Peter Cary “PC” Peterson, 18 years old and a senior at Dwight, is sitting at Philippe on the Upper East Side, talking about the way the world works, based on his extensive experience. “Everything in New York City is about connections,” he explains, his eyes glinting and head lolling back. “It’s who you know and how much money you have. It’s really sad. And I am not saying I’m like that. But that’s what New York is: money and power.”
Peterson, who is the grandson of Pete Peterson, illustrious billionaire banker, is the star of Bravo’s new reality show NYC Prep, its most eligible bachelor, its cattiest gossip, and its most profound philosopher, spouting teen epigrams in a polo shirt with an upturned collar. “Money flows like the wind,” he says. Or “people want to strive to act like an asshole.” He, of all castmates, seems to be enjoying himself thoroughly. His family, never press-shy in the past, is mortified by his new celebrity. But PC is living large in a way his grandfather never contemplated.
In fact, much of the reality of NYC Prep we’ve seen before, as fiction. This is the Gossip Girl lifestyle: shopping excursions to Bergdorf, fake I.D.’s, getting drunk at clubs, confabs at restaurants in the meatpacking district. And these are Gossip Girl–style bad values—the naked pursuit of money, sex, and social position, as if there’s a gigantic chalkboard somewhere on Park Avenue charting the relative popularity of every kid in the city. But the denizens of this world are real teenagers. At least, they were before they began taping the show.
In NYC Prep, as in many low-culture products, the emerging picture of Manhattan is an upper-class farce. The city is a capitalist hell, with mood lighting, frenetic shopping, and “18-year-old girls who cry when they lose their eyeliner,” as Peterson puts it. Post-crash, the city is a symbol of spiritual emptiness, an island of lost souls, almost submerged in colorful cocktails. And much of America wants to laugh at New Yorkers suffering for their sins.
The creators of this weird fishbowl are New Yorkers in their thirties: Matt O’Brien and Liz Alderman, a Brearley graduate who was also a teacher at the school for four years. In December 2007, Alderman and O’Brien, who’d met while working as producers on Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style, hatched an idea to cast a real-life Gossip Girl with kids from private schools. “These kids are so smart in the way that they deal with their issues, so snarky and sarcastic with each other, and we wanted to capture that,” says Alderman. She began crisscrossing Manhattan with O’Brien in her Porsche—“The casting mobile!”—staking out corners near the Brearley-Chapin nexus, on East End Avenue and 80th Street; Lexington and 86th, near Dalton and Regis; and, on the West Side, near Collegiate and Calhoun. They faxed requests to schools, without response, and stuck casting flyers on the back of dressing-room doors at Intermix and Forever 21. When these strategies were largely unsuccessful, they turned to Facebook—a tricky way to contact minors who would likely not engage with adults otherwise, and often frowned upon by some news outlets, like the New York Times. “It took a little while to get traction, but once we did, hundreds of kids went through the process in some way,” says O’Brien, who taped auditions with these teenagers at a rented space on Wall Street.
Once the pair sold the show to Bravo, they set themselves up at Le Pain Quotidien on Madison Avenue, scheduling appointments with parents on Park Avenue: Because the characters on the show are minors, their parents needed to sign a production contract. Doors began to close. “This is one of the hardest shows to cast that has ever made it on air,” says Lenid Rolov, an executive producer on the show. Desperate to fill out the cast, the producers did a hard sell for the final character: Kelli, a junior who was brought to the audition by Real Housewife Jill Zarin’s daughter, Ally, a schoolmate. “I went to the interview for the show on Friday and rushed to the Jitney right after for the Hamptons,” says Kelli, over lunch at a Rockefeller Center café with her thin blonde mother and her father, an impeccably groomed owner of a printing press. “When I got home, I went into the den with my parents and told them, ‘Um, after school today, Ally took me to audition for a reality show, and we have to sign the contract by tomorrow.’ ” She and Ally don’t speak anymore; if you really want to know the gossip—which I’m not sure you do—Ally says that Kelli didn’t invite her to her birthday party, so she’s done with her.