LADIES WHO LUNCH
The Tao of Sonja Morgan: Inside the Mind of New York’s Wildest ‘Real Housewife’
The ‘Housewives’ star chronicles her many lives: from partying with ‘John-John’ Kennedy to dinner with Trump, reality-TV fame, and being known as ‘the straw that stirs the drink.’
The Sonja Salad consists of anchovies, onion, asparagus, and mozzarella, chopped and tossed. The custom off-menu order goes down nicely, if you can believe it, with a bullshot cocktail: vodka mixed with beef bouillon and Worcestershire sauce. But there’s a glitch. There is no mozzarella, thus rendering the Sonja Salad impure. “Are we not at Cipriani?” Sonja Morgan asks the waiter, her publicist, me—the entire room, really—aghast. She opts for goat cheese. I have the shaved parmesan.
I was told that Morgan was excited to take me to her favorite restaurant, Harry Cipriani, the society eatery a stone’s throw from The Plaza on Fifth Avenue, where New York’s seen-and-be-seen gather to preen, hobnob, and, as Frank Bruni once wrote, “throw away money” on $32 boiled chicken and mayonnaise salads. On this crisp February afternoon, dining there with one of the most valuable cast members of Bravo’s The Real Housewives of New York City, I have never felt more fabulous.
Morgan enters the restaurant with a look of wonder and pride, kicking off a parade of air kisses, handshakes, and baby waves to the far corners of the room. If the Hello, Dolly! score started playing I wouldn’t have been surprised. She’s wearing a black-and-white houndstooth pattern dress from her own Sonja by Sonja Morgan collection, her hair cascading from a sky-high bouffant, a coiffure homecoming crown befitting the occasion. Sonja Morgan is with her people.
It is days before The Real Housewives of New York City’s season 11 premiere (Wed., March 6), and Morgan is wind-kissed by the whirlwind. We nestle into, she brags, the “good” booth. She takes a seat facing out to the restaurant, in order to have “the view” of the other patrons, whom she winks, waves, and smiles at throughout our hour-long meal, most of whom seem to know who she is, many of whom she name-checks to me, and a few of whom I have actually heard of.
This is a victory lap for Morgan. She is in her ninth season of The Real Housewives of New York City, a key member of what is considered to be the best cast in franchise history, joining gossip-page staples Bethenny Frankel and Luann de Lesseps, powder keg breakout Dorinda Medley, original star Ramona Singer, and former socialite Tinsley Mortimer. TV critics are no longer dismissing the show as a guilty pleasure, but praising its ace comedy editing and recent embrace of deeper topics, including politics, feminism, and addiction.
In her years on the show, Morgan, the former wife of John Adams Morgan, a descendant of J.P. Morgan, weathered headlines about her expensive divorce, a crushing lawsuit stemming from a failed film production, bankruptcy, repairing and renting out her multi-million-dollar townhouse, raising her daughter as a single mom, and several questionable business endeavors. (The toaster ovens could still be coming, she says.)
Now she’s in a new apartment, her daughter is set to go to college, she’s ready to date seriously, and her Sonja by Sonja Morgan clothing line is, by all metrics, a success. The brand of being Sonja Morgan is booming, too. The personality is a regular fixture at de Lesseps’ popular cabaret shows, performed sketch comedy at the Improv Asylum, recently starred off-Broadway in Sex Tips for Straight Women From a Gay Man, and self-identifies as a “caburlesque” performer. Few people on TV are in tune with what their fans want from them, on screen or off, than Sonja Morgan.
“I’m really comfortable with where I am now,” she says. “Where I am on the show, my fashion line, my daughter going to a good college. Now I think I could date someone who I could actually spend time with. Sleep well at night knowing I’m not going to grow old alone.”
Another sip of the bullshot and a slight retraction: “I don’t mind that either. I could be Diana Vreeland,” she says, then gushing over an Instagram Anderson Cooper posted of his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, on her 95th birthday, “still believing the next great love is right around the corner.” “She’s a Morgan, too,” Morgan says about Vanderbilt, returning to what may be her biggest preoccupation, the historic family she was married into from 1998 to 2006. “Mother side.”
She asks how I’m enjoying her signature salad, which she alternately refers to as the Sonja Salad and the Ensalata Sonja throughout our lunch. “How great is it?”
Acknowledging that Morgan stands out among the other Ladies Who Lunch is like saying a piñata stands out at a tea party—which is to say that everyone, if reticent at first, is ultimately having the time of their lives because she is there. Spend enough time flapping around the gilded cage of Manhattan society’s crowd, and you become accustomed to a certain kind of, as they say, “resting bitch face.” Morgan doesn’t have that. Hers is a resting bemused smirk, like an aunt watching from across the table as her clearly gay nephew tells a story. She knows his secret, and loves it; but she’ll never tell.
Of course, Morgan’s face is rarely resting. She loves to talk. It’s what gets her in trouble on Housewives, a penchant for distracted monologuing and a lack of filter that makes you wonder if she even notices when she drops potentially scandalous details about her cast members or offhanded insults while in the midst of an entirely unrelated story. It doesn’t seem mean-spirited or calculated. Just an unintended oopsie from a woman for whom stream of consciousness is the only mode of being.
“The trick to doing the show is to learn from it and understand that friendships come first and the show comes second, if you can believe that,” she says. “That’s what I said to Tinsley when she started the show, because I felt she was very insecure about things. She’s a self-conscious girl, obviously. Who wears that much eyelash? And hair? And dresses? So she doesn’t open the door for FedEx unless she’s made up. So I tell her make sure the friendships come first, and that they’re real.”
There’s an act to being Sonja that makes her so fun to watch. When the new season opens, for example, she is lounging in bed reading the newspaper and waiting for her assistant, Taylor, to bring her breakfast in bed. Later, she and Taylor are seen duct-taping a towel to the window because the new apartment doesn’t have blinds yet. “But the towel was monogrammed,” she says, “so it was classy.”
She tells me that when she was growing up in upstate New York she used to compete in beauty pageants, and while she never won the crown she frequently took home Miss Congeniality. In a way, she feels it’s a metaphor for her status on Real Housewives.
Everyone loves loopy, party girl Sonja, whose bonmots, innuendos, and frequent accidental flashes of her bum are as wildly entertaining as her relentless missteps with the other cast members are hard to watch. That’s great TV, though. Sonja, the human marvel: a high society businesswoman who can somehow still walk while seemingly having one foot in her mouth at all times. If other Housewives make more headlines (Frankel or de Lesseps) or go more viral with their catchphrases (Medley, in seemingly craven pursuit of just that), Morgan is the stalwart, the perfect cocktail of nonsensical drama, boozy free spirit, ego, humor, and TV sensibility.
Or, rather, she’s the straw that stirs that drink.
“Sonja is the glue.” - Donald J. Trump
Morgan earned her famous moniker—“the straw that stirs the drink”—from famed culinary writer John F. Mariani in 1991 during one incarnation of, as we joke about, Morgan’s many lives in New York City. She first came to the city at age 14 as a model, which soon had her traveling the world. She then studied marketing at the Fashion Institute of Technology. At the time she caught Mariani’s attention, she was working as a restaurant consultant, where her job was, she says, “bringing in the jetset.”
Unsurprisingly, if you’ve seen Morgan on Real Housewives, names are checked often during our conversation. But they’re more spilled than they are dropped: half-names in stories with details that are either missing or fuzzy, vague but clear enough, like a Rolodex that has had water spilled on it.
“I dated royalty and lived with an Italian count,” she tells me at one point, not entirely on topic. She concedes that life traveling the world with a count was an adjustment from her background growing up in a rural part of upstate New York between Albany and Saratoga. “Especially table manners. My Italian count, when we would go to Italy, he’d be like, ‘Stabbing angels, darling?’ Because I’d be talking with my fork.”
Perhaps the most famous incident of name-dropping happened during a 2015 episode of Real Housewives when the cast went to Atlantic City, drank their weight before they even arrived, and Morgan ended the night slurring to Dorinda Medley that she parties with John F. Kennedy Jr. and Madonna. (Medley’s famous retort: “John-John’s dead, so that’s difficult.”)
Asking her about the exchange causes her to bring up her visits to Studio 54 when she was a teenage model, which leads to mentions of partying with Andy Warhol, Halston, the Dupont Brothers, Robert Kardashian, and O.J. Simpson. After Studio 54 closed, she says she would frequent Palladium and hang out in the Michael Todd Room. “That’s where John-John Kennedy came in and Madonna with brown hair,” she says. “Not blond. She had brown hair.”
There’s another name that Morgan used to mention more often when bragging about her past life as a New York society drink-stirrer: Donald Trump. In a 2011 Bravo blog, she bragged about attending Trump’s wedding to Marla Maples, happily reporting that Trump himself told Sirio Maccioni of Le Circ that “Sonja is the glue.”
“Oh my gosh, everyone knows Trump,” she says. She categorizes them as “business friends,” saying that they went out to dinner once when she was a model and a guest of Johnny Casablanca, the founder of Elite Model Management. When was the last time she saw the president? “Oh god, I don’t think I’ve seen Trump in ages,” she says. “You can’t get near him anymore.”
The Real Housewives of New York City broke rather revolutionary ground in 2017 when it made the election and the politics of its cast members a part of the storyline, an engagement with the real world that many reality TV shows would hesitate to do. “I found that uncomfortable,” Morgan says.
She doesn’t like discussing politics and identifies as non-partisan, preferring, she says, to vote on issues: children, artists, animals, LGBT, homelessness, education, and reducing infection death at hospitals. “People go to the hospital and they die not from what they went to the hospital for but the uncleanliness of the hospital,” she says. “So I’m always looking at candidates who talk about that.”
At the reunion episode of Real Housewives that season, host Andy Cohen asked each of the New York cast members who they voted for in the election. Morgan, along with Singer and de Lesseps, declined to answer, which caused co-star Carole Radziwill to quip, “Don’t you feel the people that said ‘I’m not gonna say’ voted for Trump?”
I ask Morgan if she’d say whether or not she voted for Trump. A publicist who had accompanied her to the restaurant and been working nearby perks up like a meerkat with a T-word homing device. As quickly as Morgan says, "I'm not going to talk about that," the publicist is grabbing the Housewife's attention and miming a nix on her throat.
“Lately, I prefer being a bottom.” - Sonja Morgan
It’s the fascinating—and truthfully, most appealing—thing about Sonja Morgan. She is both an open book and impenetrable.
Her tagline this season, “People call me over-the-top, but lately I prefer being a bottom,” is a reference to her preferred sexual position, and she openly talks with me about the filler she injects in the tip of her nose to keep it upturned and the neck lift she is planning to make her side profile more appealing. But then there’s the opaque talk about politics, or the fact that there are entire Reddit threads devoted to understanding the truth behind her divorce from John Adams Morgan.
After getting engaged on their first date and then eight years of marriage, the couple divorced in 2006. Morgan still retains the family name, a frequently contentious topic on the show. “My breakup is pretty boring,” she shrugs. “We were in love and then we broke up. There was no drama. We still love each other and it was painful for both of us.”
Like most of her answers, the response doesn’t end with punctuation, but with an ellipsis, as she inevitably transitions to listing all of the projects she’s working on and her busy schedule. During that infamous Atlantic City trip, Morgan caught flack for drunkenly repeating to Frankel, over and over, “I’m a promoter! I like to promote people!” And I’ll be damned if she isn’t the best there is at promoting herself.
But while the fashion empire, the shoe business, the charity work, the parties for the gays, and a new unisex perfume line are mentioned often and typically apropos of nothing, the biggest surprise is how often she uses our time to champion her Real Housewives co-stars. I frankly wasn’t expecting that.
The new season has a somber start, with reminders that Luann de Lesseps missed last season’s reunion because she had relapsed her sobriety and was returning to rehab, and that Bethenny Frankel’s ex-boyfriend, Dennis Shields, passed away over the summer.
If Real Housewives began as a franchise skewering the cushy lives of a certain Manhattan set, the series has evolved to a far more serious and realistic reflection of these women’s lives than that: addiction, death, divorce, bankruptcy, loss of friendship, money issues, and more.
Sure, they bicker. A lot. But there is a sense that—if I’m naive, then so be it—there’s a genuine camaraderie that is helping these women get through these hard times together.
“What Bethenny went through was so hard,” Morgan says. “I like to know that we were there for her. I like to know we were there for Luann. We laugh about Ramona dating so much, but she’s doing OK after her divorce and we’re there for her. I’m there for Dorinda even though she said some nasty things. I’m there for Tinsley, even though she was insecure.”
It’s in line with her answer when I ask what the biggest misconception about her from people who only see her on the show and don’t know her in real life. “I’m not as carefree and easygoing as you think,” she says. “I really work very hard.”
As she sits there on her Cipriani throne, the seat in the good booth with the view, she seems proud. She takes another bite of Sonja Salad. She’s earned it.