The fourth season of Bravo's The Real Housewives of New York City has brought with it many a change. Jill Zarin, last season's Mean Girl, has been reincarnated as a nonconfrontational publicist-type, her claws (for the most part) invisible. Kelly Bensimon, who last year had a nervous breakdown on camera, seems calm and reasonable. Bethenny Frankel is, of course, gone, to her own Bravo spinoff show, Bethenny Ever After; she's been replaced by newcomer Cindy Barshop, she of the equine mandible and body-hair-removal empire.
And then there is Alex McCord, until now the show's conspicuous weak link. Since the dawn of The Real Housewives of New York City, back when the countess was still married and Bethenny was the ladies' poor friend, Alex has always had the cards stacked against her. Her area code is 718, not 212. She has no weekend getaway in the Hamptons. No friend's yacht to borrow. No million-dollar divorce settlement to live off.
Indeed, despite hubby Simon Van Kempen's relentless attempts to liven things up with campy threads and antics, Alex has always occupied a kind of cloudy, nether region on the Housewives. She's there but not there, a consummate keeper of the (yawn) peace, sorely lacking the kind of defining-slash-outrageous traits that a show like RHONYC, with its myriad characters, demands: Jill's clever comebacks; Ramona Singer's Pinot Grigio-fueled lunacy; Kelly Bensimon's flakiness; Countess LuAnn de Lesseps' delusions of grandeur; Sonja Morgan's sexed-up Samantha-isms; etc.
Alex has always been just… Alex.
Until now, that is. Barely halfway through the season, Alex has undergone a full-blown metamorphosis, emerging as the show's most unlikely Alpha Female—a beeatch on wheels who picks a fight and then keeps on picking it (as during the tiff with Sonja over Simon's canceled speech at the Marriage Equality March), and has no problem declaring the countess a " thug in a cocktail dress," when LuAnn proceeds to rip into Ramona for ripping into Jill. She has also taken up modeling. And her wine consumption is just a few paces behind Ramona's. If only Bethenny were around to give her a high five!
All season, Alex has been reminding viewers that her storyline has been tweaked: "I've found my voice," she likes to say, her kohl-rimmed eyes boring into the camera, making the statement feel like a threat, which it kind of is.
“To quote Simon’s lyrics, “Love me or hate me, I don’t give a damn.’”
But how, exactly, did she do it?
"I got fed up, is probably the most easy way of saying it," Alex recently told The Daily Beast, speaking on the telephone during a drive to Manhattan from Brooklyn, where she and Simon (who, of course, was in the car) had just dropped off their two sons at karate.
"Look, there are only so many times you can bite your tongue and not say things," she continued. "Yes, I grew up with Southern parents, who taught me that if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything, but that doesn't really work on reality TV.
"What winds up happening is that people get an impression of what they think you're thinking that is completely wrong. People also mistake it for weakness, and as anyone in my non-televised life can attest, I am not a doormat."
As for the tipping point, Alex said that the season-long Armegeddon fight between Jill and Bethenny last year—which she was dragged into when she agreed to be Bethenny's messenger to tell Jill that Bethenny was done with their friendship—was what pushed her into Cruella de Vil territory. (Alex quickly became persona non grata with Jill.)
"The experience I had of watching [Jill] really try to ruin somebody whom she said was her best friend, and then have all that ire kind of shift to me, was shocking to me," Alex said. "Certainly, the experience of dong a reality show has awakened me to what some people who call themselves girlfriends do to one another." (It only took four years, but hey, an epiphany is an epiphany.)
As for the reformed Jill, on the show, Alex doesn't buy the act. On the phone, though, she was more diplomatic.
"The whole Jill relationship is bittersweet to watch on TV," she said. "People are human. People have desires to live a certain way and sometimes they can live up to those desires and sometimes they can't."
When asked whether she was being awfully kind, considering her anti-Jill stance on the show, she said, "You could take it that I'm being kind, or that I don't want to kick them while they're down."
Even physically, there are changes to "Alex 2011," as Simon referred to his wife when she passed him the phone. She walks with a new swagger—the result, perhaps of her new modeling gig (another f-you to Jill, who quipped last season that Alex had the body of a model but "not the face"). And her hair, which after one shoot she wore teased up like the Bride of Frankenstein, has gone from limp to chicly styled—and very, very blond.
"The hair situation came about because Brad Johns, the hair color director at Elizabeth Arden, tracked me down on Facebook and said, 'Your hair needs help,'" Alex said.
"I had been this blond before, 10 years ago—more like 20," she laughed. "And it just seemed like a good idea to go back to it."
So what does she plan to do with all this newfound chutzpah? Market it, of course!
When the "thug in a cocktail dress" comment started showing up on Twitter and Facebook, Alex and Simon teamed up with Housing Works, the HIV/AIDS charity, to make T-shirts. Fifty percent of proceeds go to the charity.
"They're made in the U.S.A., Simon is reminding me to say," Alex said over the phone, "They're really good shirts."
And, of course, there's their book on parenting to promote, as well as "a few other irons in the fire," though Alex declined to say what kind. Simon, meanwhile, has—surprise, surprise—become the first house-husband to release his own single, " I Am Real," which both he and his wife like to quote in conversation.
At one point, while discussing how, unlike some of the other Housewives, Alex did not "do a lot of work agitating for Cindy's favor" this season, she said, "To quote Simon's lyrics, 'Love me or hate me, I don't give a damn.'"
She also mentioned, apropos of nothing, the line in the song about wives attacking on Twitter. ("When wives attack behind my back, they trash me on Twitter.")
Asked how much more Alex Gone Wild viewers will be seeing this season, Alex was cagey, but suggested that the trip to Marrakesh—the first part of which airs Thursday—would not disappoint.
"It was more 24/7 than we normally do," she said. "We stayed at a private house, and it was just removed enough from the city center that if we were there, we were there. And everyone was together. So it'll be Survivor Housewives."
Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast reporter for The Daily Beast and the author of The Men Who Would Be King: An Almost Epic Tale of Moguls, Movies, and a Company Called DreamWorks.