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Michael Strahan, Maria Shriver and Dishing With LuAnn de Lesseps

LunchAtMichaelsAnother Wednesday, another “Bravolebrity.” For the final leg of this month’s reality-show trifecta, I was joined today by LuAnn de Lesseps (the “Countess” to you), fresh off her trip to Chicago for an appearance on The Steve Harvey Show where she made over a few fashion-impaired civilians with oh-so-stylish looks from her new clothing line, the Countess Collection. (It will debut on Shop HQ, formerly known as Shop NBC, in May.) LuAnn is a regular contributor to Steve’s show, weighing in on all kinds of haute topics, from text etiquette while dating to how to dress like a million bucks without breaking the bank. When I lunched with her last summer, the conversation focused mainly on her role on Real Housewives of New York City and her fledgling music career. But these days the clever and stunning LuAnn, who clearly knows when to say when, has scaled back her presence on the Bravo screechfest (she’s now being billed as a “special guest star”) and is focusing primarily on “brand-building” her eponymous lifestyle brand, which, she says, is founded on the principle of “chic made easy.” After six seasons on Housewives and one of only two of the original New York City cast members left standing (tabloid favorite Ramona Singer is the other), LuAnn says, “I’m grateful for the platform the show has given me. I came into it with no preconceived notions. I didn’t watch reality television and I didn’t know what I was getting into. I signed on to do “Manhattan Moms” and thought it was going to be this nice little family-oriented show, but it turned into something else. I’m fearless and  have always had a real sense of adventure.” I’ll say.

Diane Clehane and LuAnn de Lesseps

Diane Clehane and LuAnn de Lesseps

LuAnn’s pre-Bravo life already read like something out of a Danielle Steel novel. The Connecticut native and nursing student who dabbled in the pageant circuit went to Europe to try her hand at modeling, but when that didn’t work out, a series of whirlwind events landed her a gig on Italian television even though she didn’t speak a word of the language. ”I was a big star — the Vanna White of Italy — paired with a man that was like their Bob Hope. Twelve million people a week were tuning in!” By the time she left three years later, she was fluent. Between bites of her crab cakes, she told me when she met her now ex-husband, Count Alexandre de Lesseps, it was “magic.” As for her much-discussed title as a result of her marriage, LuAnn thinks it’s ridiculous that people assume it’s some trumped up affectation. “The de Lesseps have played a very important part in French history,” she explained, citing her husband’s descendant Ferdinand de Lesseps as the architect of the Suez Canal and the man who played a huge role in gifting the Statue of Liberty to the United States.

The couple was married for 16 years and have two children, son Noel and daughter Victoria. While they divorced during the early years of Housewives, LuAnn maintains her title. “It’s a courtesy title. Princess Diana didn’t give up her title when she got divorced so why should I? Let people be jealous if they want.”

LuAnn miraculously never fell into the trap of trading on the trauma to garner more screen time on Housewives. “Andy Cohen pointed out to me the other day that he thought I was the only [cast member] who has never raised her voice on the show, and that’s true. I grew up with six brothers and sisters so I know how to handle these women. I’ve been pegged as “the voice of reason” on the show and I’m happy to occupy that spot.” This season, she made her first appearance on the show this week and figures prominently in the goings-on for the rest of the episodes. ”We have a lot of fun and go on some great trips.” Which, I told her, I hope turn out better than when she took the gang to Morocco some seasons back. I told her that of all the Housewives I’ve met, she is the only one who is exactly the same on screen and off. “I’ve always believed in being yourself. People [on the show] want to be relevant, so they sometimes ratchet up the drama.” Really? We hadn’t noticed. Could she be talking about Aviva Drescher? “Have you met her?” asked LuAnn. ”She’s really lovely.”  The defense rests. LuAnn tells me she is closest to Sonja Morgan and Heather Thomson. As for Ramona: “We work together so we see each other, but I’m not calling her up for cocktails.”

Clearly, LuAnn has always been the best dressed of all the Housewives and she’s now funneling all of her style savvy into her latest venture. “I have always styled myself for the show,” she explained. With the new line, which will have spring and fall collections, she is “very hands on — it’s not like I’m just putting my name on it. I’ve been very involved in every aspect.” If the stunning animal print dress and cropped jacket that she was wearing today is any indication, I’d say she has a hit on her hands. Even better: the easy care, packable pieces will all retail for under $100 dollars. “These are clothes I wear every day, and if I can be inspiring to women and take the anxiety out of dressing, I’d love that.”

Working together with brand manager Amy Rosi, who she met last year at a charity gala through celebrity shooter Patrick McMullan, LuAnn is building her lifestyle brand and looking to expand into other categories. They are in active discussions about a jewelry and home line. “This is a fresh start for LuAnn,” says Amy. “We are looking at everything carefully and LuAnn is being thoughtful about what she does.” That means, above all else, focusing on the new collection, so her music career is “on hold.” No new Money Can’t Buy You Class remixes for now.

LuAnn’s plate is more than full these days with the clothing launch and television appearances on a host of shows, including last night’s Celebrity Undercover on Oxygen, upcoming E! spots and a recent segment on ex-castmate Bethenny Frankel‘s soon-to-be-axed talk show. ”I was on with Sonja and we had a lot of fun.” When I asked her if she thought Bethenny would try to come back into the fold now that her talk show was cancelled, LuAnn smiled and told me: “You never know. I think she misses it.” I bet.

Here’s the rundown on today’s crowd:

1. Holly Peterson, celebrating the publication of her new book with 11 of her nearest and dearest pals. Among them: New York Social Diary‘s David Patrick Columbia, Nina Griscom, Joan Jakobson and Leslie Stevens.

2. Maria Shriver, rocking a black jumpsuit, eye-popping diamond and sapphire ring and her signature oversized crucifix. Just this morning we caught the Governator’s estranged wife on Today reporting on the growing number of yummy mummies who are turning to wine to numb their boredom while caring for the kiddies in suburbia. Not that we’d know anything about that….

3. LuAnn de Lesseps, Amy Rosi and yours truly

4. “Mayor” Joe Armstrong, Deeda Blair and Kathy Graham. Loved those yellow roses of Texas that decorated their table. Yee-haw!

5.  Mort Janklow

6. Dr. Gerald Imber, Jerry Della Femina, Andy Bergman and Michael Kramer

7. Paige Peterson

8. Designer Dennis Basso, who stopped by our table to trade air-kisses.

9. PR maven Maury Rogoff

11. Mickey Ateyeh, enjoying some chardonnay with a blonde gal we didn’t get to meet

12. Producer Francine Lefrak and Rebecca Bond

14. Simon & Schuster’s Alice Mayhew

15. Pete Hunsinger

16. Fortune‘s Pattie Sellers and John Needham

17. Christina Cuomo

18. Michael Strahan and Armando Ruiz. When Michael stopped by our table on his way into the dining room, I congratulated him on the reports that he would be pulling double duty as a regular GMA contributor. “It may be a bit premature,” he told me. “I am just so happy with my life right now. So grateful.” Still, I told him, get a lot of sleep just in case. He just gave me a big grin and went off to his table.

20. Producer Joan Gelman and Joan Hamburg

21. Quest‘s Chris Meigher

22. Darlene Fiske

23. L’Oreal’s Pam Alabaster

25. Jorge Espinel

26. Annik Wolf (Michael J. Wolf‘s better half)

27. The Early Show: Peter Price; Second Seating: Niche Media’s Jim Smith

81. LVMH’s Pauline Brown

Diane Clehane is a contributor to FishbowlNY. Follow her on Twitter @DianeClehane. Please send comments and corrections on this column to LUNCH at MEDIABISTRO dot COM.

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