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Angela Raiola, 55; ‘Big Ang’ of TV’s ‘Mob Wives’

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Even as her health worsened, Ms. Raiola continued to document her life on “Mob Wives” and “Couples Therapy.”
Even as her health worsened, Ms. Raiola continued to document her life on “Mob Wives” and “Couples Therapy.”(Getty Images North America)

NEW YORK — Angela Raiola, the formidable but lovable reality TV star known as "Big Ang" who attracted a cult following as the most visible cast member of VH1's "Mob Wives," died early Thursday in New York. She was 55.

Ms. Raiola died of complications of cancer in a New York hospital after she contracted pneumonia, Jennifer Graziano, the show's creator and executive producer, said in an interview.

Big Ang, whose nickname stemmed from her larger-than-life personality (and her apparent fondness for plastic surgery), was a niece of Salvatore Lombardi, known as Sally Dogs, of the Genovese crime family. She had been open not only about her illness, but also about her past struggles, including a felony drug conviction. Those problems were spun into significant story lines for the VH1 show.

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Even as her health worsened, Ms. Raiola continued to document her life on "Mob Wives" and "Couples Therapy," also on VH1. The cameras rolled as she detailed her discovery of Stage 2 throat cancer and, later, the removal of a lemon-size tumor from her throat. She also documented a medical visit in which a doctor told her she had to have a biopsy on her lung. A longtime smoker, Ms. Raiola was frank about her difficulty kicking the habit.

Ms. Raiola discussed her condition at length in an appearance on the "Dr. Oz" show broadcast Tuesday, in which she revealed that she had Stage 4 lung and brain cancer. She said that doctors were positive smoking had caused the lung cancer.

"I was smoking for 40 years," she said in the interview. "I think whoever smokes should quit, and if they didn't start, don't start."

Ms. Raiola leaves her husband, Neil Murphy, two children, and six grandchildren.

"Mob Wives" had its premiere in 2011, and the show offered a rare glimpse inside the lives of women tied to the mafia — a sisterhood whose group hierarchy is determined by each woman's ability to remain silent about the actions of their husbands, fathers, or sons, whose involvement in "the lifestyle" invariably resulted in prison time.

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On the show, respect is rigidly defined, and it is easy for the ladies to run afoul of each another — minuscule shifts in allegiances could result in tense, expletive-filled showdowns and violent rants. The feuds often carried over into Twitter, helping to ensure a ratings hit for the network and side businesses, which included Big Ang Wines, for the women.

But it was Ms. Raiola's raspy voice; tall, buxom appearance (she was said to stand 5 feet 10 inches); and ability to add comic relief and common sense to tense situations that quickly made her a fan favorite. Big Ang had life experience and had seen her share of wiseguys. Catfights, she said, were not her forte.

"I'm in my 50s; they are in [their] 30s," she said of the other wives. "I'm going to teach them manners."

On Thursday, Michael Cilnis, a spokesman for VH1, released a statement, which said, "Angela Raiola was an incredibly strong, one-of-a-kind woman who taught us all to enjoy life to the fullest."

The attention earned her a short-lived spinoff on VH1 called "Big Ang," which followed her marriage and her life as a bartender at the Staten Island bar the Drunken Monkey. The bar attracted attention in 2014, when a patron died after he was punched outside the establishment.

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Last March, the bar was shut down after a New York State Liquor Authority investigation found that Ms. Raiola, who did not hold the bar's liquor license, was acting as owner and operator of the business, The Staten Island Advance reported. Ms. Raiola's past felony conviction prohibited her from owning a bar. In a recent episode of "Mob Wives," she is seen meeting with a lawyer in an effort to have her rights restored.

Graziano, the show's producer, said that Ms. Raiola's status as a fan favorite extended to the show's cast and crew. She said Big Ang, whom she described as "electric," loved to cook and play host to her loved ones. Her children and grandchildren were the most important people in her life, she said.

"She would feed the entire cast and crew," Graziano said, adding that Ms. Raiola loved "any, any excuse for a party."