‘Real Housewife’ Luann de Lesseps on Jail, Blackface, and Getting Groped by Russell Simmons
Luann de Lesseps tells Tim Teeman about Russell Simmons’ alleged assault, facing jail, her PTSD from a car crash, drinking, rehab, AA, marriage, divorce, and why she loves cabaret.
She may be facing possible jail time, but a Real Housewife can still stay defiantly on brand. And so it was that Luann de Lesseps – aka “the Countess,” New York branch – greeted a reporter at 10.30 on Thursday morning in her Upper West Side penthouse wearing a stunning red dress by Paris Gordon, hair and make-up glossily camera-ready, as if it was really 8pm and time to hit the town with Bethenny, Dorinda, Sonja, Carole, and Tinsley.
She was bemoaning the temporary loss of a pair dusty pink jeans, “which would be perfect for spring,” while solicitously offering coffee, and getting ready for a meeting and a flight to Los Angeles. On the kitchen table was a battery of “Calm” products, including for the bath – necessary accoutrements because the life of a Bravo Housewife is a perpetually dramatic one. You don’t have to choose between fight or flight. You do both.
The penthouse has a north west facing terrace, the Hudson glinting between high rises. The apartment's bookshelves hold a diverse selection of titles, including a biography of Abbie Hoffman and Julia Phillips’ You’ll Never Eat Lunch In This Town Again.
De Lesseps, 52, will soon vacate the property – rented so she could film scenes for The Real Housewives of New York City – and return to her full-time home in Sag Harbor. A personalized ‘Luann’ Real Housewives director’s chair stood in front of a window.
During an intense conversation about her all-too-brief second marriage, out-of-control drinking, rehab, a life-altering car accident, and facing a clutch of charges which may lead to her incarceration, de Lesseps revealed she had endured sexually inappropriate behavior by men “throughout my life,” including allegedly having her ass grabbed by music mogul Russell Simmons, who is currently facing multiple rape allegations.
“He grabbed my ass in an elevator, he was just a pig,” de Lesseps said. “I haven’t told anybody about that before. I was grossed out. I was like ‘How dare you.’ He invaded me, he took advantage of me, being who he is, thinking he is all ‘it,’ all everything. He thought he could just do that. I looked at him and said, ‘Don't ever do that again.’”
The incident took place, de Lesseps said, “around three summers ago, at Soho Beach House, Miami.”
She did not report it at the time. Did Simmons apologize to her, a reporter asked. “No. Of course he didn't apologize,” replied de Lesseps sharply.
Simmons, through his spokesperson Angela Pruitt, did not address de Lesseps' accusation directly.
Instead, Simmons reissued to the Daily Beast a previous statement he had given to Rolling Stone "vehemently denying" the other accusations against him.
"They have shocked me to my core as I have never been abusive or violent in any way in my relations with women. I am blessed to have shared extraordinary relationships, whether through work or love, with many great women and I have enormous respect for the women’s movement worldwide and their struggle for respect, dignity, equality and power.
"I am devastated by any reason I may have given to anyone to say or think of me in the ways that are currently being described.
"I have separated myself from my businesses and charities in order to not become a distraction. I have re-dedicated myself to spiritual learning, healing and working on behalf of the communities to which I have devoted my life. I have accepted that I can and should get dirt on my sleeves if it means witnessing the birth of a new consciousness about women.
"What I cannot accept is responsibility for what I have not done. The current allegations range from the patently untrue to the frivolous and hurtful. I have submitted myself to multiple lie detector tests. I denied forced sex and sexual harassment allegations brought against me in each test; I also answered no to the question, “Have you ever physically forced any woman to have sexual intercourse? I passed all of the lie detector tests.
"We have also provided a great deal of detailed evidence to various publications, but have chosen not to make it public, in part for my family and in part out of respect for the millions of women who have suffered sexual abuse, so as not to entangle a critically important social justice movement with every instance of my legitimate right to defend myself.
"Nevertheless, the presumption of innocent until proven guilty must not be replaced by 'Guilty by Accusation. I have conducted my life with a message of peace and love. Although I have been candid about how I have lived in books and interviews detailing my flaws, I will relentlessly fight against any untruthful character assassination that paints me as a man of violence."
“I’ve had to deal with it my whole life,” said de Lesseps of the sexually inappropriate behavior she had experienced. As a younger woman she had been a model, and had faced inappropriate behavior from “male photographers and clients. You learn to swallow it, to grin and bear it somehow.”
The #MeToo movement, de Lesseps said, was “amazing. It’s great. It’s about time for the world and for society to understand that it’s not acceptable and nobody should have to go through that. I have been through it my whole life in one way, shape or form or the other.
“One of my first jobs was doing filing in a company where my mother worked. The guy that ran it, I don’t remember his name, would say, ‘Oh I love it when you warm up my seat for me,’ and brush up against me. This is what we live through as women, and finally we can speak up about it.”
The morning we met, de Lesseps was in the eye of a social media hurricane following her appearance on the season ten premiere of The Real Housewives of New York City the night before, dressed up as Diana Ross for Halloween with what looked to many viewers like blackface, accessorized by a ginormous Afro-wig.
Charges of racism and cultural insensitivity were leveled. Fellow cast member Carole Radziwill called her tone-deaf. Her fans rushed to her defense.
“It was not blackface. I was wearing bronzer. I always wear bronzer. I’m sorry if people too offence. I adore Diana Ross, it was meant to be a tribute to her,” de Lesseps told the Daily Beast, echoing her words online and during an appearance on Bravo’s Watch What Happens Live. Her fans supported her, they understood what her intention was, de Lesseps said.
Did no-one doing her hair and make-up, or anyone who saw her get dressed, raise a red flag, or at least an eyebrow, this reporter asked.
“No, I love Diana Ross,” de Lesseps said. “That was it. I’m sorry, genuinely, for whatever offense I have caused.”
“How much more?” de Lesseps added when we sat down, hands raised in the air, at this latest firestorm.
This coming Friday, as fans of the show may know, de Lesseps is due to appear at a hearing into charges of disorderly intoxication, battery on an officer, resisting arrest with violence, and threatening a public servant after a bizarre contretemps at a Palm Beach hotel last Christmas Eve.
This incident followed her brief marriage to Tom D’Agostino, which de Lesseps had gone on and on about like a delirious stuck record on the show. Every time she mentioned it, the other women groaned. The couple were married on December 31, 2016, and were divorced by September 2017.
Her RHONY castmates had warned her about his womanizing. Fans were just as incredulous. Her son Noel asked her to reconsider, she told the Daily Beast. She, “blinded by love,” married him.
The out-of-control drinking and arrest that night – in the Colony Hotel, the same venue as she had her wedding brunch in almost a year earlier – was a culmination of months of excessive drinking, de Lesseps told the Daily Beast.
Now, months later, post-divorce, post-rehab and currently attending AA group meetings, de Lesseps is relishing her reinvention as a cabaret singer, holding court at 54 Below in New York City with her show, Luann de Lesseps: #CountessandFriends.
But first, she has to avoid jail.
De Lesseps told the Daily Beast she could not discuss the specifics of the case, but said, “I am praying that they understand and that they can forgive someone who made a big mistake and who was not in the right frame of mind and look at my past record which is of being a nurse, a volunteer for the American Red Cross, being the mother of two children and normally a woman who gives to society through fundraising and raising money for homeless in New York and the American Cancer Society.
"I do a lot of good. This is the first time that something like this has ever happened to me. So I hope that they see that and choose to understand that and deal with it accordingly.”
How does she feel about the prospect of spending longer in jail than the one night she has already? “I don't know. I’m hoping for a good outcome and I'll do whatever it takes to make it right.”
Viewers will likely see the last tumultuous months play out on the show. “I stayed because I loved him,” de Lesseps said of why she married D’Agostino. “I was in love. I wanted it to work. But I think he couldn’t give up his bachelor lifestyle.”
The drinking began in excess with their relationship, she said. “We were social drinkers. It would start at 5 o clock, because it's always 5 o clock somewhere right. We’d have a Martini, then we would go out and have wine, and more wine.” She would wake up feeling dreadful, she said. Her family noticed. Her brother noticed. They were concerned. But she continued.
During their marriage, de Lesseps said she had been sent pictures of her husband with other women and heard yet more reports of his being seen with other women. She bought some spa days for them, “but that wouldn't fix it.”
Things fell apart one night in Sag Harbor, where de Lesseps lives full-time, when D’Agostino didn't come home from an evening out.
Now, she said she wasn’t dating, or seeing anyone, or wanting to see anyone. “The prince has to come to me, and no more toads,” she said. She is “working on” herself rather than looking for a man, she added
Her drinking continued after the break-up, “numbing the pain to some extent,” until that fateful night, and the complicated story of de Lesseps’ arrest.
She said that she was going to a wedding in South America, and thought she'd stop off in Palm Beach. She was going to hang out with a friend. Yes, it’s where she married D’Agostino, “but it felt OK.” But her friend's apartment didn’t feel comfortable, and a noisy stray cat kept her awake.
So, she went to stay at the Colony Hotel. The night of her arrest she had been drinking with a friend and met an ex-boyfriend, who was – of course! – a former polo player.
They went up to what they thought was her hotel room, but it wasn’t. They disembarked the elevator on the wrong floor, and she found an open room, probably being serviced. “We didn't see a maid.”
De Lesseps recalled kissing her male friend, when they were interrupted by knocks on the door. It was hotel staff asking her to leave the room, which wasn’t hers. She refused, and went to hide. Then the staff called the cops. “My memory is patchy on what exactly happened,” de Lesseps said, but the charges speak for themselves.
The police mugshot that was taken that night makes her grimace. “How I look, my face, is because I was so stunned and in shame.”
Her phone confiscated, she couldn't remember any of her close friends' numbers, and didn't want to call D’Agostino. “The cell was freezing cold, I was on my own. At that moment, I thought, I will not have another drink. I was so ashamed.”
A few days later de Lesseps' friends were inviting her “out for New Year’s Eve on their yachts,” but she declined. “I thought if I did I would die.”
Now she is not drinking, but doesn’t say she has given it up forever. “I say, ‘I am not drinking today.’”
The problem is that much of the show’s drama is predicated on the women drinking, and variously having fun, behaving outrageously, and fighting. One of de Lesseps’ most famous scenes was from last season: a drunken laughter-filled fall in to some bushes.
“You'll see I don't drink,” she said of upcoming episodes. “I drink delicious non-alcoholic drinks. You’ll see there are a few occasions where I had to leave the table. But Bethenny (Frankel) told me I’m still as much fun.”
“Rehab saved my life,” said de Lesseps. She spent 21 days at the Futures of Palm Beach center, which she wanted to name for the first time because she found it “much better value for money than other more expensive options. It was humbling for me, and I was around such amazing people.”
It was there, de Lesseps said, that one of the therapists made her realize that her excessive drinking had not just been about D’Agostino, but what she described as “PTSD” resulting from a car accident she had in Switzerland in 1999 when her children Victoria and Noel were 4 and 2.
The group was returning “from a tea party at (supermodel-turned-businessperson) Elle Macpherson's place,” when the car skidded down a steep slope. "I remember it so clearly. It was a Range Rover. The kids were strapped in.” De Lesseps was not wearing a seat belt and reached above to grip the roof to hold on.
“There were no branches or debris. If there had been… imagine that a branch smashing a window… we could have been killed. But the car rolled and rolled in the snow.” She made the movement and sound of four rotational thuds. “We had bumps and bruises, that was that. But the effect of it was greater than I had thought.”
The trauma of her divorce from her first husband Count Alexandre de Lesseps also had caused lasting damage, de Lesseps said. They divorced in 2009 after he left her for a younger woman.
Her critics might just say she liked drinking, and that had gotten out of control. “I am not overreaching, these things happened to me, and they affected me,” de Lesseps insisted.
Frankel was the most supportive of the housewives in the aftermath of her arrest and rehab; Radziwill, who she seemed to be at greatest odds with, had also reached out. She doesn't go to therapy. “AA is my therapy, I try to go every day,” she said. Yoga has also been beneficial.
A reporter asked if de Lesseps had ever thought about giving up the show, or at least sitting out this season, to get better? “No, it is a part of my life. It shows everything,” de Lesseps said. Is she signed up for more seasons? “I cross that bridge every time I get to it. I make that decision when the time comes,” de Lesseps said cryptically.
She kept the "Countess" honorific as a distinctive branding tool. She seems less wedded to it than she once was, but it’s not been totally put out to pasture.
Real Housewives fans have heard three of her songs before, which became notorious because of deLesseps' deep voice, semi-singing, and old-school disco aspirations: ‘Money Can’t Buy You Class,’ ‘Chic, C’est La Vie’ and ‘Girl Code.’
Just as she mentioned on Megyn Kelly Today and the Andy Cohen-hosted Watch What Happens Live, de Lesseps impresses upon me that she will be making a dance single with Jake Shears. “I’m so super-excited about that, and I love cabaret. I truly love it. I’ve found my calling in life. I’m grateful.”
The seeming nuttiness of her present life seems a world away from de Lesseps’ middle class, un-Countessy childhood in Connecticut, although a desire for fame was seeded early. She said she had babysat for a couple who owned a rest home, and earned some extra money “because I wanted to buy lipstick” washing dishes there.
“I fell in love with the elderly people there,” she said of the residents, and became a nurse there. A nurse’s aid told her about the Miss Connecticut pageant, which de Lesseps duly entered.
“I thought, ‘Let’s see how I do in this.’ I didn't do well.” But the experience did lead her to try out modeling in New York, where she earned more in a day than in a whole month as a nurse. She thought she could always be a nurse, and so went to model in New York, then Milan and Paris.
“I went to Europe, and never came back,” de Lesseps said, smiling. "The first thing my first husband said to me was, ‘Where have you been all my life?’ I said, ‘Waiting for you,’ because I had no idea.”
Her life, now and then, sounds a crazy whirl of parties and lucky connections.
In Italy, Egon von Fürstenberg, first husband of Diane von Furstenberg (now married to Barry Diller, chairman of IAC, which owns the Daily Beast) helped her land a TV gig. “I take my chances. I got on the plane and went to Rome. I’m an adventurous person. You don't get anywhere staying home.”
She became, in her estimation, “the Vanna White of Italian television. I became a huge star as an American. It was the best. All doors opened up. I was wearing Valentino, going to La Scala, living large, jet-setting, I mean it was amazing, and so I was dating the most amazing aristocrats in Europe and I gravitated towards those people because they were so elegant. I loved the elegance of Europe: that's what kept me there. I loved the food, how people had manners and respect, and how men put you on a pedestal. I was a woman who fell in love with Europe.
“I had to stay. I made it my mission, like I’m making it my mission that I’m getting on to Jimmy Fallon’s couch and I will. I’m still waiting for my seat on the couch.” (Presumably, she means The Tonight Show, and not Fallon's couch at home.)
Until then – and if she is given the community service sentence she hopes for next Friday – de Lesseps will continue to raise a sober merry hell on The Real Housewives of New York City, and revel in her cabaret singing. Her next residency at 54 Below, freedom from incarceration permitting, begins on May 15.
Apart from a break, where producers deemed she could not be a Real Housewife if she didn’t live in New York (the penthouse rectifies that), de Lesseps has been doing the show for ten years. She knows its rhythm and requirement of drama, and she clearly feels her own mental health is not endangered by it.
“Oddly enough it’s become second nature because I’ve been doing it for so long,” she said. “That's me, and I really haven’t changed that much.”
She laughed her throaty laugh. “Maybe I should. This season you’re going to see a big change for me. This is my season for change.” She sounds as forcibly wide-eyed and bright as she does on the show. Clouds and doubt, be gone.
Meetings time... Flight to LA time… A Real Housewife got ready to do what she does best – swagger and hustle. In farewell, de Lesseps said she hoped I’d come to watch her sing at 54 Below, and then paused.
“I hope you got to understand me better,” she said, sounding both earnest and resigned to being misunderstood. And then she softly closed the penthouse door.