With fans of the long-running Bravo reality series concerned that the new season, which airs its third episode Thursday night, might lack a certain amount of bite and coherence after the surprise departure of Bethenny Frankel, McSweeney has proven to be an injection of much-needed adrenaline.
It certainly helped in that regard that she was introduced in a segment shot at a kickboxing class, foreshadowing her as a formidable opponent against a veteran cast notoriously inhospitable to new additions. Her Real Housewives tagline: “I may float like a butterfly, but I sting like a bitch.”
But discussion of McSweeney’s debut has been colored by comments she’s made and articles she’s written expressing anti-#MeToo movement views and eyebrow-raising defenses of Donald Trump.
The comments are easily searchable, and several reality-TV blogs wrote about them when McSweeney was announced as a new RHONY cast member. At the forefront of the discussion is an op-ed she penned for Penthouse titled “Can We Talk About Toxic Femininity?,” in which she accuses Asia Argento and Rose McGowan of using the #MeToo movement for personal gain.
Now that McSweeney’s first episodes have begun airing, that article as well as other surprising comments have resurfaced on social media and were discussed on this week’s episode of the Housewives-focused podcast Andy’s Girls.
As the new Housewife begins to ingratiate herself to viewers onscreen, it’s begging the question of how much off-screen comments matter to fans, how much diversity of opinion they’ll embrace, and what really matters when it comes to what makes a “good” reality TV star.
“On an ordinary day, this kind of deeply flawed thinking would send me in a rage spiral,” Andy’s Girls co-creator and host Sarah Galli tells The Daily Beast. “And yet, for whatever reason, I’m not ‘distracted’ about that with Leah, and it doesn’t disrupt my interest in her on TV.”
“Yes, I vehemently disagree with her opinions (spun as declaration, but I digress) about life and sex and voting,” Galli continues. “And yet. I love her on the show. She is loud. And brash. And confident. Her humor is smart and quick and crass. My eye immediately goes to her whenever she’s onscreen.”
McSweeney, who is the CEO and founder of the Married to the Mob clothing line as well as a journalist, charged into her first episodes with a self-assuredness that few new Housewives possess. The freshman is always the target, and McSweeney seemed plenty aware of that, and she wasn’t going to let herself be an easy one.
Her raunchy, unfiltered sense of humor certainly helped, not to mention her willingness to be an open book. (It took seconds for McSweeney to ingratiate herself to Luann de Lesseps, bonding over both having been arrested for assaulting police officers and their respective sobriety journeys.) As new blood, but with more of a backbone than fellow cast members might be used to, she’s emerged as a valuable audience stand-in.
When Dorinda Medley’s attack on Tinsley Mortimer seemed to spontaneously escalate out of nowhere, McSweeney was the only one to show any sign of disbelief over what was happening, while the rest of the cast settled into business as usual. And when the older cast members—at 37, McSweeney is almost two decades younger than the majority of the cast—ganged up on her about a lower-back tattoo that she herself made fun of, she called out the lunacy of their comments, not to mention the ludicrous gossiping about it behind her back. (How on the nose.)
She’s a spitfire who, stocked with an arsenal of stinging, hilarious one-liners, isn’t afraid to say what she thinks. Traditionally speaking, that’s reality TV gold. But does it lose some of its shine when fans, who have increasingly become scrutinous of cast members’ politics, disagree?
In 2018, McSweeney penned a column shortly after Anthony Bourdain’s suicide for Penthouse titled, “Can We Talk About Toxic Femininity?” In the piece, she slams Asia Argento, who was in a relationship with Bourdain at the time of his death, and Rose McGowan for what she called “a display of chronic, predatory narcissism.”
She also disputed Argento’s account that she had been raped by Harvey Weinstein, arguing that it wasn’t rape because she had been in a consensual sexual relationship with the producer.
“Calling this ‘rape’ is doing our society, including sexual-assault survivors, a disservice on so many levels,” McSweeney wrote. “I was raped when I was 15 years old. I know a lot of women will accuse me of victim-blaming, but at some point we have to remove the impenetrable shield that one receives when she is considered a victim.”
“Argento went on to have a consensual relationship with Weinstein for several years,” she also said. “The New Yorker article is what thrust the Italian actress into America’s cultural conversation. Before this, the American media knew little about her.”
Later that year, McSweeney co-bylined the Tablet magazine story exposing the damaging in-fighting and problematic anti-Semitic views within the Women’s March organization. Then in January 2019, she launched a YouTube video series with journalist Nancy Rommelmann titled “#MeNeither.” The episodes have since been taken down or made private.
McSweeney did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment through Bravo.
The Penthouse piece has circulated among fans, was mentioned in some articles announcing McSweeney’s Real Housewives casting, and has been discussed on Reddit, but it is not exactly widely known. When TV critic and Housewives fan Louis Peitzman was first told of the article, for example, he said he needed time to process it, “but my current thought is ‘yike.’”
Galli’s Andy’s Girls podcast also brought up older comments McSweeney made in an interview that was posted on YouTube in the summer of 2016 from Snobette, titled “Leah McSweeney: ‘Putting a Photo of Yourself Naked on Instagram Isn't Empowering.’"
The interviewer asks about comments she had made in a podcast about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton leading up to the election, and why she might not vote. “I’m not saying I’m pro-Donald Trump at this point,” she said. “I don’t like either of them, honestly. He just is who he is. What you see is what you get with him, and I don’t feel like he’s hiding much.”
“I think that Donald Trump is lying about being racist,” she said later on in the interview. “I don’t think that’s a good thing, but he does business with tons of Muslim people. Are you kidding me? With the buildings and all that. He can act anti-Muslim, I know he’s not. He’s smart. He’s saying what the country wants to hear. Like Middle America and shit, because he knows that’s how he’s going to get the vote.”
Sussing out the Real Housewives’ real-world politics and views on feminism has become a parlor game of sorts among fans, especially in recent years when the stakes have made it such that the line between the personal and political has all but evaporated when it comes to public figures. What seems different about this case is that there’s no claim to privacy here. McSweeney’s comments are already public, and easily accessible to anyone who wants to Google them. Most are under her own byline.
McSweeney is great on television. Even in that YouTube video, regardless of how you feel about the opinions she expresses in it, it’s undeniable that she has an engaging screen presence and the way she articulates things has a certain appeal. That’s the best part about her on Real Housewives. It will also make any backlash that may come in response to her comments interesting to watch.
“What sets great Housewives apart from the rest is whether or not their off-camera reality matches their on-camera persona,” Galli says. “With Leah—noting we’re only two weeks in, with a lifetime/20 episodes to go—it does. She is framed as an iconoclast, someone completely unwilling to stay silent, even if (especially when?) her opinions are met with pushback.”
“In some ways, the reasons I disagree with her real-life views compound the reason she’s such a fantastic fit for RHONY, and so easy to watch on TV. She’s self-aware and confident about the power and value of her voice, and feels empowered to stand up for whatever (and whomever) she thinks is worthy of defense,” she continues. “I wouldn’t be surprised if one day she’s holding the center apple.”