clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Jenna Lyons is the last great Real Housewife

The former J.Crew president has no idea how to be on reality TV, and it’s fantastic reality TV.

A woman in a trench coat and large dark glasses.
Jenna Lyons is not a Real Housewife. She is just on a show that is called Real Housewives.
Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images for NYFW: The Shows
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Jenna Lyons is the most reluctant Real Housewife that’s ever been on television. She doesn’t yell. She doesn’t dress in gaudy gowns. She doesn’t have a catchphrase. She doesn’t even like the term Housewife.

“I don’t want it to become my defining moment,” said Lyons, the former president of J.Crew and current cast member of the 14th season of Bravo’s Real Housewives of New York, in an interview with the Shut Up Evan podcast. “And it’s tricky, because I had a career prior to this — a relatively large one — and I don’t want this to become my calling card.”

“I’m actually not a housewife, I am Jenna Lyons and I am on a show called The Real Housewives,” she added, recounting how she texted executive producer Andy Cohen about how she sees the difference with distinction.

She’s right. Lyons wasn’t cast because she was Real Housewives material; she seems a bit too dignified for a show that regularly featured a fan-favorite sexagenarian pooping on floors like an animal. Housewives are cast for their highly flammable personalities, which seems diametrically opposed to Lyons’s too-cool manner. She is, however, quite famous, and a certifiably unique addition to the show. Plus, she has a company to promote. The show wanted her for her, and she answered their call.

Despite all the huffing and puffing, it’s exactly Lyons’s low-level hostility to the term “Real Housewife” that has made her the most fascinating thing about the 14th season of The Real Housewives of New York City.

Her reluctance to Housewife (verb) — pursue melodrama, instigate arguments, crack one-liners — is exactly what makes her so compelling. Perhaps that’s because it’s something close to real, if not relatable. Lyons was born to slay, forced to Housewife. It’s riveting TV.

Jenna Lyons is a good Real Housewife because she doesn’t want to be good at it

Unlocking Lyons’s appeal means understanding that Bravo’s various Real Housewives franchises are — on some level — lying to you.

“Real Housewife” has always been a bit of a misnomer. To start, being married is not a requirement to be on the show. The women featured also don’t necessarily live in neighborhoods like Potomac or Beverly Hills, but The Real Housewives of Finksburg or Encino aren’t as catchy. The Housewives are real, but only in the sense that they are women who exist, live in the general area, and interact with the other women on the show because they are contractually obligated to.

But adhering to strict ideas of title and taxonomy isn’t crucial to enjoying Real Housewives.

Jenna Lyons standing behind and with an arm over the shoulders of Usher, who smiles and makes a peace sign toward the camera.
Jenna Lyons with a fan (Usher).
River Callaway/WWD via Getty Images

Fans watch because all this artifice creates highly enjoyable, edgeless entertainment. There is no better television show to fold your laundry to or to put on while you play with your phone than Housewives. It detangles your brain. Each episode fits a pattern: the lead-up to some kind of group gathering, the fete itself, or the aftermath.

The stakes could not be lower. The consequences could not be any sillier. The drama could not be pettier.

Housewives expert and bestselling author Brian Moylan explained to me earlier this year that there are certain traits — narcissism, a blazing lack of self-awareness, messiness, cutting wit, a sense of humor, self-deprecation — that make for good Housewives and certain ones — falseness, desperation, dullness, and the inability to create and be a part of a storyline — that make for “bad” ones that barely last a season.

What makes Lyons such an enigma on this show is that she’s carved out her own path. She’s resistant to playing the Housewives game, but she’s not playing it badly.

She eschews the traditional, flashy Real Housewives markers of wealth like designer logos and gaudy gowns for chunky sweaters and denim. Lyons wore jeans to the recently filmed RHONY reunion show, leaving some fans shocked. When the women go out east, we discover that Lyons has a cozy beach cottage, which seems modest compared to a fellow cast member’s six- or seven-bedroom Sag Harbor mansion (almost poetically, the latter house is so big that the women complain about it freezing). If Lyons employs glam — shorthand for the hair and makeup teams that some Housewives spend thousands of dollars a year on — it hasn’t been part of the show.

That isn’t to say that Lyons is unglamorous. She dresses impeccably, obviously. That’s why she’s credited for “changing fashion” and why she was cast. But she reveals this season that her style is how she deals with a genetic complication that has left her balding and without eyebrows or lashes. That’s the origin story behind LoveSeen, Lyons’s artificial lash company, which she openly explains that she came on the show to promote.

Lyons’s daring style, she assures us and her costars, belies someone who does not feel daring at all.

From what we see on TV, Lyons is an introverted, awkward person, the kind who doesn’t want to be the center of attention. Her confessionals are quieter than the other women’s, and if she says something cutting, it’s always sly, behind a smirk or flicked away as she breaks eye contact with the camera.

Lyons seems averse to spectacle, which is curious since she’s been dropped into a show that is all about the spectacle. At some point, you wonder how this relatable human found their way into such an alien world, and then you remember that Lyons crafted Michelle Obama’s signature style and attended the Met Gala. The tension of this show then becomes whether this glamorous creature can learn the customs and rituals of this strange place.

Jenna Lyons, in dark glasses and a bright yellow outfit, smiling broadly at a fashion show.
It’s honestly upsetting how chic this woman is.
Sean Zanni/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

You can witness it in a recent episode, the 11th of the season, when the women go on a cast trip to Anguilla. Erin Lichy, a beautiful woman who has made real-life news for explaining that she didn’t mean to donate four times to former President Donald Trump while he was denying the election, steals a phone from fellow cast member Ubah Hassan, a model with a hot sauce brand.

Lichy thinks it’s a funny prank. Hassan does not find the phone-hiding to be funny or a prank and takes Lichy’s sunglasses to show her, ostensibly, what a not-prank feels like. The two fight about it all episode long, spurring the rest of their cohort to jump in and take sides; the women gang up on Lichy, who, in response, cries. Lichy cries multiple times.

Confronted with this fight, Lyons marvels that she cannot fathom the immaturity at play.

At first, she asks for Lichy’s sunglasses back, hoping to squash the bickering. Lyons sincerely believes Hassan will give them back if Lyons asks nicely. Hassan says no, not nicely. Lyons is shocked.

In normal life, and Lyons’s normal life probably, this clash doesn’t happen. If it did, it would probably end in all parties feeling some kind of embarrassment. But this is Real Housewives, and on Real Housewives Ubah not only refuses to give the sunglasses back, but extends the kerfuffle until long after the sun goes down, when sunglasses are not necessary.

Whether the sun is up or down, Lyons actively avoids the mess. When she realizes the tiff is nowhere near over, she chats with the staff, and then hides away in her room and fiddles on her computer. She does not, as the other cast members choose to, follow the argument into the hot tub.

“As this thing is happening, I have three different projects running at the same time, so I’m working. So I had to peace out and just focus,” Lyons explains in a confessional. She can’t even say the word “fight” or “argument” or any apt synonym. She seems deeply humiliated by whatever is happening. Embarrassment is a luxury Housewives usually can’t afford.

On some level, avoiding uncomfortable situations while playing on your computer is real behavior. Perhaps the realest.

Jenna Lyons probably doesn’t care about another season of RHONY. That’s refreshing.

What makes Lyons’s presence stand out is that this season of the Real Housewives of New York City is a full reboot, the first in Bravo history. The network did not renew the contracts of the show’s long-standing Housewives, many of whom were on for all or most of the previous 13 seasons — notably Ramona Singer, Luann de Lesseps, and Sonja Morgan. Instead, Bravo went with a younger, more diverse, and less Upper East Side set of women, including Lyons, who came out as a lesbian in 2011.

Despite the refresh and the new cast, RHONY can’t help but feel like it’s drawing on the past for inspiration.

Lichy’s judgmental confessionals seem like an imitation of Bethenny Frankel’s one-liners. Brynn Whitfield’s flirty one-liners call to mind something Sonja Morgan might say. Jessel Taank’s charming inelegance feels transported from original New York cast member Alex McCord.

There are new dolls, but it’s producer Andy Cohen’s same old dollhouse. Familiarity isn’t an accident.

Jenna Lyons posing wearing an outfit made of white cloth and metallic mesh.
Jenna Lyons attended the Met Gala in 2015, which makes her too famous to be a real Housewife.
Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

As Moylan pointed out, Housewives has become so big that everyone, including prospective ’Wives, knows what works and what doesn’t work on TV. If Lichy, Whitfield, and Taank remind fans of the best parts of their older counterparts, it’s on purpose.

Like pro basketball players, the new New York cast members are being judged on their performance this season to see if they’re compelling enough for a contract renewal. Indirectly, the promise of another season entices these women to act in ways that are bigger, more explosive, more scandalous, more meme-able than they would normally behave. Further employment is also important for the women on the show who need Bravo visibility, especially those who claim to be influencers.

Lyons wants no part of that hustle, highlighting the entertaining gulf between her and her castmates.

The fights her castmates have with her aren’t necessarily about particularly antagonistic things Lyons is doing but that Lyons doesn’t have to perform her titular role — crying about sunglasses, talking about flirting with married men, talking about their husbands who might not want to have sex with them — the way they have to.

As much as Lyons has to adjust to the show, the Housewives are also adjusting, some more clumsily than others, to her. Not only does she refuse to Housewife (verb); it’s hard for them to Housewife (verb) at her.

They want to impress her but not come off as sucking up. They want to fight for another season but don’t want to be seen as silly now that the series’ cool girl showed up. They’re upset that they have to humiliate themselves for TV and Lyons doesn’t. They’re mad at her, but they can’t really say why they’re mad at her because then they’d have to acknowledge, to some degree, their own artificiality. It’s also hard to fight with her when Lyons has shown herself to be an alarmingly level-headed, empathetic person who embarrasses easily.

We’ve gotten so used to the rhythm and pattern of how Housewives is supposed to function — cast members included — that seeing something upend that pattern, making the Housewives squirm, is a new rush.

Lyons doesn’t seem to desire the Bravo fame — the memes, the video clips, the constant appearances on Cohen’s post-Housewives late-night talk show Watch What Happens Live (she’s only been on it twice)— that her cohort is dying to have. At one point early in the season, Lyons bemoans being the subject of a Page Six article that outed her, making clear that the whole thing sucked. Her co-stars vocally agree with her, but you can see flickers of envy in their eyes, perhaps glimmers of fantasies about how intoxicating it would be to be written about on Page Six.

Lyons has already been more famous than the most famous of the Housewives, many of whom are trapped in a stasis of not being famous enough (see: multimillionaire Bethenny Frankel cracking and sucking, chaotically, on king crab legs on her TikTok).

Instead of celebrity, Lyons is making a business decision. She’s on the show, as she implied in a profile with The Cut, as part of a marketing strategy to promote her artificial lash company. That profile and seemingly every interview she does isn’t about what Housewives life is like, but rather, why she chose to be on a TV show she might be too famous for. Like most beings living in our inescapable reality, Lyons finds herself doing things she probably doesn’t like in order to exist comfortably in this world. It just so happens that involves lights, cameras, and Bravo. And I, for one, need at least one more season.