Friday, August 27, 2010

LuAnn de Lesseps

The Countess LuAnn de Lesseps is a lot looser and more fun in real life than in “reality life” – at least the one depicted on her reality TV show “The Real Housewives of New York” but she’s nevertheless just born for this modern world of self-promotion, YouTube and celebrity. She’s a natural, effortlessly and expertly parrying our questions into good PR. Even when we asked her when someone last hurt her feelings, she deftly and instantly told a story about someone else whose feelings had been hurt, and the Countess (she does take the title seriously) had been hurt on her behalf – albeit genuinely. Her PR-perfect answers were genuine – she’s an optimist and not someone given to brooding, so in a sense, she can’t help being good at the promotion game. In a moment of hard-headedness, said flatly: “You do whatever it takes to survive when you want something.” She’s gorgeous-looking in a natural, unplasticized way, has that undeniable “star” quality. It also has to be noted here, she has a derrière so perfect it ought to be insured.

You’ve had a tough two years so does this apartment represent a new start?

This is a new start for me.

When we arrived, The Countess was recording a message (unrehearsed) for an editor friend at Life & Style magazine (to be played at his wedding). Click above to Play.
Do you believe in new starts? Are there such things?

I do. I believe that you can have a second life and a third life, if you’re lucky. You just have to move on. You just do it and only you can do it.

So you’re an optimist?

I am an optimist—and adventurous. I wouldn’t be on this reality show if I wasn’t adventurous.

How did you get on to the show?

I met Jill Zarin at a party … she walked up and said [does imitation of Jill Zarin] “Hi, I’m Jill Zarin!” and I was like, who the heck is that? I mean, with the red hair and the accent … I was like oh my God! But she has a big heart and she was a person I immediately liked. She wears her heart on her sleeve and I like that. She told me about this show … and at the time it was called “Manhattan Moms."

How did she describe it to you?

She told me it was kind of like “Sex in the City” meets “Desperate Housewives” and the reality of our lives and how we live. I’ve worked in television since 1990. I worked on Italian television, I started my own cable show in the Hamptons and I did manners and etiquette for Fox in the morning. Television is not new to me, but reality of course was.

“Housewife” is a strange word, a funny, dated word to use in the name of a show … it’s an anachronism.

It’s old-fashioned. It’s like “pocketbook” … when I first used that word in Europe they were like “what?” I didn’t know it was called that [at the time] because if I had seen “The Real Housewives of Orange County,” I don’t know if I would have done it.

But there are women who don’t like the title but there’s no way they want to work.

Right. I call them “ladies of leisure.”
A bold Art Deco style mirror hangs above a demi-lune console in the front entrance hall.
A series of 1930’s prints by French artist, Sem line the walls of the front entrance hall.
Looking across the raised front entrance hall into the bedroom wing.
Now that you’ve subjected yourself to this public scrutiny, are there regrets?

No. I’ve learned that you can’t take yourself too seriously.

So how ‘real’ is it?

It is the reality of our lives but it’s produced and edited. For example I start the show by saying “I don’t feel guilty for being privileged—I feel lucky.” And they cut the “lucky” part off. So they are building characters and following certain storylines. [Sometimes] I sit on the edge of my bed and go, “Oh my God, did I say that?!”

Has it created tensions for you, ones that weren’t there before?

You know people ask me that … [they ask] is that what happened to your marriage? But I would say that there were problems in the marriage already but it probably didn’t help. But it’s not what caused [the divorce].
View’s across LuAnn’s Riverside Drive living room.
A round sunburst mirror hangs above the fireplace mantel. Standing below is ’Lips’, from Maison 24, a gift from LuAnn’s to Jacques(her boyfriend) in celebration of their first anniversary.
A group of candles replace logs in the fireplace.
What are your protective mechanisms for avoiding things you don’t want to hear?

I don’t read a lot of the blogs.

Did you hover over them at first?

Oh at first I really paid them a lot of attention.

What are the mechanics of building a storyline?

Each of us has kind of a producer who works with us and to organizes each of as to what events we’re doing, where we’re going to, what events we can join each other at. So the show is produced from the real storyline of our lives.

And how many days a week does it take up?

Usually about two days, which is great.

There must be a pressure to be perform though …

Yeah! There is a pressure to be “on”.
In the living corner an Art Deco style secretary is topped with personal photos and decorative objects. The stacking tables are from Oly Studio. A photo of Jacques at work leans atop a stack of leather bound books on the living room secretary.
LuAnn purchased this 2003 print by artist Hunt Slonen at a charity auction.
View’s across LuAnn’s Riverside Drive living room.
So let’s talk about, manners and etiquette and the title of your song “Money Can’t Buy You Class”

I grew up in a small town in Connecticut in a family of seven kids but my parents always had a tremendous amount of dignity and integrity. My mother, even with seven kids, always dressed well, had her hair done, was always a gracious, warm and inviting person and that is what class is all about. Well, I went from washing dishes to being a nurse and I was 23 and hadn’t even been to New York City! But I was scouted as a model and all the other models were saying they were going to Paris and Milan, and I thought, well I want to go to Paris and Milan too … I was like a sponge, soaking it all up … then I got as far as the world of the aristocracy, I mean I married into the French aristocracy.

Do they have manners?

They do! … they know how to make people feel comfortable—some do, not all, because they do have a title, like the King of Greece for example, who is a friend of mine, he knows how to make you feel comfortable. It’s really about the simple gestures in life—and respect.
Designer William Stubbs reused curtains from LuAnn’s former townhouse to create a canopy for daughter, Victoria’s bed.
Views of the kitchen. Requisite stainless steel appliances.
Always ready for cocktail hour.
Tell me how seriously you take the “Countess” thing – I know that you know people sometimes laugh at you for it.

Yeah, I know—let them laugh. If they had the title believe me they’d use it! Do you think Ramona [a fellow “Housewife”] wouldn’t paint herself the Countess?! Come on now!

But it fell out of use in the 18th century, didn’t it?

Of course, the French aristocracy is dead, we all know that but it’s a title that I’m very proud of. The De Lesseps built the Suez Canal and were instrumental in building the Panama Canal and gave the Statue of Liberty to this country from the French. I think it’s important to recognize history and it’s not who I am but it’s a part of who I am.
A comfy faux-suede, L-shaped sofa is the perfect family hangout. A group of photos by Terri Gold are artfully arranged above the family room sofa.
LuAnn’s family. LuAnn and Bette Midler at a charity event.
LuAnn found the 1950’s white ceramic lamp at a tag sale in the Hamptons. Woven shades and an oversized mirror in the shape of an old clock cover the far wall. A robin’s egg blue, Chinese vessel stands atop a mirrored cube side table.
Photos of Burma by friend and photographer Terri Gold hang above the flat screen TV in the family room,
What do you like to do when you have free time … are you a reader?

I’m very athletic. We just got back from Paris—with my boyfriend, Jacques—and we rode bikes around Paris. When I’m in the Hamptons I play tennis, I jog on the beach, I swim.

When was the last time someone hurt your feelings?

You know what, that’s funny you should ask. Yesterday I was with a girlfriend and she told me this story about her being on a boat owned by very rich people from Monaco, friends of hers, her dearest friends. And she was at a table having lunch and she got up to pass some food to a gentleman sitting at the table and the host said to her: “That’s for the good-looking young servers to do,” and she said, “Well, I do have a nice décolleté.” And he said something to the effect of, ”well that’s not so young either.” And I felt so sorry for her. I’m a woman’s kind of woman. I really don’t have a problem with women. I cherish my friendships with women. I’m thinking of writing a book about women and relationships.
Wheat colored pillows top pale blue linen chairs are topped in the family room.
Reflections of the family room from an oversized mirror. A dining area was carved out of a corner of the family room. The photos are by actor (and photographer) Matthew Modine.
Cocoa colored wicker furniture and a glass-top table create a casual atmosphere in the dining area.
Are you good at being alone?

Am I good at being alone? I’m not very good at being alone.

You don’t strike me as an introspective person.

No, thank God. You can imagine with the show and everything, if I went over and over it in my head, I’d go crazy. I wouldn’t say I’m not someone who doesn’t worry—all women worry, especially if you’re a mother. But no, the past is the past and then you move forward.

What’s your favorite compliment that you’ve had lately?

Somebody told me I looked like Raquel Welch

Oh ... I was thinking Carly Simon

But she has a big mouth [claps hand over her mouth] … so do I!

• Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge