Catching Up With Tinsley Mortimer, Back From Palm Beach and Launching a Housewares Line

Photo: Bobby Doherty

Outside, the girl holding the clipboard waves Tinsley Mortimer in without even checking to see if her name is on the list. It is, of course. Tinsley Mortimer’s name is always on the list, although a list of participants who have signed up to learn how to make greasy, delicious steak-frites at Haven’s Kitchen on a Friday night is not the sort you’d typically find it on. “But I want to do things like this,” Mortimer says, tying an apron behind her trademark curls. “You know, like things normal New Yorkers do.”

Mortimer is not a normal New Yorker. This much is obvious to the people who look up from the hunks of raw meat they’re trimming as she teeters into the room in four-inch heels and a lacy top. “I knew who she was the second she walked in,” one of them will drunkenly confide later on, a person who remembers the brief but torrid period six or seven years ago when New York City social life was ruled by ambitious, blue-blooded blondes with perky names ending in vowels. Women like Byrdie and Zani and Olivia and Tory, who applied the same drive that enabled them to remain a size zero to dominating the covers of magazines like Social Life, Quest, and Avenue, and who managed to transform the simple act of being photographed at parties into profitable careers. They were our Plastics, and Tinsley, with her Barbie-doll looks, was the Queen Bee.

At her zenith, she had a handbag line, a clothing line, and a Dior lip gloss in her name and favorite color: Tinsley Pink. Then the market crashed, and along with it any tolerance for the high jinks of the idle rich. Mortimer, fun-loving southern belle that she is, stayed too late at the party. While many of her peers were going into hibernation, she signed on for a reality show, High Society, where Slate called her “a compelling study in contemporary vulgarity.” She and her husband, Topper, separated; not long after, she fled with her two small dogs to her family home in Palm Beach. There she remained until this past Fashion Week, when she resurfaced in New York amid the news that she would be launching a housewares line.

“What do you always have in your refrigerator?” the cooking-class instructor asks the group. “Champagne!” Mortimer responds in her scratchy, Jenna Bush–after–a–big–night voice. A housewares line might seem like a strange fit for someone who is known mostly for never being home. But she’s not the weirdest person that Pop Culture Living, the company backing her, is working with. (Flo Rida, Lionel Richie, and Real Housewife Lisa Vanderpump will also release branded home-décor lines.) The cocktail-­party wares Mortimer designed, she says, are perfectly suited to a newly single girl like herself. “I have one piece that’s Lucite, with little pops of neon, that’s made for serving tequila,” she says. “You have a little space where you put cut limes and salt.”

Entertaining, she says, is in her blood. “It’s that whole southern thing,” she says, daintily clutching a glass of Pinot Noir. Mortimer grew up in Virginia. Her family, the Mercers, claim to be descendants of one of the state’s “first families.” Tinsley and her sister were debutantes, and her mother “was a big hostess,” she says. “I would go in before guests arrived and it would be perfect and pretty and I loved it.”

Food, as one might expect from a person whose semi-autobiographical novel contains a scene in which a mother and daughter share a dry salad, was never much of a focus, which is why she suggested this class. “I do, as a woman, feel like I want to learn some cooking stuff,” she says. She has asked to make the béarnaise sauce — it’s her favorite — and the instructor hands her a bowl of eggs. The group stares as she attempts the tricky process of separating yolk from white. “Oops,” she says as she accidentally punctures a yolk with her long, petal-pink nails.

Mortimer is, by her own admission, a “girlie girl.” She shuns bread, never leaves the house without makeup, and sleeps “like this,” she says, thrusting her arms forward like a zombie, so as not to displace her false eyelashes or the two small Chihuahuas curled on either side of her. This is what got her noticed: Her high heels and anime curls stood out in the dour sea of New York black.

In retrospect, it may also have been part of her undoing. The media coverage of her business endeavors, much of which was headlined with variations on “Blonde Ambition,” now comes across as sneering, even sexist. “Could You Call Them ‘Business Climbers’?” asked a Times headline in 2006. Then, the following year, “Why Is the Blond Smiling?

“I mean, when did ambition become a bad word?” Mortimer asks now, ­whisking the eggs furiously. “A derogatory word for, yes, a woman. That was somehow not what I was supposed to be or do or want.” It’s hard to imagine, today, any publication getting a pass for calling a woman with a million-dollar deal with a Japanese company a “self-proclaimed ‘businesswoman.’”

Arguably, when it comes to forging a personal brand, Mortimer was ahead of her time. “Like the reality show,” she says, accepting another glass of wine. “Look what people have done with that. I didn’t want to pass that up — the chance to leverage that opportunity into other businesses and make that kind of money.” But once again, her timing was off. High Society was filmed not only in the thick of the recession but just as reality television turned to embrace what she calls “all this weird negative aggression.” She cites the moment in Real Housewives of New Jersey when one character flipped a table in anger. Others would cite one of her High Society co-stars saying, “My friends do tend not to be homosexuals, fat, or Jewish people, or black girls,” shortly after punching another socialite in the mouth.

Soon, Mortimer left New York. “It wasn’t fun for me anymore,” she says. “I wanted to just take a breath and not comb my hair and not feel like I was having to go to the party. It’s a lot of work to get fixed up all the time.” Now that Tory Burch is a billionaire, Paris Hilton is reportedly pulling in six figures for a night of DJing, and Kim Kardashian has built an empire out of her ass, one wonders what might have happened if things had gone a little bit differently for Mortimer. If, maybe, she was a little bit wronged. Surely she feels this way, too?

Mortimer sighs. “It was a different time,” she says. “This time would be a better place. But it wasn’t altogether a bad experience. I learned a lot about myself.” The instructor drops off a saucepan full of butter. Mortimer’s eyes widen. “Fuck,” she says. “There’s that much butter in béarnaise?”

Mortimer’s breath in Palm Beach lasted two years. Then the old ambition came creeping back. “I felt like I was losing myself a bit,” she says. “I was that girl who could do more.” When the opportunity to work with Pop Culture Living came up, she jumped at the chance and used the momentum to move back to New York. She thought about trying out a different part of the city, away from her old life. “I had thought, Well, maybe I’ll go to Brooklyn, because it’s young and cool. But I didn’t want to feel lonely or scared or like a fish out of water.” So she went back to the Upper East Side. “My friends are all still there,” she says. “Though a lot of them have babies and children now.” This is also an ambition.

“I still want to obviously do it all,” she says. “I want to have a nice home and a family.” She gestures at the béarnaise sauce, which has come together. “And eventually, when I have a husband, I want to be able to cook him a meal when he gets home.” She corrects herself. “When we both get home.”

*This article appears in the December 1, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.

Catching Up With Tinsley Mortimer