On an ancient leather couch tucked in the back of Rough Draft, a cozy bookstore and café in Kingston, New York, Luann de Lesseps is country-house chic in a white puffy vest with a fur-trimmed hood over a gray sweater and nary a statement necklace (her signature) in sight. There is something unaccountably regal about her, though maybe that’s just good posture. A fixture of The Real Housewives of New York City since its debut in 2008, she’s a red giant in Bravo’s galaxy of reality-TV stars. That’s no small achievement: The network currently airs seven Real Housewives series, fuels a cottage industry of “Bravolebrity”-branded products (Vanderpump rosé from Beverly Hills, SparkleDog pink dog food from Dallas), and welcomed thousands of attendees to the first-ever BravoCon in Manhattan this past November.
Kingston is a small, low-key city, but that doesn’t mean there’s not plenty to do. De Lesseps has already fit in a full morning of yoga and green juice — “Half the price of New York, by the way” — then dropped her visiting daughter, Victoria, off at the nail salon. De Lesseps purchased a home in the nearby hamlet of Port Ewen, a scenic hour and 45 minutes along the New York State Thruway from her apartment on the Upper West Side, in late 2018, seeking peace and quiet in the idyllic environs of the Hudson Valley. Peace and quiet are not resources she has always enjoyed in abundance.
Has anyone led a life quite like that of Countess Luann de Lesseps, née LuAnn Nadeau of Berlin, Connecticut, also known, however briefly, as Luann D’Agostino? In her 54 years, she has been a nurse, a pageant winner, a model, an Italian-TV personality, French nobility (she retained her courtesy title from first husband, Count Alexandre de Lesseps, until she remarried), an American-TV personality, a recording artist, and — for a few fateful hours on Christmas Eve 2017 — a Palm Beach County Jail inmate. De Lesseps was arrested on charges including battery on an officer and disorderly intoxication after trespassing, kicking a cop, and threatening to “kill” responding law enforcement. It was a nosedive for a woman whose 2009 etiquette guide, Class With the Countess: How to Live With Elegance and Flair, instructed readers in how to properly curtsy. She struck a plea deal and was ordered to a one-year probation.
Like many New Yorkers, de Lesseps could not resist the fantasy of the Hudson Valley as a rural, upstate paradise — even if it isn’t exactly rural, and even if it isn’t exactly upstate. Her “hideout,” as she calls it, a three-bed, four-bath mid-century modern house perched on the Hudson River, is entirely round for good feng shui. It’s a great place to be alone — not counting the company of her beloved Westie, Aston, as in Martin — but an equally great place to host Thanksgiving dinner for 16. “My niece kept telling me, ‘Upstate New York, upstate New York,’ and at that point I had paparazzi in the bushes in the Hamptons. So I was like, ‘You know what? I’m gonna go up there and check it out.’ ” It was on a hike near New Paltz that she knew: “Literally, the hair was raised on my forearms, like, ‘Oh my God, this is where I belong.’ ”
She may have decamped to the base of the Catskills in a bid for privacy, but at Rough Draft, de Lesseps gets recognized by another patron before she can take a sip of her oat-milk cappuccino. I didn’t know that you lived up here! She receives the attention gladly and takes the opportunity to plug her upcoming tour. She retrieves her phone from her snakeskin-print tote to read a text message: It’s from castmate Ramona Singer. They’re planning a cast party for RHONY’s April 2 premiere. De Lesseps predicts these new episodes will be her “redemption.”
To the extent that last season had a unifying theme, it was that her co-stars had come to consider her — I’m paraphrasing here — a selfish narcissist with delusions of cabaret grandeur. That’s because, instead of withering from public life after her arrest, she launched a cabaret show called #CountessAndFriends at Feinstein’s/54 Below, where she and guests like Rachel Dratch and Laura Benanti played to sold-out audiences of drunk women and gay men. Then she took the act on the road. Onstage, she cracks self-deprecating jokes about her tabloid misadventures (“No, I won’t be performing ‘Jailhouse Rock’ tonight”) and belts her 2011 club single, “Chic, C’est La Vie,” in a voice that’s appealingly husky, if not always reliably on key (an overrated quality).
De Lesseps, who says the version of herself she sees portrayed on television is generally “75 percent” accurate, maintains her villainization was unjustified. “When you’re focused on your sobriety and you’re focused on taking care of yourself and staying on the path, it’s hard to give your energy to people,” she says. Sobriety has become a major chapter of her biography as well as a subject of the television show she appears on. As conditions of her probation following her Palm Beach arrest, she was ordered to abstain from alcohol and regularly attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. But after completing her probation last summer, de Lesseps announced in People in January that she has decided to drink occasionally. Now, I ask her, does she consider herself an alcoholic or just someone who’s watching her relationship with alcohol? “Alcohol hasn’t been great to me,” de Lesseps says. “Ultimately, I’m so much happier when I don’t drink. But I’m not, you know, saying, ‘I’m sober.’ Because I don’t want to pigeonhole myself to that.”
“I take it day by day. I drink on occasion. Right now, I’m not drinking,” de Lesseps says, a series of sentences she will repeat more than once during our time together. “I’m not on probation anymore, so I can do what I want, you know?”
Coffees finished, we walk outside into the unseasonably warm February sunlight. De Lesseps informs me that Kingston was the first capital of New York, before Albany. The British burned most of the city during the Revolutionary War; the intersection we’re crossing, I later learn, is the only one in the country where buildings older than American independence stand on each corner. Up the street is Crown, a lounge set in a historic stone house, where de Lesseps took her co-stars to a cabaret show last season.
De Lesseps and I walk a block north to Kingston Consignments, where she recently nabbed a set of mid-century coasters. Today, she’s on the hunt for a mid-century mirror, for one of her guest bathrooms in Port Ewen. “Sometimes you find gems,” she says, delicately raising a cute little fur stole to her nose. “The only thing I don’t like about vintage is it smells.” This passes the sniff test, but it’s not a must-buy — unlike the Andy Warhol print of Marilyn Monroe ($100), rendered in vivid pink, and a handsome mirror with a silver braided frame ($59). “It’s a small toilette,” she says of her guest bath, but this should be the perfect size. At the register, de Lesseps flips Marilyn over to find an “Andy Warhol” signature on the back. “Why is it signed by Andy Warhol? It can’t be Andy Warhol,” she muses. The cashier confers with a colleague and confirms that the signature is, indeed, fake. “Right,” de Lesseps says, laughing. “Of course it is. It’d be a million dollars.”
Nevertheless, she is pleased with her finds. “Two great little things,” she says, running a hand along the brand-new silver mirror’s raised design. “I think this is perfect, don’t you? You can’t find this at HomeGoods.”
She takes the not-Warhol, and I carry the mirror back to her car, a 17-year-old Range Rover she shares with her daughter. She’ll take her Mercedes 550 out of the garage once she’s confident there won’t be any more snow this spring. The gas cap is missing — someone took it — and there’s a scratch here and there, but this thing is “tried and true.” Her phone rings. Mani-pedi complete, Victoria is ready to be picked up. But de Lesseps lingers on the sidewalk to chat just a little longer. She is enjoying casually dating her West Coast–based agent, Rich Super, though she prefers not to use the word boyfriend. As far as the election goes, it was Bloomberg who got her the most excited.
Have any locals ever given her the sense they were less than thrilled to have her and the cameras move here? She offers an impression of the fellow diner who audibly, performatively scoffed with displeasure as the cast filmed over dinner at a hotel in Rhinebeck, just across the Hudson. “I mean, I get it. We were kind of disruptive and loud and doing our Housewives banter,” she recalls. “That’s exactly why I’m up here. I don’t want to have to deal with reality shows or Jersey Shore coming to my town.”
*A version of this article appears in the March 16, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!