She glides past a herd of adoring fans and heads toward the stage, a sparkling golden gown hugging her slender frame and long satin gloves piled high with jewelry and tightly gripping the microphone. The room bursts into a thunderous applause, with hoots and hollers coming from every corner. People are here to see a star, and it is a star they will get.
It isn’t Judy Garland whose presence strikes the crowd so or even Marilyn Monroe’s, though the sex symbol’s breathy 1962 “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” is an obvious source of inspiration for tonight’s guest. Instead, those who fill the subterranean Feinstein’s/54 Below are there to see a star of the modern age, a reality television star — the only one to bring a royal title to Bravo’s ever-expanding roster of housewives, Countess Luann de Lesseps.
The countess’s new groove
De Lesseps was an original cast member of “The Real Housewives of New York” when it first premiered in 2008 and is one of only three “OGs,” as Andy Cohen would say, still on the show, now in its 11th season. Fans of the series have watched as the New Yorker confronted a messy divorce with ex-husband Count Alexandre de Lesseps, raised their two children, Victoria and Noel, and launched a successful (albeit heavily berated) singing career with three dance singles, all while facing the hysterics of her fellow housewives and scrutiny of a camera.
She was long a rare but necessary beacon of elegance and class on the show. As the other women broke down in tears over petty arguments and flirted with men half their age, the countess would simply roll her eyes and continue cooking her signature “eggs á la française.” In recent years, however, viewers have seen Luann’s stoic exterior fade into oblivion as she’s dealt with the aftermath of her short-lived marriage to Tom D’Agostino and her December 2017 arrest during a drunken night in Palm Beach. The Bravo star, 53, has since checked into rehab twice for alcohol treatment and has regularly attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, but it’s her year-old cabaret show, “#CountessAndFriends,” that seems to be the housewife’s real saving grace.
“I’ve been wanting to do a show like this my whole life,” de Lesseps tells her guests Tuesday at Feinstein’s, as they sip glasses of Perrier-Jouet and enjoy bites of charcuterie and brie. “I finally made it,” she continues, “after being only briefly detained!”
With Brian Nash on piano and The Real Houndogs of New York City accompanying her, de Lesseps sings a rendition of The Beatles’ “With a Little Help from my Friends.” In a clever reference to fellow cast member Dorinda Medley’s infamous heckling during the RHONY season 10 finale, de Lesseps replaces the song’s “I need somebody to love” line with “I need Jovani to wear,” and after belting out the famous “I get high with a little help from my friends” lyric, she makes a point to clarify, “high on life, darlings,” just in case any law enforcement officials happen to be in attendance.
“Countess and Friends” is, at first glance, about music. De Lesseps mixes her three original songs, “Money Can’t Buy You Class,” “Chic, C’est La Vie,” and “Girl Code” with Sprechgesang covers of cabaret mainstays like “Fever,” and she passes the mic to Broadway “friends” like Brent Heuser and comedian Murray Hill while disappearing backstage to change into her next glamorous outfit. “I’ve always sang, and music has always been important in my life,” the countess says.
But the show is also about storytelling. Like any good reality TV star, Luann capitalizes on the tabloid-esque nature of her life, dishing on which housewives are her favorites and the best sex of her life during a Q&A with the audience, but she also doesn’t shy away from the more controversial aspects of her past and present.
“I was working on the cabaret show before all my personal stuff went down, but I talk about it in the show because it is part of my story,” she says. “I try to make light of a very difficult situation and try to find the humor in it.”
At one point during the performance, de Lesseps acknowledges that the audience may question some of her romantic decisions, adding that she thinks reading from her diary will shed some light on her states of mind during each. She pulls out a heavily bedazzled book and claims she glued each and every rhinestone herself. “That’s what I was doing all that time in rehab,” she jokes before reading entries about her famous marriages, relationships and flings and her most memorable “Real Housewives” moments.
An hour or so into the evening, while she is presumably in the midst of her third costume change, a video montage of all things Luann begins to play. As guests turn their attention to the venue’s two televisions, clips from RHONY’s 11 seasons, de Lesseps’s appearances on the “Today” show and “Watch What Happens Live,” and her cameos on shows like “Law and Order: SVU” flood the screens. At first, this almost feels like the reels that top casting directors and agents are constantly inundated with. Is Luann suddenly a struggling actress desperately trying to show us her many talents?
Then, it becomes obvious. This three-minute video is her story. Using some of her earliest scenes on the Bravo series, it documents how she went from the impenetrable, prim and proper woman we first met in 2008 — the one whose tagline was “I never feel guilty about being privileged” — to the seasoned, tenacious force of nature standing before us. De Lesseps is not afraid to own up to her mistakes or to laugh at herself, or even to get up in front of more than a hundred people every night wearing her heart on her (Jovani) sleeve.
“This isn’t just some show that I put together,” she says. “It’s what I love to do, and it gives me great joy to be on stage and to see people loving it.”
As the countess makes her final entree to the stage, this time draped in a beaded, blue number that extends well past her 5’10” figure, the music comes to a hush, and she starts to bid her audience adieu. “Well, my friends, just like all my marriages and “The Housewives of D.C.,” she says, “we must come to an end.” De Lesseps thanks her fellow performers, wishes guests a good night, and once again makes her way through a mass of clamoring fans, this time stopping for a few selfies.
With “Countess and Friends,” Luann is irrefutably guilty. She is guilty of being vulnerable; she is guilty of being entertaining; and she is, of course, guilty of being fabulous.
De Lesseps will perform seven sold-out shows at Feinstein’s/54 Below this month and has upcoming tour dates across the country.