Plum Sykes, novelist and Vogue contributor, is friendly and hardworking – and starry in some indefinable way (although the little fur jacket and the exquisite delicacy of the emerald-and-diamond ring on her finger had something to do with it). But the brittle, spun-sugar world to which she seems to belong, is just that crucial blend: part sparkly illusion, part plain old reality. She knows this full well and deploys it in her novels Bergdorf Blondes and, just out in paperback, The Debutante Divorcée. Those novels, light beach reads though they may seem, came into being through a strict writing timetable (I do it from 9 to 5, like a job, really.’) and a discipline that lies beneath the surface of the Holly Golightly persona projected from time to time in the media.
At her suggestion, we ate lunch from the rolling sushi bar at the new Whole Foods on the Lower East Side, exactly one hour, because she wanted to get back to her nearby office to continue working on a screenplay of one of her novels. That was the only restriction because she’s obliging and very appealing. There’s also a brisk British practicality to her that I, as a fellow Brit, recognized. When I said I hated chopsticks, she told me to use my fingers; when I was worried about the noise levels around the sushi bar, she offered to hold the tape recorder to her lips, looking rather like a teenager pretending to be a rock star. She also seems to love food, and was, at times, rather more interested in the sushi than talking about herself … but she also did that, very directly and without affect.
So I’ve been reading your books ...
What, both of them? Oh my God! That’s so nice of you to do your homework, Lesley.
Well, I was curious. At times I did have the feeling that I wanted to round up the heroines, put them in a tumbrel and send them to the guillotine.
Some people do have that reaction, Lesley.
Well, what I meant was perhaps the times, the era that you are describing is uncomfortably close to the excesses of the 18th century. I was wondering if you felt that way too.
The thing is, I look at Bergdorf Blondes now and I think, that doesn’t seem very extreme three years later. At the time it was extreme but now people’s lifestyles are far more extreme than that … here have one of those [places a dish of sashimi in front of me] … Also because the people I was writing about then, I mean I’m 37 now, and it was really based on living on New York from when I was about 30. But in the meantime all these girls and their husbands, they have had massive financial successes and they’re living a life way beyond.
What I think you’ve managed to capture in Bergdorf Blondes is the solipsism and self-absorption of young people. What do you think of that now that you’re so very old?
Yes, very old. I think I wish I was still that young, do you know what I mean? Because you can only do that when you’re young. Life is too serious when you get older. I said to my husband after I’d had a baby, I could never have written Bergdorf Blondes [if] I had already had a child. Because you don’t make those kind of stupid jokes. It’s not such a joke anymore. The whole philosophy of Bergdorf Blondes is based on that New York girl philosophy, which was like ‘Well everything will be okay if I have a Bellini.’ But once you’ve had a baby you would never, ever, even think of that. And I did used to think like that.
Well the character Julie Bergdorf, is rather like a Becky Sharp, although she’s not a social climber because she’s already made it.
Yes, yup. I love Becky Sharp. [is momentarily distracted by the tuna something or other escaping heron the rolling belt.]
Why are we so drawn to those sort of amoral people? They don’t make any bones about what it is they want from life.
Well, at the end the book, Julie Bergdorf says, Oh God, I can’t really remember the line … [breaks off to inspect more plates of that sushi trundling by on the conveyor belt] … at the end of the book she says something like: ‘I’m terribly spoilt and I’m terribly selfish, but everyone loves me.’ She’s like a classic anti-heroine really, it’s not that mysterious.
We love her because we love heroines but she just happens to be a reverse heroine. Also, all the characters, in order to make them likeable as well as terribly spoilt, they all have a heart of gold …like, they’re very good girlfriends. Do you see what I mean? We all wish we could be really spoiled and say whatever we want but we can’t, so people really like these kinds of characters … it’s a fantasy about personality.
Those kinds of characters are not that introspective, I guess. Are you introspective, or moody?
Am I moody? I’m very moody. Very, very, very … I’m not very introspective, not really. The thing is you say that ‘oh the girls aren’t introspective,’ hmm … they are and they’re not. Because they’re self-aware, but they’re aware of the wrong things … they’re not aware of what is important in life.
But you are not moralizing in these books.
No! I think it’s really boring to write about rich girls and say because they’re really rich, they’re a bitch. And it’s not actually true. Lots of people who are broke can be horrible. Lots of people are horrible either way.
One of the unexpected things that I find with many of the people I interview for NYSD is a kind of detachment they frequently have, as if periodically viewing their own amazing lifestyles from afar.
Oh yeah! That’s why I’m saying they’re very self-aware, and at the same time they’re very savvy. Because their life-slash-social life is their career. And all these girls, whom I rather admire, like Tory Burch and Tinsley Mortimer, have turned themselves into an industry, and that’s from having that detachment.
What does it take to do that?
Oh … well …you’ve to be able to look at yourself from the outside and say ‘What am I? What thing am I?’
They’re amazing tacticians.
I think it’s instinctive. I don’t think ten years ago Tory thought ‘I’m going to be a brand in ten years called “Tory.”’ But something led her that way and she was always heading there. People say to me ‘Oh you’ve planned all this so well, Plum …’ but I didn’t plan it so well. But when you look back, it looks as though you might have.
Well, we do have a tendency in hindsight to impose design upon things.
I was just more like ‘Oh well, I’ll write a book … because what else am I going to do?’ [laughs …] I wasn’t thinking that I was going to do a ‘Plum Sykes’ brand of high society books … but that’s will end up happening, really.
What has been the reaction to your writing from people outside of people outside of New York?
Oh! Well the first thing they ask is ‘How can I get a job at Vogue?’ And then they always ask ‘Does Anna Wintour really get her hair done every day?’ Then they ask ‘Is Anna Wintour really like the woman in The Devil Wears Prada?’ And I say no. I always get exactly the same questions. They all knew that I wrote for Vogue, like when I went to Chicago or Minneapolis, they come with Vogue under their arm and ask me to sign my articles in Vogue, then the book. They’ve all had a subscription since they were twelve. They’re desperate for a bit of New York glamour. You almost have to dress up for the part. It’s quite funny.
Why do you think Anna Wintour is such an enduring source of fascination?
Because she’s so amazing. She’s special, and she’s so clever, and she’s very, very glamorous. She’s like a corporate executive with movie star glamour.
But you could tick those boxes off for other well-known women and you’d still find an extra level of fascination for her. Is it because of her reserve, a sense of something withheld?
Oh yeah, maybe. She’s very discreet. Yeah, they never quite get enough.
Do you still like going to parties?
Yeah! But I suppose … I do …but not every single night. I think it’s really awful not to go to any … then it gets really dreary. It’s really nice to dip into all those fashion parties whenever I want but, I have to say at a certain point in New York, before I had written Bergdorf Blondes, I really had done it for nearly five years, going out every night and getting dressed up. I was really, really tired – not tired of it, just really tired. The hair and the makeup, and you’ve got to have a different dress every night.
It has to be exhausting.
The pressure to look good is very tiring. On Monday I went to this party for Mr. Valentino, who wasn’t here, but anyway it was for his company or something … and I had this really lovely red dress that I’d worn that he had lent me. There I was someone from Vogue at the party and Vogue was having a party the next night and she said can you please come in a summer dress because we need to shoot everyone in summer dresses. Well, I said ‘Can I just wear this?’ and she said no because you’ve worn it tonight. But in the business of fashion magazines, that’s the reality. My heart sank and I thought, ‘Oh God, I’ve got to go and get another dress tomorrow.’ But then I just made up a look from my closet.
Do you care as much? Are you as obedient as you once were?
No, I was obedient. For Vogue I always do whatever they ask me to do because it’s my job. Part of the job of being a contributor at Vogue is to go to parties and have your picture taken. And it’s fun … a bit of fairy dust on the top of your life, it’s so nice.