Sonja Morgan: A “Real Housewife” Gets Real
Just in time for the Season 5 premiere of The Real Housewives of New York City, Sonja Tremont Morgan sets aside her famous toaster oven recipes and opens up about life in and out of the public eye. Photographs by Jessica Craig-Martin.
These days, the one percent can’t seem to shake the public’s attention. Whether it’s the bad press inspired by the Occupy movement, portraits of “women of a certain age” from Cindy Sherman’s acclaimed retrospective at MoMA, or the guilty pleasures of reality TV shows starring the very rich and not-so-famous, the wealthy (and often ostentatiously so) can’t escape the limelight. Yet it’s one of their very own—a Wall Street divorcée, a pilloried society woman, and a star of Bravo’s reality show The Real Housewives of New York City—that proves unafraid to relate to the masses.
Sonja Tremont Morgan was born in 1963 in Albany, New York. She grew up in the Berkshires, modeled in Paris and Milan for brands like Body Glove and Diesel, studied marketing at the Fashion Institute of Technology, and became a consultant for various American hospitality and luxury brands. In 1996, she married John Adams Morgan, the great-grandson of New York financier J.P. Morgan. After a decade-long marriage and the birth of their daughter, Quincy, the couple separated in 2006.
Since then, Mrs. Morgan has faced a divorce without a settlement, lost a $7 million lawsuit for a movie deal gone bad, and most recently, filed for bankruptcy. Years after turning down a spot on the first season of The Real Housewives of New York City (“Reality TV was first starting out,” she said. “I didn’t know if it was going to be a cross between Jerry Springer and Desperate Housewives”), Morgan was ready to reconsider.
“I knew at that point that my divorce settlement wasn’t coming,” Morgan says. “I needed to support myself and my daughter in our townhouse,” she says of the $6 million home on the Upper East Side where they currently reside. “I never imagined being a single mom. Never. But you’re a mother, you do what you have to do, and the kids come first.”
At the risk of how unfavorably she may be portrayed, Morgan took advantage of the exposure Housewives could generate. “You’re you, but you’re amplified by ten,” she says. “You have to perform for the camera. The viewers are watching to see everything and you can’t try to hide that.”
But hiding seems the last thing Morgan is intent upon doing. Between asserting her carefree, “party girl” attitude and coming forth about her more sensitive personal circumstances, Morgan is not afraid to give viewers what they want.
“I’m not one to drop my problems on friends. I’m more the straw that stirs the drink,” she explains. “But, at the same time, if you sign up for reality TV, you have to be yourself. People want to see how real people live. It makes people feel like they’re not alone in the world. That we’re all going through the same things, no matter where we live, how much money we have, or which family we were born into.”
With the help of the show, which she calls “a great vehicle,” Morgan was able to open her catering company, Sonja in the City, work on her own brand, Sonja Home, and continue her charity work for children, LGBT youth, the arts, and homeless animals. “I think when you get involved with charity, it keeps you in touch with your mortality.”
It's this dynamic complexity that photographer Jessica Craig-Martin—who shot this cover as well as the opening of the Cindy Sherman retrospective—seeks to expose with her poignant photographs of high-society subjects. “I find it fascinating how women construct themselves to face the world—the choices they make and the armor they devise from clothing, make up, shoes, hair, jewels,” Craig-Martin says. “There is a rawness, a terrifying fragility lying just below the surface of this armor.”
With her unabashed, “this is me” approach to the camera, it’s Morgan who’s able to create the world she and her spectators experience together. “Sonja did not hold anything back,” says Craig-Martin. “That’s unusual in my business.”
Morgan’s candor is not unlike the women she cites as icons (Coco Chanel, Diana Vreeland, and Wallis Simpson): “These women were not beauties, but they did the best with what they had,” says Morgan. “Take Coco Chanel, she created a fantasy wherever she was.” It seems the same could be said of Morgan herself. —Sasha Levine