Material girls

  • Jon Kelly
  • 16 Oct 08, 04:10 PM GMT

NEW YORK, NY: Sarah-Jessica Parker has a lot to answer for. In the imaginations of most of my female acquaintances, Manhattan is a sort of metropolitan Shangri-La where empowered, glamorous ladies spend eternal lunches discussing footwear and their endless stream of male admirers.

I feared I wasn't going to be able to do this place justice. I'm not quite conversant with the latest stiletto fashions. Where I grew up, a romantic dinner a deux meant stopping by the chip shop on the way back from the pub.

Luckily, I had an offer of help from on high - thirty stories high, to be precise, with stunning views across the island.

Jill Zarin Jill Zarin, 44, invited me to the luxurious downtown apartment she shared with her husband Bobby, a home furnishings magnate. She introduced me to her friend, 37-year-old Bethenny Frankel - a socialite, businesswoman and writer who was a regular fixture on New York's dating scene.

The pair had already been the subject of a reality TV show. Jill spent her days organising glamorous, $2,500-a-head charity fundraising events. Bethenny, essentially, saw herself as Carrie Bradshaw made flesh.

This all seemed a bit unreal. On my trip across the US, I'd met a lot of people on low incomes who were struggling as the economy worsened. Now, I had a chance to find out how those at the other end of the social hierarchy were faring.

Regular readers will know that I've been endeavouring to avoid easy archetypes in this blog. But really, Bethany made it difficult for me.

"My life is Sex and the City," she purred. I heard how she made a point of only going out with good-looking men. Less attractive specimens generally had something to prove from their High School days, she added, when they wouldn't have been able to snare girls as pretty as her.

For some reason, her friends had suggested that guys might find her intimidating.

The credit crunch hadn't affected Bethenny's natural food business, she said, but the economics of dating had been transformed.

Although she insisted that she wasn't an expensive dining companion ("I only order appetisers, in general"), she had noticed a heightened sense of anxiety among suitors who told her they were investment bankers or hedge fund managers.

Bethenny didn't care too much about what these men actually did all day. "I'm like, show me the bank statement," she drawled. "But they're saying, 'This is the great depression again.'"

Against this backdrop, Bethenny felt was only good manners to reign in her shopping. The other day, she'd looked on with distaste in one downtown store as her fellow Manhattanites carried on burning up their credit cards as much as ever.

"I find it a bit vulgar to be spending $2,000 on a handbag at this time," she sniffed.

Jill agreed. "We haven't felt the pain that the country is feeling," she admitted. "But we can see it."

Bethenny FrankelIt was time to pass on the same message that I'd delivered to traders on Wall Street: that many ordinary Americans blamed wealthy New Yorkers for the nation's economic woes.

Jill disagreed. The problem, she said, had been a country-wide lack of personal responsibility: borrowers taking on heftier mortgages than they could afford.

"If you spend more than you make, it's a problem. I've always lived that principle. I've always saved."

Both were voting for Barack Obama. Jill, who was strongly pro-choice, wanted justices who would uphold Roe v Wade appointed to the Supreme Court. Bethenny believed that "Sarah Palin was the most moronic choice on earth" to be John McCain's vice-presidential nominee.

I'm sure that Senator Obama will be glad of their votes. But there was something incongruous about the fact that the Democrats - supposedly the party of social justice and redistribution - were guaranteed votes here, but met with ambivalence back in West Virginia.


  • Comment number 1.

    I'm very surprised that the two ladies do not like Sarah Palin. She seems to be a glamorous and prosperous woman like they are!

  • Comment number 2.

    To me it sounds like the idea of limited good -- if the government collects taxes and distributes them to everyone, then some people feel that they'll wind up with less money than they had before, without any benefit. That is, if someone else is getting "good", it must mean it's being taken away from someone else. Although this is strictly speaking true when it comes to the very wealthy, those in rural areas understandably are wary of anyone taking away what little they do have.

  • Comment number 3.

    Bethenny's name is spelled incorrectly the third time it is used in the article. Wasn't sure who to contact. no need to publish this comment. Thanks.

  • Comment number 4.

    I wonder how happy Bethenny Frankel is going to be in 20 years when she is 57, lonely and still very ugly? And you know why W.V. voters have nothing in common with uber-rich, liberal, east coasters? It can be found simply in this grotesque statement - "I find it a bit vulgar to be spending $2,000 on a handbag at this time," she sniffed." Also, $2,500 a head charity dinners for those suffering from white guilt is not the 'change' we need. Great Blog, keep it up!

  • Comment number 5.

    Ah, the "champagne liberals," I am ashamed to say we share many of the same views. While some commentators have looked at how the Republican party is fracturing this year, I think the Democrats have some deeper divides- the blue collar socialism and "elitist" white collar version. I know which side I'm on.

  • Comment number 6.

    You've done a great job on a difficult assignment, Jon.

    Dumfries looks wonderful, now on my list of places to visit.

    After this latest visit, maybe you will appreciate this Heartland piece of doggerel, which may help you understand West Virginia and the rest of us:

    'If I owned Hell and New York City, I would rent out New York, and live in Hell'....

  • Comment number 7.

    To Jon Kelly

    I think that you have found 'Ugly America.' In a past life these people were probably playing a fiddle while Rome was burning.

  • Comment number 8.

    I don't begrudge these women their money or luxuries. That's America, work hard and make something of yourself.

    But---Hey, Carrie, I mean Bethenny, I'm wondering what price per share HUMILITY is going for these days. Maybe it's time to invest???

    To #7: AMEN, a-gal! I'll take the midwest anyday (and West Virginia is pretty darned nice, too!).

  • Comment number 9.

    Sorry to be pedantic, but surely you mean easy stereotypes, not easy archetypes?

    Anyway, my real point is that whilst it may appear an easy option to side with the hard up, low income earner, rather than the ostentatious in general, surely the point is to look away from the materialistic argument....and quite simply to 'live within your means' no matter how much you earn - this is what Jill is saying, and is simple common sense across all income bands. I might not like Bethenny as a person, but if she and others can afford an expensive handbag (key bit being afford), then good luck to her. Haven’t we got to where we are because many of us have bought items like handbags – or houses - beyond our means. We all shoulder ‘some’ of the responsibility – not all – but surely some!

    Kind regards,

  • Comment number 10.

    I'm new to the Blog, but there's been lots of good comment so far .... I hope to add to it.

    Firstly I'm not sure it's really relevant to focus on the extremes .... yes parts of West Virginia are very poor, and yes the dreadful Carrie Bradshaw knock-offs in Manhatten are unbearable. These $2000 handbag girls are not representative of your average New Yorker, any more than a buck-toothed "Dukes of Hazzard" type represents West Virginia (or whatever state that was supposed to be!)

    These emotive exaggerations simply take us away from the real issue ..... which is who will put the USA back on track domestically (economy, health, education) and internationally (reputation, war).

    For your average voter it is simply the economy .... however very little seems to be said specifically. Why do the poorest, often rural voters take a strong conservative line, when it often goes directly against their economic interests. Socialised medecin and better schools make a better future for the less well off.

    Secondly how did the word "liberal" come to have any negative implications? Everywhere else in the world it is generally considered a compliment to be described as "liberal", implying a level of tolerance and acceptance of other cultures. In a melting pot like the USA this should surely be a good thing.

    Also this campaign seems to paint being educated as a negative ( as in educated liberal elite). Has the USA become the land where you can aspire to anything except education.

    If I were voting I would absolutely want the best educated man or woman for the job.

    Finally in a way you have to respect those "Champagne Socialists" - they may have a ton of cash and spend in ways which most people (myself included) find absurd .... but they've still got a modicum of social conscience left. After all they want to vote for someone who will allegedly tax them into oblivion!!!

    Peace to all

  • Comment number 11.

    I grew up in New York City, but I am the other New York. Brooklyn. The guy with the accent. The one those in your article would call a B & T. Bridge and Tunnel.

    Now that I live in Arizona, I have a whole other outlook. My family still live there, but I am removed from it. I do not miss it. And before some of y'all comment, no, I am not jealous. I don't look good in a suit For me, these women come under the category of the line from the song by Country Singer Shania Twain "That don't impress me much."

  • Comment number 12.

    There's lots of blame to go around, but Jill is right to say people forgot their personal fudiciary responsibilities.

    I think of myself as a case in point. While housing market was booming my friends kept wondering why I would be renting when I could spend the same amount on a mortgage? But when I looked at it, though I could technically afford it, should I come up against any economic troubles (ie: sudden job loss), I would be in a pickle. When people were shopping till the dropped my friends were asking me why I was trying to be so prudent paying off my Visa debt when I had great credit and could easily afford to spend more from time to time? But I'd always point out to them the teachings of my parents. They always advised me not to put any more money on my visa that I couldn't reasonably pay it off within a month or two period. It's just not financially responsible.

    So here we are now. Credit Crunch time. I'm also potentially within a couple of months of losing my job (upper management has already said layoffs are on the way). However, I'm not as concerned as I could have been. I have no house mortgage. I'm renting at a place I could walk out on at any time to find another, cheeper place to live. I have a car lease, but that's up in less then a year, and to turn it in early would not hurt me too much. And my visa balance is at 0. Yeah, that's right, zeroooo. With my partner in a very stable career, my job loss, though it would hurt, is not going to have near the impact it could have. Unfortunately not everyone is in a relationships where they have a dual income. And I feel sorry for those people especially, because it's the single income folks that are really going to be hurting.

    Fiscal prudence folks. It starts young. Remember that when you're raising your children.

  • Comment number 13.

    So, you have seen your Wall Street and your rich women -- spoiled and otherwise -- and there are three weeks until the election. Why don't you get back in that bus, and go up towards Maine, south to Florida (I don't care if you actually get there, but in that direction), and the Midwest, Great Plains and all the way across to the Pacific Northwest? You could go see the places you missed -- most of which are in the north. There was a whole lot of Southwest (you never got further north than Las Vegas, until you had to be in St. Louis!), and then you skipped through a few states in the middle, constrained by needing to be at the debates. Now there are three weeks, and no debates, so...

    You may have noticed that I find your route to be rather exclusive to a huge chunk of the Union (some of those states could have been pretty interesting -- Colorado is actually being contested!).

  • Comment number 14.

    I wonder how much money Bethenney's father paid for her apparent cosmetic surgery(nose job anyone). Both women have guts considering they aren't THAT good looking.

    The women mentioned in the blog seem to me the epitomy of obnoxious New Yorkers and are why the residents of Manhattan are pretty much despised by the rest of the country. Go figure after reading what they have to say.

  • Comment number 15.

    I really found I missed people like these women when I attended university in a midwestern flyover state, so I moved back home to Manhattan as soon as I graduated. As money obssessed as they are, they were sill better than the religous, puritanical types who seemed to come from the midwest. Say what you want about these women, but they are pretty fabulous as far as I'm concerned.

  • Comment number 16.

    What state was it? How big was the surrounding community? As I am sure you know, not all of us are that way... I guess it's all a matter of personal preference (I find the thought of the company of people like Bethany puts my hackles up -- but too much religion does the same thing).

  • Comment number 17.

    Bethenny looks like she just rolled out of a gutter. Maybe a 5th Ave gutter, but "pretty"? Who's she fooling

  • Comment number 18.

    The reality show episode with Jill's interview just aired, and I had to respond. The BBC interviewer accused Jill's " people" of causing the economic crisis. I was not terribly surprised by that completely baseless accusation--the leftist media are left unquestioned so often that their stances have become the baseline for any undiscerning person who watches or reads the news. First off, what "lot" is Jill a part of that caused this economic crisis? She was not one of the liberal bureaucrats in the 1970s who piloted the Community Reinvestment Act, which forced banks to fill a quota of "high risk" loans to combat alleged racism in the banking industry. She is not a mortgage broker selling packages of mortgages to Freddie Mac or Fannie Mae. She is not an inept member of the SEC letting these mortgages go unquestioned. The interviewer did not expand on his accusation at all, and it just showed a complete lack of understanding of the entire economic crisis. He just appeared to be attacking her for her wealth--a rampant tactic all across America that it is even blatantly evident in the previous posts on this blog. Why should we attack these people for their wealth? Jill and her husband work hard to maintain that lifestyle, and they were lucky because cosmic justice was on their side. Furthermore, she is constantly doing charity work.

    I do not generally defend Democrats. But in this case, the BBC was just inexcusable. The interviewer was so smug and self-satisfied, and even assured Jill twice that there was no way she could ever know that a recession was on while she was holed up in her fantastic apartment. So his reasoning went like this: because Jill's apartment is nice, there is no possible way Jill could notice there is a recession on. This is a non sequitur at its most basic level. Jill could have noticed that Zarin's Fabrics was not doing as much business, or that her friends (e.g. Bethenny) were not spending as much money, or that the charity dollar was harder to come by.

    I am tired of the media getting a pass when they spout completely illogical verbage. I am also sick of reporters who think they are the absolute authority and are smug and condescending to the people they are interviewing. Wow, BBC reporter! Great job putting the screws to a person who had absolutely NOTHING to do with the economic crisis.


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