In New York, a socialite goes by any other name

NEW YORK Thu Sep 4, 2008 11:23pm EDT

1 of 2. Tinsley Mortimer prepares backstage before the Heatherette show at the Spring 2007 Fashion Week in New York City September 12, 2006.

Credit: Reuters/Eric Thayer

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - With her trademark cascade of curled blonde hair pinned to the side, Tinsley Mortimer is a charity ball staple, attends countless fashion shows and is one of the most recognizable faces in New York society.

To most people, she is the epitome of a socialite. But these days few socialites apply that moniker to themselves: many feel the once-glamorous tag has been spoiled by the antics of Paris Hilton and others.

Mortimer, along with many women who attend charity functions in the high-society circles of Manhattan, has aggressively marketed herself in other roles -- even as she keeps up an almost frenetic social schedule.

Mortimer is "lifestyle director" for a Manhattan condo development, designer for the Japanese label Samantha Thavasa, and Christian Dior's "U.S. beauty ambassador."

Indeed, in many cases professional socialites are calling themselves by other names almost as a ruse, according to social commentators.

"They would rather be known as handbag designers or dress designers or social activists," said Lloyd Grove, a gossip columnist for New York Daily News until 2006. The word socialite "smacks of unseriousness," he said.

Most high-profile socialites -- men are almost never called socialites -- now have an alternative title. Patricia Duff is a political fund-raiser, Fabiola Beracasa a jewelry executive.

David Patrick Columbia, the editor of the New York Social Diary website, calls Mortimer the "successor" to Paris Hilton.

"These girls who want to be called handbag designers, they're basically expressing their sense that they're not taken seriously because they're called socialites," said Columbia. "And, you know, they're not."

For Devorah Rose, editor-in-chief of Social Life magazine, being known as a socialite is a mixed blessing.

"Anyone who's not a celebrity, who's being photographed going out, becomes a socialite," Rose told Reuters. "Because it's not exclusive anymore, nobody wants to be a socialite."

Rose was labeled a socialite by blogs such as "The Quest for 'it'" when she began serving on the boards of charities two years ago. Almost immediately, publicists began offering her free shoes, dresses and jewelry, said Rose. But other society blogs derided her as a self-promoter.

Rose knows who to blame. "America's idea of a socialite is Paris Hilton. Her self-obsessed ways are in direct conflict with what a socialite is supposed to be."

Before Paris Hilton, being a socialite was a mark of prestige.

The word was coined in the 1930s by Maury Paul, the author of the Cholly Knickerbocker society column for the Hearst newspapers, who used it to describe socially connected people who attended exclusive parties.

Brooke Astor and Nan Kempner, each for a time the reigning queen of New York City society, were beloved as serious philanthropists. In the 1980s, Astor made it glamorous to support the troubled New York Public Library, and she often visited poorer neighborhoods like Harlem.

Asked if Astor minded being called a socialite, her biographer, Frances Kiernan, said, "She didn't think of herself that way and would have corrected someone who said that."

Kempner, who famously said she would attend the opening of an envelope, was a style icon who helped introduce her favorite French designer, Yves Saint Laurent, to American women.

That was the proper role of a true socialite, as a consumer of high fashion, according to Grove.

Now, the socialite currency is being devalued just as once-luxury goods have lost their cachet as they are made available to the masses.

While a steady diet of cocktail parties and glamorous society events may sound like fun to the average person, for Rose it's work.

"Going out is a job. People are photographing you, you have to make sure you are wearing the right clothes, you have to make sure you're not photographed multiple times wearing the same thing," she said.

"It's the job of anyone who can somehow make those connections, get those invites, get the designers to lend them clothes," she said.

(Reporting by Edith Honan; Editing by Mark Egan and Eddie Evans)

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