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.”
So was Alex’s choice to be a Housewife just the scratching of a long-held itch? “You know, that’s funny,” she says. “I was talking to a very well-known actress at an event, and we were talking about the difference between playing a character and being on a show—and now we’re getting into the psychology of acting, but I never got that thing that people talk about of escaping yourself. Maybe that’s because I like myself.”
Part of what made the McCord–Van Kempens’ behavior so fascinating to watch is that they do in fact seem to like themselves. Cavorting on the sand in St. Barts, where they will return this summer, they looked rather like they were having the time of their lives.
“We’ve always been reluctant, if not anti, the Hamptons,” McCord says, in spite of the fact that three days later she will leave for a rented house in East Hampton, where the couple will be photographed at a party for Hamptons magazine. She is sitting in the breakfast room of the Hotel Chandler, which is managed by her husband. (When the show aired, some online commenters cast aspersions on its boutique status.) The hotel is near Penn Station, and its bar was filled that evening with a bunch of men barking train times into their cell phones.
“We go in August because it’s an amazing time to go,” she says of St. Barts. “The crazy people are elsewhere. We had actually been at a party in the Hamptons with all these music moguls, and then shortly thereafter, we were in St. Barts and there was an AAA-list musician letting loose. Dancing on the table. Not caring. There were no photographers. It wasn’t being documented. It was the low season. It’s great. Just great.”
Like most reality stars, Simon and Alex are quick to emphasize that their onscreen personas were developed in an editing suite somewhere far from Boerum Hill. But it wasn’t all off-base. “I can tell you moments that are representative,” she says, like “the love that Simon and I have for each other. People come up to me all the time and say we’ve renewed their faith in marriage. I love that.”
The social ambition, they say, was blown way out of proportion. “It made social climbing out to be much more important to us than it is,” says Simon, who grew up in Australia. “I’ve always loved to study people. I mean, for example, Jill’s from Long Island, and boy, that shows. You can see these sorts of people from areas outside Sydney and London as well. As for us, well, I use the Dickensian phrase: Who doesn’t want to improve their station in life? Everyone does.”
“If you think about a part of your life that is a tiny part of your life, like brushing your teeth,” Alex adds, “then suddenly you are on the show and it’s like ‘She brushes her teeth all the time!’ ”
“Look,” says Simon. “I know who I am. I know what I am. I know who Alex is. I know what she is. I know who we are.”
Alex continues: “If somebody said to you, ‘You’re an umbrella,’ would you think you were an umbrella?”
But I’m not an umbrella, I say.
So they are unfazed, then, by the whole thing. The parents at François’s elementary school were upset that she referred to it as their twelfth choice? So what. Large chunks of cyberspace think her husband’s uxoriousness is just a beard? Who cares. Nude photos of Alex wearing a Venetian mask turned up online? Pshaw. They came to New York for fame, and now, in a small, weird way, they’ve got it, and they can’t wait for the cameras to roll again. “Simon and I live our lives boldly and happily,” Alex said that night at the Chandler, in between big, burning bites of a slice of sausage pizza. “We are really happy, optimistic, positive people. We don’t do things if we’re going to regret them.” She chews and waves her long hand in front of her mouth. “There’s no point in worrying. We just look at each other and say, ‘Why not?’ ”