Quantum Reach Foundation that aims to help children and animals.
Despite the Glanville affair rumors and a startling “Housewives” moment when Phypers appeared to threaten to “crush” Richards’s hand as they exited a party, Richards maintains her marriage is rock solid. “He’s my best friend. He’s my lover. He’s my confidant,” she said. “I feel that we bring out the best in each other. We are definitely both very strong personalities, so, obviously we’ll have moments, but we respect each other’s opinions.”
Muldoon (who said he wasn’t allowed to be friends with Richards while she was married to Sheen) agreed: “Aaron is not the carnival that Charlie was, to put it politely. He’s a blessing.”
Richards will turn 50 in February, a milestone she hasn’t given much thought to. “I am an Aquarius. I live in the moment,” she shrugged. “I have my head in the clouds half the time.” She swore off Botox after, she’s said, the procedure “felt like somebody smashing down” on her face, and she recently launched her own hemp-infused skin-care line, CBMe Beauty. But her journey to self-acceptance has been a winding road.
Tormented for her “fish lips” in middle school and self-conscious about her flat chest as a teen, Richards opted for breast implants at 19 and had a second augmentation just before shooting “Wild Things.” Both times, she said, the doctors used larger implants than what she’d asked for and she’s since had them reduced. “I would do everything I could to convince my daughters to embrace their bodies and to not do that,” she said. “I wish in hindsight that I never even got them.”
For now, Richards is trying to focus on work, and though it may grab the most headlines, “Housewives” is far from the only project on her plate. When the European travel ban was announced in March, she flew home from shooting a new medieval series with Jane Seymour in Spain. And she’s also a cast member on “The Bold and the Beautiful,” one of the first Los Angeles productions to resume filming last month. With a slew of new health restrictions in place to protect against the coronavirus, Phypers is even standing in as Richards’s love interest for intimate scenes.
Soon, she’ll be spending more time away from the L.A. hustle. She and Phypers are in the process of buying property in Montana and plan to open an animal sanctuary and move there on a more permanent basis once her older girls have finished high school. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she feels more at home river rafting and riding ATVs than she does flitting to swanky parties and trading blows with socialites.
So, does she regret doing “Housewives”?
“No. I actually had so much fun my first season, and I formed genuine friendships. This season was very different, but I would never say I regret anything,” she said.
“I just roll with the punches.”
Ashley Spencer is a freelance writer and reporter whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, the New York Times, Vanity Fair and elsewhere. Follow her at @AshleyySpencer.