By People Staff
May 12, 2009 12:00 AM
Richard Brill/Startraks

If Bravo’s preview of The Real Housewives of New Jersey — which has its official premiere Tuesday (11 p.m. ET) — proves anything, it’s that The Sopranos aren’t the only Garden State family you don’t want to mess with. Not convinced? Just wait for Caroline Manzo (sister to fellow Housewife Dina and sister-in-law to third Housewife, the pregnant Jacqueline) to growl, “Let me tell you something about my family; We are as thick as thieves.”

Chatting with PEOPLE, Dina downplays Caroline’s toughness, but remains fiercely loyal: “My sister comes off very strong but she’s got a softer side,” she says. Here, the Manzo sisters happily dish about everything from their fans (“I love the gays,” says Dina, “and they love me”) to other Housewives casts and getting ready for the intensity of the spotlight. “We didn’t go into this blindly. We knew there were out there who were going to rip us apart,” Dina says. In other words, the catfight’s out of the bag. — Suzanne Zuckerman

Have you started getting recognized yet?Caroline: Yes. I’ve given out a fair amount of autographs considering that the show hasn’t aired for real yet. The reaction has been nothing short of explosive. I never in my wildest dreams thought that this would be happening to me. Dina: It freaks me out because I’ll be food shopping and somebody will just come up to me. I’m like, “Why would you want my autograph?” It’s kind of silly to me. I have a lot of gay fans coming up to me and saying, “Your hair is fabulous!” and “I love the way you dress!” and “You’re fantastic.” So I think that’s my audience and I couldn’t be happier.

Do you represent typical New Jersey housewives? Caroline: That’s kind of a loaded question. Do I think we depict an Italian American family? Yes, I do. Do I think I depict a housewife? I most certainly am. There are some aspects to my personality that may be stronger than most, but the fact remains that I wake up every morning and I make the beds and I go food shopping and I let the dogs out and I do the laundry and I am somebody’s wife and somebody’s mother. Dina: When I think of New Jersey, I think of moms who are passionate about their families. We definitely represent that. We’re not really looking to be in the social scene as much as some of the other casts in the franchise. Our show is more authentic because some of those women were kind of forced to hang out with each other, whereas for us, we’d all be out to dinner together anyway — with the exception of a couple. We’re just regular . We’re not walking a red carpet every night.

Do family dynamics make the drama more intense? Caroline: With any family — and it’s not only Italian families — there is history. With history comes passion. When there are fights, we fight big. And when we forgive and we love, we love big and we forgive big. That’s what family is. I think this country needs that right now.

Dina, How have your teenage daughter Alexia’s schoolmates reacted? Dina: I was a little bit worried about putting her out there, but she’s gotten nothing but positive feedback. She just made captain of the track team. She was always popular but now kids are coming out of the woodwork. Eighth graders who are older than her want to be her friend. So she’s kind of liking the limelight a little bit too. Let’s just hope it doesn’t go to her head.

Are you prepared for any potential backlash? Caroline: There is no preparing for it. But I’m a big girl. I’ve taught my children to accept that not everybody is going to love you. We make mistakes and we do things that perhaps at times will embarrass us, but that’s what makes us human. I am proud of who I am. And I am so proud of my children. Dina: We’re very confident that we’re good . I can put my head on my pillow every night knowing that I give back to my community and I’m a great mother and a great sister, so they can say whatever they want.

Richard Brill/Startraks