The Demise of the It-Girl: What Happens After ‘It’ Happened?
by Elias Tezapsidis
Who is Daphne Guinness and what does she do professionally? Why does Ms. Guinness merit to be profiled by The New Yorker, a staple of intellectually respected literary journalism?
The responses to the aforementioned questions are controversial. Ms. Guinness is a “persona.” In 2011, that might be a legitimate profession. If that does not suffice to describe her, however, one might be more satisfied with “artist” or “heiress of the Guinness family.”
Daphne Guinness, with her eccentric and flamboyant outfits and influential friends, is a mosaic of identities: socialite, heiress, muse and fashion-icon. Above all, Daphne Guinness is Daphne Guinness. Despite being in her 40s, she is an it-girl.
What does this mean?
History of ‘It’
Consumers of the media universally have continuously been exposed to a myriad of young women being identified as it-girls underneath the society pages of glossy publications. As with a plethora of terminology that has entered popular vernacular, tracing the origins of it-girl is an arduous task. In the early 20th century, ‘it’ was utilized to convey a feeling of memorability; a girl people would instantly be enamored with for whatever reason. Beauty, clothes, attitude and intellect comprised undeniable paragons of ‘it,’ but above all the term implied a mysterious infatuation. Similar to a crush, it-girls made those surrounding them obsessed with them. They desired to know about them; they wanted to consume them. In 1927, the prominent British writer Elinor Glyn — who should be considered a predecessor of female sex-columnists due to her specialization in erotic literature — further popularized the term by devoting a two-part story to ‘it’ in Cosmopolitan magazine.
Glyn asserted that ‘it’ was applicable to both genders, as the novelist considered Mussolini an it-man. It is peculiar to digest a difference in this hyphenated identity: Glyn found reason in adjusting the latter part to the age of maturity. Rather than characterizing the males who possessed ‘it’ as it-boys they were it-men. As we moved away, both chronologically as well as in regards to gender expectations, from Edwardian society, it is evident that it-men did not stand the test of time. It-girls, however, continued occurring and the — good ones — recurring.
The term illustrates a strongly gendered identity. While several women would welcome their categorization as ‘it,’ straight men would not be elated with ‘it.’ The very fact that the vast majority of men who do not mind the title are gay strengthens the argument of ‘it’ holding a vehement gender connotation. The presence of it-boys may even be a consequence of the utter entrance of homosexuality to the popular imagination: today’s it-boys are comparable to the ‘walkers’ of the past, but they no longer have to step further while the female socialites they accompany are getting photographed.
The problematic repercussions of a title that is heavily gendered is that it continues to objectify. The objectifying aspect of ‘it’ is inherent in the very term itself, as the first particle of it is ‘it.’
Too Many Identities
The ‘it’ endeavors to describe an indescribable quality these young individuals possess. Unfortunately, in praxis it concludes—over time—by following the literary saga of Stephen King rather than Glyn’s idealistic theory. If ‘it’ doesn’t yield clownish ridicule it is because the it-girl has transcended the title. Displaying a quality commonly found in the graduates of liberal arts institutions, the it-girls lack focus; they are desirous of pursuing too many career paths.
In her 2010 feature on vogue.it, it-girl Elisa Sednaoui declares: ‘I don’t want to know what the future will be. I want to live it.’ Possibly a suave stratagem employed to silence critics, as Sednaoui is—still—described as ‘a rising star’ in the piece, despite her impressive modeling career tracing back to 2006. Maybe it is her rising stardom in a new medium that is implied, since Sednaoui has also launched an acting career.
The romantic notion of trying to be women of the Renaissance becomes frugal in modern society. Following a new economic system of order where the market requires specialization in every realm, it-girls must have a concrete vision of their goals to succeed. Frequently, ‘it’ status allows these women to diversify — or establish — their brand in the industries of: modeling, acting, singing, writing, DJ-ing, fashion designing, event-organizing and analogous occupations.
Primary Role: Muse
While the majority of it-girls struggle to decipher what their passions are and in what area they crave to dedicate their charisma, they serve a larger role by triggering artistic craftsmanship. ‘Muse’ provides scarce duties and would be a pragmatic addition to the professional experiences of these women. Undoubtedly, Edie Sedwick encapsulates l’esprit of an earlier it-girl, how ‘it’ can become the epicenter of artistic work and how tragically finite the duration of the role is for the muse.
In the capacity of the muse, these women are lacking control of the manner in which they are portrayed. It is the artists who they inspired that hold that prowess. On the other hand, muses are not obliged to perform that role, thus the decision itself corroborates their agency. They choose to partake in a project that will benefit from their ‘mystery.’ How their ‘mystery’ is depicted will determine if they will have the chance to transition to a new identity, which will provide more agency to them.
Martha Nussbaum’s views on the subject of objectification contradict the latter notion. The sole treatment of these women as agency-deficient — as they appear as exaggerated caricatures or tragic heroines — suffices to consider them as victims of objectification.
As an outsider, it perplexes me that these women do not rebel against the term. Then I account for the potential advantageous results that arrive with attaining ‘it’ status, and I find my views contemptuous and hypocritical. It is imperative to try to empathize with these women and comprehend how they succumb to the allure of being an it-girl, and understand their motives. They often perceive it as a gateway to succeeding in whatever capacity they want to eventually conquer.
A risk taken could become a regrettable err, but even if that is the case the individuals who took the risks know what happened. It is easier to be risk-averse when one doesn’t realize the dramatic power of luck in the industries in which most it-girls would like to establish themselves. Guidance and insight may prolong their Warholian 15 minutes of fame to years of professional prosperity.
Investigating the causality between becoming an it-girl and finding success in it-girls’ chosen field validates the theory that the ones who transition away from the title are the ones who meet their goals. Genevieve Jones provides an example of this theory. Jones was able to maintain an air of mystery despite her ubiquity and eventually introduced her own line of bags and accessories. This move marked her ability to cease her categorization as an it-girl in a derogatory fashion, ultimately silencing her premature critics who accused her not having an occupation.
However, considering the opposite transition — that of a young woman who has first found success in a field yet is moving towards the it-status — is rather regrettable. Envisaging how Lindsay Lohan’s career would have continued had she placed complete focus on her acting serves as a warning for young aspiring actresses, underlining that the former path — from it-girl to a new professional identity — is preferable.
It seems unwise to be featured in the media in the roles it-girls serve. Overexposure exhausts the ‘consumers’ of these women, and as the audience loses interest, the personal brand of it-girls deteriorates in value. Using fame to become successful indicates business acumen, but using fame to become more famous — a vapid quest — harms one’s career reputation.
Once again it becomes more difficult to draw the line between adequate exposure and overexposure when one tries to empathize with these women. The fiscal revenues from other ventures and projects are often substantial enough to rationalize their decision. Additionally, who can accurately predict whether an attempt to enter the fashion world will yield Lohan’s detested stint at Ungaro or an acclaimed clothing line such as The Row by Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen.
How much media attention is enough, but doesn’t agitate the public?
The most insightful of these young women are in the position of interpreting when to take a break from the spotlight. This skill is the differentiator between contemporary it-girls, dividing them in two categories: the business-oriented and the party girls. The former promote their product via the attention they receive, while the latter become their own ‘product,’ swiftly manipulating the media for leverage to serve the interests of promoting themselves. Numerous subcategories surface as the abstract value of an it-girl’s brand does not follow a steady path, but a tumultuous one.
Gaia Repossi serves as an ambassador of the business-oriented it-girls. Repossi fervently promotes Maison Repossi reach a wider and younger clientele. Repossi’s media presence always addresses her most recent partnerships with influential designers such as Joseph Altuzarra and Alexander Wang. The purpose of her appearances is further strengthened by her exceptional composure.
The Hearst girls — Amanda and Lydia Shaw — constitute an example of the party girls. Both have experimented with a wide array of career options ranging from modeling to writing. Unlike Repossi, the Hearsts have stained the stellar reputation their last name generously provides. Amanda had Forbes reportedly estimate her annual maintenance cost to be equivalent to $136,360, and Lydia — whose adventurous love life served as tabloid fodder — accepted a columnist position with the New York Post.
When asked what the it-girl identity signifies, Lily Kwong innocuously replied: ‘one who is relevant to the media at the time-who contributes something.’ Kwong, a relative of Altuzarra, repeatedly accentuates her dedication to her studies at Columbia as well as her immense intellectual curiosity. A vociferous skeptic cannot help but wonder if that intellect is what Kwong contributes. Do Victoria and Vanessa Traina, the daughters of novelist Danielle Steel, contribute their passion for Chanel?
The it-girls whose social experiences are regularly documented by Patrick McMullan and Billy Farrell would probably have no hesitations in explicating why they are recipients of the attention of the public sphere. They would be able to pinpoint what differentiates them from their peers. A noticeable similarity one cannot help but notice is a collective shared appreciation for Joseph Altuzarra, Proenza Schouler and Alexander Wang. Another shared trait that is hard to overlook is the daunting power of their last names, along with their connections to prominent and affluent individuals.
A connecting point to their predecessors—the it-girls of the past—is an almost ubiquitous blueblood social standing.
It-Girls of the Past: What Changed
The it-girls of a prior time could also be dissected in two subcategories: the women who possessed a heavy last name, and the ones who acquired one through countless marriages. Similar to their current representatives in Manhattan, they also exhibited an interest in transitioning to acting. C.Z. Guest, the WASP cold beauty who inspired the likes of Diego Rivera and Andy Warhol, succinctly summarized her acting experience: ‘I had no talent at all, but I enjoyed every minute of it.’
Will current it-girl Byrdie Bell repeat a variation of similar words if she decides to stop pursuing her acting dreams? Bell openly declares that her modeling career is the cash-vehicle for her to pay for her daily expenses whilst anticipating the move towards working in acting. The position Bell holds is admirable and indicative of undisputed progress in the women’s empowerment movement.
Lee Radziwill, the younger sister of Jackie Kennedy Onassis, wished to garner respect as an actress. Once she faced adversity — in the form of skepticism from film critics — Radziwill, unlike Bell, abandoned her acting aspirations, changed her careers and proceeded with marrying influential men.
Radziwill was not alone in following a multiple marriage pattern that borders being a mockery of high-society. Slim Keith’s book Memories of a Rich and Imperfect Life revealed the conniving mechanisms a woman in quest of status and money employs to meet her goal. Millicent Rogers was involved in magnanimous causes during her life, such as actively fighting for the rights of Native Americans, but it becomes hard to overlook her personal dramas. Rogers’ first husband is rumored to have received compensation by her father to end the marriage, and her following two marriages, to an affluent Argentinean and then to an American stockbroker, were also short-lived. Despite all the ‘perfection’ Truman Capote attributed to Babe Paley, her turbulent personal life — which allegedly served her social interests in a not-so-benign manner — probably was shared with her confidantes.
The ‘Ladies Who Lunched’ did not have the opportunities young female socialites today are provided. Except for Diana Vreeland — a celebrated columnist and editor of Vogue and Harper’s — the socialites of the previous époque did not have a lasting impact in a professional milieu. Being an occasional contributor to a fashion publication might have provided some of the aforementioned socialites with some much needed legitimacy, as roles such as ‘fashion icon’ or ‘muse’ denote a hobby, not a primary occupation.
Avoiding Premature Delusions of Grandeur
The fortunate it-girls of today should be cognizant of their agency and act accordingly. A game-altering element in the process of gaining fame has been the widespread use of social media. Most of today’s it-girls are omnipresent on the web. As a significant amount of information pertinent to the lives of these socialites was found online, one questions how will it-girls be able to keep an air of mystique?
Babe Paley became a socialite fixation by being reclusive. Billy Baldwin, the society decorator, stated: ‘So great is her beauty that no matter how often I see her, each time is the first.’
Twitter accounts are set up, and the number of followers these young women receive may result in a premature belief of their ‘arriving.’ The gawkers who surround these it-girls augment the risk of making them victims of a fabricated — and premature — grandeur. The instant an individual is convinced she has established herself is often the start of her own demise.
Socialites deserve more than a neutral article preceding their gender noun. If they continue to want ‘it’ though, they should keep in mind that they chose ‘it.’ They can choose to be modern Lily Barts if that is what they wish, but they can also choose Selden, or no Selden, or whatever combination they might want, because they are not victims of social circumstances in a Whartonian sense.
It is not what “it” was.
About the Author:
Elias grew up in Thessaloniki, Greece, prior to attending Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. It was there that he discovered he was too neurotic and OCD for the Midwest and had a low-tolerance for the MN-nice. The move to NYC post-graduation seemed like the logical next step, and since then LES has been home.