Upstaged by Naomi and Roseanne

April 21, 1995|By Glenn McNatt

THE DAYS when tabloid gossip columnists gushed about the comings and goings of the well-born and the well-dressed may be numbered. The word from New York is that the socialite, once a fixture of society pages celebrated for her wealth, parties and unerring sense of style, is in danger of being eclipsed by an upstart cadre of Hollywood actresses and slinky supermodels.

According to the New York Times, the socialite's declining status in the collective consciousness is a function both of the public's obsession with newer sorts of celebrities -- Hollywood stars, sports figures and fashion models -- and a changing ethos among society's most privileged women, who today are more apt to be interested in their careers than in attending endless lunches and parties. Even the term "socialite" seems anachronistic in a society that has learned to give lip service to feminist ideas.

Ordinary people have always been fascinated by the lifestyles of the rich and famous. But today celebrity is no longer confined to the rarefied world of inherited wealth. As pop artist Andy Warhol predicted, in America practically anyone can have their 15 minutes of fame.

Thus the glittering socialite, who once provided a model to which ordinary women could aspire, no longer is an essential element of society's mental furniture. Her role has been taken over by a motley crew of media-concocted personalities whose claim on the public's attention often is as ephemeral as it is notorious. "High society" is fighting a losing battle for prestige with people like Roseanne and what's-his-name.

If socialites are an endangered species, however, it is only partly because no one pays attention to them any more. Greater opportunities for women in business and the professions make old-fashioned "social" activities like teas seem less fulfilling. Today's upper-crust can have careers and go to lunch.

Moreover, the symbiotic relationship between socialites and the fashion industry, which allowed wealthy women and their designers to set international styles, has been eclipsed by the ready-to-wear market and the rise of supermodels like Linda Evangelista and Naomi Campbell.

And though the privileged still party hearty, concern about crime, and the ridicule their peers endured for the excesses of the 1980s -- these are the people who gave social climbing a bad name -- makes them somewhat more reluctant than formerly to display their wealth ostentatiously.

Still, defenders of the species lament the socialite's demise. "In a society where you are supposed to get ahead," sniffed one, "it seems oxymoronic to use the term 'social climber' pejoratively."

Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.