Peterson’s parents are divorced: His father, David, Pete Peterson’s son, and his mother, Paige, a painter and former soap-opera actress, brought him up on the Upper West Side. Peterson, who is going to college for theater in the fall, wants to be an actor and saw the show as an opportunity to get hours in front of a camera. He was recruited by his best friend at Dwight, Jessie Leavitt, a “teenage yenta,” as she calls herself, one with an advanced sense of social status. (On the show, when Peterson calls her from Columbus Circle, she drawls, “Ew, are you wearing a fanny pack?”) Over breakfast at the Madison Avenue Pain Quotidien, she’s ebullient and deeply tanned, from a graduation trip to Barcelona. “We did our contracts together,” she says, proudly. “If PC signed it, I would sign it, and the same the other way around.” (Because Peterson was 18 when filming began, his parents did not need to sign a contract.)
Peterson has some opinions that are not quite funny when taken out of context and thrown onto television: “Let’s get off the college subject before I mass-murder everyone,” he advises some friends over dinner; “Everyone has sex with each other and betrays each other” is the way he explains his clique. He even invites cameras into his shrink’s rococo office—“All kids in New York have a therapist or psychopharmacologist,” he says, sinking into a red velvet couch with gold tassels. He taunts the younger kids: “Can we have the virgin talk, because I feel like a lot of people here are going to be a yes,” he drawls. Peterson can also seem trapped by his wealth, made to live a less genuine life because of it. Plus, there’s a healthy dose of camp here—he’s posturing, goofing, even though he was also slightly horrified by the rest of the show’s cast, which includes a few prim underclassmen. “It’s true that there was an issue for PC and I, because we have so many older friends, that so many of the other kids on the show were so … young,” says Leavitt, struggling to be diplomatic. “I think he was a little shocked sometimes, because he felt they were really … at a different stage of their lives.”
Post-crash, the city is a TV symbol of spiritual emptiness, an island of lost souls.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that it wasn’t fun to corrupt these kids a little. Peterson’s message resonates with Taylor, a 16-year-old student at Stuyvesant, who explains, with heartbreaking studiousness, “It’s important to be perceived as having status and money because it changes the way people look at you.”
Walking down Amsterdam Avenue, last week, in a form-fitting black dress and red lipstick that matches her toes, she cocks her head when asked if money matters in high school. “Money can help with your social status, because if you get a thousand dollars a night to go out, you can do a lot more than if you only get $200,” she says quietly. “My mom is generous with money, but she won’t give me a thousand dollars for no reason.”
In Peterson’s NYC Prep boastings, a thousand dollars is loose change. You can buy your way into everything, including school, he explains. (Which raises the New York snob’s question of why, if everything is about money and power, PC is at Dwight.)
This talk about money—it’s astounding. Kids, even in Manhattan, tend to be precognitive on the subject, even if their parents aren’t. Families, and schools, drill into them that merit is the coin of the realm, and they believe it, because why else would everyone put such an obscenely high value on grades, homework, and college? Living in such close quarters with parents, never safe from prying eyes, also has a way of making a lot of kids more sheltered than they would like to admit. Most private-school teenagers’ lives are passed in the safe bubble of Carnegie Hill, and whatever bus they might take to get there.
Catty and cliquish as real teenagers can be, their status markers are subtler than Peterson’s incessant money-power syllogisms. An East Seventies townhouse with a Hockney may help a little in the coolness department. Cooler still is an apartment of whatever size where parents aren’t home. There’s often little understanding of the differing outcomes that wealth can provide until college acceptances are handed out: When Brown accepts kids who have always been tracked into low-level academics, but whose parents are always in the biggest type on donor lists, the veil begins to slip.
So I wasn’t surprised when some of the NYC Prep cast I interviewed suggested that the people they were onscreen were not the people they were in real life. Kelli, for example, says that she doesn’t live alone—on the show, she lives in an apartment while her parents stay in the Hamptons, popping in once in a while—and also claims to have never been interested in Sebastian, on whom she is supposed to have an unrequited crush. The show has a way of taking hypothetical statements as fact, like “what am I supposed to say, that my mother doesn’t work, she never has,” from Leavitt, when her mother was actually a teacher at Dalton; a close friend says Peterson was supplied trappings of wealth by the production company, even a private plane. “The initial experience of being on TV makes most people uncomfortable,” says Andy Cohen. “It’s a potential minefield. But I think these kids have a great sense of humor about themselves and the show.”