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Welcome to the Dollhouse

Perky, pretty, and remarkably plugged-in, a pack of young publicists have become the darlings of New York's demimonde. But be careful -- they bite.

A couple of years ago, Lara Shriftman, a 26-year-old publicist, and one of her employees, socialite Liz Cohen, 28, had an idea. They decided to transform a Betsey Johnson boutique salesgirl -- a 25-year-old transplant from London named Alice Larkin -- into the season's preeminent it-girl. To this end, the publicists began outfitting the clerk in free designer clothes, putting her up in their summer homes in the Hamptons, and taking her in their limos when making their nightly rounds of movie premieres, dinners for eight, and junior-committee benefits. At each event, they made sure that Larkin was photographed draped around celebrities like Leo DiCaprio or Kate Moss or Serena Altschul; the next day, from their sunny twelfth-floor office in the garment district, they leaked "nice" items about Larkin to the people they call their "favorite friends" -- W's Kevin West, Vogue's Alexandra Kotur, Quest's Kristina Stewart, and Richard Johnson of "Page Six."

Up until then, Shriftman had focused her considerable energies on promoting mostly inanimate objects like cell phones and $1,000 pumps. Now she was curious to see whether she could work her magic on an actual person. As it turned out, she could. Within six months, Larkin had become the toast of the town -- standing alongside Cohen and Alexandra Von Furstenberg as a bridesmaid at heiress Ginny Bond's much-publicized wedding, taking her turn as a Manhattan File cover girl, providing pithy quotes for the Cosmo story "How I Fell in Love With My Workout." Last month's Vogue featured an article on where she gets her highlights done.

Alas for would-be Emma Woodhouses, the similarities to Jane Austen ended there: Larkin soon set the publicists' nifty experiment on its head. On the weekend of Bond's marriage at the Hotel Bel-Air, Larkin began an affair with the husband of one of the inner circle, Samantha Kluge Cahan, the 27-year-old daughter of billionaire John Kluge. "I'd go to my job, and that filthy illegal British whore would take my husband to a suite in the SoHo Grand," complains Kluge.

Six months later, this bit of gossip made all the tabloids when Kluge filed for divorce against Cahan. "The day I threw that jerk out, he was crying and protesting and saying things like 'But my heart found a home with you!' " says Kluge, fiddling nervously with the clasp on her Fendi bag. "Well, hon, your dick found a home somewhere else."

The aggrieved heiress was not to be underestimated: Within days, Larkin found herself a virtual leper on the young-socialite scene. When she showed up at Shriftman and Cohen's next party, she was brusquely expelled -- "You're so ugly you look like a man," sneered Cohen from the other side of the velvet rope. Larkin ran sobbing out of Life's VIP room. "I loved Liz so much -- she was my best friend," she says now. "But I guess they cared about Samantha more than me."

Call the Alice Larkin experiment a lark, a little promo spot for potential clients. But for Shriftman and her coterie of fellow publicists, it was also a raw display of power, proof of their social coming-of-age. And if their tactics seem more appropriate to high school than to high society, maybe you haven't gotten out much lately.

Now that the city's established society has fled the flashbulbs for the relative privacy of their Mongiardino-designed dining rooms, New York's nocturnal Scene has been colonized by a youthful new breed: a traveling circus of twentysomething socialites, bankers, novelists, models, actors, and starstruck journalists who scribble down their every sneeze. A brand-new group of hostesses has emerged to satisfy the fickle nocturnal longings of this swell set: seven very young, very ambitious women who are taking their turn as the latest divas of the demimonde. And as befits this increasingly commercial age, they're all publicists.

Meet the Seven Sisters: In addition to Shriftman and her partner, Elizabeth Harrison, who rep fashion and luxury lifestyle products like Motorola and Gucci, there's Lizzie Grubman, the 27-year-old who is the reigning queen of New York nightlife: Her clients include Moomba, Sony Music, and Shine. Then there's 28-year-old Ally b. and 24-year-old Jennifer Posner, whose company, PB&J, does P.R. for hip-hoppish clients like Loud Records and Tommy Hilfiger Jeans. Rounding out the clique are 27-year-olds Shari Misher and Lauren London, who rep trendy restaurants like Lot 61 and upscale charity events.

Over the past year, the girls have formed a distinct social unit in the nightlife of the city, traveling in packs from party to party, presiding over tablefuls of celebrities like Dennis Hopper and Minnie Driver, club-hopping all night with Puffy and Mase. In New York, scarcely a week goes by without one of them throwing an event. Their carefully groomed guest lists are a supersensitive barometer of the city's junior social hierarchy: who's hot, who's not, who's in and who's out, who's, "like, totally washed up."

"No one our age likes stuffy cocktail parties," says Dylan Lauren, the 23-year-old daughter of Ralph and a budding event planner herself. "We like to socialize with people our age -- most of us have as much power as older guys in suits, and soon enough, we'll have more than them."

This year, sources claim, both Grubman and Harrison & Shriftman billed nearly $1 million; their MTV-paced flurry of girl-talking, air-kissing, name-dropping, and gift-giving has helped coat a diverse range of products -- from Motorola to Method Man, A.O.L. to Nine West -- with a dusting of youthful cachet. "These girls live the life," says Peggy Siegal, the prickly P.R. powerhouse whom many of the girls cite as a role model. "Personal life, public image -- it's all so intertwined that there's hardly a way to tell the difference anymore. But that's how you make the bucks."

"Let's say you're like me," explains Jen Posner on a recent night at Moomba, over an intimate dinner with client Tommy Hilfiger and her partner, Ally b. "You're 24, you were brought up in a certain way, you like to be social, you love to talk on the phone, but you don't know what to do with your life." She giggles. "There's really only one thing to be: a publicist."

"My girls are my conduit to the underground," pipes in Hilfiger, putting his arms around the women. "I need to be connected to the right young people, and everybody loves these two." Pecking him on either cheek, the two girls giggle in unison. "We love you so much," trills Ally b., bouncing up and down in her Prada stilettos.