A Socialite's Revenge

Tinsley Mortimer has her own TV show, a closet full of borrowed dresses, and a cadre of crazy friends. Jacob Bernstein on how the nouveau young socialite has the old guard rolling in their graves.

You know that Tinsley Mortimer lives here, because the first thing you see when you get to her Midtown Manhattan apartment is not her name on the buzzer, but a hanging bag of borrowed dresses from Marchesa sitting out by the elevator.

For the last half a decade, the woman they're addressed to has reigned as the queen of a particular class of young society girls. Mortimer is the most prominent rent-a-socialite in New York, a sample-size designer's dream. She's a walking billboard for brands, like a smaller, more localized version of Paris Hilton, but basically well-behaved. Because of this, and because of her ubiquity, magazines have been able to depict her as an easy-to-admire, high-fashion party girl, and her nights gallivanting around town have been chronicled prodigiously in the pages of Vogue, W, and Women's Wear Daily. Her marriage to Topper Mortimer—whose family once ran Standard Oil—has only aided her ascent.

“For me to be in a position where I could walk away from my marriage and do it on my own was empowering. I walk into my apartment and I’m proud of myself. It’s all me.”

But now Mortimer, 33, wants to be something more (or less, depending on how you feel about it). She'll be starring in a reality-TV show called High Society, a somewhat misleading title given that her on-screen costars include a woman with a habit of using the N-word in public, and a party boy who was recently in the tabloids for stealing a woman's handbag at a Lower East Side nightclub.

Even Mortimer admits that the title doesn't quite fit. " High Society is the name of a TV show, you know what I mean?" she says, sitting at a bar near her building. "We're not saying we're taking you into country clubs. Clearly we're not doing that."

Clearly. In the first episode, airing tomorrow night at 9:30 on the CW, Paul Johnson-Calderon, the purse thief, tosses a drink out the window of his stretch limo, then lobs another one at Mortimer's childhood friend, Jules Kirby (the one with the aforementioned penchant for racial slurs).

Mortimer, meanwhile, trailed by television cameras, prepares to move out of the apartment she shared with her ex-husband Topper, the hedge-fund banker she divorced last August.

Then she's shown sobbing on her bed.

A few years ago, the idea of Tinsley Mortimer doing a show like this would have been absurd. Though she was perhaps the most photographed girl on the social scene, her husband and his family were uneasy with her party-girl image. In 2007, The New York Times profiled the young couple, where Topper made his disdain for his then-wife's career path startlingly apparent. "She's built a great business for herself, she's heading in the direction that she'd like to see herself," he said before adding, "I don't know that the route to how she got there is what I'd tell my 5-year-old girl to follow if I had one."

But Mortimer liked going out and she liked having her picture taken. Moreover, the exposure from the red carpet led to a handbag line with Samantha Thavasa. "The whole reason I got that line was because I was a girl who went out and got photographed."

Without Topper, Mortimer says she feels freer to be herself, starting with the all-black getup she's wearing today: super-skinny jeans with gold zippers running up the sides, towering lace-up boots, and a wrap-sweater that clings to her body. She's sporting more black eyeliner than she did in her married days, giving her look a slightly S&M edge. "I like to mix it up. Things don't have to be so perfect anymore," she says. "Every curl doesn't have to be in the right place." (For the record, her long, golden locks are as preternaturally perfect as ever.)

And while her divorce has been emotional, she says leaving her marriage has helped her realize her own strength. "I like being self-sufficient and making my own money. For me to be in a position where I could walk away from my marriage and do it on my own was empowering. I walk into my apartment and I'm proud of myself. It's all me."

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Perhaps predictably, the show has been the subject of a certain amount of sniping in the society world, where old friends of Tinsley's are complaining about everything from the producers' casting choices to the on-screen confrontations that take place in nearly every scene. They say that the people on the show are not even her real friends and report that some of the heightened drama on the show seems staged. Last fall, New York magazine and Page Six reported viewing an onscreen catfight at 675 Bar between Mortimer and fellow costar Devorah Rose, who edits an also-ran society publication called Social Life. The two reports seemed to conclude that the fight was scripted.

Mortimer denies this categorically. "Naturally, when you put a camera on people, things get a bit intensified," she says. "But those intense things were real. When I'm fighting with Devorah, it's real. I was really upset." (Allegedly, Rose went around the party sniping that Tinsley's then-boyfriend, Prince Casimir Wittgenstein-Sayn, a German blue-blood, was really a pauper. Tinsley confronted her and called her a social climber.)

Maybe, maybe not.

The more interesting argument may be whether the show is a perfect emblem for this era of "society." Until the mid-1990s, becoming a prominent socialite meant actually being on benefit committees, having a house that was photo-ready, and snapping up the most expensive dresses your husband's money could buy, either from Oscar de la Renta or Yves Saint Laurent. Then came the advent of the red carpet, which turned dressing for events into an industry and had a profound effect on society as well.

As fashion companies realized the value of the red carpet to their bottom lines, they began to invent demi-celebrities who could showcase their frocks in the glossies. Grand dames like Mica Ertegun, Chessy Rayner, and Annette de la Renta faded from view, replaced by newer models like Tinsley, Fabiola Beracasa, and Genevieve Jones, all of whom had non-existent waistlines, iffy pedigrees, and a malleable sense of style that mostly depended on who was giving them free clothes.

But if Mortimer's show is fake, so is most of what now passes for society. With the party pages operating as little more than a promotional vehicle for fashion brands, is it really so extraordinary that the best-known member of the group would parlay her way out of being a walking coat-hanger and into something bigger and better?

Mortimer's not ashamed to admit that she's playing a more strategic game than Nan Kempner and Pat Buckley. "Look, it's different," she says. "Times have changed. There have been technological advances with the cameras and digital photography and media in general, and easy access to everything. It's different. But I don't think it's as new of an idea as everyone likes to think."

Mortimer points out that women like Buckley and Kempner were all over the society pages and long had their private lives on display. "I don't think it's that different," she says, pooh-poohing the naysayers who add that her turn on TV isn't really going to be a brand builder. "Look at Kim Kardashian. Look at all the things she's done."

Indeed, Kardashian now has a fashion boutique, a series of workout videos, and an upcoming fragrance. With the handbag line for Samantha Thavasa getting off the ground, Mortimer wants to continue to build her empire over the next five years. "I'd like to have a line that's not just fashion, that's personal care, interiors, everything," she says. "I'm hoping that with the exposure from this I can do more… It's a business decision. I'm not ashamed to admit that."

Did the producers of High Society pick cast-members who were meant to manipulate the audience?

To some extent, yes, says Mortimer. "Reality TV today is definitely geared toward more drama and more intensity. That's something I was prepared for. I understood that part of what's needed. You're competing against everyone else. That's why it's very important to put people on the show that are going to be willing to go there and be themselves and not check themselves at the door. Because unfortunately, that's not what works anymore."

Still, she's worried about how her ex will react to the show. In the first episode, his face is blurred as she moves her furniture out of the apartment they once shared.

When asked about the scene, Mortimer goes completely white. Turns out, Topper doesn't know they used the footage because she hasn't had the heart to tell him.

"That's going to be a situation that's really hard for me to deal with," she says.

In her defense, the former Mrs. Topper Mortimer claims to have been caught unawares by the crew herself.

"If you don't specify when they can and can't film you," she explains, "you're fair game."

Plus: Check out more of the latest entertainment, fashion, and culture coverage on Sexy Beast—photos, videos, features, and Tweets.

Jacob Bernstein is a senior reporter at The Daily Beast. Previously, he was a features writer at WWD and W Magazine. He has also written for New York magazine, Paper, and The Huffington Post.