As you may have heard, Season 9 of The Real Housewives of New York City brings a new addition to the cast in Tinsley Mortimer, whom the ladies describe as a renowned former "it girl." She's also been called a socialite — but what does that really mean?
"I think many people somehow blur the terms socialite and debutante in their minds," says Rachel Weingarten, beauty historian, author of non-fiction books including Hello Gorgeous! Beauty Products in America '40s-'60s, and a former celebrity makeup artist who once had a large socialite clientele. "I also think that reality TV has among other things allowed people who might not have ever been considered major contenders in the socialite scene to achieve international visibility, for better or worse."
Some, but not all, socialites were debutantes, but it's not necessary to have been one, according to Rachel. Socialites don't have to be at a debutante ball or wear those little white gloves, but they should know their way around a party (hopefully a philanthropic one), and they should know their best side in photographs. Bonus points for being an heiress to a hotel or drug store empire. Rachel likens it to a more prevalent college small-circle convention, albeit with a twist. "I think it's almost a unique form of the sorority system where family money, connections, great style, dating or coupling up, or even in some cases divorcing, or mildly outlandish behavior can have you sliding up or down the socialite pecking order," she explains.
Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, whose last names still grace prominent places in New York City, was considered a grandmother of the socialite life in the early 20th Century alongside her frenemy Alva Vanderbilt. But Rachel pinpoints the 1950s and 1960s, when women like Babe Paley (who was married to the uncle of Tinsley's ex-husband Topper), Slim Keith, Jackie Kennedy (when she was still Bouvier), and her stylish sister Lee Radziwill (mother-in-law of Carole Radziwill) were called socialites as the key era of the term.
Sisters Lee Radziwill and Jackie Kennedy
"Many people might think it was the '80s or '90s, because the visibility was much higher," she notes. "Instead of relying on gossip magazines like Look, we'd see people like Cornelia Guest or later Paris Hilton on Page Six or all over the Internet or on reality TV."
Paris Hilton's sister Nicky Hilton was another major socialite of the 2000s.
Rachel also explains how the unique socialite scene differs in Europe. "It's an interesting phenomenon as well, since socialites almost see it as a calling, with all the minor royalty and random famous faces — or bums, as in the case with Pippa Middleton — show up regularly at fancy parties or on the cover of gossip magazines," she says.
By the time the gossip mags proliferated and social media got cranking in the mid-noughties, a fairly comical amount of clichés were present in the socialite scene. New York Magazine poked fun at this fact with a Socialista Universe key that joked about how characteristics like new money, being a publicist or fashion designer, and going out every night with a dog in tow called were near-prerequisites to be bestowed the title. Paris jumped from Page Six regular to reality TV star. She had The Simple Life series from late 2003 to 2007. Tinsley made a cameo on Gossip Girl in 2008 and starred in the short lived reality series High Society in 2010.
Socialite and new RHONY Housewife Tinsley Mortimer.
Being a socialite is obviously not cheap; the New York Times estimated in 2013 that a well-established socialite might spend as much as a million dollars a year on charity functions, an A-list personal stylist and publicist, and the latest couture clothing. Even an aspiring socialite is skirting up to six figures per year in her quest to be seen.
Tinsley seems to have a great sense of humor about the fickle nature of the socialite world and describes her fall from grace that included an arrest and a mugshot as ample preparation for becoming one of these outspoken Housewives.
"I've been arrested. I was in jail for three hours, I think now this is fine. I think I can handle the Real Housewives," she told the The Daily Dish. "I'm just so happy to be back in New York and just getting to know new girls in New York, too, and having another group of friends. It's just been great."