Jenna Lyons Has Become the Ideal Reality Star

Since the minute Bravo revealed the cast of the rebooted Real Housewives of New York at BravoCon last October, new Housewife Jenna Lyons has been both the show’s outlier and the fan favorite. The network hadn’t previewed a single second of footage, but Lyons—already a public figure from her time as president and creative director at J.Crew, where she was credited for breathing life into the flagging brand—was already settling the anxieties of longtime franchise fans just on name recognition alone. A common refrain online was that viewers had zero interest in the new iteration of RHONY until Lyons’ casting was announced. It was a sentiment echoed by hundreds, who felt that Lyons’ life in the limelight and keen, unapologetic fashion sense could be exactly the energy the show needed.

Others were quick to cite Lyons’ first reality show, Stylish with Jenna Lyons, as reason enough to expect good things from her turn as a Housewife. Stylish aired for only one season on Max back at the tail end of 2020, when Delta-variant panic was just one of many larger cultural preoccupations that left this show flying under the radar. I myself didn’t watch it until May 2021, at which point I became irate that I hadn’t prioritized it sooner. Stylish with Jenna Lyons is a chaotic amalgamation of three different kinds of reality shows: a docuseries, a competition show, and a makeover program. It somehow executes all three of those aspects excellently, thanks entirely to Lyons’ bewitching screen presence. To watch Stylish is to understand that Lyons would never be the typical reality star we knew and loved—she’d be better.

Jessel Taank, Brynn Whitfield, Jenna Lyons, and Sai De Silva stand at a party in a scene from The Real Housewives of New York

Before I get ahead of myself, it’s necessary to mention that, like all great things, the evil overlords at Max have unceremoniously taken Stylish from us. I don’t know what kind of business-y inner workings went on behind the scenes for Max to remove Stylish from its platform, but if you’ve got an ounce of internet savvy, you can still find it online. (We Roaring Lyons will not be silenced!)

Rewatching the show this week, I was stricken by how perfectly it tees up Lyons as a reality television supernova. She has a personality as enormous as her closet full of couture clothing, and her presence fills the frame with a kind of confidence that no amount of money or notoriety can buy. You either have it or you don’t, and Lyons had it from the moment she stepped in front of a camera to “seek someone to help her with her next business venture.” That’s in quotes because, looking back, it’s unclear whether or not that aspect of the show was real or if it was simply hampered by the pandemic roiling in the near-future when Stylish was filming at the end of 2019 into the new year.

The concept of the show is that Lyons, a few years out from leaving J.Crew, is looking to start her next business: a conceptual sort of consulting firm/design team/interior decorating company/reason to serve looks on-camera. To do this, she needs a proficient team behind her, which will require job interviews, test projects, and a whole lot of mentoring. Lyons and her business partners bring in a group of diverse voices and design backgrounds, who are tasked with a sort of mini-challenge, like styling a high-low outfit or reimagining a classic piece of clothing. Prospective contestants who do well in the first round of each episode are asked to work together on a larger project with Lyons, as the host narrows down her candidates across the season until choosing her winner.

As topsy-turvy as that might sound, Stylish is a very clean, orderly show. It’s fantastically edited, filled with unique flourishes that were so calculated they seemed to be a trial run for what could’ve been a fabulous, long-running reality competition show. But just because it was a joy to watch doesn’t mean that there wasn’t turmoil abound. Lyons is a major name, and the young designers that she brought in for a shot at a role in her “company” know that working with her could change the course of their careers. That pressure creates the perfect amount of tension among the cast of contestants, especially as the numbers dwindle and Lyons becomes far less patient.

It’s funny: The only show that I could compare Stylish to—in terms of equal comfort and chaos—is Real Housewives of New York. The RHONY cast’s bickering, screaming, and slurring is like sweet music to me; if I ever had a child, I’d use Bethenny Frankel and Luann de Lesseps’ fight about having the same haircut as their lullaby. In that respect, Lyons was an ideal casting choice for the series reboot. Andy Cohen has repeatedly said that the new iteration is trying to do something different than the original series, while creating the same atmosphere that fans adored. While the other Housewives in the new cast are certainly pulling their weight, it’s Lyons who they orbit around (at least for right now). Everyone seems eager to impress her, and therefore, Lyons is the one whose demeanor pilots the show’s energy.

That’s precisely why the RHONY reboot has been working so well. Instead of trying to follow the franchise’s formula for success, the show is guided by Lyons’ forceful hand and chic, enigmatic personality. She’s a puzzle of a person, unwilling to show all of her cards up front—and the other Housewives are following suit. It’s a far cry from someone like Frankel, who put the entirety of herself on display for so long that by the time she exited RHONY ahead of Season 12, the show defined her. That “tell it like it is” personality that fans of the show loved so much is also what transformed Frankel into a chilly hard-ass after leaving it, callously offering her opinions on things no one particularly cares to hear her speak about.

Jenna Lyons sitting in a chair in a scene from her show ‘Stylish’

Lyons is a different kind of Housewife, one whose desire to maintain a modicum of privacy is actually refreshing. Just like in Stylish, we’ve seen her be kind and awfully funny, while also being straightforward with her castmates when she needs to be. It’s a blend no other New York Housewife has exhibited before, one that isn’t hampering the show’s watchability by any means.

Measuring Stylish against Frankel’s own reality competition show on Max, The Big Shot with Bethenny (which has not been removed, because I did something to smite God, I guess), is the clearest way to determine why Lyons was always the right choice for a Housewife. Lyons mentors her contestants and encourages the best from them in a way that makes them better at what they do. Frankel, on the other hand, berates her group of hopefuls—who, for some reason, want to work for the decaying Skinnygirl brand—at every single turn. Frankel’s show is downright insufferable, while Lyons’ is an absolute joy to watch, even the second time around. But even when I compared the nature of the shows in a piece two years ago, I never could’ve guessed that Lyons’ attitude would end up being the thing that saved my favorite reality show of all time, when even I could admit that RHONY was on its last legs.

Though there have been rumors of Lyons being difficult to work with, I can only attest to what’s on camera. From what I’ve seen in both Stylish and the five wonderful episodes of the RHONY reboot that have aired so far, Lyons has the wherewithal to carry any reality program. She’s genuine in a way that doesn’t necessitate unbridled cruelty under the guise of Housewife authenticity. Hatred is no longer enough to make good television; it’s not even enough to make a good YouTube video. Installing a new guard of Housewives was imperative, and with Lyons leading the charge, the franchise’s future is bright once more.

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