Reel Estate

In ‘Katy Keene,’ an aspiring fashion designer tries her luck in NYC but the real estate is a bad fit

By Kelly Kreth  |
February 11, 2020 - 12:00PM

Actress Lucy Hale stars in the leading role as Katy Keene, a twenty-something aspiring fashion designer struggling to make it in New York City.

The CW Network

“Katy Keene,” a Riverdale spinoff, debuted last week on the CW network. The musical comedy—based on the Archie Comics character of the same name—stars actress Lucy Hale and a posse of 20-somethings as young creatives struggling to make it in NYC. 

But not much in this glossy fantasy rings true: The fashion, the dialogue, and especially the real estate hit false notes, with one exception—the very real struggle many New Yorkers face when hoisting luggage up four flights of a walk-up building.

[Editor's note: When a movie or TV show is set in New York City—and if the people making it are savvy—real estate becomes part of the story itself. In Reel Estate, Brick Underground reality checks the NYC real estate depicted on screen].

One of the first scenes, set in Katy’s apartment—makes it clear the characters aren’t in Riverdale anymore. We quickly learn that Katy is a born-and-bred New Yorker who grew up on Delancey Street on the Lower East Side with a struggling, seamstress mother. Katy, who dreams of going into fashion, now lives further Uptown, in what we are supposed to believe is a shabby apartment. But the Washington Heights walk-up, while overflowing with stuff, is quite spacious. 

The three bedroom is in a modest prewar building. Any real New Yorker would recognize how unrealistically large those rooms are: Katy has a huge room that she uses as an office and design studio—she is an aspiring clothing designer—and a bedroom, which she says is the “small” one. 

Her bedroom is through French doors and fits a queen bed and lots of furniture. And that is not even the master bedroom! We are told her roommate Jorge, an aspiring Broadway actor, gets the huge bedroom because his parents own the building and the corner bodega. Sweet deal! A quick scan of Washington Heights large apartments in walkup buildings show that one can actually get a fairly good deal. Three bedrooms—but not quite as massive as the one depicted in the show— will rent for about $2,500-$3,000. Split two or three ways, could probably be managed on an assistant’s salary and bartender’s salary—but just barely. 

As the show opens, we see a third roommate—Josie (Ashleigh Murray) an unemployed, aspiring singer from Riverdale. Josie shows up needing help with her many suitcases and Katy helps her drag them up four flights. Anyone who has ever lived in a NYC walk-up knows that particular hell. My own first Hell’s Kitchen apartment was the “penthouse” on the top floor of a walkup. There were times I literally cried after coming home from a late-night flight and had to lug a huge suitcase up six flights. 

But Josie doesn’t seem to mind that much, even when she is told she’ll be sleeping in the office area on a pull-out couch. Basically, she has no privacy as Katy’s bedroom is directly next to it with only glass doors separating the two. 

Katy also lets her wannabe-boxer boyfriend, KO Kelly, stay over frequently. So in the mornings Jorge, Katy and KO have to walk through Josie’s bedroom to get to and from the rest of the apartment. Ok, so you can find young and hopeful aspiring artists living communally, but it’s fairly unrealistic for them to do so in such spacious digs. Even though Jorge may get to live rent-free in the building because his family owns it, clearly the others need to fork over some rent and utility money, but Josie doesn’t appear to have any help from family, or a job. 

Viewers are certainly no strangers to shows depicting young friends—often very fashionable ones—trying to make it in NYC. However, this apartment—with a living room that fits five people easily on its mismatched furniture—screams fake. The size of the apartment rivals Monica and Rachel’s on “Friends”, is far less realistic than the real estate depicted in “Girls” and outshines even Carrie’s on “Sex and the City.” Even the glitzy “Bold Type” girls have bigger incomes and smaller places. 

As if the over-the-top designer clothing the crew sports and unrealistic apartment wasn’t enough, some of the NYC-related dialogue is equally cringe worthy. When Josie is warned to be careful meeting up with a record producer she met while singing with a busker in Washington Square Park she quips, “I’m from Riverdale. It’s the murder capital of the world.” Um, any New Yorker knows that while Riverdale is technically in the Bronx, it is quite tony. [Insert eye roll here.] And when she sleeps over that young producer’s crib, an ultra-modern and glitzy high rise with park views, we get even more real estate whiplash. 

When KO gets the opportunity to train at a world-famous boxing gym that would require the couple to move to Philadelphia, Katy says the distance from fashionable NYC is way too far, exclaiming, “I get the bends when I go to Long Island!”  

Her boyfriend's retort: “But we always talk about how expensive it [NYC] is.”

Katy replies, “but it’s New York!” She closes her argument with: “Philadelphia isn’t exactly a fashion hub, is it?”

The characters seem to live in a glossy, almost Disneyland-version of NYC. In fact, Katy seems to dress daily as a modified Minnie Mouse, often wearing pinks and reds with bows and hearts emblazoned on her outfits. She dons red shoes—actual ruby slippers—for work, a sort of surreal Dorothy. We are told she makes her outfits herself and when lets a prince’s girlfriend (yes, a prince!) try on one of her own styles, she gets demoted by her boss, the head of the personal shopping department, a Devil-Wears-Prada type, for not trying to sell her own department store’s wares. When she then gets turned down for a promotion, her colleague, Amanda, says the inane, “I deserve this promotion. I am from the Upper East Side.” Katy responds in kind, wielding her own weaponized sense of geography: “You are from Westchester. You are not fooling anyone!”

The final retort from Amanda is even more tone-deaf and adds to the unrealistic vibe of the show: “You are a gutter girl from the Lower East Side.” What New Yorker would.ever.say.that?!

While the show actually does film in NYC and features actual storefronts—they highlight Economy Candy, The Strand bookstore and Waverly diner—it almost seems like most of what is pictured is a set. 

Bergdorf Goodman’s façade is used for “Lacy’s Fifth Avenue '' a designer imposter version of Macy’s. But according to Fashionista, “The grand mid-century interior, filled with chandeliers and perfume bottle-lined counters straight out of ‘Carol’ (actually: a sound stage at Silver Cup Studios in Long Island City) exemplifies the overall ‘timeless’ aesthetic of the show.” 

Timeless or not, it doesn’t recall any of NYC’s very grand department stores. In an ultimate display of how unrealistic this show is, Katy sneaks into Lacy’s one night with her friends to party and try on clothes. She gets in with a single key. There is no security guard or system and she and her friends are free to run about throughout the massive store. The only person there is a lone window designer who is working through the night to craft something worthy of the iconic Lacy’s. Imagine any low-level employee being able to waltz into Bergdorf or Macy’s late night to try on clothes and party with friends?

Katy whips out an old sewing machine and helps finish the window display. The next morning, when the windows are unveiled—et voila!—she gets a new job working with the window designer. 

Katy Keene is clearly a show about fantasy—the fashion, the characters (there’s a prince for heaven’s sake!) and even the huge bedrooms are a part of that. But instead of feeling like we are not in Riverdale anymore, it would be more spot on to say we are not in Kansas anymore, Katy’s ruby slippers be damned. 



Kelly Kreth

Contributing writer

Contributing writer Kelly Kreth has been a freelance journalist, essayist, and columnist for more than two decades. Her real estate articles have appeared in The Real Deal, Luxury Listings, Our Town, and amNewYork. A long-time New York City renter who loves a good deal, Kreth currently lives in a coveted rent-stabilized apartment in a luxury building on the Upper East Side.

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