Leah McSweeney Knows When You're Hate-Watching

Leah McSweeney Knows When You're Hate-Watching

by Evan Ross Katz

"Sorry, I'm late," Leah McSweeney tells me after arriving one minute late. She tells me she's been dealing with the aftermath of last night, which in her world means reliving a last night that took place many months ago, one that will be dissected and picked apart by fans online. Such is life on a show like The Real Housewives of New York, yet McSweeney thought viewers might grant her a bit of grace in the wake of trying to film a reality television show through COVID.

"It was the fall of 2020 in New York City, we couldn't even eat inside at restaurants, I mean that shit was dark. So, I mean, this is really shitty to relive because it was one of the worst years of my life, of I'm sure anybody's life, and, of course, it is weird because I already handled that drama back then."

This season sees McSweeney joined by RHONY OGs Ramona Singer and Luann De Lesseps, the straw that continues to stir the drink, Sonja Morgan, as well as the new girl on scene, Eboni K. Williams, a formidable businesswoman in her own right, who isn't afraid to go toe-to-toe with the ladies. The drama thus far has centered around a Hamptons trip where an emotional Lea is trying to hold it together while dealing with the imminent death of her grandmother.

"It's not one of my proudest moments, this trip to the Hamptons, you know? I actually was just talking to Kelly Cutrone about this this morning, I was like, 'People think I'm the villain,' and we're only four episodes in, it's so different from what it was last year, these people are going to teach you to not care, to not even give a shit. I'm like, that's awesome."

I ask her if she feels like she's finally achieved a level of not caring. "I am on the path," she says. "You have to do that to protect yourself. If you gave a shit, how could you do this? You'd be miserable all the time." The McSweeney who sits before me appears anything but miserable. Perhaps it's easy not to give a shit about how you're perceived on Housewives when the show is just one of your many business ventures. McSweeney is also focused on her New York-based streetwear clothing brand, Married to the Mob, and her sustainably-sourced premium sleepwear and home goods brand, Happy Place.

Below, an unfiltered and full of f-bombs conversation with New York's most charismatic and polarizing housewife about sobriety, death, haters, Lil' Kim, Judaism and so much more.

First things first, I've got to know details about your premiere party with Azealia Banks and Lourdes Leon. How did this trio come to be?

Last season I didn't get to enjoy any kind of premiere party because we shut down three weeks before. I don't even know if I should bring this up, but my grandmother, who passed away at the beginning of filming this season, she was supposed to come to the premiere party last year, and she had her outfit all picked out. So this season, it was weighing very heavily on me that she's not here. And at first I wasn't going to do anything, I was going to sit alone at home. I asked Eboni if she wanted to come over and watch and she was like, "Bitch, I am doing my own little thing at the Soho House, why don't you do something for yourself?" I was like, "Oh, okay, I guess I will." And then I'm at Balthazar and I run into my friend Chrissie Miller, do you know Chrissie? Her mom is Susan Miller, the astrologist. Anyways, Chrissie is like, an OG, she's amazing, real New York girl. She's like, "Leah, we have to do something, I need to help you throw a party for the premiere." So, I put this thing together in a week and as it turns out Azealia happens to be in the city right now. I've been friends with her since she was 16 years old, she was brought to my office for Married to the Mob before "212," before all of that, she was a senior at LaGuardia. My friend Seth brought her and was like, "She's going to be the next biggest thing, give her some clothing." I was like, "Yeah, sure, cool, you're a New York chick." I knew she was very special since the first day I met her and I've been friends with her ever since. Lourdes Leon, she's in the streetwear scene, in that downtown New York scene, she went to LaGuardia also, and we randomly started talking on DM and I invited her and she came through. And then, you know, Cat Marnell hosted. I have to tell you, it was one of those special nights that was just beautiful and just so New York and so much fun.

So take me back to summer 2004. You're a little tipsy, you have this idea to create a streetwear brand targeted at women in a landscape where that was not yet the thing it's become today. What were the steps you needed to take initially to get the ball rolling?

I quickly want to say this, because I think last season the way that I said something in an interview, I think that it came out confusing because I was like, "Streetwear wasn't a thing, when I started the brand." I'm not saying I invented streetwear, my point was, that term was not around yet, I didn't know what to call it. I was heavily influenced by X-girl, by Baby Phat, by brands like this that, at that time, were not as poppin' as they were. It was time for a new era of brands to come in, which someone coined "streetwear." I think that I was very gritty. Like, I was going to buy wholesale T-shirts at this place, Friedman's, in the LES, where they sold wholesale. Then I would drag the T-shirts to the printers' apartment, because, you know, he only had an apartment, he didn't have an office, this guy Ricky, who worked at A Life. And then I dragged the T-shirts to Union, on Spring Street. I was like, "I have the shirts, they say 'Supreme Bitch' and some other shirts, can you please sell them at Union?" She was like, "Let me show them to James and get the okay to sell them at Union," he said okay, we started selling at Union, I think that was our first store that we were in. Once you're at a store like Union, that's where everyone, not everyone, but that specific niche of stores is looking all over the world at who sells there, and from there it just took off. It was very "I'm making this amount of T-shirts, selling it for this amount, I'm doubling my money, I'm going to then buy more." It was like, math, you know? Math, and using every single connection I had in New York and beyond, it was before Facebook, obviously, before Instagram, before all of this. And eventually we had this block party on Spring Street, it was called the Spring St. Block Party, it was a streetwear follower's wet dream. Every single skater, every single graffiti artist. I remember this German blog wanted me to take photos of the party, to document the party, I did, and eventually they flew me out there, which is really the reason I started Mob. Because I had been to Europe once and was obsessed. I went to Paris, I went to Coppenhagen, and I went to Lund in Sweden, and I was like, "I need to travel more, how the hell am I about to do this?" And I saw that all these guys had these brands and they were being flown all over the place. So I was like, I'm going to start this brand so I can go on free trips, and it worked.

How long did it take for Married to the Mob to become profitable? And when did you feel like the brand was successful?

I think when I got that email from Sarah at Colette, and she said, "Please send me your wholesale catalog," and I sent it to her and she responded back and was like, "This is quite trash, actually, but I'll take some of these for my friends at wholesale." and I was like, "No, no, absolutely not." And then she was like, "Okay, I'll buy them for the store." But then when we finally met, I understood it was a language barrier. What she meant was like, "Oh, it's kind-of vulgar." She didn't mean it was trash. But then she was instrumental in the growth of Mob. I had the windows at Colette a bunch of times, I did something with Reebok with her, with MCM. I had never gotten a paycheck like that before MCM. I actually got lucky. I was supposed to get thirty bags to sell, but instead, they fucked it up and I got a thirty thousand dollar check and I was like, "Holy shit, I'm rich!" Yeah, that was awesome. I was like, "Thank god those bags got fucked up." What if I hadn't been able to sell them? They were one thousand dollars each, I'm not sure how many of those I would have been able to sell if I'm being honest, so, I got lucky.

"I just read someone say they were going to hate-watch me. I'm like, that's cool, just keep watching, that's really all that matters."

What did you see as the pros and cons from the business perspective of going on a show like Housewives?

You know, I'm still not sure if it's a good or bad thing, I'm still figuring that out. Now I have a whole new audience and, if I'm being totally honest, I'm in a place where I'm like, "Do they want stuff that I would normally be making? Or do they want different stuff?" It's a totally new demographic, right? So, I'm in a place where I'm still figuring it out. I still don't know what the fuck I'm doing with my brand half the time. Like, what?

I think that's very interesting though because it is a very different demographic, but I feel like with housewives like you and Erika Jayne, they capture a younger demographic than the audience of the show. Was it difficult at all for you in making the decision to feature your daughter on the show? One of your co-stars, Sonja Morgan, famously chose not to. That said, the recent Watch What Happens Live special with the kids of Bravo proved that a lot of these kids come out unscathed, if not benefiting, from their own proxy fame.

I love this question so much, because it's something I am still kind of grappling with. I don't put pictures of my daughter on social media anymore, they're gone, like, I deleted them. I have my doubts about having her on because it's a sick world and because people don't know how to act — they just don't know how to act. Like, it's one thing for me exploiting myself, it's a different situation with my child, you know? I just can't handle that. I won't. She's in this season a little here and there, but it's not like you know that she is. Even she is like, "That's your thing, not my thing." My relationship with her is awesome and I'm sure people would get a lot of enjoyment out of watching us and seeing our banter, it's something that I have very mixed feelings about, even though all the kids do turn out great and I mean, I freaking love the kids at Bravo.

Housewives has a dedicated and loud fandom. There's conventions and social media accounts dedicated to tracking the wives' every move. Is that something you've gotten used to at this point, or it's still bizarre?

It's weird, because last season everyone loved me so much, pretty much, 99% were like, "We love Leah." But this season, before it even aired, people were already looking for a reason to hate me, so I knew what was coming up with these Hamptons episodes. I was like, "Alright, here we go." I think that that's going to change a little bit in a few episodes, in that dynamic shift, the energy shift, but I think that they build you up to tear you down and that's just how it goes. Also, I just read someone say they were going to hate-watch me. I'm like, that's cool, just keep watching, that's really all that matters. I am just going to lean into it, fuck it, like this is a fucking show we're here to fucking entertain, what do you want from me?

Put that on a T-shirt. And speaking of, let's talk about your fashions. RHONY is not exactly known for its fashions in the same way that a Beverly Hills is, and yet you've consistently brought the lewks. It's been a talking point among the women from the outset when you showed up to the Hamptons in a mesh bucket hat. Did you realize your fashions would be such fodder for the women?

No, I really didn't. I have to tell you, I was so green when I came in with that bucket hat. And that's the beauty of your first season, you just have no idea, like everything is so brand new and I'm just wearing this bucket hat that I threw on. I'm not even going to lie, sometimes I look back like "What the fuck?" You know? But I love that bucket hat. The thing is I should've cut out the tag, but I was in a frenzy rushing to get ready. I wanted to make my outfit a little edgy and the bucket hat became a thing, which I didn't even know that it would. But then when I see the audience react so over the top to different looks, it's like, "Why not dress wild sometimes?" Because it brings people joy or annoyance or whatever it is. But also, the Lil' Kim dress, that was my favorite moment because I saw that dress online and was like, "This is so cool." I love supporting new, young, up-and-coming designers and I fucking love Lil' Kim, so it was literally perfect, like I get to talk to Lil' Kim and say "I love you so much, I am wearing you all over my body," and I got to have dinner with her actually this year. She has been like my idol since I was thirteen years old. But yeah, I am just having fun with it. This year I was just happy I had a reason to get dressed, because if it wasn't for the show I would have been sitting in my fucking pajamas in bed the whole year.

Ramona seems to have a lot to say about your outfits, which is pretty rich coming from her, especially as she was putting on that oversized faux-fur vest. How would you describe your relationship with her?

Sometimes I don't know if Ramona is even being serious or if she is having banter with me. I realize this from watching my reactions to her on the show. I have things to work on in therapy regarding my relationship with my mother that I totally project on to her, without a doubt. I mean, it's really like a psychological experiment watching myself and how I handle things.

Let's talk about your confessional lewks. How do you decide on what you'll wear and is there ever a pressure to outdo yourself or take bigger risks?

This season I worked with my friend Alejandra Hernandez. She's an amazing stylist and thank God for her. In my confessional, you know that $100 bill latex outfit, it's out of this amazing company in LA that does custom looks for Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B, that was so hard to put on and off because you have to wear like five things, there is literally oil you to help get out of it. So yeah, I of course have to outdo myself every time. I like to do different things, sometimes I am covering my arms, sometimes I'm not covering my arms. Sometimes it's a print, sometimes it's not. I have to figure out my next confessional look.

You've been on the show for two seasons now, one of which had its reunion conducted in person but from a social distance and the second, filmed entirely during COVID. Obviously we've turned a corner, but when you first started filming season two, so much was unknown. How did that affect your experience with season two?

I am so grateful that you are asking me this because I feel like viewers are not remembering or sometimes don't know or are really thinking of what we are dealing with. I felt pressure to have fun when I was not having fun this year. I lost my grandmother, New York was shut down, my daughter is not in school, people are sick. I mean, the election! We all hate each other and now we're supposed to have fun, are you kidding me? And I am not drinking anymore. It was really hard. This is not the most fun season, like, sorry we are dealing with reality and if we did not acknowledge what we are going through, like race stuff comes up and COVID stuff, if we did not acknowledge these things, the audience would be mad about that shit. We didn't have an easy task. Do you know how many fucking episodes we got out of the Hamptons? Do you know how much work that is? Like, holy fuck, I was not even sleeping on that trip. I had vertigo the whole time, I was like, "Do I leave, do I stay?" If I leave there are only four of them. My grandmother is already unconscious so she wouldn't even know I am there, like, what do I do? It was crazy. I had to quarantine for a month total because of exposure to COVID. During one of my quarantines I decided to test out Wellbutrin [Laughs], which is not a good idea for anyone who has not tried it. Do not do it while you have to quarantine and stay inside your house, because it makes you very agitated and hyper. So, it was a lot. And on top of that I was very nervous about talking about conversion publicly and having the show tell the story. It was something I was terrified of, like I would rather be so drunk, blacked out, making a fool of myself rather than say the wrong thing about converting. So I have been very anxious about this season airing, that's for sure, but it's a learning lesson, the whole thing.

Let's talk about your newest endeavor Happy Place, which is focused on sustainably-sourced premium sleepwear and home goods. Where did this idea come from and is it hard balancing two brands?

And I have a new puppy, too. Honestly, this week I have kind of been like, "Why did I do all of this? Why can't I say no to things?" With Happy Place, for Mob there are certain things that do not make sense for the brand, right? Like sustainable sleepwear is not Married to the Mob. So that's why I started the other company, so, creatively, I could have another outlet. A new medium to work with. And also, I really am a homebody. I wear Mob stuff at home too, but these robes? It's just a whole different vibe. Maybe it is kind of the same audience, but sometimes to keep things fresh and to stay excited about Mob, it is helpful for me to switch gears.

What's your pick for Song of Summer?

I listen to all old music, so, I don't know what to say, I don't know any new music right now and I am so embarrassed like I have to look up my daughter's playlist or something because I just — right now on my playlist I just have Azealia Banks, Lady Gaga and Lil Nas X.

Which of the non-New York Housewives have you gotten the closest with?

Dolores from New Jersey. She is so fucking hot I just want to have a lesbian affair with this woman, not even an affair, I just want to be with her. She is the baddest fucking bitch. She came to my premiere party, she fucking hung out with everybody, a lot of young hipsters and she was just there chilling. She is a queen like, she has so much plastic surgery but does not look like she has any, it's so fucking natural and she is so unapologetic about it. Even I feel kind of weird talking about my surgery sometimes, I feel like I have to make an excuse like, "Oh, well, my boobs from breastfeeding…" whereas she just owns it. I could talk about Dolores forever.

"I feel like viewers are not remembering or sometimes don't know or are really thinking of what we are dealing with. I felt pressure to have fun when I was not having fun this year."

You've done some pretty fab fashion collabs in your day including with Nike and Barbie. Name another brand or designer that you'd want to link up with?

Stella McCartney and maybe Pyer Moss.

What's one of your favorite, lesser-known New York City haunts?

Cowgirl Seahorse in the Financial District.

You've recently converted to Judaism, mazel. What has Judaism taught you about yourself or the world that you didn't know previously?

I'm not converted yet, by the way, but it's in process. I realized how many problematic tropes there are about Jewish people, it's very odd. Even before this whole conflict was happening when I told people I was converting there was a lot of like, "Judaism?" and I'm like, "What?" I'm actually now doing it at a conservative synagogue, but I love the orthodox rabbi, he's amazing. Also, there's so many different — because there is not a Pope, there are all these different sects of Judaism, like, Judaism is not a monolith, I think that is what I have learned.

"Wear Me Out" is a column by pop culture fiend Evan Ross Katz that takes a look at the week in celebrity dressing. From award shows and movie premieres to grocery store runs, he'll keep you up to date on what your favorite celebs have recently worn to the biggest and most inconsequential events.

Photography: Savanna Ruedy
Creative direction and styling: Gabriel Held
Styling assistants: Evan Dombkowski, Syanne Rios and Madison Mitchell
Makeup: Colby Smith
Hair: Nathan Juergensen