Lisa Vanderpump is freezing. Sitting on a bench in New York’s West Village, her alopecia-stricken Pomeranian Giggy in one arm and a Pantone purple Chanel in the other, she grits her teeth against the elements. “My nose is about to fall off,” she insists to no one in particular. Then, more quietly, “Too. Cold.” Though it’s nearly 40 degrees Fahrenheit—practically tropical after the maddening chill of the past week’s #BombCyclone—London-born Vanderpump, 57, isn’t used to begrudging the annual slog of winter.
Once she and her crew are ushered inside brunch-all-day bistro Café Cluny, shed their jackets, and toss two low energy Pomeranians into a banquette (Giggy is joined by Puffy, a rescue Pomeranian who also suffers from hair loss), the chill thaws considerably. “Let’s have some lunch,” Vanderpump crows to the group, which includes husband Ken Todd, a compact car of a man in cashmere, daughter Pandora, 31, a publicist, and two other well-turned-out Brits. “I’m the eating housewife!” Everyone laughs politely, the way you might if the queen made a joke.
For the past eight years, Lisa Vanderpump has served as something of a pop culture anomaly: In a franchise that rewards immaturity and instability, she peddles neither. While other Real Housewives have found themselves wading through divorce, substance abuse, even jail time—some going as far blaming a “Housewife curse”—Vanderpump, 57, has steadily if not smugly thrived. Like a fine Vanderpump Rosé, she only gets better with age.
In person, Lisa Vanderpump looks like a flattering caricature of Lisa Vanderpump. Her hair, which I can best describe as Kate Middleton-esque, perfectly complements her pert nose, which nicely offsets her heavily-lashed eyes. (“Individuals,” she tells me. “I can sleep in them and you just take your makeup off around them. Kyle Richards taught me that trick.”) Her purse matches her blouse which matches Giggy’s jacket. The whole thing looks exhausting, but Vanderpump insists she can pull herself together in ten minutes flat. “Some of the girls take a glam squad with them when we go on trips. I don’t do that,” she says. “I have to be made up and put together every day for the restaurants, so it wouldn’t make sense for me.”
It’s a velvet-covered dart, sure, but the point is this: Unlike other reality stars, even her co-stars, Vanderpump has more important stuff to do than get ready all day. A fundamental part of the Lisa Vanderpump brand, in fact, is that she never wanted to be a “reality TV star” in the first place. “They asked me twice to audition and I said, ‘Not for me, thanks,” she says. It was only after her friend Jennifer Stallone—”Sly Stallone’s wife,” she notes—made her watch The Real Housewives of New York that she reconsidered. Her friend, news anchor Robert Kovacik, drove her to the audition.
“I didn’t realize how life changing it would be. I don’t think anybody did,” she says over an omelet (see: Housewife, Eating). “I never intended to make my career from it, but I was smart, and I used the show to draw attention to my businesses.”
No kidding. The restaurateur’s résumé now boasts a reported 26 eateries (including PUMP and SUR, which stands for “Sexy Unique Restaurant”), a spinoff series, Vanderpump Rules, now in its sixth season, a canine rescue center, a documentary about the Chinese dog meat trade, and a gig as Editor-in-Chief of Beverly Hills magazine. Her net worth is reported at $65 million, which arguably makes her the most powerful Housewife of them all.
“When people say, ‘The Housewives belittle women,’ I disagree,” she says. “Look what Kyle Richards is doing right now. She’s producing her own TV show. Look at what Erika [Jayne]’s doing. She’s 45 or 46 years old and doing what she wants to. Look at me, going to congress and speaking to the United Nations and building a brand. I think that’s empowering for women.”
But with great visibility comes great responsibility, something Vanderpump, a fierce advocate for LBGTQ rights, understands. “I am a heterosexual woman who can be a conduit to people who might not listen otherwise. I take that very seriously,” she says. “Even the word ‘tolerance.’ I’ve always said, ‘I don’t understand this word.’ We’re going to ‘tolerate’ someone because they’re gay? Fuck off. That’s not what life’s about. It’s about embracing. It’s about understanding.”
When I ask about President Trump, whom she’s never publicly condoned or condemned, she grows serious. “I can’t vote, so I’ve never really had to make a statement, but there are aspects of both parties I do totally understand and would vote for,” she says diplomatically. “I think a lot of people know where my allegiance lies, and what I believe in.”
Regarding the #MeToo movement—and the recent sartorial demonstration at the Golden Globes—she is less opaque. “I didn’t really agree with the need for everybody to wear black to show solidarity. For me, there’s got to be a little bit of a divide, an ability to say, ‘OK, this is about entertainment. Let’s drop it and enjoy the moment,'” she says. “I think the one good thing that’s really going to come out of this is that women aren’t going to be as afraid to speak up. Have I been sexually harassed? Of course. I think most women have at some point. It’s just to what degree. I think we’ve got to judge each [accused person] individually.”
It’s one of those admissions that feels personal at the moment, but when you go back to review the tape, you realize almost nothing has been revealed. And that’s another thing about the Lisa Vanderpump brand: It’s careful. Vanderpump is warm, but with boundaries. Endearing, but rarely vulnerable. She is, in so many ways, unimpeachable. And if her on-screen persona is to be believed, few get much closer. There’s Ken, of course, whom she married 35 years ago after a six-week-long courtship, their two children, Max and Pandora, and a fairytale-like coterie of pets, which includes a swan named Panky. And, for now, she and Kyle Richards, with whom she’s had a notoriously rocky relationship, have reached an accord. “There’s a very authentic friendship there,” she says. “I don’t have a sister, but she’s someone who’s so close to me. If she’s hurting, I’m hurting.”
After eight seasons on the show together, the veterans seem to have established a code of conduct. “I’m sensitive to the other women. If there’s something that isn’t for public consumption, I’ll think to myself, ‘This isn’t for now.’ Kyle’s the same as well,” she says. So what constitutes a breach? “The year that Brandi [Glanville] exposed Adrienne [Malouf’s surrogate pregnancy] was devastating to her,” she says. “It’s not something any of us would have done.” It’s firm, but vague. It’s also the end of that topic.
With our plates cleared—and an appointment with the New York Times waiting uptown—Vanderpump and her team begin to mobilize. A driver is alerted. Pandora drains her white wine. Ken helps Giggy and Puffy into their outerwear. I’m not ready to leave. Maybe it’s the hairless dog in the jester costume still nibbling hand-torn bits of chicken, the midday Sancerre, or Vanderpump’s walnut-size diamond directing sunlight into my eyes, but I feel like I’ve entered a more-decadent, colorful, fragrant, downright reasonable realm. I tell her as much, and she doesn’t seem surprised. “It’s my job to do that,” she says. “People feel more comfortable when everything about their ambiance is just right. And no one does it better than I do. I know if the music’s at the right volume. I know if the lighting is right. I know—and maybe other people wouldn’t notice—but when it’s right, people feel better.”
She’s talking about her restaurants of course, but it’s as close to a brand ethos as you’ll get. “Make your environment as beautiful as you can because you’ll feel so much better,” she says. “I want to feel that I’m immersed in things of beauty. Authenticity and beauty combined make for a fabulous combination.” After all, the rest is just unfortunate weather…or bad lighting. “I liken it to this: You know when you’re in a beautiful bar and then you get in the elevator and it’s that bright light and you’re like, ‘Ugh’? It’s a culture shock. I don’t ever want to feel like that.” And so she never will.