Jenna Lyons brings introvert representation to "The Real Housewives of New York City"

Introverted fans of reality TV, bow to your new queen

By Kelly McClure

Nights & Weekends Editor

Published August 13, 2023 10:59AM (EDT)

Jenna Lyons in "The Real Housewives Of New York City" (Gavin Bond/Bravo)
Jenna Lyons in "The Real Housewives Of New York City" (Gavin Bond/Bravo)

Bravo's "Real Housewives" has reached its "Real World" era. Having based seasons in most major cities, the show has come back around to eat its tail by way of the franchise's first reboot, recasting "The Real Housewives of New York City" with a younger and far more diverse cast of apple holders looking to take a bite out of the previously established format. But for one new addition to Season 14 — former J.Crew big wig and current LoveSeen businesswoman Jenna Lyons — the experience has proven to be less palatable compared to that of her five co-stars, due in large part to the fact that she's not only "RHONY's" first out lesbian, but the first introvert to brave the ratings-mandated demand for getting in the mix and cementing your position therein through pot stirring and chitchat. So much chitchat. Which, as any introvert knows, results in a desperate need for alone time in order to recharge an internal battery that reality TV is not designed to be considerate of. 

She was never given an example of how to be an open or social person, so she tends to keep to herself to avoid awkward situations.

As she's said herself, both in the season's first few episodes, as well as in related press, it's somehow easier to balance a high-profile career and low-key personality when she's operating on her own schedule, under her own terms. Being under contract to socialize on demand while the cameras are rolling is quite another thing. The twist is, while she appears visibly pained in many scenes to be doing so, she's not only providing representation for the queer community — a noted benefit of taking the gig in the first place — but for other introverts around the world who are watching her and thinking, "I see you, Lyons. I feel your pain." 

As an introvert, I can easily put myself in Jenna's shoes, although I'd never be able to afford them. Having lived and worked in half a dozen cities, New York remains my favorite because it affords the unique ability to disappear in a crowd. Compared to other places I put in time — take Olympia, Washington for instance — benefits like more affordable housing and less crowded sidewalks don't outweigh introvert deterrents like tight-knit communities *shudder* and dealing with a smaller population, which often results in a greater chance of more people being all up in your business. In New York, you can fuel your social battery just by walking to the subway and then retreat back to your apartment building, cohabitated by neighbors you — in shared, peaceful agreement — have never met.

Throughout her career, and what she's publicly shared of her social life, Jenna seems to have learned how to reap the benefits of such an introvert-friendly city, but as a part of "RHONY" it's abundantly clear that "to each their own island" has different meaning to the extroverted ladies she shares screen time with. For them, NYC is a place to be seen. For Jenna, it's a place to hide in plain sight. As the season progresses, we see her struggle to keep up walls that Bravo's formatting is designed to take down as she grapples with navigating an element of the city she can no longer retreat from, lest she be exposed as being "different" and receiving more attention for that fact when she's already uncomfortable with the amount she's receiving in the first place.

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Appearing on a segment of "The View" in July, Jenna talked about growing up with a mother who was diagnosed late in life with Asperger's Syndrome, describing her often cold demeanor as being a factor in her own difficulties with making friends. To hear her describe it, she was never given an example of how to be an open or social person, so she tends to keep to herself to avoid awkward situations. When asked by one of the hosts if the experience of being on "RHONY" helped her to learn how to form friendships, she said, "Not at all." 

"I thought I was gonna do better," she went on to say. "I was at the helm of this very large company. I've worked with a lot of people. But what I realized was that I paid all of those people. It's really different. Everyone listens to you and likes what you say when you pay them. This has been a very different experience for me. I'm not good in groups."

The Real Housewives Of New York CityJenna Lyons and Sai De Silva in "The Real Housewives Of New York City" (Charles Sykes/Bravo)In an essay for Oprah Daily, she mentions being diagnosed at seven months with a rare genetic disorder called incontinentia pigmenti as being another factor that contributes to her feeling the need to isolate, as she spent so much of her life being bullied for it. She writes, "Some people have neurological damage. I have bald spots, scarred and hyperpigmented skin (especially behind my knees and under my arms), and almost no eyebrows or eyelashes. Maybe worst of all are my teeth. Until 10th grade, when I had veneers bonded onto them, I only had about 13 very small, cone-shaped teeth, and huge gaps in the rest of my mouth." She's since paid a great deal of money to get a whole new upper set of teeth, which she requested be modeled after those of the actress Julianne Moore.

Just like the experience of living in New York is different for introverts than it is for extroverts, the experience of watching Jenna in Season 14 is different as well. Identifying a great deal with her personality, and where she's coming from, I can pick out her introvert "tells" like one would a poker player's. Diverting attention by asking questions of someone else, thus steering the conversation elsewhere. Going to the bathroom alone while at a restaurant to steal a quick recharge. Touching her face a lot because she doesn't know what to do with her hands. You'd have to know it to spot it. Watching Jenna suffer through a girl's trip is like watching someone change a tire for the first time with no instruction. Her castmates can't relate to any of this, and the friction caused there is one of the most compelling aspects of the season. It also lets introverts like me know that if she can very obviously hate all of this so badly, and still do it. We can too. Maybe not with this large of an audience, but like, in general.

Is it strange? Or is it charming?

In the first episode of the season, "New Era, New York," Jenna visits castmate Jessel Taank at her house and, if judging by my own experience in doing such a thing — which an extrovert wouldn't give an extra thought to as an everyday, non-taxing event — she likely had to go home and take a long nap afterward. While there, she flips that switch that most introverts are able to switch for a fixed amount of time to be social, because that's what was required of her to make it through smoothly. She meets Jessel's husband. She cracks jokes to give the illusion of being comfortable. And at one point she grabs an Oreo out of a jar in the kitchen and munches on it while speaking. Like a crack in the Matrix, this last bit could have gone one of two ways. Is it strange? Or is it charming? You see Jessel and her husband exchange looks over this and there's a moment of tension before they decide to laugh. Charming. It's charming. Oh good. Jenna's safe. But, again, based on experience, I can almost guarantee that she thought about this moment later, wondering if she'd made a mistake. Worrying about it. She loses her footing a bit again when meeting Jessel's mom, taking a bit too much comfort in her warm embrace and visibly welling up behind the eyes as she walks away. "Your mom's awesome," she says. Later, she admits that she wished she'd had one just like her. 

The Real Housewives Of New York CityJessel Taank, Brynn Whitfield, Jenna Lyons and Sai De Silva in "The Real Housewives Of New York City" (Noam Galai/Bravo)"Most girls in this group think that Jenna Lyons is a total enigma," Erin Lichy, this season's Jill Zarin-esque member says in a confessional tied to Jenna hosting a get together at her own apartment. "She does weird, like, quirky things. Like, she doesn't like dill but she loves parsley. She loves olives, but not the black ones . . . she's a little bit of an oddball." All examples of being "quirky" that only an uber-normal person could make. Someone who has never encountered a truly weird thing in their life. 

Jenna's struggles are seen in each following episode. In Episode 2, "Oh Christmas Tree," she gets grief for fleeing Erin's vacation home in the Hamptons in the middle of the night without saying goodbye. Returning the next morning with coffee and the excuse that she needed to be up early for a call. I bet that night alone felt amazing. It also reminded me of a camping trip I took with friends about 10 years or so ago where I left our shared tent in the middle of the night to sleep in the car, just to be alone. Again, I get it. In other instances throughout, she fiddles with her phone while others are yakking away and is always just a bit on the outskirts. Present. But ever so distant.

As the season goes on, it will be interesting to see the rifts just being herself causes. Difficult for her to have lived through, sure. But refreshing for introverts, or anyone really, in a vulnerable way we haven't seen since the days of Carole Radziwill in her stint on the original "RHONY." With such close familial proximity to The Beales of Grey Gardens (she was once married to the son of Lee Radziwill, Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis' sister. Jackie was a cousin of Edith Beale) you'd have thought "Housewives" reached its eccentric peak with her. But with further peeling of the apple, we now have Jenna, our introvert queen. Let's hope she sticks around for Season 15. And if she can't bear to continue, at least we got this one extreme crash course in faking it to make it, not when it comes to business, but in going toe to toe with professionally social people and coming away drained, but still chargeable. An introvert's definition of resilience.

By Kelly McClure

Kelly McClure is Salon's Nights and Weekends Editor covering daily news, politics and culture. Her work has been featured in Vulture, The A.V. Club, Vanity Fair, Cosmopolitan, Nylon, Vice, and elsewhere. She is the author of Something is Always Happening Somewhere.

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