Tara Palmer-Tomkinson was honest about her wealth. Today’s It girls? Not so much
The sad and sudden death of Tara Palmer-Tomkinson sparked a strong national spark of what I call “nostalgia shock”, which is that feeling when you look back in almost gleeful horror at what you considered acceptable – desirable, even – in the fairly recent past. What, goes the cry, were we thinking? Fashion is obviously an area ripe for nostalgia shock, when you look back in amazement at what you were wearing in TP-T’s era, the 90s: Carhartt cargo trousers and cropped vest tops. What were we thinking? (Fashion magazines exploit a somewhat more short-term version of nostalgia shock, trying to convince readers they should be horrified by what they wore last month and update their wardrobes accordingly.)
When Palmer-Tomkinson died, newspapers – who hadn’t thought about the once ubiquitous socialite for years – took advantage of the occasion to quote her old columns for the Sunday Times, called, originally, The Social Diary Of Tara Palmer-Tomkinson, before it stopped faffing about and was shortened simply to Yah!: “Dressed head to foot in our new Ghost wardrobe, we started off in the Kitchen, the club in Clarence’s basement. Being a bit of a superstar, I was provided with security for the night, which meant that a poor girl called Stephanie had to wait outside every time I went to the loo.”
It was not difficult to guess what reaction these quotes were likely to nudge out of 21st-century readers: this was one of the most popular columns in Britain 20 years ago? The self-promoting dribblings of some overprivileged posho? What were we thinking?
As it happened, the day Palmer-Tomkinson’s death was announced I’d bought the new copy of Vogue, featuring an interview with the wildly popular model Gigi Hadid (almost 30m followers on Instagram). These followers are treated, on a near daily basis, to photos of Hadid in fashion shoots, Hadid at parties with her famous friends, Hadid eating room service in luxury hotels. Hadid, the Vogue article says, along with Kendall Jenner, “comprise a new breed of model mentality”, the inference being that these girls don’t demand $10,000 to get out of bed. And why should they? Both Jenner and Hadid grew up cushioned by almost unimaginable wealth in Los Angeles. (Hadid is the daughter of a property developer; Jenner is part of the Kardashian clan.) It’s easy to be cheerful and fabulous when your parents have hundreds of millions of dollars, as TP-T may well have written.
In Britain, this tenacious bias towards poshness is even more obvious. Three of the most recognisable It girls are Cara Delevingne, Suki Waterhouse and Georgia May Jagger, who were photographed together on the cover of Vogue in 2015, and all of whom grew up in south-west London where Palmer-Tomkinson spent her final years. Waterhouse’s father is a plastic surgeon regularly featured in Tatler, Jagger’s father is a little known singer called Mick; the two attended the same private school. Delevingne, who has been pitched by the fashion industry as the face of modern British youth, grew up in Belgravia, is descended from baronets and viscounts, and has Joan Collins for a godmother.
Although they would hate to hear it, this new crop of It girls lead lives pretty similar to the one Palmer-Tomkinson led 20 years ago: they go on ski and yacht holidays; they hang out with deeply tedious rich people; they are gifted with fashion freebies. But there are some differences. First, Palmer-Tomkinson was never held up as cool or aspirational; Hadid, Delevingne and the rest of them, by contrast, very much are. But because they send dispatches from their extraordinarily luxe lives via social media, there is a pretence of accessibility.
Second, their privilege is never directly acknowledged by these young women or the magazines that promote them. In interviews, much hay is made of whatever difficulties they suffered as children (divorce, a depressed parent), as if to suggest that their success was some kind of triumph against the odds. TP-T, by contrast, was entirely honest about her privilege, and self-mocking with it. She was all too willing to show the unInstagrammable jagged seams required to stitch together this patchwork picture of glamour: the loneliness, the awful parties, the drug addiction, the exploitative boyfriends, the self-loathing. She was ridiculous and fabulous, posh and silly, and knowingly satirised the public’s ongoing fascination with women like her – and what did we do? We sneered at her for it. What were we thinking?