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Being Tinsley Mortimer

The rebranding of a New York It-girl

Is there still such a thing as a socialite? The answer is complicated, according to Tinsley Mortimer. 

“The term might be a bit dated today, but I have come to embrace it,” she says, sipping Pinot Noir at Harry Cipriani on Fifth Avenue. “If it means a woman who is out and about, dressed beautifully and photographed, so be it. However, I also view it as a platform for my brand.”

Dressed in a patterned A-line dress, her skin highlighted by a retro Southern makeup aesthetic and her hair in perfectly coiffed curls, Mortimer looks like an American Girl doll come to life, and that isn’t far off.

Mortimer—née Mercer, as in the Manhattan street— certainly had a regal upbringing. “I made my debut in Virginia at the Bal du Bois,” she says, reclining in a banquette. “I was chosen as leader of the ball and just loved it. I always loved girly things and got to pick out a big Vera Wang. It was almost like getting married.”  

While the Richmond native doesn’t hesitate to use her frilly packaging to her advantage, it’s not the only weapon in her arsenal. An alumna of Lawrenceville Prep and Columbia University, where she was an art history major and nationally-ranked tennis champ, Mortimer held positions planning events for a New York PR firm and worked in the beauty department at Vogue before her 2002 marriage to her high-school boyfriend, Standard Oil heir Robert “Topper” Mortimer.

Seemingly overnight, Mortimer was everywhere. Her blonde hair and penchant for flirty dresses were like catnip for party photographers, and soon enough she was one of the most recognizable young women on the society circuit. Then came a handbag line, a Dior lip gloss named in her honor, a chapter in a book called The Park Avenue Diet and, of course, the reality-TV show High Society. Tinsley Mortimer had most definitely arrived, but she wouldn’t be staying long. 

In 2009 she and Topper separated, and other less-than-august occurrences weren’t far behind. There was a Jersey Shore-themed spread in a fashion magazine and reported canoodling with an American Idol runner up. The girl who’d come from nowhere appeared to be bordering on overexposed before, all of a sudden, she was gone. Mortimer spent two years at her family’s place in Palm Beach, avoiding the spotlight and plotting a comeback she shrewdly executed during New York Fashion Week late last year. 

Mortimer says she’d do it all again. “I have no regrets,” she declares before offering that, “in Newport or Palm Beach, with the country-club set, it’s a bit tricky to navigate. One has to walk a fine line.”

Ask her about the s-word, and she’ll pause. “It is a term that’s often used with my name,” Mortimer says tentatively before hitting her stride. “People often try to categorize someone, and since I am not an actress or a celebrity, someone might need to label me.” She shrugs. 

Still, the woman who once won top billing on the now defunct website Socialite Rank says that she’s not sure the term still holds the weight for the skeletal hostesses Tom Wolfe dubbed Social X-Rays. 

Mortimer explains. “It was used for women who were social and weren’t working, but the number of [those women] seems to have dwindled.”

And what’s taken their place?  “The term still connotes a woman from a good social background, but today one can have more serious aspirations,”  offers Mortimer, whose latest venture involves a line of tabletop accessories. “I take pride being a businesswoman, I work hard and make my own money. And I like making my own money.”

Indeed, Mortimer’s return to New York coincided with the launch of her collection of home goods—including palm tree–printed highball glasses, plates emblazoned with koi and acrylic-and-faux-leather trays—that aim to land her as a tastemaker akin to Martha Stewart or Tory Burch. 

The idea of being a successful businesswoman or brand certainly seems to have taken precedence over an idle life of leisure for many social young women today. There’s no lack of gals about town making a living for themselves, whether by founding a PR agency, a cosmetics line or the ubiquitous oddity of working as a DJ. It’s all apparently in service of that new must-have item: a personal brand. 

As one Upper East Side social mainstay told me, “Today’s woman has more education. There’s true depth there.” Not that all the social changes these days strike her as being better. 

“You would be surprised at how some of these young women show up at Locust Valley and Palm Beach clubs,” she griped. “Everyone looks like they fell off a lorry. In my day, no one would ever have dreamed of going out to an event without preparation. I’m not saying women were happier, but no one talked about herself as being a brand.” 

Where the old guard may view the new rules for today’s society girls with disdain, modern socialites know using the moniker is a viable business strategy. And these days what passes as admirable is a character whose social life at least appears to come second to her real life. 

Pressed to reveal her greatest ambitions, Mortimer doesn’t flinch. “I would like to have a successful business, get married and have children.” 

Even if status is something that occasionally crosses her mind—after all, the girl has an agent instead of a social secretary—a bit of ambition doesn’t turn a nice girl from Richmond into Becky Sharp. As my Grandmother Elsie, herself a New York-born businesswoman, once said of a niece’s assertive aspirations, “Darling, you can’t fault a girl for trying.”

Dress, $1,995, MICHAEL KORS, michaelkors.com.

Hair: Keith Carpenter using Oribe Hair Care at The Wall Group.
Makeup: Cedric Jolivet using Marc Jacobs Beauty at See Management.
Photographed on location at 66 East 11th Street listing by TOWN New Development and Dolly Lenz Real Estate LLC.

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