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When You're 'It,' You're Everything . . .

. . . For a while, until the next cute-as-a-button, socially plugged-in girl comes along.

August 30, 2000|MIMI AVINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Just when you thought your knowledge of pop culture minutiae was up to snuff, consider a category of haute fluff that won't go away and requires more study. One month, Harper's Bazaar, with pictures and breathless tributes, nominates "It girls." The next, it's Town & Country labeling the attention-worthy. The current issue of Vanity Fair gushes over a baker's dozen of Its. Vogue has gone through several generations of them. The '30s produced a crop. In the '40s, that nasty world war got in the way of It-ness, then It girls surfaced again, more fabulous than ever, in the '60s and '70s. Then, as now, they are pretty, rich, slender, social and, thanks to the magazines who anoint them, highly visible.

The arts may spawn women who in addition to their sex appeal, charisma and glamour, are known for their accomplishments. Creative It boys--actors, singers, artists and directors--do time in the spotlight too. Sports, business and journalism have their stars, women whose charisma vaults them to the front of the pack. Maria Bartiromo and Willow Bay are the It girls of the financial press, for example.

But the true It girl isn't the novelist suddenly celebrated everywhere (London's Zadie Smith) or the new actress who ascends from independent films to become everyone's latest discovery (Chloe Sevigny). No, she is just a stylish, fun-loving socialite who is photographed and canonized because she's in the swim. And if she's heard as well as seen, it's a sure bet she's protesting that she is not a socialite.

Only the most attentive readers of W and its ilk recognize Its by name. Who is the always amusing Lulu Kwiatowski? Rena Sindi? What's a Plum Sykes? The names don't matter nearly as much as the interchangeable faces.

While It girls have some individual qualities, a given is that they have more sought-after invitations and designer clothes than you do. They have taken the axiom that if being thin were easy, everyone would do it, and discovered corollaries never imagined. These women manage subtly difficult feats: They walk in stilettos without alerting any pain centers in their feet, drink martinis without suffering hangovers or weight gain. Their glacially smooth hair wouldn't frizz in a rainstorm.

With such extraordinary talents, It girls function to make the rest of us mere mortals feel bad about ourselves. This dynamic echoes the bitter truth that has long fueled women's magazine presentations of impossible feminine ideals. Here's how it works: If an It girl wears high heels and you're shlumping along in flats, then obviously, you've gotten it wrong, wrong, wrong. To correct your disastrous choice, buy whatever she has. Those who can, do. Those who can't, envy, then imitate.

The fact that their existence serves to move merchandise is the ugly little secret of the It girl machine.

Their presence isn't meant to inspire class conflict but to sell products, and they do so with a virtuosity that could give Tiger Woods pause. Unaided by the boost provenance can provide, shoes, handbags, lipstick, jeans can languish in a store. Once a product acquires an association with a real person with the right image, its desirability quotient rises geometrically.

Jill Eisenstadt, a publicist who worked in New York for 11 years and is now managing director for Full Picture, a public relations company here, knows the It girl scene well. "If I were staging an event for a client, and it was chic and young and upscale and hip, I'd want a couple of key names there," she says.

Marketers of products from watches to cell phones put together budgets for what they call sampling, which means sending freebies to magazine editors and celebrities they hope will spread the word. Eisenstadt explains, "A lot of companies understand that it's smart to find appropriate trendsetters and taste makers to be seen with their products, and young, beautiful girls who are photographed are definitely important to help establish an image." That accounts for It girls' position at the top of the lists for designer sample sales, insider rituals where a $900 purse can be had for $25.

Everyone knows supermodels are grown on some farm in Brazil; they're not real. And actresses, who above all are supposed to have a modicum of talent, are prepped and airbrushed for their public appearances, so it's hard to take their stylishness seriously. It girls are civilians of a sort, which makes their fabulousness more interesting.

About their jobs. They must be in one of several approved fields: fashion, public relations or art, including the big auction houses. Working in the family business will do, especially if it's the $3.9-billion Estee Lauder empire. It's hard to imagine how much time they can really devote to their ostensible careers, what with all those gown fittings, parties, fashion shows and benefits to attend. I guess we'll let them, and their bosses, worry about that.

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