LuAnn Countess de Lesseps has a cold.
She was calling from her home in Manhattan, her voice huskier than usual after a few days of heavy coughing, but her spirit was intact. "The Countess" is one of the Real Housewives of New York City and—spoiler alert!—as of late, an aspiring pop star. Snuffling into the phone, de Lesseps offered to belt out a few verses of her upcoming single, "Money Can't Buy You Class." "It's a dance song!" she howled, her tender throat cracking. "You're gonna love it!"
It's actually a dance song and an etiquette lesson, aimed at any hapless idiots out there who might be interested in wooing a woman of high social and moral fiber, such as The Countess. And yes, if you're the sort of person who likes to watch kooky rich women make really bold, un-self-conscious decisions about their public lives (if you are, in other words, a watcher of Bravo reality shows), then you're going to love it.
“I don’t know how they’re weaving through the footage they have,” said Bethenny Frankel. “It was just a crazy, crazy, crazy season.”
Through the scratchy throat, she sang: "How many men there are that forget to hold the door when I give them so much more than they can imagine…" The record drops this spring.
De Lesseps and her Real Housewives castmates return to television on Thursday for the show's third season, which looks to be the most brutal, confusing, feud-ridden TV spectacle since… well, whatever was on Bravo last season. Having essentially trademarked schadenfreude as a programming strategy, Bravo now owns reality television's soul.
Each installment in the Real Housewives franchise has its own particular tonal quality, giving home viewers a varied palette of female characters to root against when shit starts getting ugly. The original Orange County gals have a sun-kissed, So-Cal tinge to their vicious battles. New Jersey evokes a more suburban, strip-mall variety of cattiness, with press-on nails in place of claws. The Atlanta cast is flat-out terrifying, giving all of us the thrill of watching a show whose characters might at any moment reach through the TV screen and slap us in the face.
The New York women, by contrast, fit a more timeless archetype: They are classic mean girls. These are the cheerleaders and aspiring trophy wives who picked on you in high school. Now you can watch them make each other cry over white wine and cheese on a borrowed yacht. Is there a more satisfying show on television?
De Lesseps is joined by Bethenny Frankel, Jill Zarin, Alex McCord, Kelly Bensimon, Ramona Singer, and new castmembers Sonja Morgan and Jennifer Gilbert. When last we saw them, everyone basically hated each other, either openly or in the more subtle, eye-rolling way most wealthy acquaintances barely tolerate each other's company. The one exception was Frankel and Zarin, who actually seemed like pretty good friends. By the start of Season 3, Frankel and Zarin now despise each other with the burning passion of a thousand midday Hamptons suns. Everything else is more or less unchanged. You are now caught up.
It has been a tough year for the recently divorced Countess LuAnn, who lost her housekeeper and saw her husband leave her in 2009. "What more could possibly happen to me?" she said on the phone. One thing she did not lose in the divorce from the Count is her title, which is hers for life, but now, for Byzantine reasons, goes in the middle of her name.
Like the other women, she's staying positive in the face of adversity. Last spring, de Lesseps published a book called Class With the Countess and has been studiously trying to brand herself as the 21st century's Miss Manners ever since. Otherwise, she's divided her time between charity work and heartfelt bickering with the other ladies from the New York cast.
The undisputed and most-hated queen of New York is now Frankel, who is pregnant, engaged, and has a second Bravo show in the pipeline. The new program, called Bethenny's Getting Married?, will chronicle her many business projects, including the low-calorie "Skinnygirl Margherita" cocktail she invented, and her engagement to staggeringly supportive and normal-seeming beau Jason Hoppy. In the Real Housewives premiere, Hoppy gets up to speed on all the blood-feuds and tries not to be too upset when Frankel poses nude for a PETA ad on top of a building and sends the picture to his work email.
Hoppy also ferries Frankel around the Hamptons in a branded Skinnygirl Margherita Volkswagen convertible, in what surely must be the ultimate test of a man's confidence in his own masculinity. And yes, to answer the question, Bethenny is getting married. "There's no date yet, but I plan on getting married before I give birth," she said.
Not even Frankel quite knows how she manages to balance eight careers, two television shows, a pregnancy and a fiancé, all without much of an entourage ("I don't like transacting with a lot of people all the time"). She has written two bestselling natural foods books, gone on a 13-city book tour, and is working on a third, aimed at pregnant women. It will be a sensitive primer in eating while with child, teaching women "the balance between being the crazy person who doesn't eat anything and the person who goes off the rails and takes two years to lose the weight."
It's never easy to trace the precise origin of a falling-out, and so the initial wedge that drove Zarin and Frankel apart will forever remain a mystery. In the premiere, Zarin seems to attribute her rift with Frankel to the latter's lack of response to the news that Zarin's husband had been diagnosed with cancer. Frankel sent a bouquet. At some point, Frankel also told Zarin that she needed to "get a hobby" instead of wanting to hang out all the time, a message Zarin did not take well.
Frankel, for her part, believes the problems started earlier than that, from a "simple rift" that just grew and grew. "Jill loves to have her arguments," she said. "Jill's never met a battle she doesn't like."
A Bravo rep would only put Frankel or Zarin on the phone for this piece, not both. She declined to explain why. (Update: The rep called back to say the problem was timing–that it was difficult to arrange interviews with both busy women on a short deadline.)
"I think Bethenny has a falling out with everybody this season," de Lesseps said. "Maybe it's hormonal?"
Frankel explained the coming theatrics thusly: "There are a lot of feuds. It was extremely dramatic. It's just, like, 'spare me the pleasantries.' It was just really kind of beyond tumultuous. It was crazy, I have to say. It was really crazy. I don't know how they're weaving through the footage they have. It was just a crazy, crazy, crazy season. It was hard to be pregnant and go through that."
The one bright spot amid all the craziness for the women appears to be their men. As much as they may hate each other in Season Three, all seem to feel pretty optimistic about love. Frankel is clearly over the moon for Hoppy. Alex and Simon are still going freakishly strong. Kelly Bensimon is dating again. And de Lesseps recently met a beau, a Frenchman—and, as luck would have it, one who doesn't watch television.
"He doesn't have Facebook, OK?" she said. "I feel lucky. He's somebody who reads, who plays piano, who is extremely cultured. Oh my God. We speak French together, you know? He's not somebody who knew who I was before we met, thank God."
He knows now, though, and he loves her still. Such is the charm of a Real Housewife: money, class, and somewhere deep down where the cameras can't quite always see, a heart.
Rebecca Dana is a senior correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former editor and reporter for The Wall Street Journal, she has also written for The New York Times, The New York Observer, Rolling Stone, and Slate, among other publications.