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'Real Housewives' royalty spent 6 weeks in rural Illinois. Their trip was anything but 'crappie'

Luann de Lesseps and Sonja Morgan spill about getting down and dirty in Illinois for “Crappie Lake” and tease “RHONY Legacy” as “sort of Scary Island part two.”
Luann and Sonja: Welcome to Crappie Lake - Season 1
“I think every town across America that’s been struggling can use a little Lu and Sonja.” -Countess Luann de LessepsBravo
/ Source: TODAY

There has arguably never been a better time to be a “Real Housewives of New York City” fan: Season 14 is just days away, six of the show’s veterans recently filmed a “Legacy” girls trip and OGs Countess Luann de Lesseps and Sonja Morgan have teamed up for their own Bravo series.

The longtime pals leave big-city life behind in “Luann and Sonja: Welcome to Crappie Lake” — a show many fans have already compared to Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie’s 2000s hit “The Simple Life.” “Crappie Lake” premieres July 9 with back-to-back half-hour episodes on Bravo at 9 p.m. ET and will air on Sundays in the following weeks at 10 p.m. Fans can also stream episodes the next day on Peacock.

(Bravo and Peacock are part of our parent company, NBCUniversal.)

Luann and Sonja spent a month and a half in Benton, Illinois, which is about 100 miles southeast of St. Louis, to film “Crappie Lake,” and Benton’s mayor tasked the duo with various assignments to revitalize the small town, which houses just under 7,000 people, after the pandemic.

The two Manhattanites recently caught up with about swapping their city residences for the local motel and tapping into their cabaret and improv skills to put together a local variety show (with help from Paula Abdul), among many other projects, during their time in Benton.

And, of course, Luann and Sonja dish about reuniting with “RHONY” icons Kelly Killoren Bensimon, Dorinda Medley, Ramona Singer and Kristen Taekman for “RHONY Legacy,” which is the fifth iteration of the popular “Ultimate Girls Trip” franchise — or as Luann describes it: “a little bit of a repeat of Scary Island.”

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

'Luann and Sonja: Welcome to Crappie Lake'

You’re both also known as one-half of other famous "RHONY" duos: Luann/Dorinda and Sonja/Ramona. How did it come to be that the two of you would participate in "Crappie Lake"?

Sonja: Well, we go way back. We’ve known each other quite a long time — even before the show.

Luann: Don’t forget I stayed in Sonja’s townhouse for a moment (“RHONY” Season Eight). I was her houseguest. And then, she comes to my house in Sag Harbor. So, it’s not such an unlikely duo I don’t think.

Sonja: We’re like an old married couple. I’ve been at your house for Thanksgiving dinners.

Luann: I think when the opportunity came and we were asked to go to this small town and help improve it and lift the town after COVID, we were thrilled because to be able to go and do good for people and at the same time have it be comedy along the way, was just an offer too good to refuse. It was because the producers are from this area: One of them is from Benton, Illinois. So that’s how it really came about, and Jeff Jenkins produced “The Simple Life” originally and the Kardashians and etc.

Sonja: How do you say no to that? Jeff Jenkins and co. is OG.

Luann: To be seen in a different light, also. Not just the “Housewives.”

Room selection is always a big deal on "RHONY." It seems the two of you share a motel room on "Crappie Lake." 

Sonja: We each get a room, but they’re very small. We’re right next door to each other.

Luann: We needed our own rooms because we’re kind of like “The Odd Couple.” I’m the neat and clean one.

Sonja: Neat freak.

Luann: This one is the little Messy Bessie.

Sonja: I roll a little easier, but Luann’s very organized. She took over the shed there just for her hats and accessories.

Luann: My clothes. I call it “The West Wing.”

Sonja: I call it “The Sweat Lodge.” There was no AC. We went down offseason, it was July.

Luann: There was no AC in my shed where all my clothes were so I had to run in, grab what I wanted and run out because it was 1,000 degrees in there.

Sonja: We were outside a lot in the summer down there.

Luann: We were working a lot.

Sonja: It’s southern Illinois. When they said we were going to Illinois, I was thinking Chicago.

Luann: I’ve never been to this part of the country, so it was really interesting. We did so many things that we would never do. Like, I caught a catfish with my bare hands, and then we went mudding and went with these monster trucks through the mud.

Sonja: We put a playground together. That was no small feat. The process was that we were going to do this variety show. So we started right up front with that, rehearsals with the kids, and we couldn’t believe the local talent. It was great. And then, of course, Paula Abdul. We called her and asked her to come in, and she showed up.

Luann: We did a full-on variety show, produced it and called it the “Benton Follies.” We had dancers in the show, and they needed a little extra help. We were thrilled when Paula Abdul agreed to come — we just couldn’t believe it — and I can tell you the dance moms, all the mothers of these girls, were blown away to meet Paula Abdul. So it was really incredible to be able to do that for them, to be able to help the motel and fix it up. My brother, who is a contractor, came from Connecticut.

Sonja: Boy, did we rope him in. He had no idea what he was getting into. He brought his wife, and she was even making runs to Home Depot.

Luann: No, seriously, they did a lot of work with us to improve the motel. So it was really all about helping this town out, working with the mayor, doing civil projects like playgrounds, etc., helping the dog shelter out, doing “Benton Follies” to raise money for the community. We were there for six weeks, and we lost our lives for six weeks because it was all about this town. So we had no personal time for ourselves.

You both have cabaret experience. Did you tap into that for the variety show?

Sonja: Majorly.

Luann: 100%.

Sonja: We’ve had a lot of experience that did come together there.

Luann: I’ve been doing my show for five years now, and I felt like thank God I have that background because in order to do a variety show, you have to have some knowledge of how to put a show together. So, together, we made it happen.

Sonja: We’re both entertainers at heart. I would run into Luann at different parties, and there’s a piano and we’re both there. I do my skit, which is improv, and she does her songs. She used to do Broadway hits all the time, and I thought you were so great at that.

Luann: Aw, thanks.

Sonja: We always have a nice time, and we love the people there. Wonderful people.

Paula Abdul is very much known for her choreography. Is that what she helped with for the variety show? 

Luann: Yeah, we had a couple of dance groups, and so we thought, let’s call in the big guns and try to get Paula Abdul. She loved the idea.

Sonja: (demonstrates) She said, “You don’t just put your arm like this.” (extends arm) Paula does a very sharp — a very sharp move. She was showing them. I mean, she still has it.

Luann: It was amazing what she was able to do in those 15 minutes just to tighten up their routine. She’s really incredible and an icon.

Paula, who’s 61, recently said in an interview she’s only "scratched the surface" in her life. I know neither of you is 61, but do you feel like with this show and "Legacy" that you’ve also just "scratched the surface" in your lives?

Luann: I feel like this is going to be a really strong year for me, for Sonja. It’s so nice to have people see us out of the “Housewives” light and in another light.

Sonja: We’re so busy.

Luann: I think they called upon us because we’re moms, we’re philanthropists.

Sonja: Entertainers.

Luann: We have children and homes and we do cabaret and variety and all that stuff. I think together we’re the perfect duo to take on this town and try to improve it.

Sonja: Well, you said if you have something to get done, give it to the busiest person, and that’s what our producers said. They said, “You two are always moving, you’re always keeping busy — always traveling.”

Luann and Sonja: Welcome to Crappie Lake - Season 1
Luann says Benton also needed help with Christmas in July celebrations. “We wanted to make it look like Fifth Avenue during the holidays,” she explains. “So we really upped their game, and they got more people, more money because of it.”Bravo

Did you adjust your clothing and glam routines to better adapt in Benton?

Sonja: They actually dress quite well there. They’re very worldly, they travel all the time.

Luann: Well, I mean, look, we dress a certain way, and that’s what I did. I dressed the way I normally dress to go out in New York because I don’t wear jean shorts or sweatpants or anything like that.

Sonja: No.

Luann: I dressed (up) even more because we’re casting a variety show, so we need to look the part.

Sonja: Of course, you had a statement necklace on every day.

Luann: Every day.

Sonja: We were inspiring people, the local restaurateur at Bloom café. She was straight out of “Stepford Wives.”

Luann: Totally.

Sonja: Oh, my goodness, the way she dressed and her children. We really helped the restaurant business because the crew was huge, right? So we were ordering meals around the clock. I had my daily Sonic burger, and then they have a Dairy Queen. That was my backup in case I didn’t like my meal. We ate pretty well there.

Luann: We both grew up in small towns, so obviously our lives have changed and we lived all over the world, but we know what it’s like. They were expecting us to come in and be these spoiled brats, and certainly our life has changed, but we are simple at heart when it comes to that. At first, they were like, “What are these two wealthy socialite ladies coming from New York? What are they doing in our town?” They were skeptical, but when they saw all the work that we were putting in, we started to grow on them.

Sonja: We made a lot of friends. It was hard to leave, but at the same time, we couldn’t wait to get back in our own beds, our own homes and gardens, because we really did, as Lu said, we gave up six weeks of our life. We were on the phone only to secure trade-outs and things to help. She had to flirt with a guy to get a fence. I had to sleep with someone to get a car — but we got a truck!

Living in NYC, you don’t do very much, or any, driving. Did you drive yourselves around in Benton?

Luann: I drove.

Sonja: She loves driving. She has her Mercedes convertible that she drives back and forth from the Hamptons. I don’t know why she does that. I love the Jitney: the bus.

Luann: I love to drive. I love driving around a big flatbed Ford. I mean, it was a lot of fun.

Sonja: She went to Nashville on her day off. I never left my room when I was off for a day. She was in the truck taking off after her diner breakfast at 6 a.m.

Luann: I drove to Nashville through Kentucky, and I cranked up the country music, which I love when I’m driving across country like that. I drove actually to Desmond Child’s house, who produced “Viva La Diva” for me.

Have either of you ever thought about leaving NYC and moving somewhere else, especially after this trip to Benton, or will New York always be home?

Luann: I live between New York and the Hamptons. I have my children here. If I were to move somewhere —

Sonja: Europe.

Luann: Probably.

Sonja: We both love Europe. But the thing is, my house is always rented out so then I take it off the market so then it’s not for sale and then where do I go? So I go to Tennessee to see family or to Virginia on farms, and I ride.

Luann: We were both charmed by all these people in this small town because they’re just such a lovely community.

Sonja: But we are New Yorkers.

Luann: Listen, you fall in love, and you move to a place like that for sure. I mean, I feel like in these small towns, it’s really about couples. There are very few single people — a lot of people are married in these small towns.

Sonja: Bring your own. You know how they say “bring your own beer”? Next time I’m going to Benton, I’m bringing my own —

Luann: BYO … BYOM.

Sonja: “Bring Your Own Boy.” But that’s a good question. We’re always going to be New Yorkers at heart — always. Even if I weren’t living in the city after I sell my house, I would get a place in the Hamptons so I can be near New York. I don’t see us retiring in Florida.

Luann: Or Benton.

Sonja: Or Benton. I did look at a place down there though because I like to hide.

Luann and Sonja: Welcome to Crappie Lake - Season 1
Sonja says she and Luann “almost lost the jungle gym” during the playground construction, and they “called everyone in the book” they knew because they’re accustomed to working to get people to donate to their different charities.Bravo / Bravo

We see a love interest, "Billy," in the trailer. Is this another pirate-like situation where you’re both interested in the same man?

Sonja: “Vischard”? Who’s “Billy”?

Luann: His last name is Richard.

Sonja: Oh, OK!

Luann: But in France, you say Ree-shahrd. He had a tattoo on his back: “Richard,” which is really Rashard, which is his last name. But I thought when I saw him without a shirt and he had “Richard,” I was like, I don’t think he likes girls.

Sonja: I didn’t notice any of that.

Luann: She didn’t even notice it, and she slept with him. He had no interest in me.

Sonja: She had another guy she liked — had muddy socks, muddy jeans.

Luann: He was the monster trucker guy. We actually go out on a double date with them. I don’t know if we’re going to see that on the season.

Sonja: If you want to see the paint dry on the walls.

Luann: We went to a nice little restaurant.

Sonja: Fancy! They’d never been.

Luann: We go out for dinner, and they’re sitting there and they have button-up shirts. And I said, “Well, you guys clean up very nicely.” And he goes (using a Southern accent), “Well, I only put on shirts like this for weddings and funerals.”

Sonja: And court!

Luann and Sonja (using Southern accent): Weddings, funerals and court.

After this experience, would you be up for going somewhere else?

Luann and Sonja: Absolutely.

Luann: I think every town across America that’s been struggling can use a little Lu and Sonja.

Sonja: Yeah, definitely. #LuSonja.

Luann: Like Laverne and Shirley.

Sonja: I enjoyed the experience, and it was very fulfilling to leave there and know that they’re always going to have what we put in place.

Luann: I think we really did make a dent in how this town is. We got a muralist to come in so there are murals everywhere so you can stop and take pictures. We tried to do as much as we could to improve the motel.

Sonja: The motel owners — they bought the land next door because they’re going to expand the motel. They’re sure they’re going to be busy.

Luann: And they have the Luann and Sonja suite.

Sonja: So instead of $59.99 a night you pay $99 a night.

What was your rose and thorn from this experience?

Sonja: The rose was to know that Luann and I can get things done. Everything on that list we accomplish, and that’s the thing that I think at first the town wasn’t so sure, so I feel really, really good about that. And then the thorn was no one told me Billy didn’t live in town. He lives in New Orleans — outside of there.

Luann: For me, the thorn was just the extreme heat because we were outside doing a lot of things. There are not many thorns for me. I think the rose was seeing our “Benton Follies” come to life onstage. That was incredible for me to put together this group of people, making a whole show out of it and have it go off without a hitch. And getting Paula Abdul, I mean, that was my rose.

Which of your "Real Housewives" pals would have had the hardest time in Benton?

Luann and Sonja: Ramona.

Luann: Without a doubt. She’d be like, “Who’s carrying my bags?” We’re like, “You.”

Sonja: And no 600-count sheets or duvets. No feathers — everything was synthetic. But my tub was great, my cast iron tub. They stay nice and hot, so that was good. That was my savior, was my tub every night.

Sonja, you normally room with Ramona on "RHONY" trips. Was it hard not having her on this trip?

Sonja: No, it was wonderful. We’re like an old married couple. When I’m with Ramona, she blasts her music.

Luann: I thought we were the old married couple?

Sonja: We are.

Luann: Oh, OK.

Sonja: No, that’s the thing. Ramona, I always have a great time with her, but it’s not the same as Luann and I. We can just be together and not have to talk all the time. We’ve got each other’s back. She’s either cooking or I am. I’m gardening or she is. It’s like we keep busy. But Ramona, she blasts her music so early in the morning, and she’s always trying to feed me. She’s a lot. A little more active.

'RHONY Legacy': 'Sort of Scary Island Part Two' 

Luann, you tweeted during "Legacy" filming you were in "#ScaryIsland Part II." Sonja especially will remember Kelly Bensimon didn’t have the best time during the first Scary Island trip ("RHONY" Season Three). What was it like traveling with her again this time?

Sonja: Well, it was sort of Scary Island part two, but then I don’t know. I hit it off with Kelly. She is an artist.

Luann: (laughs) She’s saying she’s an artist. She’s this real estate broker.

Sonja: She has a fashion collection. She has shoes. She designed a necklace collection.

Luann: Fashion collection? What! Oh, my God.

Sonja: She’s an artist at heart let’s say, and she’s a photographer. She took photos.

Luann: She’s a great girl. She’s a great mom. We’ve known her for years, but let’s just say she’s a little — when it comes to a whole group of girls, I don’t know if that’s her game. Kelly is somebody who has a lot of guy friends, and she’s never had a lot of girlfriends. And she’ll tell you that.

Sonja: She’s told us that.

Luann: I think it was a lot for her to process. Being around the girls, it’s kind of what happened last time, I think it really got to her, and I think this time around, it took her awhile to get her feet wet.

Sonja: Exactly.

Luann: And she did. There’s a little bit of a — a repeat of Scary Island going on somewhere.

Sonja: But she’s doing very well in real estate. She sold a $43 million house. She’s trying to get my listing. She keeps texting me to co-list my house. I’m like, I thought she was really liking me on the trip. I think she was just after the listing?

Luann: No.

Was Ramona after the listing, too?

Luann: Ramona’s barely doing real estate.

Sonja: Ramona was on her 25-hour course to renew her license. Who does that? Don’t you have an intern to do that?

Luann: You know Ramona. We had the usual staff issues.

Who caused the most drama on the "Legacy" trip?

Sonja: You haven’t asked about Dorinda. There’s a d in drama.

Luann: D by day and d by night.

Sonja: There’s drama in Dorinda.

Luann: It was great to have her back. She was great on this trip, I thought.

Sonja: Always. She’s good TV.

Luann: There’s always drama when you have all these women put together, and the most drama, I mean, I don’t know, who would you say had the most drama?

Sonja: Dorinda.

Luann: Do you think?

Sonja: Yeah. Remember when the astrologer came? The glass is half full.

Luann: Right.

Sonja: And me, the glass is half full.

Luann: Empty.

Sonja: Empty. Dorinda’s glass is half-empty, she said, and mine is half full.

Luann: Do you remember the last time we had the astrologer? She’s the one that predicted — we were in Morocco.

Sonja: Oh, my God.

Luann: The Ramona and Mario thing. Yes, I translated it.

Sonja: And she said that Ramona’s husband was going to cheat on her. Ramona goes, “That didn’t come true.” I go, “Four years later.” She goes, “No, that never happened.” Four years later.

Luann: Yeah, it did.

How would you each describe the trip in a few words?

Sonja: Just good to be back with Luann and Ramona, we hadn’t filmed with each other for so long, and to have Dorinda back.

Luann: I really think that people want to see us reminiscing, and so you’re going to see a lot of that and breaking down the fourth wall and talking about things in the past that you never get to hear our perspective. I think that’s really interesting in terms of this show, in particular, because there are so many moments that were so epic on “Real Housewives of New York” that we’re going to get to talk about in that way that fans are going to love. I think that fourth wall being down is one thing. We actually have a lot of fun.

Sonja: We have a lot of history together. We’re real friends.

Luann: Yeah. And it’s a little Scary Island part two.

Luann, on "WWHL" recently Andy Cohen told "Below Deck Sailing Yacht" star Chase Lemacks he wanted to set him up with you, and Andy said he texted you about it. Did anything come of that?

Luann: He did text me. It was the weirdest thing because I think he’s, like 20? He’s very young, and I’m flattered, but I want the guy above deck — not below the deck.

Sonja: Luann likes a good lifestyle.

Luann: Sorry, Chase! Where’s your dad?

Sonja: Good luck getting the Countess below deck.

Luann: We should be on “Below Deck.” Why don’t we go on that (show)?

Sonja: She only goes to lower level. Lower-level fish room and the bungalow. She got the bungalow on the trip. Also, she got the basement in Vermont. She doesn’t go below deck, but she’ll go lower down. And Ramona and I, of course, shared a room.

Did you and Ramona get the nicest room on the "Legacy" trip, Sonja?

Sonja: Yeah, we did again.

I think the best room selection system happened in Cartagena when Tinsley Mortimer gave a Tiffany’s gift to each of you, and you all were appeased.

Sonja: Somehow it didn’t work this time; we were short one room.

Luann: Yeah, we were short one room. To tell you the truth, we have an interview room so that one room got taken for interviews because instead of doing interviews at the very end, we actually did interviews during the course of the trip. So it’s in real time.

Luann, you recently posted a photo with Cynthia Bailey and Sutton Stracke. What did you all talk about?

Luann: I did the (first) “Girls Trip” with Cynthia, and since then I guess she has had her own issues with marriages and stuff, and so we always relate on that and guys. And we talked about the trip, and they’re excited about “Crappie Lake.” They’re real girls who support other women. So Cynthia is one of my oldest friends, and Sutton and I just met.

Sonja: She’s great.

Luann: She invited me to a Christmas party in LA. I was out doing Countess Cabaret in LA, and she was having a Christmas party and Kyle (Richards) kindly invited me and I went to her house. She’s lovely and a lot of fun.