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The life of 'Park Avenue Princesses'

Plum Sykes' novel, "Bergdorf Blondes," tells a tale of girls who careen through Manhattan in search of the perfect fake bake (tan acquired from Portofino Tanning Salon), a ride on a PJ (private jet) with the ATM (rich boyfriend) and the ever-elusive fiancé. Read an excerpt.

Take one part "Clueless," two parts "Sex In the City," throw in a little "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and you've got an idea of what a new novel called "Bergdorf Blondes" is like. It's already a bestseller and is being called the "it" book for summer. Written by Vogue contributing editor Plum Sykes, "Bergdorf Blondes" takes a funny, inside look at the world of the privileged young women she calls "Park Avenue Princesses." Sykes was invited to discuss the book on “Today.” Read an excerpt here:

Bergdorf Blondes are a thing, you know, a New York craze. Absolutely everyone wants to be one, but it’s actually très difficult. You wouldn’t believe the dedication it takes to be a gorgeous, flaxen-haired, dermatologically perfect New York girl with a life that’s fabulous beyond belief. Honestly, it all requires a level of commitment comparable to, say, learning Hebrew or quitting cigarettes.

Getting the hair color right is murder, for a start. It all began with my best friend, Julie Bergdorf. She’s the ultimate New York girl, since glamorous, thin, blonde department-store heiresses are the chicest thing to be here.

Someone heard she’d been going to Ariette at Bergdorf for her color since high school, because apparently she told her personal shopper at Calvin Klein who told all her clients.  Anyway, it was rumored in certain circles that Julie got her blonde touched up every thirteen days exactly and suddenly everyone else wanted to be Thirteen-Day Blondes.

The hair can’t be yellow, it has to be very white, like Carolyn Bessette Kennedy’s was. She’s the icon, the hair to worship. It’s beyond expensive. Ariette is like $450 a highlight, if you can get in with her, which obviously you can’t. Inevitably, Bergdorf Blondes are talked and gossiped about endlessly. Every time you open a magazine or newspaper there’s another item about a BB’s latest romantic drama or new obsession (right now it’s fringed Missoni dresses). But sometimes gossip is by far the most reliable source of information about yourself and all your friends, especially in Manhattan. I always say why trust myself when gossip can tell moi the real truth about moi?

Anyway, according to gossip I’m this champagne bubble of a girl about town — New York being the only town that cares about having girls about it — living the perfect party-girl life, if that’s what you think a perfect life is. I never tell a soul this, but sometimes before the parties I look in the mirror and see someone who looks like they are straight out of a movie like Fargo. I’ve heard that almost all Manhattan girls suffer from this debilitating condition. They never admit it either. Julie gets the Fargos so badly that she’s never able to leave her apartment in The Pierre in time for anything she has to be in time for.

Everyone thinks the party-girl life is the best life you can lead here. The truth is that combined with work it’s completely draining, but no one dares say that in case they look ungrateful. All anyone in New York ever says is “everything’s fabulous!” even if they’re on Zoloft for depression. Still, there are plenty of upsides. Like, you never have to pay for anything important like manis or pedis or highlights or blow-outs. The downside is that sometimes the freebies wreak havoc with your social life —believe me, if your dermatologist’s kid can’t get into Episcopal he’ll be on the phone to you day and night.

To be specific, last Tuesday I went to my friend Mimi’s townhouse on Sixty-third and Madison for her “superduper-casual baby shower. Just the girls getting together,” she’d said. There were three staff per guest, handmade pink cookies from Payard Patisserie on Lexington, and chocolate booties from Fauchon. It was about as casual as the inauguration. No one ate a thing, which is standard protocol at Upper East Side baby showers. I’d just walked through the door when my cell rang.

“Hello?” I said.

“You need highlights!” yelled a desperate voice. It was George, my hairdresser. I use George when I can’t get in with Ariette which is almost all the time because she’s permanently booked with Julie.

“Are you in Arizona?” I asked. (“Arizona” is what everyone says instead of “rehab.” A lot of hairdressers in New York visit Arizona almost every month.)

“Just back,” he replied. “If you don’t go blonde you are going to be a very lonely girl,” continued George tearfully. Even though you’d think George, being a hairdresser, would know this already, I explained that a brunette like me can’t go blonde.

“Can in New York,” he said, choking up.

I ended up spending the present-opening ceremony in Mimi’s library discussing addictive personality types with George and hearing all the one-liners he’d picked up in rehab, like “Say what you mean and mean what you say and don’t be mean when you say it.” Every time George goes into rehab he starts talking more and more like the Dalai Lama. Personally I think if hairdressers are going to offer deep insights they should be exclusively on the subject of hair. Anyway, no one thought George’s behavior was odd because everyone in New York takes calls from their beauty experts at social occasions. It was lucky I was out of the room when Mimi opened my gift, which was a library of Beatrix Potter books. She totally freaked because it was more books than she’d ever read. Now I know why most girls give fashion from Bonpoint rather than controversial literature at baby showers.

Sometimes the hairdressers and their addictions and the parties and the blow-outs take up so much time it starts to feel like work and you can’t focus on your real career.  (And I do have a real career to think about — more of which later.) But that’s what happens in Manhattan. Everything just kind of creeps up on you, and before you know it you’re out every night, working like crazy and secretly waxing the hair on the inside of your nose like everyone else. It’s not long before you start thinking that if you don’t do the nose-hair-wax thing your whole world’s going to fall apart.

Before I give you the rest of the goss from Mimi’s shower, here are a few character traits you might want to know about me:

1. Fluent in French, intermittently. I’m really good at words like moi and très, which seem to take care of just about everything a girl needs. A few unkind people have pointed out that this does not make me exactly fluent, but I say, well, that’s lucky because if I spoke perfect fluent French no one would like me, and no one likes a perfect girl, do they?

2. Always concerned for others’ well-being. I mean, if a friendly billionaire offers you a ride from New York to Paris on his PJ (that’s a quick NY way of saying private jet), one is morally bound to say yes, because that means the person you would have been sitting next to on the commercial flight now has two seats to themself, which is a real luxury for them.

And when you get tired you can go sleep in the bedroom, whereas however hard I look I have never found a bedroom on an American Airlines 767. If someone else’s comfort is at stake, I say, always take the private jet.

3. Tolerant. If a girl is wearing last season’s Manolo Blahnik stilettos, I won’t immediately rule her out as a friend. I mean, you never know if a super-duper nice person is lurking in a past-it pair of shoes.

(Some girls in New York are so ruthless they won’t speak to a girl unless she’s in next season’s shoes, which is really asking a lot.)

4. Common sense. I really am fluent in it. You’ve got to recognize it when a day is a total waste of makeup.

5. English lit major. Everyone thinks it’s unbelievable that a girl who is as obsessed with Chloé jeans as I am could have studied at Princeton but when I told one of

the girls at the baby shower about school she said, “Oh my god! Ivy League! You’re like the female Stephen Hawking.” Listen, someone that brainy would never do something as crazy as spend $325 on a pair of Chloé jeans, but I just can’t help it, like most New York girls. The reason I can just about afford the $325 jeans is because the aforementioned career consists of writing articles for a fashion magazine, which say that spending $325 on a pair of jeans will make you deliriously happy. (I’ve tried all the other jeans — Rogan, Seven, Earl, Juicy, Blue Cult — but I

always come back to the classic, Chloé. They just do something to your butt the others can’t.) The other thing that helps fund my habit is if I don’t pay my rent on my Perry Street apartment. I often don’t, because my landlord seems to like being paid in other ways, like if I let him come up for a triple espresso he reduces my rent by over 100 percent. I always say, waste not, want not, which is a terrible cliché the

British invented during the war to get kids to eat their whole-wheat bread, but when I say it I mean, waste not money on boring old rent when it can be unwasted on Chloé jeans.

6. Punctual. I am up every morning at 10:30 AM and not a minute earlier.

7. Thrifty. You can be frugal even if you have expensive tastes. Please don’t tell a soul, because, you know, some girls get so jealous, but I hardly pay for a thing I wear. You see, fashion designers in New York love giving clothes away. Sometimes I wonder if fashion designers, who I consider to be geniuses, are actually thickos, like lots of mean people are always saying they are. Isn’t giving something away for nothing when you could sell it for something a bit stupid? But there is something really, really clever about this particular form of stupidity because fashion designer–type people all seem to own at least four expensively decorated homes (St. Barths, Aspen, Biarritz, Paris), whereas all the clever people with regular jobs selling things for money only seem to own about one barely decorated house each. So I maintain that fashion designers are geniuses because it takes a genius to make money by giving things away.

Overall, I can safely say that my value system is intact, despite the temptations of New York, which, I regret to say, have made some girls into very spoiled little princesses. Talking of princesses, Mimi’s shower was packed with the Park Avenue version. Everyone was there except — oddly — Julie, the biggest princess of them all. The most glamorous girls were all working the $325-Chloé-jeans look. They looked deliriously happy. Then there was another group who were working the Harry Winston engagement ring look and they seemed what I can only describe as beyond radiant. Jolene Morgan, Cari Phillips (who had the biggest ring, but then she’d gotten a deal because her mom was a Winston), and K.K. Adams were in this group. Soon they abandoned the main party for an engagement-ring summit in Mimi’s bedroom, which is so big an entire dorm could sleep in it. Everything in there’s upholstered in dove gray chintz, even the insides of her closets. When I finally got poor George sorted out and off my cell, I joined them.  Jolene — who’s curvacious and blonde and pale and worships Sophie Dahl because she heard she’s never sunbathed in her life — has been engaged twice before. I wondered how she could be sure this latest fiancé was the right one. “Oh, easy! I’ve got a new, watertight method of selection.  If you use the same criteria to choose a man that you would when choosing a handbag, I guarantee you will find one that suits you perfectly,” she explained.

Jolene’s theory is that a man has many wonderful things in common with a handbag, like the fact that there’s a wait list for the best ones. Some are two weeks (college boys and L.L. Bean totes), some are three years (funny men and alligator Hermès Birkin bags). Even if you are on the list for the whole three years, another woman with a superior claim can jump the line. Jolene says you have to hide a really sexy one or your best friend will borrow it without telling you. Her main concern is that without one, a girl looks underdressed.

“. . . which makes it completely understandable that a girl may need to try out several styles of fiancé before she finds one that really suits her,” concluded Jolene.

Maybe I had misjudged Jolene Morgan: I secretly used to think she was one of the shallowest girls in New York, but Jolene has hidden depths when it comes to relationships. Sometimes you go to a baby shower expecting nothing more than a conversation about the advantages of a scheduled C-section (you can pick your kid’s birth sign), and come away having learned a lot about life. The minute I got home I e-mailed Julie.



Re:     Happiness

Just got back from Mimi’s baby shower. Darling, where were you? Jolene, K. K., and Cari all engaged. Have detected glaring difference between Chloé jeans happiness and engagement ring happiness this afternoon. I mean, have you any idea how awesome your skin looks if you are engaged?

Julie Bergdorf has been my best friend since the minute I met her at her mother’s corner apartment in The Pierre Hotel on Fifth and Sixty-first. She was an eleven-year-old department-store heiress. Her great-grandfather started Bergdorf Goodman and a whole chain of stores around America, which is why Julie says she always has at least $100 million in the bank “and not a dime more,” as she puts it. Julie spent most of her teens shoplifting from Bergdorf’s after getting out of Spence each day. She still finds it hard not to see Bergdorf’s as her walk-in closet even though most of it was sold to Neiman Marcus years ago. The best thing she ever stole was a Fabergé egg encrusted with rubies that was once owned by Catherine the Great. Her excuse for her childhood hobby is that she “liked nice stuff. It must have been so icky being a Woolworth kid, I mean they used to have to shoplift, like, toilet cleaner, but I got to take really glam stuff, like handmade kid leather gloves.”

Julie’s favorite words are icky and glam. Julie once said she wished there was no ickiness in the world, and I said to her, if there was no ickiness there wouldn’t be any glamour. You’ve got to have the ickiness just for contrast. She said, oh, like if there were no poor people then no one would be rich, and I said, well, what I actually mean is, if you were happy all the time, how would you know you were happy? She said, because you’d always be happy. I said, no, you have to have unhappiness to know what happiness is. Julie frowned and said, “Have you been reading The New Yorker again?” Julie thinks The New Yorker and PBS are completely evil and boring and that everyone should read US Weekly and watch the E! channel instead.

Our mothers were both mainline Philadelphia WASPs who had been best friends in the seventies. I grew up in England because my dad’s English and everything about England is “better” according to Mom, but you don’t get department-store heiresses in England and Mom was very concerned that I should have one as a friend. Meanwhile, Julie’s mom thought I would be a civilizing influence on her daughter. They made sure we met every summer and sent us to camp in Connecticut. I don’t think they realized how amazingly convenient this was for taking the train straight back to New York the moment they dropped us off and went on to the Bergdorf family compound on Nantucket. Back in New York, the young Julie and I sat around at The Pierre ordering the hotel’s special hot orange cakes with chocolate sauce and maple syrup from room service. It was much more fun being an American little girl in New York than being an American little girl in England. New York girls like Julie got to be very spoiled and had Rollerblades and ice skates and makeup and facialists. They had wonderfully absent parents. Julie knew the geography of Barneys intimately by thirteen, and had actually shopped there. She was already a Bergdorf Blonde, even though we didn’t know about them yet.

Thanks to Julie, I returned to England that summer addicted to Vogue magazine and MTV and bearing a much improved American accent that I cultivated by watching High Society over and over. Mom was totally freaked out by it, which meant it was really working.

All I wanted to do was move to New York and get highlights that looked as awesome as Julie’s. To that end I begged Mom and Dad for an American college education. Please don’t tell a soul that I said this, but I honestly think the only reason I got the grades Princeton required was because throughout the algebra and the Latin and the Romantic poets, the thing that kept me going was the thought of the oxygen facials you could get in New York. When I got the place at Princeton, all Mom could say was, “But how could you leave England for America?

How? How?”

She obviously had no idea about the oxygen facials. It turned out there was a good reason Julie didn’t make it to Mimi’s. She’d been arrested for shoplifting from Bergdorf Goodman. People called late that afternoon to deliver the hot news, but when I tried to reach Julie her cell phone went straight to voice mail. I wasn’t surprised. Even though Julie swore to me she’d quit stealing when she’d come into her trust fund, it was the kind of crazy thing she’d do just because she was feeling bored for five minutes. Still, I was beginning to get a little worried when Julie herself called just after 7 PM.

“Hey boo! It’s really funny, I’ve been arrested. Can you come get me? Bail me out? I’m sending my driver to pick you up right now.”

When I arrived at the 17th Precinct on East Fifty-first Street forty-five minutes later, Julie was sitting in the shabby waiting area looking impossibly chic. She was dressed for the chilly October day in skinny white cashmere pants, a casual fox fur jacket, and huge sunglasses.

She looked ridiculously sophisticated for a girl in her mid twenties, but all the Park Avenue Princesses are. An adoring cop was just handing her a Starbucks latte that he’d clearly gone out to collect on her behalf. I sat down on the bench next to her.

“Julie, you’re nuts,” I said. “Why have you started stealing again?”

“Because, duh, I wanted that Hermès Birkin, you know the new ostrich one in baby pink with the white trim? I felt so depressed not having it,” she said, all faux innocence.  “Why didn’t you just buy it? You could totally afford it.”

“You can’t ‘just buy’ a Birkin! There’s a three-year wait list, unless you’re Renée Zellweger, and even then you might not get one. I’m already on the wait list anyway for the baby blue suede and it’s killing me.”

“But Julie, it’s stealing and you’re kind of stealing from yourself.”

“Isn’t that neat!”

“You’ve got to stop. You’re going to be all over the newspapers.”

“Isn’t it great?”

Julie and I must have been there for at least an hour before Julie’s lawyer appeared and told us that he had managed to get the police to drop the charges. He’d told them that Julie always intended to buy the goods, she just never usually pays in the store, the bills go straight to her apartment. This was simply an embarrassing mix-up.

Julie was really very cheerful about the whole episode. She seemed almost reluctant to finally leave the precinct that night. Clearly she had loved the attention she got from the cops. She had charmed Detective Owen — who was obviously 100 percent in love with her the minute he arrested her — into letting her call in hair and makeup for the mug shot. I guess she was right to treat it like a fashion shoot. I mean, that picture could be reproduced for years to come.

The media went a bit nuts about Julie after the arrest. When she left The Pierre (where Daddy had generously bought Julie the other corner apartment) the next morning to go to the gym, she was faced by hordes of photographers. Julie ran back inside and telephoned me, wailing, “Oh my god! They’re all out there! Paparazzi, press, and they got my picture! Ugh! I can’t handle it.”

Julie was crying hysterically, but this happens all the time so no one did anything dramatic like call 911 or anything. I told her that no one would look at the pictures, or even remember what had happened the next day. Really, it didn’t matter if she was all over the papers.

“It’s not being in the papers that I mind,” she moaned, “it’s that they got me in sweatpants! I can never be seen on the corner of Madison and Seventy-sixth Street again!  Please come over?”

Sometimes, when Julie says things like that, I think, well, it’s lucky she’s my best friend because if she wasn’t I wouldn’t like her at all.

When I arrived at her apartment, the housekeeper sent me straight through to Julie. Hair and makeup were on standby, hovering in terrified silence in the bedroom, which is painted pale jade, Julie’s favorite color. Two antique Chinese mother-of-pearl chests sit on either side of the fireplace. The upholstered sleigh bed is an heirloom from Julie’s grandmother. Julie won’t get into it unless it’s just been made with sheets monogrammed with her initials in pale pistachio silk. I found Julie red-faced in the dressing room, frantically raking through the closets. As fast as she tossed clothes out and into a mountainous pile on the thick white rug, her maid put them back in the closet, so that the pile never increased or decreased significantly.  Finally Julie dug out an understated black Chanel dress of her mother’s, kitten heels, and very large sunglasses.  She was totally channeling CBK, as usual. An hour later, blown out and made up beyond belief, she strolled out of The Pierre, a confident smile on her face, and gave an interview to the waiting press in which she explained about the “mix-up.”

The next Sunday a fabulously glamorous picture of Julie appeared on the cover of the New York Times Style section, with the headline BEAUTIFUL BERGDORF INNOCENT and an accompanying article by the Times’s fashion critic. Julie was thrilled. So was her dad. She called me the following Monday to say that an antique bracelet had arrived from him with a note reading, “Thank you darling daughter. D.”

“He’s pleased?” I asked.

“I’m so happy,” said Julie. “I’ve never been in Dad’s good books like this before. All that shoplifting heiress stuff, it’s been like the greatest PR for the store; sales have gone through the roof, especially of the sunglasses I was wearing. He’s recommended the board make me marketing director. I just hope I don’t have to work too hard.”

After that, Julie couldn’t go anywhere without having her picture taken, all in the cause, she said, of raising Bergdorf’s profile, which she did, along with her own. She thought the publicity was very good for her self-esteem and was helping with her issues — issues being the hip term for the glamorous psychological problems of the type that afflict those living in New York and Los Angeles.

Julie has issues with the receptionist at Bliss Spa who won’t book her vitamin C skin injections with Simonetta, the top facialist there. She is encouraged by her doctors to explore her “childhood issues” and is “in a lot of pain” over the fact that her parents used to fly her business class to Gstaad every Christmas, when everyone else’s parents flew their kids first. Naturally, she has a catalog of “food issues” and once followed Dr. Perricone’s Wrinkle Cure Diet, which led to her acquiring “issues with potatoes and wheat.” She has issues about having too much money and she has issues about not having as much money as some of the other Park Avenue Princesses. She previously had issues about being a Jewish WASP, which she recovered from when her licensed psychologist told her that Gwyneth Paltrow also suffered from this affliction, being the product of a Jewish father and WASPy mother. After this issue was resolved, Julie then got another issue about her psychologist charging her $250 for information she could have gotten from Vanity Fair at a cost of $3.50, which, it transpired, was the place where the licensed psychologist learned of Gwyneth’s ethnic roots. When anyone disagrees with Julie it means they have issues, and when Julie disagrees with her shrink it’s because he’s the one with the real issues.

When I once suggested to Julie that maybe her issues would eventually be resolved she replied, “God, I hope not. I’d be so uninteresting if I was just rich and not screwed up about it.” Without her issues, she said, “I’d be a personality-free zone.”

Luckily it’s très chic to be neurotic in New York, which means that Julie and I fit in perfectly.

You can imagine Julie’s reaction to the e-mail about the glaring difference between our kind of Chloé jeans happiness and Jolene’s and K.K.’s and Cari’s fiancé happiness. We were having brunch a few days later at Joe’s, this super-unhealthy diner on the corner of Sullivan and Houston. Julie was way overdressed in that tiny new Mendel mink jacket that everyone’s gone nuts about. But then Park Avenue Princesses overdress for everything, even ordering in. I would too if I had that many new clothes every week. She was basking in her shoplifting triumph but frowned when I reminded her about Mimi’s shower.

“Are you trying to give me another issue? Eew! How could you! It’s beyond!” she cried tearfully.

“How could I what?” I said, pouring maple syrup onto a silver dollar pancake.

“E-mail me that whole thing about, like, everyone but me having a fiancé. It’s so unfair. I’m happy but I’m not beyond happy like K.K. and Jolene. You’ve got to be in love for that.”

“You don’t have to be in love to be happy,” I said.

“You only think that because you’ve never been in love. God, I feel so unhappy and so un-chic! I heard they all look amazing now that they’re engaged.”

Underneath all the issues and the drama and the clothes and the vitamin C injections, Julie is hopelessly romantic. She claims to have been in love more than fifty-four times. She started young — acquiring her first boyfriend at seven — “but that was before the oral sex epidemic hit,” she always says. She actually believes love songs. Like she really does think that love lifts you up where you belong and seriously fell for the Beatles’ crazy idea that all you need is love. Most of her love-type problems have been caused by Dolly Parton, who inspired her so much with “I Will Always Love You” that Julie says she genuinely loves all her exes, “even the ones I really hate,” which her shrink says is a “huge issue.” She thinks “Heartbreak Hotel” refers to the Four Seasons Hotel on Fifty-seventh Street where she checks in every time she rows with a boyfriend. If I could afford a suite at that divine place, I’d break up with a man every two weeks, too. Julie was convinced the only way she could be happy was to be in love and have a fiancé on her arm like everyone else.

“I have all the Vuitton bags Marc Jacobs ever made, but what’s the point if my other arm doesn’t have a fiancé supporting it? And look!” she gasped, pointing at my legs

under the table. “You’re wearing fishnets! Are fishnets in, too? Why didn’t anyone tell me?”

Julie flopped her head dramatically onto the table and wiped her tears on her mink, which I thought was a really spoiled princessy way to behave, but this is totally in keeping with her personality so I shouldn’t be too shocked, I suppose. After a few minutes she calmed down and her face suddenly lit up. Julie’s mood swings are so unpredictable, sometimes I think she’s schizophrenic.  “I’ve got an idea. Let’s go fishnet-stocking and fiancé shopping together!” she said excitedly.

Julie honestly thinks fiancés are as easy to come by as hose.

“Julie, why on earth would you want to get married now?” I said.

“Eew! I don’t. I said I wanted a fiancé! I’m not necessarily going to marry him right away. Ooh, I can hardly wait. We are going Prospective Husband hunting,” she continued.

“We?!” I exclaimed. “Isn’t America supposed to be a modern country where career girls don’t need things like fiancés?”

“Everyone wants to fall in love eventually. Fiancés are so glam! Tell me this, who was CBK before JFK Jr.?” “Julie, you can’t get engaged just to look glamorous, that would be selfish,” I said.

“Really?” exclaimed Julie, her face growing brighter. (Every week Julie’s therapist tells her she’ll be happier if she’s more selfish, not less. Judging by most people’s behavior, everyone’s therapist in New York must be saying this.) “I’m so excited! Okay, I gotta go home and not eat.  I’m putting on weight just looking at the napkins in this place,” said Julie.

Before she left, Julie made me promise to help her out with her “PH campaign” — her way of referring to the Prospective Husband hunt. She would acquire the fiancé just as easily as the fishnet stockings. I was sure of it. Julie is a shining example of the Park Avenue Princess ethic at work. She doesn’t let anything stand in her way.

Julie headed back uptown and I rushed off to a work appointment. God, I thought in the cab, Julie’s PH hunt could be stressful. Sometimes the perfect party-girl life is as exhausting as boot camp. Sometimes, I thought, I could be doing something less exhausting, like living the perfect nonparty-girl life somewhere relaxing like the British countryside. Okay, so I wouldn’t have any nice shoes, but there are other benefits to living in a Manolo-free zone. None came to mind right away, but I was sure I would think of something positive.

Then Mom called.

Excerpted from "Bergdorf Blondes." Copyright 2004 by Plum Sykes. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of Miramax a division of Hyperion Books.