One of the first things you notice about Jenna Lyons, the former J. Crew creative director and president, in her unlikely turn on the Real Housewives of New York City, is a certain shyness. Lyons is a bit of a wallflower, a towering one at 6 feet, for sure. But the realization that Lyons, with her impeccable style and legendary shoe closet, is something of a quiet oddball comes as a surprise for those tuning in for the series reboot. These aren’t exactly expected qualities from a woman who, in the late aughts, defined much of American fashion. Lyons is a Met Gala veteran, guest-starred on Girls, and has dressed everyone from former first lady Michelle Obama to Beyoncé.
“I’m nervous that I’ll be awkward, that I’m not going to fit in,” Lyons says in one direct-to-camera confessional. “I’m nervous that I’m gonna say something stupid.”
But it isn’t simply unanticipated awkwardness by someone who cultivated a public persona of chic that makes Lyons’ RHONY appearance the delight it’s quickly proven to be. Her embrace of a franchise equally celebrated and derided for its endless supply of mess, garishness, and chaos appears authentic, and Lyons seems to approach the unfamiliar with true vulnerability.
Lyons, as she tells the camera in a confessional, hasn’t hosted at her home, a stunning SoHo apartment, in years. She’s never really had a group of girlfriends. She doesn’t drink. In the season’s second episode, we find Lyons anxious over an upcoming weekend in the Hamptons. When she gets caught slipping out during a 10 p.m. dance party downstairs (Lyons has an early morning call and owns a house nearby) she appears flummoxed, genuinely contrite to have offended the other housewives with her introverted tendencies.
Her authenticity feels genuine. It’s evident when she opens up about her fraught relationship with her mother, who had Asperger’s Syndrome and died just weeks before filming. And it shows up when she recalls getting outed as gay by the New York Post. At one point, Lyons brings gifts of lingerie as tokens of friendship to the other housewives. In another, she discusses suffering from Bloch-Sulzberger syndrome, which has caused skin scarring on significant parts of her body. It’s refreshing to see such a famous person expose themselves in this way.
So why is Lyons doing any of this? She certainly doesn’t need the money. As she told the New York Times, joining RHONY was first conceived as a means to represent gay women after it had been suggested by a podcaster that she wasn’t doing enough for the community. Lyons then connected with Andy Cohen and the rest is RHONY history. Except that, it feels like more. Watching Lyons embrace the show and the other housewives with what feels like true warmth, you get the sense that this is a woman, at 55, daring to leap out of her comfort zone and land straight into one of the most scrutinizing mediums in popular culture. Lyons has always been aspirational. But with RHONY, her inspiration is reaching a new audience: anyone seeking a second act—or even a set of girlfriends to finally call one’s own.