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Real Housewives

Before They Were Housewives - Countess Luann

Glenn Rowley

countess-luann

In the first-ever Before They Were Housewives special, Luann de Lesseps takes us on a trip down memory lane through her enchanting life before The Real Housewives of New York City became a pop culture phenomenon in 2008. From her humble roots in suburban Connecticut and her days as a model in NYC to her time as an Italian TV star and her whirlwind romance with Count Alexander de Lesseps, Luann's pre-Housewives life is like something out of a classic novel. For this week's feature, I'm breaking down everything we learned about the Countess in her nostalgic special...

The Fairytale of the Countess

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The special starts with a look at Luann falling for Count Alexander de Lesseps back in 1993. When they met, the future Countess was living in Milan, Italy and working as a model throughout Europe. She also happened to be dating another man named Roberto at the time, but the moment she locked eyes with Alex at a dinner party at a glamorous chalet in Gstaad, that relationship was doomed. For the next five days, Luann and the Count were inseparable as they went skiing in the Swiss Alps, and at the end of the fifth day, Alex proposed. What a whirlwind! Of course, Luann had to deal with the problem of Roberto - whom she had been living with for the past two and a half years. Since Roberto was on a business trip, she ended up packing all of her things at their apartment and leaving "like a thief in the night," only calling to tell him she was engaged to another man after she'd left. Madly enamored, Luann left everything behind on a whim - the man she was dating, a successful career in Italian television, an entire life in Milan - all in the name of love.

Honeychile's Betrayal

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While she lived in Milan, Luann was befriended by Honeychile Wilder - an American socialite who had married an Austrian-Hungarian prince. Significantly older than Lu, Honeychile had made a name for herself working as a showgirl and appearing on comedian Bob Hope's popular radio show before moving to Europe and becoming a princess. In her time in Milan, Luann had been taken under Honeychile's wing and looked to the older woman as her mentor. (Luann even relays the story of a time when Honey once took her to Hubert de Givenchy's atelier to get dresses to wear to the Paris opera.) Despite having been with Luann on the night she met the Count, Honeychile became incredibly possessive at the thought that Luann would leave her. In an act of betrayal, the socialite tried to convince Alex not to marry Luann - citing that she was just a nobody from nowhere - and left Lu heartbroken. When she left with Alex to elope in New York City, she said goodbye to her longtime friend in a note, explaining that she was leaving her behind...for good.

A Big Apple Elopement

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Jetting off to NYC, Luann and the Count decided to elope after picking up a five-carat, pear-shaped diamond ring from a jewelry store in the Diamond District. Following through with their romantic plan, Luann and Alex took the subway to City Hall and got married right then and there, dressed in jeans and a blazer, with a truck driver named Lucille acting as the sole witness of the nuptials. Just like that, Luann became Countess de Lesseps after knowing Alex for only two weeks total. Now it was time to meet the family!

Connecticut Roots

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Next, Luann travels to her hometown of Berlin, Connecticut to give us a glimpse of the place she grew up. Born in 1965 as the sixth of seven children, Luann was raised in a large, middle-class, French-Canadian family in the Connecticut suburbs. With so many older brothers, Lu almost inevitably turned out to be a self-proclaimed "jock," which is a far cry from the Countess persona we've always seen on RHONY. Visiting her childhood home, Luann reveals that the house actually burned down when she was a child, which left the family basically homeless with nothing but a collection of photo albums her mother managed to save from the flames. Eventually Luann's father and brother rebuilt their home, but she still calls it one of the most difficult times in her life. 

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Bringing her new husband home to meet her family, Luann was nervous about how different her salt-of-the-earth background and upbringing had been to the Count's much more glamorous life. Never mind, of course, that she had decided to marry her now-husband after just a couple of weeks and her family still had no idea. Digging up some old VHS tapes that her son Noel came across, Luann sits down with her mother Nadine and her brother Michael to reminisce about the first time she came home with the Count. Apparently, everything went so well that no one in the family even had any idea Luann had married a titled aristocrat!

Lu's Lucky Little Red Dress

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Rewind to 1987. At the urging of a nurse's aid she worked with,  a 23-year-old Luann decided to enter the Miss Connecticut beauty pageant, once again on a whim. On a bridal shop's clearance rack, she found what she describes as "the perfect red dress," which would set her on a path she could have never imagined. While she didn't place at that first beauty pageant, a man in the audience stopped her after the competition and told her she had potential to be a model in New York City. The man encouraged Luann to enter a modeling competition the next week in Hartford, Connecticut, and opined that if she brought the red dress she would win. As luck would have it, the mysterious man was right - Luann won the modeling competition and scored a private photoshoot with a professional photographer in NYC as her prize. 

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Arriving in New York for the first time, Luann had no idea she was about to embark on a new chapter in her life. The prize package from the competition also included a contract with Mystique Models, and Lu quickly learned how to pose and get a good photo by watching the girls around her. Despite its reputation in the 80s as a dangerous place to live, Luann fell head over heels for the Big Apple and after six months of commuting back and forth for auditions, she moved there permanently. This risky move paid off, thrusting Luann into the glitzy and alluring world of New York nightlife - full of parties, dances and of course, plenty of handsome men. However, working as a model turned out to be much more difficult than the future Countess anticipated. Her life turned into a veritable rollercoaster with its high moments (landing the cover of Playgirl) and low moments (handing out flyers as a showroom model). Eventually, though, Luann met a man named Don who whisked her off to Europe, where she launched the next chapter of her career in Milan.

Making It Big in Italy

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While Lu immediately loved living in Milan, her modeling career hit a major slump. Turned down by nearly every agency in the city, Luann found herself quickly running out of money and desperate to make something happen. Her Italian lover at the time, named Genaldo, convinced her to represent the United States in the Lady Universe pageant - an Italian beauty pageant featuring women from countries all over the world. In another moment of pure luck and good timing, Luann was crowned Lady Universe. As part of her duties, she embarked on a tour across Italy, which led to her attending a cocktail party at the home of Prince Egon and Diane von Furstenberg. At the party, the prince suggested Lu work in television and made introductions for her to impersonate actress Sharon Stone and present an award at Italy's version of the Emmys.

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Three months after successfully pulling of the Sharon Stone act (complete with blowing a kiss to Arnold Schwarzenegger in the audience), Luann was cast as the cohost of Pressing, the top-rated Sunday night show covering Italian soccer. Almost overnight, the TV gig turned Luann into a bonafide celebrity in Italy and the entire world was in the palm of her hand. Ultimately, this change in her life led her right into her title as Countess de Lesseps. 

Living the Jet Set Life

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After marrying the Count, Luann's life continued to be something out of a dream - watching him race cars in Barcelona, traveling to Hong Kong and Beijing, heli skiing in the Alps and jetting off to her homes in Portugal and Gstaad. She even became a close personal friend of Constantine II, king of Greece. Soon after marrying, Luann gave birth to her daughter Victoria, followed quickly by son Noel 22 months later. Spending their summers in the Hamptons and the rest of the year in Europe, life didn't seem like it could get much better for Luann and her young family. That is, until a terrible freak accident changed everything in the blink of an eye...

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In 1997, Luann was spending the winter in Gstaad. One evening around dusk, she was driving home from a tea party with the kids when she hit a long stretch of black ice on the road. Before she knew what was happening, Luann found herself and the two young toddlers trapped in the car, tumbling down the side of a mountain. Miraculously, the car landed upside down in a local resident's backyard, though neither Luann nor the kids were seriously injured. Digging herself out through a broken window, Lu then proceeded to walk with the kids - Victoria barefoot in the snow - until they reached a farmer's house, who kindly offered to drive them home. The accident had a profound impact on Luann, who suffered through months of PTSD and nightmares. Feeling isolated in the secluded Swiss Alps, Luann eventually decided to come back to the U.S. for the sake of her mental well-being, not knowing the decision was the beginning of the end of her marriage to the Count.

Becoming a Real Housewife

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Moving back from Europe in 2006, Luann concluded that getting back to work would be the best thing for her. Approaching a local television station, Luann talked her way into creating The Countess Report, a cable access show featuring just the Countess and a camera. From there, The Real Housewives of New York City fell into Lu's lap when she met a certain redhead by the name of Jill Zarin at a high society party in NYC. About a month later, Jill sent an email asking if she wanted to film a show she was working on for Bravo called Manhattan Moms, which eventually turned into RHONY. From there, the franchise we all know and love was born and Luann became a Bravolebrity. 

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Early seasons of the show presented Luann's life as the Countess through an idyllic, rose-colored lens, featuring Alex, the kids, her nanny Rosie and the family puppy Aston. However, while she was getting bucked off of a camel in Morocco and singing with Natalie Cole on camera, her marriage was falling apart behind the scenes. By the Season 2 reunion in 2009, the Count had broken up with Luann over email, leaving the other Housewives shocked. Recognizing that she had a family and an image that needed protecting, Luann had tried to hide her marital struggles from Bravo's cameras. However, she ended up learning the difficult lesson that - no matter how hard you try to hide it - the cameras see everything. After 16 years as the Countess, Luann's life was about to enter yet another era...

Looking to the Future

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As viewers have seen on the current season of RHONY, Luann has fallen in love with her newest soulmate, Thomas D'Agostino, after being introduced by fellow 'Wife Dorinda Medley. The pair are currently engaged, with plans to be married on New Year's Eve of this year. After eight years as a New York Housewife, Luann ends the special by saying she doesn't live her life with regrets. The many chapters of her life have been something of a modern-day fairytale, and as this next chapter begins with Tom at her side, Luann can't wait for whatever happens next.

What did you think of Luann's Before They Were Housewives special? Did it show you a completely different side to the Countess? Do you want to see a Luann wedding spinoff? Leave your thoughts and opinions below in the comments...