Money can’t buy you class but it can get a ticket to see Countess Luann’s cabaret show

SAN FRANCISCO — Turned away from a movie-star vanity inside the green room at San Francisco’s Masonic Auditorium, Luann de Lesseps isn’t stalked by cameras documenting her every move.

It’s just “The Countess” in a white knee-length bathrobe adorned with red and pink flowers. Her hair in curlers, little makeup and thin white slippers fit for the spa are a stark contrast to the racks of embellished gowns, silk gloves and glittering costume jewelry awaiting her three rooms down in the catacombs of the Nob Hill venue.

I can’t believe I’m here.

A fixture on Bravo’s “The Real Housewives of New York City” for more than a decade, de Lesseps has had many incarnations over the years, and this latest one is a cabaret singer to hundreds of Pinot Grigio-swilling onlookers. And proudly count me among those who don’t count out the countess and know all the words to “Money Can’t Buy You Class,” an anthem for upward mobility.

“Cabaret is really about being self-deprecating, being funny and entertaining your friends,” she tells me. “This is my living room and they’re all coming to be my guests. That’s how I treat the audience — like my friends. With my crowd, I could mess up and they don’t care. They just want to be with me and that’s a beautiful thing.”

This edition of #CountessAndFriends, occurring in the middle of San Francisco Pride last June, is the first time she’s set to perform her latest dance single, “Feelin’ Jovani,” live. The Jovani gown retailer is synonymous with sequins, plunging necklines and, now, de Lesseps after a castmate heckled her on the show for her choice of wardrobe.

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Between shooting the 11th season of “RHONY” and watching it air, her cabaret show has had a meteoric rise from a 54 Below novelty to a touring Live Nation event, much to my and de Lessep’s surprise. (She is scheduled to perform in Phoenix at Comerica Theatre on Saturday, Sept. 14, ostensibly the reason why I’m here.)

“It’s been beyond my wildest dreams. You know, I’ve always been a showgirl,” de Lesseps, 54, says and laughs before mentioning her modeling and TV presenting gigs in early ’90s Italy. “And this isn’t all that different in a way. I’ve always loved variety and I’ve always loved old-school showbiz. I never realized that there was a void for it, but it’s now taken on its own life.”

A couple hours later, she’d perform to a packed house over Pride weekend, nearly 40 minutes after showtime, giving attendees a chance to be good and sloshed as de Lesseps sings (but mostly talks) her way through “Chic C’est La Vie” and some jazz standards.

Fans dress in costumes (complete with statement necklaces and jumpsuits) and emulate de Lesseps’ hushed, husky voice while they wait in never-ending lines for booze. They come for the spectacle and behind-the-scenes dirt about a show that’s a mix between “Desperate Housewives” and “Dynasty.”

And that absolutely delights her.

“I just love the energy from being on stage. It makes me happy. People have a good time at the show and that brings me so much joy,” she says.

Whatever residual guilt I feel about adoring trash TV vanished within moments of seeing just how many other adoring fans were present. Who needs pricey BravoCon tickets when you can see Countess Luann for only $40 — thank you, Groupon.

And it’s not just her, oh no. There’s an entire support act of Broadway actors between gigs and drag king Murray Hill who attempt to fill the void when de Lesseps leaves the stage to shimmy into another ensemble that could have been pulled from Ginger’s hut on “Gilligan’s Island.”

‘RHONY’ is a living photo album

Across more than 100 Housewives who’ve chucked wine glasses and slurs at each other, de Lesseps carved a niche out for herself early on as the grande dame, a Miss Manners type quick to dismiss criticism with a curt retort or lesson in etiquette. She even wrote a book all about “sophisticated living” dubbed “Class With the Countess” that offered inspiration for her first single, “Money Can’t Buy You Class” — a timeless classic for the reality-TV generation about living life with “elegance and flair and savoir faire.”

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“I’m always inspired to write music because of the Housewives. I mean, ‘Girl Code’ and ‘Chic, C’est La Vie’ are about the women,” she says before both of us break out into a recital of her call to her castmates: “Jill, bring your jewelry; Sonja, your man! Kelly, the jellybeans! Alex and Simon. And I’ll bring the diamonds.”

In the past 10 years, de Lesseps’s role on the show has shifted from the stately “Switzerland” castmate who attempted to remain above the fray to the “Kim Cattrall of the family” whose quips about dating, romance and sex have continually made me howl at the television screen.

And she’ll remind you of those moments in her personal sizzle reel that she proudly displays from the stage. As if we could ever forget these moments:

  • Her alleged tryst with a Capt. Jack Sparrow look-alike while on vacation in St. Barts.
  • Waking up hungover and chiding the other women who found a naked man in the house: “Be cool. Don’t be all, like, uncool.”
  • Calling out a former Housewife’s fashion sense: “You came in, in your Herman Munster shoes.”
  • Ordering a pizza and saying it’s addressed to simply “The Countess.”
  • And, breaking the fourth wall when one castmate chucked her prosthetic leg across a table.

“When I first started on the show, it wasn’t anything. I mean, it was ‘Manhattan Moms’ — a pilot we got paid nothing for. To see it come this far and know all the women from different franchises is cool. With ‘Sex and the City’ and ‘Desperate Housewives’ gone, I feel like we’ve filled that void,” she says.

The Connecticut-born nurse-turned-model earned her “Countess” moniker from marrying her first husband, French Count Alexandre de Lesseps, with whom she has two adult children. A marriage to Tom D’Agostino began in 2016 but also ended in divorce eight months later, which became central to overarching drama of recent seasons on the show.

“It’s pretty cool to have a living photo album. When I watch the early seasons, I see my kids at 10 years old and my dog when he was just a puppy. It can be great to look back, but sometimes it’s not so great. But that’s life.”

‘The Housewives are like my family’

In the most recent season, de Lesseps was portrayed as the catalyst for plenty of drama in the fallout of her heavily publicized Christmas Eve 2017 arrest in Palm Beach, Florida. In that incident, she was reportedly discovered with an unidentified man in the wrong room of a hotel and refused to leave, locking herself in a bathroom and allegedly shoving a police officer.

The reality-TV star was slapped with a number of charges including battery on a law-enforcement officer and disorderly intoxication. She subsequently checked into rehab for alcohol treatment and received probation, which she completed in August 2019.

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During the cabaret show, she cracks self-deprecating jokes about that fateful night in which she slipped out of her handcuffs between tongue-in-cheek covers of “Jailhouse Rock” and a quick rendition of Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab.”

Her fellow castmates weren’t amused by de Lesseps’ head-first dive into nightlife, saying she’d become conceited and wrapped up in the spectacle of the routine — a claim that de Lesseps says is a misconception.

“I think the women thought I was insensitive to their feelings, that I wasn’t a good friend. I just had to take care of me. It was certainly made to look that I was being self-centered, but really it was about protecting and taking care of myself,” she says. “I really didn’t have anything to give. I just had to take care of myself. And I don’t disagree that I come off that way. But it’s certainly not who I am.”

Though she says the comments don’t hurt anymore, it’s easy to see how retreading the same insults and venom from spats could take a toll on one’s relationships. She describes the annual reunions hosted by Bravo mascot Andy Cohen as an opportunity to explain herself — a chance at redemption in the eyes of the women and, most importantly, the viewers, who project their thoughts and feelings onto the de facto villains and heroes each year.

“There’s always a lot of tears and hugs and drama. It’s always a battle that goes down, but it’s really like family. You have to be able to sit down at Thanksgiving dinner, so you make it work,” she says. “The Housewives are like my family because I’ve been at it so long. If something happened to one of them, I’d be devastated.”

Me, too, honestly.

Hopes the new Housewife is a ‘hot mess’

The New York iteration of “Real Housewives” is my nighttime soap, I confess to de Lesseps. Her eyes light up and she leans forward as her hair and makeup artist, Mary Gordon, begins to pull out the rollers in de Lesseps’ chestnut hair. Unashamed by my encyclopedic knowledge of the show, I list a highlight reel of de Lesseps’ greatest zingers and she’s delighted to hear them repeated back to her.

“What other dirty tricks do you have up your pinot-filled hat?” I recite, bringing her back to a park bench when she claimed castmate Ramona Singer was blackmailing her in season five.

“I just say what comes to my mind. Sometimes it’s good and sometimes it isn’t. I’ll watch and wish I’d said something else because you have to be ‘on’ a lot,” she says. “I guess that’s what makes me good on the show.”

The unintended humor and hijinks of series matriarchs de Lesseps, Bethenny Frankel, Ramona Singer and Sonja Morgan are immortalized in animated GIFs and viral clips that’ll live in the digital ether long after it’s erased from my DVR. They’re avatars over text for me to explain how I’m doing (“not well, b—h”) or offer shorthand of the previous night’s festivities (insert GIF of de Lesseps drunkenly falling into a bush here).

The one question she gets on the street? “How can you still be friends with Ramona!” she jokes.

“I think we’ve all known each other a long time and these friendships go deep. And I think you can’t make that (expletive) up, as they say,” de Lesseps says and laughs. “You just can’t make it up! I think we do more in one week than a lot of the other franchises do in the whole year. That’s just the pace of New York.”

As season 12 ramps up for production, de Lesseps hopes she won’t be in the crosshairs this year: She deserves a break from being a punching bag.

“They should find someone else to pick on. I hope whoever comes on will be a hot mess so they can focus on her and leave me alone,” she says, exacerbated. “They’ve tried new Housewives and it sometimes doesn’t really work. Whoopsie. It’s trial and error.

“But where will they ever find another countess?”

(Full story available on azcentral.com. This article originally appeared in The Arizona Republic, Sunday, September 18, 2019.)

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