Of all the eye-popping moments on the first season of The Real Housewives of New York City, the McCord–Van Kempen summer holiday in St. Barts may well have taken the cake. There were shots of the couple romping on the beach in a banana-hammock and thong. There was the Cavalli shopping expedition (“Money-wise, we spent a lot,” said Simon van Kempen. “Let’s just say it was more than five figures but under six”). There was the seaside lunch during which they boasted of their love while feeding each other forkfuls of fish. There was the fact that they spoke to their adorable toddlers, François and Johan, in French, even though neither of them is French.
The show, ordered up by Bravo in the wake of The Real Housewives of Orange County, was the guiltiest of pleasures, the kind of TV you watch with hand permanently poised over mouth. And of its many exotic creatures, Alex McCord—who grew up in Texas and Kansas and works in visual merchandising—was the most intriguing.
Ramona was frequently upstaged in maturity by her 13-year-old daughter. Jill, while demonstrating an almost pathological materialism, seemed at least to have a sense of humor. Bethenny, single but looking for her boyfriend to further commit (on-camera), was at once tragic and sympathetic. LuAnn often referred to herself in the third person as “the Countess,” on account of her being the fourth wife of an older French gentleman referred to mostly as “the Count.” She also hired a break-dancing coach named Cyclone for her son.
All were tributes to the sagacity of Bravo’s casting department. Yet none quite matched McCord. For one thing, with Alex came Simon, the only husband whose screen time rivaled the women’s, perhaps because he was the only husband who texted his wife in a panic before a fashion show wondering if he should wear light boots or dark. It was the McCord–Van Kempens who got the toughest viewer questions on the reunion special, like “Are you gay?” (Simon: “It is a sad indictment that a guy who … adores his wife, worships at her feet almost, is gay.”) When talk turned to the show’s main theme, social ambition, Alex responded by cryptically paraphrasing Ayn Rand.
Other characters were endlessly calling them out on their alleged faux pas. Jill remarked that, unlike the McCord–Van Kempens, her family goes to St. Barts in the high season, when everything’s full price. During a visit to the couple’s work-in- progress Boerum Hill house, Bethenny looked as if she’d stumbled upon a Superfund site.
So, one had to ask if, after all this, the McCord–Van Kempens might not have wanted to retire to Brooklyn to lick their wounds. Nope. Following contract negotiations (the Orange County Housewives, it’s rumored, will be pulling in six figures), they’ve signed on for Season Two, which should begin filming imminently. What a relief for fans. But hasn’t being on a reality-television series done anything to the McCord–Van Kempens’ sense of self?
Here is Simon van Kempen on a muggy Saturday afternoon, welcoming a reporter to his publicly dissed home with complaints about the assaults on his privacy. “There’s probably a lot more that I don’t like about it than I like,” he says of his newfound fame. The upper floors of the house are leased out, and the family lives on the bottom two, as well as in a newly finished basement. There are futon sofas and very little art on the walls. “We both had mothers who really appreciated beauty,” McCord says, “and that aesthetic was put on to us.” She shows off a redone banister.
“What’s very sad is that this is the size of most people’s apartments,” says Simon, gesturing at their backyard, which became a public space of sorts when an anonymous neighbor recently live-blogged the family’s activities. “I mean, Bethenny’s apartment is a shoe box. But I’m not the type to say something like that.” He laughs happily.
But back to the invasion-of-privacy thing. They’ve hired, on their own, a publicist named Dennis Wong, to ensure that they remain in the public eye. “Why wouldn’t we do the show again?” asks Simon. “I mean, it’s a total success. [Nine years ago] we were sitting around on our fourth or fifth date, at the Blue Water Grill, and Alex was telling me that she wants to be a famous actress and I’m sitting there going, ‘Darling, if you were a famous actress, we wouldn’t be sitting here on the sidewalk having dinner.’ ”
Alex: “And then I said, ‘Oh, yes, we would. It’s just that there would be ten people taking our picture.’ ”
Simon: “And now we have that.”