Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Olivia Palermo Goes Swimming!

Olivia Palermo

Late this March, a not so innocent prank sent New York society into overdrive. For a moment the city's social teacup promised to boil over and spill its frothy combination of sanctimony and Schadenfreude all over itself. Perhaps it was the weather, perhaps it was the poorly attended and disappointing winter 'season', perhaps it was the echo of another month of dull collections, but in an instant, even the customarily detached and reticent were poised, ready to fire off an explanation, a comment or an opinion - and plenty of fingers pointed. The kerfuffle, like its protagonists, was born, as one might imagine, on the Internet. There it unfolded at a rapid pace and achieved the sort of outsize dimensions only a lawless, mostly anonymous and irrepressible society could allow. One might also imagine, though one would be mistaken, that like a soufflé buoyed, as it were, by a limited supply of hot air, it would implode just as rapidly. However, by the time the Internet coughed the whole business into the print media, the cast of characters had reached a sort bona fide status that their actions and achievements might belie.

It begins, as most things do, with an embarrassingly vain MySpace page and a few pictures on a society paparazzo's website. These rapidly multiply into a few hundred, followed by the obligatory association with a handful of second rate celebrities, a few blog posts and several thousand comments later, the phenomenon Olivia Palermo is born. A simple girl from the country (alright: CT) with simple aspirations (to be noticed, for heaven's sake!), enrolled at the academically negligible New School, Olivia throws herself into the shallow end of New York society with abandon. And why not? Photographers and society 'scribes' - bored, lazy and hungry for new blood - take notice. She has learned from the best. Always immaculately, though somewhat garishly turned out, she attends any and every event she is invited to (or not, for that matter). One envelope opens unto the next. Olivia is asked to join benefit committees, host a few parties here and there, model expensive footwear, agrees to be profiled (on the basis of what, we don't know), and somewhere along the line, hires a publicist.

As DIY as Olivia's ascent into the glittery heavens of New York society may have appeared, it was helped along nicely by an anonymous friend, or group of friends. On October 31, the amusingly titled, now defunct website Socialite Rank, which had been set up cleverly to capitalize on the undeniable commercial appeal of the New York socialite, profiles young Olivia. Comparatively unknown still, she gushes about her affinity for sports and shopping. No less than 3 months later, Olivia is, by the same website, criticized for socializing too enthusiastically. Then with the wrong people, recycling a dress already worn by a starlet, not attending enough of her classes, and so on. Not five months later, the website reprints a letter, allegedly penned by the young lady herself, ingratiating herself sloppily, and cringingly asking for the acceptance and friendship of an older more established social guard. The letter itself, as well as the printing of it strikes not a few as rather dubious, cruel and conniving. Olivia had been set up for a fall all along. Socialite Rank, an utterly subjective, opinionated, personal blog had tested its power and emerged victorious. In an accelerated world where the rise and fall of a given character can be engineered from the confines of an office or cublice, a website created and destroyed a star in less than a year.

The letter -- real or not -- is only the beginning. Allegations fly between both camps, publicists are hired to comment in the newspapers, websites competing over the same material fight among themselves, rivalries are fabricated, talk of physical altercations between young Olivia and an older socialite named Tinsley Mortimer, cut from the very same cloth, make their way through the gossip columns, a local magazine has already busied itself profiling the young lady for an exposé on the perils of lacrosse and the suburban aspiration. But most worrying are the pages and pages of Internet comments the incident elicits. From the old world to the heartland everyone has an opinion, and malice filled one, at that.

The making of a great battle is underway. In one corner we have one of New York's perennial favorites: the ambitious arriviste, fueled by the possibility of insta-sorta-fame for nothing in particular, in the other corner, another favorite: the jealous onlooker, the would be expert, an aspirant of a different, less photogenic sort. However, the playing field has not been leveled -- as the young athlete might say herself -- as one contestant is plainly visible, and the other, shrouded in anonymity. As this battle continues to play out, one is forced to consider the ramifications of a culture that tolerates such foul play. Whose is the most egregious crime: the simpleton's tasteless launch into the social stratosphere, or the secret police's cold blooded lynching methods?

— Jane Smith

Photo: WireImage

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