Michael Strahan, Maria Shriver and Dishing With LuAnn de Lesseps

Lunch At Michaels

LunchAtMichaelsAnother Wednesday, another “Bravolebrity.” For the final leg of this month’s reality-show trifecta, I was joined today by LuAnn de Lesseps (the “Countess” to you), fresh off her trip to Chicago for an appearance on The Steve Harvey Show where she made over a few fashion-impaired civilians with oh-so-stylish looks from her new clothing line, the Countess Collection. (It will debut on Shop HQ, formerly known as Shop NBC, in May.) LuAnn is a regular contributor to Steve’s show, weighing in on all kinds of haute topics, from text etiquette while dating to how to dress like a million bucks without breaking the bank. When I lunched with her last summer, the conversation focused mainly on her role on Real Housewives of New York City and her fledgling music career. But these days the clever and stunning LuAnn, who clearly knows when to say when, has scaled back her presence on the Bravo screechfest (she’s now being billed as a “special guest star”) and is focusing primarily on “brand-building” her eponymous lifestyle brand, which, she says, is founded on the principle of “chic made easy.” After six seasons on Housewives and one of only two of the original New York City cast members left standing (tabloid favorite Ramona Singer is the other), LuAnn says, “I’m grateful for the platform the show has given me. I came into it with no preconceived notions. I didn’t watch reality television and I didn’t know what I was getting into. I signed on to do “Manhattan Moms” and thought it was going to be this nice little family-oriented show, but it turned into something else. I’m fearless and  have always had a real sense of adventure.” I’ll say.

Diane Clehane and LuAnn de Lesseps
Diane Clehane and LuAnn de Lesseps
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LuAnn’s pre-Bravo life already read like something out of a Danielle Steel novel. The Connecticut native and nursing student who dabbled in the pageant circuit went to Europe to try her hand at modeling, but when that didn’t work out, a series of whirlwind events landed her a gig on Italian television even though she didn’t speak a word of the language. “I was a big star — the Vanna White of Italy — paired with a man that was like their Bob Hope. Twelve million people a week were tuning in!” By the time she left three years later, she was fluent. Between bites of her crab cakes, she told me when she met her now ex-husband, Count Alexandre de Lesseps, it was “magic.” As for her much-discussed title as a result of her marriage, LuAnn thinks it’s ridiculous that people assume it’s some trumped up affectation. “The de Lesseps have played a very important part in French history,” she explained, citing her husband’s descendant Ferdinand de Lesseps as the architect of the Suez Canal and the man who played a huge role in gifting the Statue of Liberty to the United States.

The couple was married for 16 years and have two children, son Noel and daughter Victoria. While they divorced during the early years of Housewives, LuAnn maintains her title. “It’s a courtesy title. Princess Diana didn’t give up her title when she got divorced so why should I? Let people be jealous if they want.”

LuAnn miraculously never fell into the trap of trading on the trauma to garner more screen time on Housewives. “Andy Cohen pointed out to me the other day that he thought I was the only [cast member] who has never raised her voice on the show, and that’s true. I grew up with six brothers and sisters so I know how to handle these women. I’ve been pegged as “the voice of reason” on the show and I’m happy to occupy that spot.” This season, she made her first appearance on the show this week and figures prominently in the goings-on for the rest of the episodes. “We have a lot of fun and go on some great trips.” Which, I told her, I hope turn out better than when she took the gang to Morocco some seasons back. I told her that of all the Housewives I’ve met, she is the only one who is exactly the same on screen and off. “I’ve always believed in being yourself. People [on the show] want to be relevant, so they sometimes ratchet up the drama.” Really? We hadn’t noticed. Could she be talking about Aviva Drescher? “Have you met her?” asked LuAnn. “She’s really lovely.”  The defense rests. LuAnn tells me she is closest to Sonja Morgan and Heather Thomson. As for Ramona: “We work together so we see each other, but I’m not calling her up for cocktails.”