On the list of significant dates in New York City history, April 24, 2006, does not rank high. But as Fabiola Beracasa’s grandmother used to say, “When you are in the middle of the soup you can’t see the edge of the bowl,” and at the time New York was firmly in the middle of soup. Five years had passed since the horrors of September 11, and while signs of change were out there—in the Iraqi desert, where a coalition calling itself the Islamic State was forming; on the West Coast, where a short-seller was predicting the collapse of the housing market; in Washington, DC, where a young senator from Illinois was planning a historic presidential campaign—on April 24, 2006, things were momentarily, blissfully dull.
That morning Beracasa woke up in the Fifth Avenue apartment she shared with her mother Veronica Hearst, the widow of publishing scion Randolph. The day was clear and the future was promising. Summer, and with it a glittering ocean of parties, was on the horizon. Sitting down at her computer, she scanned the Times, eyes flitting over a new device the Times was calling, an “Ipod for the newspaper business.” Bank mergers. “Is Daily Candy Worth $100 Million?” Then headed to her AOL account, where a stack of digital envelopes was waiting. On this day, there was more mail than usual, directing her to a new website: socialrank.wordpress.com.
Clicking on the link, she was surprised to see a list of the top 20 female socialites in Manhattan. Many of them she knew: Olivia Chantecaille, Ivanka Trump, and, at number one, her friend Tinsley Mortimer. Like many women of her status, Bercasa didn’t put much stock in stuff written by pajama-clad bloggers. While the internet was a fun distraction, it had not yet become real life. Still, she was slightly disappointed she wasn’t on the list.
A few weeks later, after the Met gala, she would be—she’d eventually climb all the way to the hallowed number one spot—and, looking at her own picture, she felt a little thrill. It was flattering to be noticed, despite the ominous warning the site’s anonymous creators issued as part of their mission statement: “Next time you think about skipping that certain gala, wearing that unknown designer, dating some weird band member, beware. We’re watching. And your ranking is on the line!”
“It felt weird and it felt interesting,” Beracasa says now. “At least in the beginning.”
Beracasa didn’t know it at the time, but the appearance of Socialite Rank, as it would come to be known, was the beginning of something. Like Studio 54 before it, the website didn’t last long—Socialite Rank would disappear within a year—but it was emblematic of a unique moment in history: “the year of the socialite,” as the anonymous creators would later crow. It was also a moment in which the glamorous and powerful realized that the internet was a force they had best not leave to the nerds, lest it be used against them.
Next time you think about skipping that certain gala, wearing that unknown designer, dating some weird band member, beware. We’re watching. And your ranking is on the line!
On April 24, 2006, though, that concept was not even a glimmer in an It girl’s falsie-lined eye. On that day Spencer Morgan reported to work at the New York Observer, where he had been deputized to the nightlife beat by the paper’s editor, the late Peter Kaplan. Morgan had a master’s in journalism from the University of Southern California; he wanted to be the next Gay Talese. But he had even, white teeth and tousled prep-school hair, and the kid filled out a tuxedo nicely. Kaplan “wanted me to be like J.J. Hunsecker from Sweet Smell of Success,” Morgan recalls, a chronicler of the ambitions and foibles of the rich.
Back then, everyone in New York was rich—or, thanks to lax lending standards, seemed to be.
Morgan didn’t have to look far for material. Back then, everyone in New York was rich—or, thanks to lax lending standards, seemed to be. Wall Street was booming, and across the city men were sucking on cigars and slicking their hair back in naked homage to Gordon Gekko. Meanwhile, blondes in flouncy dresses teetered on Jimmy Choos in imitation of Paris Hilton, the hotel heiress and Simple Life star who had made a career out of idle wealth. Nightclubs were full of these bottle-buying nobodies, and as a result the real members of the elite—Manhattan- and Greenwich-raised, private school–educated—had little choice but to up the ante by creating extra tiers of exclusivity.
“Every week brought a handful of these glitzy, over-the-top parties,” says Morgan, who in addition to the usual envelope openings—private screenings, brand launches, fashion shows—found himself on the charity circuit. Once the province of the likes of Muffie Potter Aston, galas and benefit dinners were suddenly hot among members of another generation. “If you’re spending $500 to $1,000 on bottle service,” one carouser of the time says, “why not spend that much to be in a place where there was going to be a higher caliber of people?”
In keeping with the celebrity-crazed times, most of these events had a red carpet, or at least a photographer—usually Patrick McMullan, who had columns in Vanity Fair and New York magazine and published his photographs online the next day. “If Patrick didn’t photograph it, it was like it didn’t happen,” says Peter Davis, at the time the editor in chief of society magazine Avenue.
Those photographs increasingly became a kind of currency, especially among young female subjects. After all, Tory Burch had built a billion-dollar brand in part on her strong presence on the social scene. And while the members of this set looked down on Paris Hilton for her vulgarity (and her sex tape), they couldn’t help admiring her hustle, especially when she revealed in a 2005 New York Times profile that she was regularly paid $200,000 for appearing at a party for 20 minutes. “More if I’m in Japan,” she added.
Soon young ladies from families with robust credit accounts were referring to themselves as heiresses and clamoring to get photographed at events. “It was the dawn of the internet as we know it, where anyone could get famous,” says Paula Froelich, then a gossip columnist for the New York Post‘s Page Six section, which, like most other publications, began chronicling the doings of these bright young things even as the papers’ editors struggled to differentiate between a Bridie and a Byrdie. “It was like the doors had opened to this Edith Wharton world.”
It was the dawn of the internet as we know it, where anyone could get famous.
Some, like Zani Gugelmann and Byrdie Bell, were using the exposure to launch fashion or acting careers. Others had grander aspirations, such as Beracasa, who landed a job as creative director of a jewelry company in part for being one of the most photographed faces on the party circuit. “I see myself building an empire,” she told the New York Times, whose tone of amused skepticism indicates they found this about as likely as an iPod for newspapers.
But the women believed otherwise. “There was a concept that this was going to lead to great wealth and fame, and that sort of legitimized the fury with which these characters pursued their socialite endeavors,” recalls Spencer Morgan. “Reality TV was a new and stars were being born right and left and there was a sense of, what better place to be launched as a star?”
At the time, everyone agreed that the most promising star was Tinsley Mortimer. A Southern belle who’d married her boarding school sweetheart (the equally WASPily named Topper), she had blond curls and a preference for pink that gave her an appealing fish-out-of-water quality in black-clad New York. Designers would lend her clothing for events as though she were a movie star, and she was working with a Japanese company on her own handbag line, among other branding endeavors. By the time Socialite Rank came on the scene, “there was a legitimate sense that, Wow, Tinsley is going to be the next Martha Stewart,” Morgan says.
Where it got truly ugly was the comments section. “People would write things like, ‘She’s so fat and ugly, she has a huge nose, look at her arms,’” says the former rankee. “A lot of it felt as if it was written by randoms, but sometimes you would see really personal stuff you knew was true. Like, ‘She’s such a cokehead.’ Or, ‘Her husband cheats on her left and right.’ And you would be like ‘How do they know that?'”
Speculating as to who was running the site was rampant. A sizable contingent was convinced it was Derek Blasberg, the Style.com writer who was making a name for himself as a man about town, possibly working in cahoots with his galpal, Vogue’s tall, chilly Lauren Davis. “Those two were like two peas in a pod,” says one socialite. “Derek is the kind of guy who gives you a big kiss hello and the minute you turn around he’s like, Fat Bitch.”
Other readers were positive that it was Peter Davis, who was not related to Lauren but was connected by marriage to Tinsley Mortimer, the site’s perennial favorite. That he was in media didn’t help his case, since having writing skills automatically put you in the category of suspect. As did web skills. It girl Genevieve Jones, who, according to the site’s comments, “is quite skilled with Adobe Photoshop,” was a suspect at one point, as was designer Kate Schelter (“she designs websites and knows all the dirt,” one tipster told Gawker.)
Publicist Bonnie Morrison, also a suspect, told Spencer Morgan that a friend of hers was looked at askance simply because she had a laptop sticking out of her bag at a dinner party. “It was like The Crucible,” says Peter Davis. ” ‘I saw Peter in the woods! I saw Peter on his laptop during fashion week actually ranking socialites!’ “
As the comments proliferated, Socialite Rank became less like a website than a world, in which events occurred that were worthy of coverage, and Morgan was its chief correspondent. Back at his desk at the Observer, he fielded calls from anxious socials and recorded their theories in his spiral-bound notebook, which included, among other things, that Lauren Davis was so incensed by what was being said about her that she hired a private detective to smoke out who was running the site. “This was my Sweet Smell of Success,” Morgan says. “Only it was kind of like the demented version.”
Increasingly beset by rumors, Peter Davis began his own investigation, scrutinizing the site for clues. English wasn’t the writers’ first language, he deduced. “And their taste was kind of gilded frames and Versace,” he says, in a nose-wrinkling tone. Eventually he came to suspect Valentine Uhovski and Olga Rei, a pair of strawberry-blond Eastern European émigrés who lurked around the ages of the scene. They claimed to be step-siblings, though it was also rumored that they were a couple. Uhovski had a reason to be around: He was a writer of some kind (Russian Vogue?), but that didn’t explain how, the previous Halloween, he and Rei had ended up co-hosting a party at Bungalow 8 with Lydia Hearst, Tinsley Mortimer, and Fabiola Beracasa.
Peter Davis was not the only one who found this odd. “I remember at one point I looked around and was like, ‘Who are these people? Why are they doing this?'” one attendee said, “Because no one in our group was truly friends with them.” But then that party bled into another party, which bled into the holidays and was forgotten, and when Davis tried to float his theory, people just laughed. “I mean, have you met them?” another socialite asked me. “They’re not that advanced.”
Then came midwinter: A cold, mean time in New York City and a restless one in the media business. “Such a slow news time,” Froelich says. For more than a year Mortimer had reigned as the Number One Girl on Socialite Rank. It was up to Page Six to stoke the flames, which it did shortly after Christmas by publishing an item saying that Mortimer “looked less than delighted” when asked to pose for a photo with an “up and comer” named Olivia Palermo.
Socialite Rank knew who Palermo was. The doe-eyed 20-year-old daughter of a Greenwich real estate developer, she had arrived to study at the New School the previous fall and almost immediately began campaigning for the site’s attention, landing an internship at the society magazine Quest and practically attaching herself to Patrick McMullan’s lens. But Socialite Rank had, so far, never let her break the top 20. Now, sensing a threat to its chosen queen, the site issued a scathing post casting Palermo as an Eve Harrington–esque arriviste. So began a pile-on. Palermo was “a wannabe,” the commenters chorused, “a climber.” She had “nothing to offer.” “It was the ultimate Mean Girls,” Froelich says.
Several weeks later Socialite Rank published a letter purporting to be from Palermo, groveling for the acceptance of New York’s socialites. “This is better than ecstasy,” the anonymous bloggers gushed. Once again the commenters went wild.
The alleged feud peaked in April 2007, at the Johnny Walker Dressed To Kilt fashion show at Capitale. Or really after, when the Daily News reported that Tinsley had purposefully elbowed Palermo on the runway. “She checked her so hard that Olivia fell into the railing,” a source told Ben Widdicombe.
“I must admit,” Widdicombe says now, “That I subsequently I wondered if that was actually true.”
The source, after all, was publicist Kelly Cutrone, who had been hired by Palermo’s father, Doug, to do damage control against the people he said were bullying his daughter. Cutrone doesn’t remember much about Doug, except that he was always talking about how their family had come over on the Mayflower. “Which I don’t know why that’s something people brag about,” she said. “You know? I mean, remember, the people on the Mayflower destroyed the Native Americans and brought smallpox.”
To Socialite Rank, the Palermos would be just as deadly. Because of the letter, he was going to go after a court order for the fire wall on Socialite Rank. “They were going to find out who it was,” she says.
But before that could happen, the site went dark. Davis had finally confronted Uhovski and Rei. “I could tell from the looks on their faces that they had done it,” he says. A few days later the pair confessed to New York magazine. “We are the masterminds behind Socialite Rank,” they said.
The revelation was not unlike Dorothy’s discovery that Great and Powerful Oz was merely a chubby, middle aged man. “It kind of called attention to like the absurdity of everything,” says Spencer Morgan.
“They’re from Staten Island?” one Ranking member of the site gasped, when I told her the basic facts of their background.
After their identities were revealed, “people just stopped going out,” says Davis. “It just killed the whole scene.”
It wasn’t only that. The economic bubble that had given rise to Socialite Rank was about to pop. During the summer of 2007 the economy began to falter, and after the financial collapse, the following September, Americans’ attitude toward the one percent went from worship to rage. “The media shifted focus,” says Morgan, who was laid off from the Observer amid widespread media carnage.
Morgan recovered; he ended up marrying a onetime Socialite Rank contender (Alexis Bryan, number 19) and now runs a startup, making him one of many Socialite Rank-ear survivors to stage a second act in the digital realm. Among them Lauren Davis, now Lauren Santo Domingo, who runs the high fashion e-commerce site Moda Operandi; and Derek Blasberg who recently scored his own style show on CNN and has become the king of the latest ranking system–social media. “Now all anyone cares about is if they have the right amount of Instagram followers,” says Froelich, who herself has over 13,000 and runs her own travel website, A Broad Abroad.
As for Palermo’s old rival, Tinsley Mortimer, although she finally landed her own short-lived reality show, High Society, which aired in 2009, her moneyed problems (she was getting divorced from Topper at the time) failed to resonate with Americans who were losing their homes. The following year she repaired to her parents’ place in Palm Beach, where she was recently arrested for drunkenly trespassing on the property of her on again/off again boy- friend, sugar heir Nico Fanjul. The most recent photo of her to appear online was a mug shot. “I’ll be okay,” she told me in an e-mail, ever looking on the bright side. “I think this happening to me is a good thing, because it allowed me to finally break free from a very unhealthy relationship.”
“My first reaction was, ‘That’s so sad, what a fall, I feel so bad for her,’ ” says Spencer Morgan. “But then my second thought was, ‘Maybe she’ll end up on top again, after all.'”
All she needs is a few million followers.
This story originally appeared in Town & Country‘s September 2016 issue.