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The Number-One Girl


Park Avenue Peerage blogger James Kurisunkal.  

Staring into this house of mirrors was Olivia Palermo, a young girl bewitched by her own reflection. The daughter of a real-estate developer and an interior decorator, she had grown up on the Upper East Side and in Greenwich, Connecticut. She had all the requisite trappings: the private-school education at Nightingale, Windward, and St. Luke’s; the party frocks from Bonpoint; the year abroad in France. Now she wanted to join the girls she read about on Socialite Rank.

She began interning at the society magazine Quest, dropping pounds, and seeing more of her childhood playmate, the actor-heiress Byrdie Bell. In April 2006, Byrdie’s mother took the girls to a Sotheby’s auction. Olivia wore a blue dress and a white belt; Byrdie, taller and larger-boned, paired a black dress with a denim jacket. They rushed over to Gugelmann, who was chatting with the party photographer Patrick McMullan. “Zani, Zani, how are you?” they asked. McMullan turned around. “Oh!” he said. “Who are these two pretty girls? Let’s take a picture.”

The next day, Olivia and Byrdie appeared on “These are the new girls,” Zani wrote in an e-mail to a friend. “They’re going to be the next pretty young things.” A week later, Zani saw the girls at another party. “Realize what you’re getting into,” she said. “Once you’re in the public eye, people can toss you around like a ball. And you don’t know whose hands you’re going to land in.” The girls listened, nodded, and when Zac Posen invited them to his “Spring Fling,” they arrived in his dresses.

Olivia joined the social circuit in earnest that fall. Photographers were charmed and so was Socialite Rank, which asked her to submit a profile. (“Favorite Things I Simply Love: Manicure and pedicures.”) She didn’t land in the top twenty, but she reached the runners-up category called “Don’t kill yourself, you almost made it.”

Excited, Olivia increased her efforts. She hired a publicist, Dennis Wong at People’s Revolution. She met fashion designers. In January she joined charities including New Yorkers for Children, which funds the city’s child-services administration for low-income families. “It’s no Sloan-Kettering,” remarks a longtime scene watcher, “but because Anna Wintour is involved in that one, it could be your ticket into Vogue. And, most important, Olivia could get in. They accept anyone, if you have the money.”

The women proved less accepting, especially after Olivia made a few missteps. She said hi to some girls whose pictures she had seen on the Website but to whom she had never been introduced, or she rushed over to speak with them just as a photographer appeared. “She would hover,” one girl recalled, “in this very carnivorous way.” And when the photographer left, so would Olivia—only to appear in front of the same camera, next to another girl. She moved too fast, at parties and in the scene, becoming known as the Pop-up Socialite. “She’s given up all the pleasures of youth to pursue her goal,” one girl jeered, “like a kid in a pageant.”

The tension came to a head in February, when Olivia made her grand splash at Fashion Week. “Page Six” ran a gossip item saying Tinsley would pout when asked to pose for pictures beside Olivia. The social world took sides. Eric Wilson wrote a feature piece for the New York Times’ Sunday “Styles” section featuring a prominent quotation from a young man on the scene, Kristian Bravo Laliberte. “She’s past the point!” he declared of Tinsley. “She’s becoming Paris Hilton!” Socialite Rank retaliated, calling him a “D-list leach” and crossing out his photo with a pink X. Commenters piled on.

On February 28, Olivia threw a birthday party. She was turning 21. It was an intimate affair—twelve best friends and one member of the press, sipping Champagne and slurping corn soup at Bruschetteria on Rivington Street. “Everyone had their little name plates, and everyone gave their prezzies,” Olivia’s friend Chessy Wilson recalls. “It was cute!” The celebration continued on March 2 with a bash at the nightclub Marquee. The invitation featured Olivia’s face against a starry black backdrop.

A few days later, Socialite Rank parodied the invitation with an “SR Creation”: Olivia on a can of tuna fish. “If you haven’t heard Olivia Palermo’s name over the last week in a half you probably still in the severe state of trauma over Anna Nicole’s death or reside in some Third World Country where the only access to the Internet is available through one computer at the central Red Cross,” the Website remarked in its oddly ungrammatical voice, then went on to accuse her of borrowing dresses, skipping class at the New School, and copping an attitude of “aimless desperation.” SR asked its readers: “Is she a packaged can of tuna, a Chicken of the Sea?”


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