The charity circuit, once a bastion of breeding and privilege, has transformed itself, in the days since 9/11, into a kind of reality show. Running from September through May (and ending with the Met’s Costume Institute Benefit Gala, which takes place this week, on May 7), the parties raise funds but also provide an extended publicity campaign for young women who seek to become famous. They compete in a gossip free-for-all played out in tabloids and on the Internet. In this mediated world, public image cuts dangerously close to private reality, and it is considered an honor to have one’s photograph rudely dissected on a Website.
The business of rising from social girl to professional celebrity was put into overdrive five years ago by Paris Hilton. Rising alongside digital cameras and photo blogs, she constructed a life based on hype and a pretty face. What a strange fascination this young girl has with getting her picture taken, thought David Patrick Columbia, editor of the New York Social Diary Website, as he watched her gyrate for Southampton cameramen. Now he reflects, “It turned out to be a major career! She’s a multi-million-dollar personality, and it’s all because of having her picture taken—nothing else. She is the equation.”
Hilton preferred the word heiress to socialite, but in fact she embodied the original meaning of the latter term, coined in 1928 by Briton Hadden and his fellow editors at Time to describe the rebellious young women of the Jazz Age. A socialite was brisk and blithe, radiant and unconcerned. She embodied youth, freedom, modernity. When Hilton left for L.A., finding fulfillment as a reality-show star, she was succeeded by a generation of girls—perhaps 100 at the core—who wished to repeat her success, without taking off their underwear. A peculiar amalgam of some of the oldest names in New York, daughters of captains of industry from all over the world, and pretty young things with the right dresses but no pedigree at all, these girls proudly called themselves “socialites.”
Their leader, Tinsley, had debuted at the cotillion in Richmond, Virginia, and attended boarding school at Lawrenceville, in New Jersey. After graduating from Columbia, she married her high-school sweetheart, “Topper” Mortimer, and then hit the charity-ball circuit with her sister-in-law, Minnie. Breathless, bubbly, Tinsley wore short, baby-doll dresses cinched at the waist and fanning out mid-thigh. When posing for pictures, she liked to open her mouth, arch her neck, and wink at the camera, like a virgin holding a secret.
Tinsley and her sidekicks and associates—the Venezuelan heiress Fabiola Beracasa, the daughters Hearst, assorted ugly ducks and pretty young things—quickly filled the gossip news hole that Paris had left in her wake. “I’d rather cover sports stars and celebrities,” says Daily News gossip reporter Patrick Huguenin. “But, on a slow day … ”
Socialite Rank had no such snobbery about the relative merits of the homegrown party scene. The Website broke down socialite party performance into four categories: “personal styles and designer relations”; “press coverage in major publications and gossip columns”; “appearances and commitment to events”; and “hot factor—what makes each of the individuals sizzle with personality.”
Tinsley nearly always scored first and Fabiola second. Like high-school cheerleaders who tire of their boyfriends, sometimes they traded places. But there was more to the site than simple competition. It featured pictures of pretty girls, the promise of impending tears, and the threat of public humiliation. The most rabid readers were the socialites themselves. Asked to submit their favorite designer, travel spot, and astrological sign, many responded immediately.
Socialites were glued to the site. Some checked it every few minutes. Dozens were brought to tears. “We’re all human, my God,” says Zani Gugelmann, the No. 4 girl. “Who wouldn’t cry when somebody says they’re fat or they have a horse face or a big nose? You’re like, What? And that’s just the physical stuff. When they say nobody likes you, it’s shattering.” Lydia Fenet, a benefit auctioneer for Christie’s, logged on to find herself accused on two counts: being a social operator and having a horse face. “She cried for days,” one friend recalled. “But because of that site, she’s a huge social star.”
Soon the process gained momentum. Women made reputations and lost them, stimulating greater interest in the social scene and attracting reporters who trolled the site for new profile subjects. One element the scene lacked was a fresh face. Tinsley, after all, was entering her thirties. “The media is just carnivorous about these women,” says her brother-in-law, Peter Davis, a columnist for the uptown magazine Avenue. “They crank them out—it’s like a machine—and then they want a younger one, they want a new one, they want a fight.”