EW speaks with the Bravo stars about shooting a season full of challenges.

By Mary Sollosi
May 04, 2021 at 12:51 PM EDT

This time last year, none of us knew what we were in for. But we knew that Bravo's The Real Housewives were going to get us through it.

Ahead of the season 12 premiere of The Real Housewives of New York City, Ramona Singer told EW about her early days of quarantine with her ex-husband Mario and Luann de Lesseps lamented the lack of a good cabaret platform in lockdown. What a difference a year makes! Now the show is coming back yet again — but airing this time as the world opens up, and taking place in a New York City that was still largely closed.

"It was definitely challenging," Leah McSweeney tells EW of shooting season 13 through the pandemic. RHONY isn't the first Housewives franchise to film during quarantine (that would be The Real Housewives of Orange County, whose season had already begun when it came time to stock up on toilet paper) but even Bravo's refined COVID protocols met hiccups, as production had to shut down more than once due to crew and cast cases of the coronavirus ("I actually can't believe that I ducked it," McSweeney says).

But that's not the only new development this season. While McSweeney, Singer, de Lesseps, and Sonja Morgan stayed on the main cast, the lineup lost Tinsley Mortimer (who exited partway through season 12) and Dorinda Medley, as well as gaining newcomer — and RHONY's first Black Housewife — Eboni K. Williams.

"[If] viewers and fans come in expecting [more] of what they've been used to for the past 13 years, it's going to be a shock to their system," says Williams of the new season. "But I am hoping people really give this an opportunity to breathe, and really open themselves up to something that's a different kind of dynamic and take and interpretation of what RHONY can look like. And I hope that they're really excited about it."

An attorney, author, producer, and broadcaster who previously worked at Fox News, "my career has prepared me for coexisting on national television with the biggest of personalities," Williams says. Even so, joining Bravo's megafranchise was perhaps a surprising move for her, and a decision she didn't make lightly.

"But everything about what I do do professionally is about impact," she explains. "So I do think that there's an enormous opportunity for impact when you start talking about a cultural juggernaut like Real Housewives."

This season was uniquely positioned for impact, along with some of the other shows in the franchise that filmed amid the tumult of 2020. While historically The Real Housewives is not typically associated with global health crises, racial justice, or political unrest, those and other conversations became too urgent and too omnipresent, over the last year, to put aside in even the most frivolous or decadent of contexts.

"We filmed during the most important election of our lifetime. We filmed during the Capitol being invaded. I mean, we filmed during a pandemic!" McSweeney says. "Eboni makes us better as a group. I don't want to say she makes it easy to talk about those things, because they're not easy to talk about, but she's just so smart and so down to earth at the same time, and very educated on those topics as well."

As Williams puts it: "I felt, if we are not going to position ourselves as a cast, as a franchise, to examine our own humanity in this moment of such great consequence to our nation, what the f--- are we doing?"

"Real Housewives of New York" stars, from left, Sonja Morgan, Leah McSweeney, Ramona Singer, Eboni K. Williams, and Luann de Lesseps.
| Credit: Sophy Holland/Bravo

None of that is to say, however, that this season of RHONY will go down like medicine. "Yes, we've had those heavy conversations, but there's also a lightness that we all have — and we should be able to do all that," McSweeney says.

That balance is one of the things that Williams appreciates most about joining the show. "I'm excited for fans to get to know me beyond the lawyer hat, beyond the badass-social-justice-warrior hat," she says. "That's there too. That's innately who I am. But I'm also really ridiculous and quite silly."

As a first-time Housewife, she had to take a leap of faith and open herself up for Bravo's cameras despite being "notoriously private," by her own admission. "That was a commitment I made to myself very early, even in the casting process: I'm not going to go into this with [anything] off-limits."

McSweeney made a strong first impression in her freshman season, but her second year as a Housewife also brought new challenges. While she previously delivered some memorable drunken moments (tiki torch, etc.) last season, she recently celebrated a whole year without drinking; during shooting, she found a partner-in-sobriety in de Lesseps. "It was great not having to film while being hungover," she says. "I have no idea how I did that." The show documents her conversion to Judaism as well, a personal and profound experience that she says was "terrifying" to share onscreen.

As they both entered uncharted territory for themselves, the good news is that Williams and McSweeney had each other. "It's a sisterhood, very immediately," Williams says of their relationship. "I love her. Best casting decision ever," McSweeney gushes about the addition of her friend. They bonded with the other ladies too, of course: McSweeney and Singer "have a better understanding of each other" and are "in a better place" than last year, McSweeney says, and Williams was surprised to find that she "easily spiritually connected" with Morgan.

"I have to give a lot of credit to these women. Even when they didn't know s--- about me, they made space for me — I also took space," says the new Housewife. "We really left no stone unturned. We left nothing unsaid. And we really showed up."

The Real Housewives of New York City season 13 premieres Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Bravo.

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