In an era of hyper-consciousness about all things news, CNN Tonight With Don Lemon has become a prime-time highlight. How does its inimitable host escape from the intense political climate? By retreating to Sag Harbor!
Was life more hectic for you before election night, or now?
Now. We never know what’s going to happen! Something happens every single day. Sometimes we have an entire show planned, and then right at the last minute, we have to throw it out the window and go with the breaking news, whether there’s a policy change or [President Trump] has tweeted something. It’s crazy. I was on for an hour a night, Mondays through Thursdays, but since the election, it’s heated up and I’ve been on for two hours a night from Monday to Fridays.
Do you miss Friday nights at Almond?
I do, but every once in a while I’ll have a Friday night off and get to go. Or I’ll have the driver take me straight there. If not, Murf’s is open until 4 a.m. and I can get a drink. Then I roll on home—on my skateboard.
Is the political climate stressful for you?
It is. But you have to let it roll off your back, or it’ll drive you insane. It’s tough to wrangle people who come on the air and don’t believe in telling the viewer the truth. I don’t really allow it on the show. It gets a bit dicey sometimes to keep them in order on live television.
Things can get really heated among the panelists. Is the vibe different when the cameras aren’t rolling?
It’s a completely different atmosphere. A lot of people will admit things in the commercial break that they won’t say on television—that’s how you know for some people it’s just [about] talking points, and some of them don’t believe in exactly everything they say on television. I try to get them off their talking points to be a little more real.
Do you think people are more politically aware now than ever before?
I think people are more engaged with the news and willing to share their opinions and perspectives, but I don’t know if they know the facts the way they should. I think people should be more media-literate. If you flip between cable stations, you’ll wonder if we’re covering the same stories, which we are, but it’s completely different.
How often do you get asked about [political commentator] Kayleigh McEnany?
All the time. People say, “I can’t believe she actually believes that,” or, “How do you handle that Kayleigh?” She’s actually one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet, and behind the scenes, it’s not as antagonistic as it can be on TV. But she does believe what she says—she was a Trump supporter early on, and I think she feels like she has to defend his position. I get asked more about [commentator] Jeffrey Lord now.
You recently hosted John Legend on the show. Was it refreshing to interview someone outside of politics?
It’s refreshing to change the mood sometimes, but everything is somehow centered on what’s happening in D.C. or at the White House. Everyone’s so strongly opinionated about it. Even with John, we talked about Trump and his policies and wanting him to do more with criminal justice reform. So there you go!
Who’s your dream person to interview?
Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Donald Trump, and Melania Trump—that’s in order of importance.
What brands do you wear on-air?
I love designers, and I have a Dries Van Noten jacket that is beautiful and amazing. People loved it when I wore it during the inauguration. But I’ll mostly wear Suitsupply. They’re not terribly expensive, and I can change them in and out without spending a fortune.
How about off the air?
I love casual comfort. I’ll throw on Vineyard Vines when I’m out here and wear khakis or white jeans, and that’s it. A Lacoste or Ralph Lauren polo…really casual. And I love my Sabah shoes! People don’t even recognize me.
Well, they do and they don’t. If I leave the house in a suit, people are like, “Oh, hey, Don Lemon, CNN!” But if I go out in shorts or gym clothes, they’re not expecting it.
When you do get recognized, do people ask a lot about politics?
All the time, everywhere I go. I’m grateful that people watch, but it’s like, “Okay, already!” I just grin and bear it, but the positive side is that people are engaged, watching, and care about what I do. This is a great time to be a journalist, and a good time to be me.
How closely do you follow the news on the weekends?
Unless something big’s happening, I try not to. Sometimes I’ll watch the Sunday morning shows in bed, but even watching the Sunday shows, by the time Monday night comes, that’s more than 24 hours old, so I try not to do anything except for chill out in the Hamptons on the weekends and hang out with friends.
When did you start coming out to Sag Harbor?
In 2015. Some friends who rented a house invited me to stay with them. It was the same summer there was a documentary on Sag Harbor and the history of African-Americans on the Oprah Winfrey Network [OWN]—it has a rich history with African-Americans, so I felt like, if I’m going to come to the Hamptons I might as well go there. I fell in love with it and immediately started casually looking for a house. The next summer I rented between Bridgehampton and Sag Harbor, and the next year I told myself I wasn’t going to spend on renting and instead make a down payment. I haven’t looked back since.
Why do you think there’s a lack of diversity out here?
I don’t know; it’s weird. One would think there would be more, because everyone from New York is here. In Sag Harbor, you see diversity on Main Street every once in a while and in the restaurants. But I don’t see a lot of people mingling. Like if I go over to Sag Harbor Hills, it’s like all African-Americans all hanging out. If you come out and hang out with my friends, you will see diversity. Maybe we can spread it. I’m not comfortable when it’s only one group of people. I like diversity.
Do you come out year-round?
I do, and it’s funny because everyone loves the summer—including me—but I think I get more enjoyment out of the house in the winter because I go there, light a fire, do jigsaw puzzles, and eat. I’ll gain a bunch of weight, but then lose it in May.
What are your go-to activities?
Besides chilling, going out on my friend’s boat. The best thing you can do is have a good friend with a big boat. [Laughs] On Friday and Saturday mornings, I go to the gym to get my exercise in because after that, you’re done. It’s not going to happen. By the time 11 a.m. comes, you’re out at brunch and then at someone’s house. There’s a lot of eating and drinking going on.
What do your Saturday nights look like?
Mostly, it’s dinner with friends. I’m in East Hampton a lot, and sometimes I’ll go to dinner at Topping Rose House in Bridgehampton. I have the most fun with Joy Behar. She lives two blocks from my house. Everyone would tell her, “Don Lemon just bought a house here.” When I was moving in last summer, I got a knock on my door, and it was her. Since then, she has me over, and there will always be a lot of media people and comedians there. I enjoy Sunday nights the most, though, because I don’t feel that pressure to go back [to the city]—I go back on Mondays.
Chris Cuomo also has a house in the Hamptons. Do you guys get together?
Yeah, we hang out in Bridgehampton. We usually go to Pierre’s, or we’ll go to Sunset Beach on his boat. We’ve been saying for two years that we’re going to go fishing on Saturday mornings, but every time it comes I’m too sleepy. It’s like 7 or 8 a.m.! He works mornings and I work nights.
There’s a lot of local media out here. What’s your take?
I read The East Hampton Star, but what I do the most is listen to WLNG 92.1 FM. That’s my station. I love listening to the news reports, because it’s like, “Someone stole a wallet in a parking lot.” They have this old jingle—“Now it’s news time.” The one thing with The East Hampton Star that I don’t like is that they printed my address. I love them, and I know it’s public record, but don’t do that.
You’ve written a book. Will you do something else with all your reporting?
I will, but I don’t know when. I was actually working on a book before the election. I think I was smart, because right now, nothing is going to get attention in this political environment. I’ve had a couple of friends write books and it’s hard to get attention when Trump just takes the oxygen right out of them.
Got it. Any vacation plans?
I haven’t taken a vacation in a long time. I just want to enjoy my house and enjoy every weekend here. I want to express how much I freaking love it out here. It’s my mini paradise. Everyone thinks it’s really fancy and full of just rich people, but it’s not.
PLUS! Don’s Lemonade…
Lemon loves this summer staple as much as the next guy! Here’s his favorite version from epicurious.com—he substitutes Splenda or Stevia for the sugar.
1 cup (packed) mint leaves, chopped
2/3 cup sugar
1 cup fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 cups vodka
Fresh mint sprigs
Combine chopped mint and sugar in large bowl. Stir in lemon juice and vodka. Cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes and up to
2 hours. Strain mixture into pitcher. Fill six
6- to 8-ounce glasses with crushed ice.
Pour mixture over. Garnish with mint sprigs.