Maggie Bullock, who wrote a book about J. Crew, reported that when the Fast Company issue was released, a high-ranking executive at the company (not Mr. Drexler, who denied knowledge of these events) sent “a team of employees out to scoop up every issue they could find,” in order to lessen the impact of the story.

Still, in the last five years, neither J. Crew nor Ms. Lyons have achieved the same intoxicating heights of relevance they had reached together. (She appeared on three episodes of “Girls.” Beyoncé attended J. Crew’s first presentation at New York Fashion Week.)

Ms. Lyons has filled her days since with gigs: brand collaborations (jewelry, furniture, lipsticks), board appointments and some interior design jobs. In 2018, she announced a partnership with Turner Entertainment that yielded her one-season show, “Stylish With Jenna Lyons.” She joined Instagram in 2020, posting, in her first month, photos of her dog Popeye, some censored nudes and herself getting a lice treatment. After founding LoveSeen that year, inspired by her own lack of eyelashes, her career had some fresh momentum, but not to the extent she’d hoped. “My star is not big enough to support this brand on its own,” she said.

Ms. Bullock was still working on her book, “The Kingdom of Prep,” when the startling “Housewives” announcement dropped. It made some sense to her that Ms. Lyons was pivoting. After being “as central to the fashion conversation” as the designer had been at J. Crew, “how do you go back to anonymity?” she said.

But to Ms. Lyons’s ex-colleagues, “it was sort of an unthinkable thing, to join this other team,” according to Ms. Bullock. “People who had worked with her in the past were like: ‘Is she having some sort of mental break?’”

There are famous fashion people, like Ms. Lyons, and then there are famous reality stars, like Bethenny Frankel, NeNe Leakes or Lisa Vanderpump. They each have more than three million followers on Instagram; Ms. Lyons has about 275,000. She distinctly remembers one piece of advice imparted by Mr. Cohen while discussing the role: “‘All I can say is you cannot hide. Once you’re on the show, you cannot hide.’”



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