second acts

Jenna Lyons on Coming Out (and Being Outed) After 40

Illustration: by Paco May

“Second Acts” is a series about making big changes later in life.

In 2011, the New York Post published an article outing Jenna Lyons, then 43 years old and the president and creative director of J.Crew. At the time, she was falling in love with a woman for the first time and still making sense of her feelings. Ten years later, now the star of HBO Max’s reality show Stylish With Jenna Lyons, Lyons tells the Cut what it was like coming out to herself at the same time the rest of the world found out. 

I have never really thought about how I identify. There are markers in my life, where I go back and think, God, I was really obsessed with Jodie Foster, or Tatum O’Neal in Bad News Bears. At the same time, I also had wonderful relationships with men — loving and really healthy relationships with men. It wasn’t like I was in those relationships and something was just completely wrong.

When I first moved to New York, the only gay people I knew were men. I didn’t even know any gay women. So it wasn’t on my radar. And it also wasn’t something that I made a conscious decision about. Years later, I was getting ready to go through a divorce, getting ready to leave my husband — we were not in a great place. My close, new friend, Courtney, was the person I was talking to [about it], and she happened to be gay. I remember really distinctly sitting in a restaurant saying, “Well, like, what exactly do you do? Like, how does it work? From a physical standpoint, what are the mechanics like?”Cause I didn’t know. And by the time she finished talking to me, I was hot, and I was like, Oh my God, why do I want to kiss this person? This is really strange. It was completely a takeover. It wasn’t something where I had been dreaming about it or thinking about it. I was surprised. Something happened, and we ended up getting together.

So very soon after I had told my husband that I wanted a divorce, she and I were having dinner. When you have feelings for someone, you don’t have to be touching, you don’t have to be doing anything, but the people around you can tell something’s going on. We were probably sitting a little too close, looking at each other a little too longingly. We were sitting in Cafe Cluny and someone called the Post and felt like it was their job to share my personal story with the world.

Meanwhile, I had no idea what was going on with me. Was I straight? Was I gay? Was I bi? I was tumbling into love with a woman and it was all new and I didn’t have any guideposts. I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t make any definitive decisions for myself around the whole situation.

I was 43 years old. I was the head of a huge company and a very American, classic brand. We had an intercom at the office, and I was running a pretty large meeting. I was standing in front of the room, and I get a call over the intercom. The heads of marketing were on the other end, and they said, “We have a call from New York Post. There’s a report that you’re seeing a woman — should we confirm or deny?” You have to imagine: I’m standing on the phone with a whole room full of people and I can feel their eyes on me. And I’m like, literally six weeks into this totally new relationship. I heard the word “confirm” come out of my mouth. It wasn’t like I was confirming that I was gay or that I was bi. The truth was, I was seeing a woman, so yes, confirmed. I wasn’t going to lie about it. And then it just kind of snowballed.

There’s a special place for the person who took it upon themselves to make that decision. I hadn’t told my mother, I hadn’t told any of my friends, really. I hadn’t told my ex-husband. I had a child.

When the Post story happened, everyone at J.Crew was incredible. I feel so lucky because it could have been catastrophic for me, professionally and emotionally. We all agreed that I would stop all press. So I literally went quiet for a year.

About a year and a half later, I was nominated for a Glamour Woman of the Year award. I felt like it was time for me to just acknowledge publicly, the way I wanted to, what was happening in my life. I thanked people in my life, so I thanked Courtney, for helping me find new love. That was the first time I publicly said anything on my own terms about it.

The part that was the most harmful was not necessarily about me, but the people around me. I would have wanted to have a more elegant, certainly more private, approach — and you want to slow-roll that kind of thing with your parents. It feels awful to announce you’re getting a divorce, and then six weeks later, somebody is saying that you’re — it just was not what I wanted. I was finding myself really attracted to this person, and yes, we had kissed, and maybe some other things had happened, but I wasn’t like, “Okay, I’m gay!” I was just as surprised as the world was. I still don’t know: Am I gay, am I bi? I don’t know if it really matters.

The one good thing is that I didn’t have to decide who I’d tell first. It just happened, and the entire world knew. The timing of it was awful, but in some ways it just made it like, Okay, let’s go. There’s also the real brass tacks of it all, which is just like … [whispering] the sex is better. When you’re having sex with the same sex, your ability to talk about it and be more open is very different. Our culture doesn’t encourage dialogue and openness and vulnerability in sex. I didn’t feel that free or open with the opposite sex.

I don’t look back and think, Oh, I wish … I might not have been ready [to date women]. Maybe my body wasn’t calibrated to it, or I just hadn’t come across the right person in the right timing. I had a really great time along the way, and I feel grateful that I’m getting to have a new experience. The pressure that I felt to look young and sexy is very different now, too. I feel far more in my body and far more attractive than I did when I was younger, because the lens that I’m being looked at through is a female lens.

Culturally, we’re not always accepting of people who make changes — particularly in this area. I feel really grateful that I was supported. And I don’t feel like I couldn’t fall in love with a man again. I don’t think that’s out of the question. I do feel less responsibility to explain. I don’t feel like it’s my job to make it clear for anyone else what’s going on with me sexually or romantically.

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Jenna Lyons on Coming Out (and Being Outed) After 40