It was weeks into self-isolation. I had lost count of the days. The mundanity was soul-crushing. The news was devastating. The toilet paper was running low. Things were bleak. It was time to check in with my spiritual gurus. So, over the course of a day, I got on the phone with the four veteran members of The Real Housewives of New York City.
There was Luann de Lesseps, social distancing in the Hamptons with her son and her daughter.
She was, like so many of us, taking care of the chores she’s always too busy to do: cooking, going through photo albums, cleaning out the basement. She was also, like, well, none of us, publicly addressing her current relationship with alcohol, honing her cabaret act, and recording what she promises to be a very fan-pleasing TikTok to be released within the next few days. (For the life of me and after a week of searching, I could not find this alleged video.)
“Right now, as I’m talking to you, I’m on the terrace. I’m overlooking the ocean. I can almost touch it,” Ramona Singer says when we connect an hour later. “It feels surreal with everything else going on in the world.”
Singer, the sole full-time cast member of all 12 seasons of the Bravo franchise, triggered a collective eyes-emoji frenzy when she revealed that she was quarantining in Boca Raton, Florida, in a beach house with her daughter Avery and, as she tells me, “Avery’s dad.” As in her ex-husband, Mario, who sent libidos into overdrive with his cameo appearance on the last season of RHONY, as well as calls for the couple to reunite.
“Who’d have thought?” Singer says, explaining that her ex invited her and Avery to Florida so that they could be together as a family during the rough time. “The world is a strange place, right?”
When we hop on the phone with Dorinda Medley, things have just started to sink in. She and her daughter had escaped the city 10 days prior for Bluestone Manor, her house in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, initially excited for quality time at the newly renovated estate. They had naively only packed for about a week. “This morning was the first morning I woke up and I’m like, I’m here,” she says. “I better order more contacts.”
Then there’s Sonja Morgan, who, months before pandemic pandemonium hit the U.S., had booked a stay at a spa in Desert Hot Springs, California, and now is stuck juicing and doing colonics for the foreseeable future. “I haven’t had hard food in 10 days,” she says.
The women are in good-humored, self-reflective spirits, if all a bit flummoxed to be miles, hours, and even plane rides away from the city they’d usually be running amok in to promote the season premiere of their show.
As it stands, however, their show’s namesake city—and their home—is on lockdown amidst a horrifying deadly outbreak, and they are housebound, doing their best to drum up buzz for Season 12 while preaching words of advice and comfort to fans who look to them as lifestyle gospel.
It’s a change of pace to be sure. These are people notorious for raising energy, spiking blood pressure, and dialing up any interaction for the sake of drama and entertainment. Now instead of escalating things, they’re dutifully working to flatten the curve.
Along with castmates Tinsley Mortimer and new addition Leah McSweeney, they’re also discovering something that never could have been planned. Premiering this Thursday, RHONY joins a slew of TV series premiering to a captive audience desperate for a respite from the mundanity of self-isolation and a distraction from the grim news.
Reality TV series once derided by some critics as slight and superfluous are suddenly soldiers of joy in a dark world, with more than one headline proclaiming that they’ve arrived to “save us all.”
The effect of the premiere’s timing isn’t lost on the Housewives. “For the first time in 12 years, I’m excited to watch my show,” Singer says, letting out that cackle. “I usually watch it to watch it, but now I really want to watch it. I need this too, like all of you. I may need it more!”
It’s a comfort that even in uncertain, strange times, the Housewives are nothing if not themselves, with their—how shall we say this—quirks shining through even in phone conversations taking place in self-isolations.
De Lesseps self-promotes her cabaret tour, “Marry, F**k, Kill”—currently postponed because of the novel coronavirus outbreak—and her upcoming single, “Viva La Diva.” In the midst of clarifying a feud that’s become something of a Bravo-fan legend, the one with “you know, the girl from Potomac”—Real Housewives of Potomac star Gizelle Bryant—Singer interrupts her train of thought to request that this piece link to her Ageless by Ramona skincare line on Amazon. Medley quotes Hillary Clinton. Morgan laments the effects of social isolation on her sex life.
“I always say you have to have it all: good animals, good food, good fabrics, good sex,” Morgan says. “It’s the same when you’re in quarantine. You gotta have your animals and you gotta have good sex and good food and good sleep. And an abundance candle.”
Five days after we speak, Morgan posted a photo on Instagram of an old scene from the show. Her hand is covering her mouth. She is visibly distraught, emotionally ravaged even, and her cast mates are trying to calm her down. “When Lu and Dooooorinda tell me I won’t be having sex for at least two weeks due to the lock down,” she captioned the photo.
Morgan has emerged somewhat of a self-isolation icon in recent weeks, or the inspiration for #QuarantineGoals, as some viewers have posted.
A clip of her working from bed with plastic tarps draped around it to protect from construction dust during renovations of her townhouse has circulated with jokes about isolation bunkers. And a popular meme of her in a past episode lying in bed watching TV while wearing a tiara and reading glasses has been repurposed to chronicle work-from-home life.
She’s been reposting photos of fans recreating the look on her own social media feeds. “I call it ‘quaranchic,’ because our viewers are quite cool,” she says.
She has some cheeky advice about weathering the time at home—bubble baths and sex are high on the list—but also hopes people use this time for some re-centering. “Fear and isolation has made us think about more than just coronavirus,” she says. “Being with our families. Slowing down. Families are hard to deal with.” She takes a beat and laughs. “Alcohol helps.”
De Lesseps is the first to tell me about a group text message chain the cast members are all on, sending each other updates on their health and how they’re handling their quarantines, links to articles about how to stay safe, and, of course, the errant Bravolebrity gossip. “Wouldn’t you like to see it?” she laughs.
Keeping tabs on each other’s health has been important. Singer threw everyone for a loop when she revealed earlier this month that she had been diagnosed with Lyme disease. She went into self-isolation almost two weeks before the rest of the East Coast because her immune system has been weakened.
She’s been doing her best to keep up a semblance of a routine—showering every morning, doing her hair and makeup, “putting on my Ageless by Ramona, which keeps me looking good and healthy”—but after 10 days in a row of wearing nothing but workout clothes and a bathing suit and coverup, she broke and put on a pair of her gold “fancy jeans” and nice wedges to have dinner with her family. “I had enough! I had to dress up!”
It’s jarring circumstances in which to be interacting with these women. These are social butterflies by trade, ladies who lunch for our entertainment.
It’s not uncommon for several episodes of drama to be mined from the fact that Singer, for example, will only deign to swan into another cast member’s event for 15 minutes because she double- (or triple-)booked her evening. The volume of dates these women go on should be studied by anthropologists. The hotel bar at the Regency is religious ground. (Well, maybe cursed if you’re de Lesseps.)
That is all to say that housebound independence doesn’t necessarily come naturally.
Singer recently posted a video of herself on Instagram cleaning and disinfecting after she cancelled the housecleaning service—“not taking any chances over here”—and was lovingly mocked when it became apparent that she clearly has never cleaned a toilet in her life.
The next day, Medley posted her own video on Instagram teasing Singer, scrubbing the floor on her hands and knees in a negligee while narrating in a hyper-sexualized, breathy Marilyn Monroe voice. She captioned the video “#boobcleaning.”
Creating more social media content has been one way to take advantage of the extra time on the Housewives’ hands. Apart from spoofing her castmate, Medley also hosted an Instagram Live edition of her popular Do-robics exercise class, which started as a charity event on the previous season of the show and which she then conducted live in front of hundreds of fans at the inaugural BravoCon earlier this year.
“I have to do it again, but you know what the problem is? I find myself putting on my aerobics clothes and laying in my window sill and falling asleep for two hours,” she says. “What is that?”
It’ll happen, she promises. She and her daughter, Hannah, ordered about $1,000 worth of lighting equipment, “because God knows that all we do is go on Amazon now,” so she’s ready to essentially open an aerobics studio up at Bluestone Manor. “Hannah said, ‘You're becoming a full-on cottage industry.’ I’m like what's the choice?”
She’s trying to keep an upbeat attitude about things, but, speaking candidly, she’s been starting to have a hard time. After breezing through the house projects and repairs on her to-do list, she’s found herself feeling listless, lethargic, and uninspired.
“This morning was the first morning I woke up a little bit depressed,” she says. “I’m sleeping at like two in the afternoon. I’m like, ‘I’m over this,’ and then go sleep for three hours.”
That morning, she and her daughter had a heart-to-heart about coming to terms with the fact that this isn’t a brief vacation to their Massachusetts house. “We gotta stop thinking we’re going back to New York. It’s just too mentally draining to have to, you know, be physically here and mentally still in New York.”
It’s a little bittersweet for everyone to talk about New York City.
“The sad thing about New York is it’s like a heart. Unless it’s beating fast, it’s not good,” says Medley.
“I think it’s good for people to see the city in full swing, when right now it’s on lockdown,” says de Lesseps. She proclaims season 12 is the best one yet.
“It’s a great show with or without the terrible thing that we’re going through,” Medley says. “But I also think we’re so lucky it’s going to premiere when it does because it’s going to bring people some joy and entertainment and something to distract yourselves.”
She starts laughing: “Focus on us. Focus on our craziness for a little bit. This coronavirus is bad, but these women are nuts!”