Countess Ascending :: Real Housewife LuAnn de Lesseps Gets Real
You can hear it in the way her opening beauty shot has morphed over the years. For the first three seasons, LuAnn de Lesseps opened each episode of "The Real Housewives of New York City" claiming she never felt "guilty about being privileged."
For Season Four she briefly thought she had it good before, but she was "just getting started." As Season Five dawned, she exuded the confidence of a woman who had finally ascended to the top of the "Real Housewives of New York City" heap, declaring, "To some people, living elegantly just comes naturally." Given the casting bloodbath preceding season five, it was almost shocking to see the ladies still holding glass apples in the opening credits and not the severed heads of 86ed cast mates Jill Zarin, Kelly Killoren Bensimon, Alex McCord and Cindy Barshop.
And while Bravo is notoriously secretive about which "Housewives" series is shooting when, production of the sixth season of this show was bumped from the beginning of this year to the end of April.
The reason? Even radical casting changes still produced plummeting viewership with the New York edition’s second lowest ratings that dropped 26 percent in the crucial 18-49 demo. The free fall had Bravo execs contemplating even more casting changes, with "Star Magazine" reporting Heather Thomas and LuAnn de Lesseps on the chopping block.
And while all the wives returned for season six, part of the delay may have been the downward negotiation of De Lesseps’ reported half million dollar paycheck for last season, and nothing’s really final until the cameras start to roll. Meanwhile, de Lesseps keept busy preparing to captain an all-star bowling team at the Second Stage theater’s annual bowling benefit at Lucky Strike Lanes this past February 4.
The axiom that a housewife in crisis must engage in charity work has never been more clearly illustrated, but when de Lesseps strolled the red carpet on the first stop of the "Real Housewives Live" tour at Caesars Atlantic City’s Circus Maximus Theater in the fall of 2011, the press corps were still buzzing about the "Real Housewives of New York City" personnel change.
"I’m the only one that can round up those housewives," de Lesseps said on surviving the cut, "besides Andy. And even he has a hard time with it, but I’ve been there since the beginning. We really made the show what it is."
Indeed, but what precisely is it? Andy Cohen, Bravo’s mouthy Executive Vice President of Development and Talent, and de Lesseps de facto boss, told Charlie Rose in May of 2012, that the Real Housewives are "a modern soap opera," but when the second locale in the Bravo franchise debuted on March 4, 2008, it looked a lot more like traditional show-and-tell documentary.
The show was originally called "Manhattan Moms," and in addition to de Lesseps it featured the deposed Zarin and McCord, then childless spin-off success Bethany Frankel, and de Lesseps’ arch-nemesis Ramona Singer. The first episode, entitled "Meet The Wives," unwinds in talking-head fashion, heavy on expository voiceover, but slim on conflict.
When we first meet de Lesseps, the last wife to be introduced more than a third into the hour, the 47-year-old is on about age. "I think it’s really important to be young and youthful," she begins her first voiceover while crossing her arms across a plunging, brown tunic while her then-husband and two kids huddle in the background of her beauty shot, "and not just by the way you look, but by the way you feel and the way you think."
She goes on to detail her early years: Growing up in rural Connecticut with six siblings, beauty pageants, and the Wilhelmina modeling contract that would take her to Milan, where she would meet the man who would take her for his fourth bride and bestow the courtesy title Countess that she continues to use three years after their divorce. She omits her time as a licensed practical nurse working with elderly patients in rest homes to concoct a backstory that is easily more glamorous than any of her co-star’s resumes.
She’s since come clean about nursing, even going so far as to project an enormous image commemorating her graduation from nursing school above the Real Housewives Live stage at the Atlantic City event. In the photo, she is virtually unrecognizable, her much darker hair is spiked into a pouf and a peaked, white nursing cap is attached to the back of her head as if by pitons.
She turns on the smart white couch on stage to marvel at the screen, telling Bravo’s Watch What Happens Live producer John Jude (subbing for Andy Cohen as host) not to miss "that big, ’80s hair."
But that big, ’80s hair, along with the nursing cap and woman attached to it, have a lot more in common with the audience assembled for this live edition of their favorite program than the regal, stay-at-home mom we watch de Lesseps become as the series wears on.
Almost immediately after introducing de Lesseps in Season One, the show cuts to her accepting a glass statuette resembling a People’s Choice award in a fancy dress Manhattan ballroom along with her husband, the Count, while she details the "echelon of the aristocracy." Most "Housewives" viewers would probably be better served learning how to change a bedpan.
Cohen has called the franchise "anthropology of the rich," but that’s not what has assembled on the red carpet one recent afternoon in Atlantic City, where fans who splurged on a premium ticket at $170 a pop are given a Housewives lanyard and allowed to walk the red carpet press line, an idea that went nowhere fast until eventually these civilians mingled with working press on the other side of the velvet ropes, all awaiting the Housewives imminent arrival.
DeLesseps fans are easy to spot. Men in tight trousers carry the trade paperback of her 2009 etiquette tome "Class with the Countess" under their arms like an evening clutch. I ask one, who’s parked it next to me on the press line, what he thought of the book, and he responds in disbelief. "Oh, I haven’t read it," he says, producing a Sharpie from his actual evening clutch. "I’d just like to get her to sign it."
Women pair sparkly evening blouses with tight trousers that look identical to the men’s. The formality seems at odd with their deeply South Jersey accents. One loud attendee with a large nose and bleached-blonde pixie pouf is imploring photographers with their cameras angled at the floor to take her picture.
She looks like the Peanuts character Woodstock in shiny, black paillettes, but the heterosexual women mix with the gay men in a way that seems to confirm Andy Cohen’s pronouncement that "Bravo is open enough to go home with whoever is most attractive at the end of the night." Only, in this crowd, Bravo would be lingering well past last call. While "Housewives" sells itself as a luxury item, its audience is pure freaks and geeks.
Suddenly, all hell breaks loose as New Jersey matriarch Caroline Manzo turns a corner and heads for the red carpet. Woodstock topples a stanchion holding the velvet rope and things generally start to take on the look of a press line that resembles what columnist Michael Musto calls "a pack of starved wolves fighting over a cheese cracker." Manzo finds her way over to me. "I’ve never done before this," she says, "but it’s a way to say hello to the fans."
Indeed, no one has done this before, as this is essentially the dress rehearsal of a show that aims to mix Housewives from different series on the same stage to play clips, games and let the intra-housewife mud fly.
And so it does, as when Manzo herself is able to bluntly able to offer, "Kim G. is bat-shit crazy," without having to sweat being bleeped. "We’re kind of bringing the network to the fans," Manzo says, "I think it’s pretty cool, so I like it." And then she trance-channels Andy Cohen, uttering the Bravo mantra: "Whatever happens happens."
I spot de Lesseps, radiant in a simple black dress and black boots that rise almost to go-go level, but her progress down the red carpet is slow, most likely hindered by executing some of the tips in the "Being Elegantly Provocative" chapter of her book. "Reveal different angles, play with your hair, laugh at his jokes, keep up the banter and touch his arm lightly" does not make for a supermodel speed march down the red carpet.
Atlanta’s Cynthia Bailey is a last-minute substitute for Beverly Hills’ Kim Richards, who was originally on the bill but had her hands full with a double-whammy of the suicide of cast mate Taylor Armstrong’s husband and her own ’is she or isn’t she?’ stint in rehab. Bailey either doesn’t have the time, or lacks any knowledge of de Lesseps advice on provocation, and charges over to demand, "Aren’t you supposed to be interviewing me?" Um, no.
"We’re not scripted," I overhear Orange County’s Vicki Gunvalson tell a reporter next to me. "So I don’t know what’s going to happen." The same could be said Gunvalson position now in front of the velvet ropes running the press line gauntlet. The flashbulb-heavy atmosphere is an almost quantum leap from just seven years ago when Gunvalson was just what she describes as "that nice lady from Coto de Caza."
I assume the lack of script she’s referring to pertains to the event that’s about to take place, but all of the Housewives toe the Bravo party line on the franchise being spontaneous. "Everything is real," Manzo has just finished telling me. "Sometimes I wish sometimes it wasn’t, but if you really watch the show, you can tell we’re not making it up. You just have to look at the reactions on people’s faces."
I am finally looking at one of the most handsomely chiseled visages on television as de Lesseps approaches. And then she just keeps coming. As a Countess obsessive, I’ve run many scenarios of our first meeting over in my head, but this was not one of them. De Lesseps, almost in spite of her advice to the contrary, is a close face talker, as if she wandered out of "The Raincoats" episode of "Seinfeld" wherein Jerry says of Elaine’s new beau, "He’s a bit of close talker, you’ll see."
She has a unique way of locking eyes and then looming forward that makes it a bit hard to focus, although her head, often referred to as pumpkin-like on the show, doesn’t seem any larger than any other famous person’s. I wonder about that episode where she takes Kelly Killoren Bensimon out for a little motherly dating advice and instructs her to whisper so that her date will have to lean in across the table to hear her. Were I to lean in even a fraction, we’d be Eskimo kissing.
I wonder if she’s just nervous, but she’ll soon be onstage and become the alpha interview, preempting host John Jude’s questions to the other wives with questions of her own, such as when Gunvalson is on about her new man and de Lesseps interrupts to ask, "How’d you two meet?"
It’s a combustible combination of ambition and awkwardness, but it’s also a role that is many times foisted upon her. I saw it in action last March at the Actors Fund 2012 benefit "Nothing Like a Dame." While Broadway stalwarts like Elaine Stritch and Polly Bergen came onstage to warble standards pertaining to their favorite things, de Lesseps brought the show back after intermission with an awkward, on-stage interview complete with talk show table and chairs.
Audience members could be heard complaining audibly as the segment stretched on and on, but the blame surely lies with that show’s producers. It’s hard to imagine de Lesseps marching in there with her own idea to depart from the established format with a talk show segment.
As for dragging boyfriend Jacques Azoulay onstage with her for the group encore? Okay, that probably was her idea. It’s something she refers to as "RA Syndrome," named for the "Resident Assistant" or a trained peer leader that supervises the living situation at a college dorm.
"They call me the RA," she says, "but when you’re dealing with college students, somebody has to be the adult." She addresses the radical change in cast by saying, "I was sorry to see Jill and Kelly go. I guess I wasn’t really sad to see Alex go, isn’t that terrible? Well, at least Simon and his red pants. So anyway, I miss the girls, but I’m excited for this new season."
It’s an enthusiasm that must have faded quickly. De Lesseps was blind-sided in last season’s first episode as Ramona Singer threatened to besmirch her daughter’s reputation and, as the season progressed, even the other "cool girls" piled on, most appallingly brand-new cast members who compiled a list of complaints centering around de Lesseps’ penchant for one-upmanship and clothes mongering.
The fourth season ended on the high note of a duet with Natalie Cole, but De Lesseps spent a good deal of the new season defending her right to a music career and her accomplishments as a published author. Over in the real world, her mother dismantled her fertility clinic plot line, her primary arc for this season, by suggesting that her daughter’s attempts to have a child with Azoulay, who is ten years her junior, were moot as De Lesseps had her tubes tied after giving birth to her second child.
Even an infidelity with a "Pirates of the Caribbean"-manque in St. Bart’s was teased in show trailers so that although season five started out with de Lesseps on top began to resemble a Countess under siege.
She starts with her nascent music career. Her two dance singles, "Money Can’t Buy You Class" and "Chic C’est La Vie," were released by Ultra records years ago, but a full-length album has not yet emerged. "I’m still working on it," de Lesseps said in 2011. "It’s a little too soon to say. I would love to give you more info, but I don’t even know."
Sales on both singles have done reasonably well. In the larger scheme of Housewives on the dance charts, de Lesseps in no where near the bottom like D.C. presidential gate-crasher Michaele Salahi, but neither has she cracked the one million mark like Atlanta’s Kim Zolciak. Zolciak’s single "Tardy for the Party" was downloaded more than 100,000 times, but when adjusted for Internet piracy, that results in a gold record.
"I love the guys out in Fire Island," de Lesseps says when we discuss how entrenched she’s been on the gay circuit with her music career, "they take such good care of me." When comparing that summer enclave to her own approximately 6,500-square-foot manse in Bridgehampton that listed for close to ten million dollars a few years ago, she says, "The Hamptons has so many restaurants and boutiques that it’s become like a little city, but Fire Island I find so sort of..."
She trails off, searching for the correct word, then continues, "In French, we say sauvage. How do you say sauvage in English?" Um, savage? "Well, yeah," she agrees, her eyes growing wider and her face looming even closer, "Wild! Can you imagine, it comes to me in French?" she laughs, noticing that this savage business is not going to fly. "But it stays the way it is," she continues of Fire Island, "It’s totally much more rustic. There’s no Michael Kors."
And while there may not be Kors, there is Honeychile. Unlike most of the men present at the gig in Atlantic City, I actually read de Lesseps book and love how aspirational it is. The subtitle of "Class with the Countess" is "How to Live with Elegance and Flair" and it really invites you into her world, delivering on the promise of her show opener: "To some people, living elegantly just comes naturally." And she exhibits a missionary zeal about making you one of those people. She sums up the book by imploring, "Put down your electronic device and say hello. Smile. The simple gestures: courtesies, I think those need to make a welcome comeback."
Indeed, but the book is so much more than that. It includes everything from a list of conversation killers that share her boss’ mortal fear of bad breath -- "Have Tic Tacs on standby," she advises -- to a handy diagram of a multi-course meal’s place setting and the helpful pull quote: "Solids on the left and liquids on the right." And most of the information can be handily transposed to a gay setting. For instance, I found her advice on children’s play dates -- everything from "Say hello to the adult in charge" to "Help clean up" -- equally apropos for sex parties.
But I do want to know more about this ghetto-fabulous Honeychile who keeps popping up in the book’s pages. "Oh, well Honeychile," de Lesseps begins, "she was a woman from Georgia, from the South, and she was a mentor to me. I met her in Europe. She married Prince Alexander of Hohenlohe from the Hohenlohe dynasty: Austro-Hungarian royalty." So not ghetto, but still fabulous?
"Honeychile used to work in the early days with Bob Hope," de Lesseps replies, "in radio! They used to say, ’Where ever there’s Hope, there’s Honey.’ So she was a radio star and best friends with Bob Hope. She was in that whole Hollywood scene. Then she married an aristocrat and moved to Europe. And when she met me, she was the American in Europe doing it. And she was actually with me when I met my husband."
It sounds a bit like de Lesseps just reversed the Honeychile plan, first getting the title under her belt and then conquering this century’s version of radio. And where there’s conquest, parody must follow. I ask her about some of the Housewives parodies online and she’s very eager to discuss them. In particular, she singles out The Wil Show’s parody of her song "Chic C’est La Vie" that replaces her catchy French chorus "Chic c’est la vie. C’est bon, c’est bon" with "I need something to eat, croissant, croissant. Or chicken and salit, crouton, crouton."
It’s hard to tell by her take on the song if she’s not just working the tenets she sets forth in her book under the header "Sidestepping Personal Questions" wherein she advises, "You have a perfect right to definite your comfort zone. You’ll just have to develop your non-answers. If someone asks you how much something costs, you can always say, ’I really don’t know, it was a gift.’ Or there is the ever-useful ’I don’t remember.’"
To her credit, she uses neither on me, but does say, "I think the song is hysterical. I laugh. I have fun with the music. A lot of people love it, a lot of people think it’s terrible. Whatever. I do it to make myself happy and I have fun with it and that’s what it’s all about."
For more on LuAnn de Lesseps, visit her web page.
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