She founded “Married to the Mob,” but fashion designer Leah McSweeney is not a “real housewife” by any standard definition of the term. It’s not because of her translucent bucket hat, either.
Before Bravo, McSweeney co-wrote a major exposé that helped topple the powerful but problematic Women’s March back in 2018. Her always sharp, sometimes viral Penthouse columns had titles like “My Woke Boyfriend and I Almost Broke Up Over Jordan Peterson.” She hosted a freewheeling podcast that featured heterodox conversations about abortion and feminism. McSweeney even took a turn in the Federalist Radio House chair, joining Ben Domenech for an episode just last spring.
Now a cast member on the “Real Housewives of New York City,” McSweeney seems to have accomplished the impossible task of debuting to a warm reception from the fans. She’s almost like a cross between Erika Girardi and Bethenny Frankel—shockingly vulgar, whip-smart, super hot. Like other successful wives before her, McSweeney is also holding her own against the veterans right out of the gate, going toe-to-toe with Dorinda and Sonja, and coming out on top. That’s rare.
She’s smart, she’s funny, she’s clearly a little wild. McSweeney is a great fit for RHONY. She’s also a fulfillment of the franchise’s oft-misunderstood mission. The “Real Housewives” label is ironic. (Being a Housewife Where Neither House Nor Husband Is Needed,” said a New York Times headline on RHONY back in March of 2008.)
The franchise has never been about traditional housewives. It’s not a statement on them, either. It’s about ambitious wealthy women who run in similar circles mixing it up. The operative term there is ambition. Nearly all the wives seek to boost their profiles and bank accounts by appearing on the show—many of them have done just that, and to the tune of millions.
Some housewives are very smart. Some are very stupid. Some are ultra-wealthy. Some find themselves in dire financial straits. Some are staunch traditionalists. Some are anything but. The culture of each series varies from city to city, and changes over time.
In New York, the women have generally liked to see themselves as professionals, in music and fashion and food and toaster ovens. They’re not PC. They drink like fish. Old money mingles with new money. The women’s ties to one another are very authentic, and since it’s an older franchise, some have been through hell and back together over the last decade. It’s not an easy city for new cast members to conquer. (See: Barbara.) It takes a special personality.
McSweeney started her own fashion label years ago with a settlement won after getting her teeth knocked out by a cop during a fight that ended in her arrest. She’s never been married. She’s a doting mother. She’s a discerning culture critic. Her sense of humor is cutting. She’s candid and confident, but not too confident to be vulnerable. In short, she’s a great addition to the cast.
That McSweeney made something of a career out of cultural commentary before her turn on Bravo is, perhaps, unusual. But her seamless transition into the “Real Housewives” universe is a useful case study in the franchise’s history of showcasing women with more depth than your stereotypical realty star. It’s not all frivolous, although the frivolity is a lot of fun too.