07.28.09

Professional Lust and Girl Crushes

Who are the women in media other women admire and secretly want to be? Doree Shafrir on worshipping in the workplace and how it fuels female ambition.

As the oldest of three children, I never had a cool older sister to worship. Instead, I looked to camp counselors, Sassy magazine, the dressing room attendants at the Urban Outfitters in Harvard Square, a girl named Sunshine— Sunshine!—who was two grades ahead of me and had perfectly straight long hair and Nike Airs before everyone else, my babysitter who'd been in a car accident and had a glass eye, my other babysitter who told me how many times she and her high-school boyfriend had had sex. ("Over 2,000," she told me confidently. I was 7.)

Inherent in all ladycrushes is the sense that the crushee’s life is one that is not too many degrees removed from the crusher.

But as we grow older, finding women to look up to becomes, like everything else, a trickier minefield to navigate. As a journalist in New York City, I've found that media is an especially fraught industry for these kinds of relationships. Looking for a formal "mentor" seems forced; worshiping someone from afar, creepy; deciding one of your friends or co-workers is really cool and doing everything she does, single white female-y. And frenemies and backstabbers lurk behind every door. The intern you thought was interested in learning the ropes from you is actually just interested in taking your job.

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Andrew H. Walker / Getty Images

Or is she? In fact, the ladycrush—even among the notoriously backstabby New York set—is alive and well. (Or maybe the women I know who work in media just happen to be really, really well adjusted.) I recently developed one on the Vogue editor Sally Singer, who lives with her husband, Netherland author Joseph O'Neill, in the Chelsea Hotel with their three sons. Singer not only radiates cool, but as one acquaintance of mine, a 29-year-old reporter, put it, "She works at a place like Vogue, which is easy to brush off, but then you talk to her and realize she's a genius. Plus, her pieces in the magazine are always the best ones. And she never seems like she took a long time to get ready or is overly concerned with how she looks."

"It's pretty much any woman who is funny and smart and talented and successful and pretty," said New York attorney Jasmine Moy, 28. "Crushes are the things you get if you're not the 'I'm jealous, therefore I hate them' kind of person."

"It's not jealousy," said a 33-year-old Brooklyn woman who works in publishing, and who named the Farrar, Straus & Giroux editor Sarah Crichton as her ladycrush. "Partly I'm not jealous of her because she's a generation ahead of me, so I don't think of her as a peer in that way—she's someone to admire, not to view as a threat."

Recently, Singer posed for a photo portfolio on Todd Selby's photography Web site The Selby. There she was, posing barefoot in a turquoise, vintage-looking dress in the doorway of her apartment; there were the skateboards belonging to her sons; there was her shoe collection. Even her tea kettle, perched as it was on her old gas stove, seemed alluring.

Am I envious of her life? Certainly. But more so than envy or jealousy was a sense that a woman like Singer was someone to look up to. Inherent in all ladycrushes is the sense that the crushee's life is one that is not too many degrees removed from the crusher, or at least there is a sense of false proximity— I too work in editorial and have brown hair and live in New York!—the idea that if some things in my life had gone in a slightly different direction, I could have been a Vogue editor living in the Chelsea Hotel with my dashing husband and adorable children.

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Andrew H. Walker / Getty Images

Then there's J. Crew creative director Jenna Lyons, whom the 29-year-old reporter described in a way that's a kind of primer for the types of women that are crushable. "The Domino piece on her awhile back caused women to swoon, I think," she said. "Same thing: hot, artsy husband, enviable living situation, high-powered creative job, pretty yet not intimidatingly so, and you get the feeling she's a nice person.

Thessaly La Force, a 24-year-old editorial staffer at The New Yorker, mentioned the illustrator and author Leanne Shapton as her latest ladycrush. "I love her sense of style, and I think she's absolutely lovely," said La Force. "We've never met."

By day, Shapton works as the art director for The New York Times Op-Ed page. By night, she writes books like her latest, Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), the charmingly poignant tale of a couple's breakup as told through an auction catalog of the objects they had collected throughout their relationship. Ms. Shapton is engaged to former Condé Nast editorial director James Truman, and lives in a beautifully restored farmhouse in North Salem, N.Y.

"She just seems to have a really lovely life," said a 31-year-old writer who, like La Force, has also never met Shapton. "It's the same as Sally Singer—where they just seem to have really pleasant, lucky, comfortable existences, and they do what they want. And everything they do sounds fun!"

"She's just so light-years beyond chic," said La Force. "I think if I ever met her I would be a bumbling mess of words."

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Toby Canham / Getty Images

Julie Gerstein, the editor of Lemondrop, AOL's Web site for women, pointed to the 34-year-old Nylon contributing editor Diane Vadino, also the author of the novel Smart Girls Like Me, as a woman worthy of a crush. "She has somehow made it completely possible to travel around the world all the time and do amazing things, and still have a cool job," said Gerstein.

In Los Angeles, though, things are a little different, says actress Lauren Schuchman, 28. "The East Coast breeds female advancement in industries like publishing and fashion, whereas here we're all actresses and models. Besides, I think women in L.A. are so generally plastic that they just share an inherent hatred for one another." Still, Schuchman was able to single out Suzanne Goin, the chef/owner of popular L.A. restaurants The A.O.C., Lucques, and The Hungry Cat, which she co-owns with her husband; and interior decorator Kelly Wearstler, who designed the interiors of the Viceroy hotels in Miami, Santa Monica, and Palm Springs, and the Avalon Hotel in Beverly Hills, and is also a judge on Top Design.

For their part, crushees tend to be appealingly modest. "I've received a few emails from younger women which is nice, but weird since I certainly don't feel like I have anything figured out," Shapton told me. "If they ask for career advice, I try to explain that I didn't really plan a career—I was able to make up my jobs along the way, and I advise them to do the same. I didn't ever decide on a single course of action. But that basically makes you—for a long time—broke, obscure, somewhat unreliable and scattered. Trying to answer the question 'What do you do?' would give me hives."

I asked Vadino who some of the women she looked up to in her career were. "Maureen Callahan at the [New York] Post. She's amazing. She was my editor at Spin for five or six years. She's completely unbelievably beautiful, always incredibly well put together. Also devastatingly sharp. She always had the best ideas," said Vadino. "Another one is Dee Dee Raymond, a former editor at Seventeen. She owns Clinton Street Baking Company [a restaurant on the Lower East Side]. She left publishing, which was very radical and exciting for me. I think her first move when she left Seventeen was to start a yoga-clothing company. I was like, you figured it out! You didn't leave New York!"

"I've had longstanding girl crushes on Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf, and Edith Wharton," said Shapton. "But it's easy to admire their accomplishments and not pay attention to how difficult their lives were. The crushes we have from afar either romanticize these details or leave them out."

Still, it's probably for the best that crushes are mostly held from afar, as a 28-year-old woman who used to work in a trendy Brooklyn boutique recalled recently: "When I started working at the store, the owner said to me, 'Certain weird women will have girl crushes on you. Don't hang out with them outside the store—they'll only be disillusioned.' There was one girl who would sometimes bring me treats, cookies, and stuff. The weirdest was the one who came in and asked if I would consider being her roommate. We'd probably chatted about clothes, maybe movies, the occasional book—but that was strange."

Doree Shafrir has contributed to The New York Observer, The New Yorker, Slate, and The Awl, and is the co-author of Love, Mom. She is a former editor at Gawker. Her Web site is www.doreeshafrir.com.