When mob heiress Karen Gravano was in her late teens, her father Salvatore "Sammy The Bull" Gravano, who was second in command in the Gambino crime family, became an FBI informant and fed juicy bits of mafia info to hungry agents that eventually took down boss John Gotti.
And apart from Gravano's own brushes with the law (including involvement in her dad's Arizona ecstasy ring, for which he's now serving time in Colorado and Karen was put on probation), that scandal is what has defined her. And much like her father gave up mob secrets, Gravano gives up her own in her new memoir Mob Daughter.
Not that Gravano is a stranger to putting the spotlight on her family and its history.
Quite the contrary: Gravano is currently starring in the second season of Vh1's Mob Wives, a "Family"-friendly reality program that seems destined for a third season. In the vein of other spousal shows like Bravo's Real Housewives franchise and Vh1's Arizona-based Baseball Wives, the show features women with varying ties to organized crime including Renee Graziano, whose father is consigliere for the Bonanno family, and spinoff-worthy Angela "Big Ang" Raiola, a Staten Island bar owner whose late uncle was a high-ranking member of the Genovese family.
Gravano, who splits her time between New York and Arizona, talked with us about reality TV, her book, which she'll sign at Barnes & Noble on Satuday, April 14, and her relationship with her incarcerated father.
Are you a reality TV fan? I don't even really watch TV that much. I went a whole year without it. But, when I decided to come on board [with Mob Wives] I started watching a little bit.
It's something that just draws you in and lets people relate to us. Being on the opposite end, I know it takes a lot. It definitely has a positive effect on my life and a negative. This has been a struggle for me my entire life. So sometimes I feel vulnerable. For so long I put up this wall trying to be tough, and now I can see [costar] Renee [Graziano] go through what I went through, and seeing her break down made me break down.
Did you watch Growing Up Gotti? I did a couple of times. I watched it. John [Gotti] was probably doing back flips in his grave. You know. I understand now what sells and what doesn't sell. When we beat each other up [on Mob Wives] we get our highest ratings. And then we'll get along and nobody's interested.
Do you keep in touch with your dad? Absolutely. My father is a very prominent person in my life. I run decisions by him. He'll tell me if he didn't like something I did on the show.
How would you describe your relationship? Are you close? We're definitely close. We came to terms with everything. He has to pay the price for his decisions and at the same I do, too. It's unhealthy to hold onto the past.
I believe he could've done so much more in life, but he chose what he chose When I did do the book, that was something he was against. Then i explained to him what I wanted the book to be. And he said okay. He read it from cover to cover. He called me and said, "I'm sorry." I didn't write it for an apology, but he said that he realized he didn't know how it affected us. He chose a life of crime before i was even born.
How and when did you figure out what he was doing? As early as 10, I suspected that there might have been something different. But I didn't know what a gangtster was. It wasn't until I was about 16 that everything was setting in. [Gambino family head] Paul Castellano was murdered. My dad was climbing to the top.
I knew it was bad stuff. But it was like an out of body experience because my life was something people wanted to be a part of. In New York at that time, being a gangster was like being Brad Pitt in Hollywood.
Did his situation ever frighten you or make you feel unsafe? After he cooperated [with the FBI] I didn't know who to trust. Here were my friends, who had always come bearing gifts, telling me they couldn't come to my house. I saw it as he was wrecking my life. It's kind of a twisted world when you're in it. So him killing people and being the number two man garnered a lot of respect. As a kid you don't really think about that. There's a man in the house who's loving and good. My father wasn't a bully. He was very nice to people and cordial. But after he cooperated, I thought that something might happen to me and [my brother] Gerard.
What about now, do you ever feel uneasy about being so out in the public eye? I was writing the book before Mob Wives. And when Renee asked me to do the show at first I was like, "Hell no. I would never do that. Everybody in that world is gonna put that on me, like my dad is everything in the mob that's bad." And she said, "Karen, at this point there isn't any of that lifestyle left. Everybody does know what you went though." It felt natural to me when I came back. I know it's kind of weird to say, but there were a lot of people who respected my father. When it came to being a gangster, he did it 100 percent.
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Has having the book out helped you come to terms with things? I was bitter for a long time, but I'm ready for the next chapter in my life. I'll always be Sammy the Bull's daughter.
So what's next for you? We're finishing up season two, and there will probably another season. They're looking to option the book to make a movie, and they want me to do a second book. And we've been working on doing a movie for years. But my brother has always been a chef, and I want to open a restaurant in Arizona with him. Or even work on a cookbook with him. I feel like you've got to strike while it's hot. But I want to stay true to the things that I've been working on.
Karen Gravano will sign her book Mob Daughter at Barnes & Noble in north Phoenix on Saturday, April 14, at 2 p.m.