Jenna Lyons Is Breaking All the Unwritten Rules of Real Housewives

6 minute read

The announcement last fall that Jenna Lyons would be joining the season 14 cast of Bravo’s Real Housewives of New York shocked reality TV fans and fashion insiders alike. Lyons, the former president and creative director of J. Crew, who famously dressed Michelle Obama during her time as First Lady, has long been hailed as one of the most powerful women in fashion and a harbinger of all things achingly cool. By contrast, the Bravo housewives are more often associated with ostentatious displays of wealth, melodramatic conflicts, high maintenance (and usually gauche) glam, and an unquenchable thirst for recognition. Lyons, with her sizable clout, had no need to become a housewife; she already had her own reality competition show, Stylish with Jenna Lyons on HBO, as well as a now-iconic guest run on Lena Dunham’s Girls. However, her decision to join RHONY has set a new and refreshing tone for the franchise—and is helping prove that following the conventions of the Bravo playbook isn’t necessary to be a compelling housewife.

To watch the Real Housewives is to embrace a campy, flashy version of reality, filled with sparkly evening wear, alcohol-fueled girls trips, and petty feuds. In the Bravo universe, housewives immortalize themselves by flipping tables during dinner parties, staging over-the-top cabaret shows, and throwing meme-worthy shade during conflicts. Simply put, they become caricatures of what viewers might imagine rich women to be—more spectacle than aspiration. But with Lyons, a much-sought-after tastemaker even after her 27-year career at J.Crew ended, who seems less inclined toward the spotlight, we may have our first veritably cool housewife.

Read more: Jenna Lyons on Leaving J. Crew and Joining Real Housewives of New York

For Lyons, appearing on the show seems to be less about self-promotion or displaying wealth, than it is about experiencing something new. While many of the housewives attempt to leverage their casting into promoting their businesses or gaining a platform, Lyons doesn’t necessarily need to curry influence after three decades of being a fashion powerhouse—although she does have a line of false eyelashes, Loveseen, that she references on the show. She’s definitely wealthy (she has a gorgeous, editorial-famous SoHo loft and a Hamptons home with an ocean view), but her style evokes quirky “quiet luxury” more than the flamboyant looks typically seen on housewives. On a group trip to the Hamptons this winter, for example, while her castmates wear bodycon dresses and thigh-high boots, Lyons dons practical crew neck sweaters and jeans (though her wrists, of course, glitter with diamond bracelets). She marches to the beat of her own drum, even when the other women tell her that they think she looks better in tighter and more traditionally feminine clothing. Lyons’ assured, distinct personal style mirrors how she approaches being a housewife—she’s unconcerned with being good TV or trying to “produce” a storyline, a pratfall of many recent additions to the housewives, who have entered the Bravo universe as fans and thus, are students of the form.

The Real Housewives of New York City - Season 14
Jessel Taank, Brynn Whitfield, Jenna Lyons, and Sai De Silva.Noam Galai—Bravo

Lyons has said she watched RHONY during its early years and screened some of the other housewives franchises when she was considering joining the show, but season 14 makes clear that she has not studied the art of being a housewife. While her castmates engage in outrageous antics, like bringing their own toilet paper to a host’s home or flirting with another cast member’s husband at their anniversary party in their bids for an entertaining edit, Lyons seems content just to be herself—wry, unpretentious, and surprisingly open about her vulnerabilities, faults and insecurities. Case in point: during her confessional about the Hamptons trip, she expresses nervousness about being awkward and fitting in on the girls trip, which happens to be her first girls trip ever; she later talks about her mother’s recent death and how she reckoned with her mother’s late-in-life diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome, something that a castmate connects to Lyons’ sometimes stoic demeanor. Later on the trip, she gracefully shares the story of her queer awakening (Lyons is the first openly gay housewife on RHONY) and how she was outed by the New York Post. Even her eyelash brand is an extension of this vulnerability—she developed the line because of a rare genetic disorder, incontinentia pigmenti, that affects skin, hair, and teeth.

Read more: Everything You Need to Know About the New Era of Real Housewives of New York

Lyons’ refusal to observe the unspoken rules of being a housewife doesn’t seem to be an issue. In fact, it has added to her story arc on the show, especially because the other women appear to be awed, hyperaware, and maybe slightly jealous of her aura. Lyons sets and sticks to her boundaries, declining to divulge the name of a new flame, even though housewives generally open up about all aspects of their lives while filming. Breaking with the convention of housewives constantly being expected to attend each other’s events, Lyons chooses to simply not show up when she doesn’t want to: in the Hamptons, when the other women are partying a little too hard, she decamps to her own house in the area for a good night’s rest, with the rationale that she had a work call at 6:30 the next morning; in another episode, she begs off a fashion presentation thrown by another cast member, citing an “event” at her home, which turns out to be a night of Christmas decorating with her son and goddaughter. Her insouciance seems to at once irk and fascinate the rest of the cast. Even her subtle moments of shade, a true prerequisite for any housewife, have an elevated element. She instructs a castmate, a fashion publicist, not to mix flashy designer labels; later, when skillfully relaying a bit of gossip without implicating herself, she expresses empathy for the naysayer.

Lyons’ debut as a housewife coincided with big changes for RHONY, which Bravo revamped after its controversial and low-rated 13th season. The franchise completely recast the show with a younger and more diverse set of housewives, including Lyons, who has emerged as the season’s biggest star and a true fan favorite. Lyons’ immense popularity as a housewife signals a shift in the world of RHONY and maybe Bravo at large.  There will always be a demand for the memorable characters that have made the housewives franchises a reality TV behemoth. But Lyons, with her unfussy sense of authenticity and that ineffable cool factor,, makes the case that keeping it real is always in style. 

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