Derek Blasberg Is the Truman Capote of Instagram

“Hiiii, Derek!” Photo: Gillian Laub
Derek Blasberg is the Truman Capote of Instagram.
Photograph by Gillian Laub
Above: Grooming by Natasha Leibel using Amika.

It was a crisp July evening in Paris during the haute-couture shows, and a small, somewhat motley assortment of celebrities and fashion people were milling around the windowless, music-less basement of the Frank Gehry–designed Louis Vuitton Foundation. The occasion was the Love Ball, hosted by Natalia Vodianova, a model who is the partner of Antoine Arnault, the son of the chairman and CEO of LVMH. There was a smattering of art on the walls that would be auctioned off to benefit Vodianova’s Naked Heart Foundation (including a commissioned Takashi Murakami in which the winning bidder’s face could be painted into the center of one of his signature cartoon flowers). Tuna tartare and Champagne were being served. Kanye West was standing alone in a corner. Hamish Bowles was sort of just wandering around.

Suddenly, a sweet-faced man in a tuxedo arrived, and the room’s energy became palpably less stiff. 

Hiiii, Derek,” said Givenchy creative director Riccardo Tisci.

Hiiii, Derek,” said Tisci’s date, the model Mariacarla Boscono.

Hiiii, Derek,” said Marc Jacobs.

This is how people tend to greet Derek Blasberg, a man who’s become the object of much fascination among those in his orbit — not to mention his half a million Instagram followers. In a room of boldface names, all eyes were on Blasberg.

In part, that’s because he was being trailed by both a cameraman and a photographer, each for a separate job. Since April, he’s been the host of his own fashion-news show, CNN Style, which airs on CNN International. He’s also Vanity Fairs “Our Man on the Street” and a senior staffer at Gagosian Gallery, where he works with the publications department and connects the expensive art with his expensive friends. Despite all this, his name still elicits the frequent “But what does he actually do?” (That he’s constantly popping up in one outlandishly fabulous place after another — in Sardinia on a hike with Barry Diller and Gwen Stefani, on Katy Perry’s arm at the Golden Globes — elicits the follow-up: “Who even is he?”) One thing is certain: “He knows everybody,” says Larry Gagosian. “For a guy his age who didn’t grow up in New York, it’s kind of remarkable. Sometimes, he’ll mention he knows someone, and I’ll think, How does he know him?

The Love Ball crowd was heading into dinner, and the CNN producer was nervous: The network hadn’t yet gotten a good interview, and the crew had clearance to film only during the cocktail hour. Blasberg made his way through the room and was met with more “Hiiii’s” — always in the same vaguely mischievous cadence. He chatted with Boscono, whom I had last seen the day before, in the air, being twirled around by Blasberg on a Parisian balcony. He then buttoned things up a bit to talk with the Arnaults, before politely disengaging himself to offer to the CNN team his friend Milla Jovovich, the model turned actress, who he said was on her way. The producer relayed this to one of the party’s many publicists, who responded that she had intel Jovovich wasn’t coming and we’d need to clear out. The producer explained that Blasberg had a text from Jovovich confirming she was in a car en route. “Well, Derek would know,” the publicist said, sighing. Blasberg clicked out a text to Jovovich, narrating for the rest of us:

“Will … you … do … my … CNN … show … for … two … minutes … when … you … get … here? Kiss emoji. Kiss emoji.”

He showed everyone her response a minute later: a kiss emoji.

I have spent quite a bit of time with Blasberg over the past few weeks trying to figure out how he got here — not just at a black-tie gala in Paris with media outlets trailing him like puppies but to Instagram, where he’s singing Blondie songs with Kendall Jenner in Rome; lying in a pile with Reese Witherspoon and Jessica Alba on a fancy-looking couch in Beverly Hills; cruising on a yacht in St. Barts with Diane von Furstenberg and Wendi Deng; catching a round at Wimbledon with Stella McCartney and Dasha Zhukova; cuddling up next to Gwyneth Paltrow on an airplane. “When I first met him, I was a little dubious,” Paltrow tells me. “I was like, ‘Are you a professional best friend of celebrities? And why are you everywhere at once? What’s your deal?’ ” (Then: “After ten seconds, I fell completely in love with him.”)

Blasberg sees himself primarily as a journalist: “Obviously, Anna and Graydon are hashtag goals,” he says. And with social-media accounts whose followings rival the circulations of some magazines, he’s become part of the glue, or the accelerant, that makes fame work. Blasberg’s longtime friend Christopher Bollen, a writer and editor at Interview magazine, says, “I think that Derek is like Fran Lebowitz, only less grumpy.”

Clockwise from top left: Derek Blasberg with Nicole Richie, Jennifer Meyer Maguire, and Selma Blair; with Alexa Chung in New York; with Karlie Kloss in New York; with Liv Tyler in New York; and with Kendall Jenner in Rome. Photo: Billy Farrell Agency/Craig Barritt/WireImage/Getty Images/Tom Meinelt/Spash News/Kevin Mazur/Getty Images/Derek Blasberg/Instagram

We met on another afternoon in Paris at his friend Lauren Santo Domingo’s gallingly gorgeous 18th-century hôtel particulier in Saint-Germain. The parquet floors were stained a dark gray, the ceilings a zillion feet tall, and as we walked through the apartment, Blasberg pointed out the rare-book library with a Giacometti coffee table and a Wifredo Lam painting on the wall. This is where Blasberg stays whenever he is in town, which is about five or six times a year. “Isn’t it major?” he asked. He’s known Santo Domingo since they worked at Vogue together, back when she was merely a bottled-water heiress and before she married Colombian billionaire Andrés Santo Domingo and became contemporary New York society’s Brooke Astor. Blasberg told me that Santo Domingo, Zhukova (another billionaire), the model Karlie Kloss, and WSJ. Magazine editor Kristina O’Neill are his closest friends. “We have a group text going all the time,” he said. (Zhukova later told me they’re usually texting each other “fashion-world gossip,” but the other day “Melania Trump’s speech at the convention made it on there.”) We settled out on the terrace, where a uniformed maid offered us Oreos on a silver platter. “Try them,” he urged. “They’re French Oreos!”

Dressed snappily in a tan blazer, a pink button-down, and navy trousers, Blasberg explained in his slightly nasal lilt that in two days, he’d be heading to Rome on the “Fendi plane” for the brand’s 90th anniversary. Then to Naples for Dolce & Gabbana’s Alta Moda fashion show. Then he’d meet up with his boyfriend of two years, a venture capitalist named Nick Brown, with whom he has just bought an apartment on 75th between Fifth and Madison. They’d be in Capri for a few days aboard David Geffen’s yacht, Rising Sun, and then St. Moritz for Greek shipping heiress Eugenie Niarchos’s 30th-birthday weekend — all after the few weeks Blasberg’s spent bopping among Cannes, London, New York, and Switzerland. This is a fairly typical schedule for him. (Though when I checked into his Snapchat two weeks later, it seemed to have given him a respiratory infection; he filmed himself at a drugstore waiting for his antibiotics with a frowny face.)

As we nibbled on our Oreos, Blasberg decided to use this rare downtime during Fashion Week (he had interviewed Karl Lagerfeld for his CNN show earlier that morning) to squeeze in some more work. He took out his laptop, connected it to his camera, and scanned through his photos, choosing some of the ones he hadn’t already posted on Instagram to email to friends. “I’m the house photographer,” he said jokingly, but it’s true. He had promised Naomi Campbell he’d send her a particular photograph, and even though he was tired and wanted a shower, he knew she would appreciate it. “I never turn it off,” he said.

He went through a batch from the Fourth of July barbecue that Santo Domingo had thrown the night before, which featured pulled-pork sliders, sparklers, and an appearance by Danielle Steel. “Look,” he said. “Caroline Sieber and [Steel’s daughter] Vanessa Traina showed up in the same dress and the same shoes … Quelle horreur!

He pored over the images, his voice lowering to a mumble.

“That’s a good one,” he said of a photo of Italian socialite Bianca Brandolini d’Adda. “She wanted me to send her that …

“How pretty is Tory Burch …

“This is Caroline de Maigret, who I think is so chic.”

He perused a series featuring a whole gaggle of female guests and landed on one photo in particular, emitting a series of majors, each one ascending in volume and enthusiasm, and ending with one loud “Major!

Next, he looked at a batch he shot backstage at the Chanel show; he stopped at one of Jessica Chastain with Karl Lagerfeld. “I should have sent these pictures to Jessica — ”

He was suddenly interrupted by an unusually large pigeon that had appeared on the balcony and was staring Blasberg directly in the eye. “O-M-G, that scared the fuck out of me,” he said quietly. “That pigeon — it has a bad attitude.”

Clockwise from top left: With Jessica Alba and Kelly Sawyer in Los Angeles; in Venice; with Lauren Santo Domingo in London; and with Katy Perry and Dasha Zhukova in Cap d’Antibes. Photo: Billy Farrell Agency/Pascal le Segretain/AMFAR16/WireImage/Getty Images/Christian Vierig/Getty Images/Derek Blasberg/Instagram

When Blasberg turned 21, he threw himself a black-tie party in the cafeteria of NYU’s Hayden Hall, for which he saved up his meal plan and swiped all his friends in. He had arrived in New York as a freshman in 2000, “without an uncle that lived here, or a friend’s older brother who moved here to be a choreographer,” he says. “My phone book was empty. I knew zero people.” But he quickly found work at Elite writing biographies of models, and this, says Nicky Balestrieri, a friend from the time, “scratched his itch of celebrity.” From there he won internships at Vogue, W, and V and parlayed them into real-world hobnobbing. He spent a sophomore semester abroad in London, where after only a month “it seemed like all of London knew him,” says his friend Arden Wohl, who was studying there too. Blasberg introduced Wohl to Kate Moss, and Alexander McQueen attended his 20th birthday. His 21st birthday in the cafeteria served as both a capstone and another launchpad. Someone spiked the juice dispensers with vodka. They pushed the tables together so his friend could do a runway walk as they dined.

Blasberg grew up in a middle-class suburb of St. Louis and knew from an early age he wanted to get out of there (he wrote NEW YORK OR BUST on his sheets with a Sharpie). His mother, Carol, the managing editor of a medical journal, remembers her son coming home from middle school one day to find freshly poured concrete on the street in front of their house. “Derek decided to put his initials in the concrete,” she says. “But they were not small letters — more like two feet tall and his entire name spelled out: D-E-R-E-K.”

Immediately after college, Blasberg dabbled in more conventional avenues of career advancement, working as an assistant to Vogue’s managing editor at the time, Laurie Jones. It didn’t go very well. (He was fired after less than a year, he says, for being “the worst assistant in the world.”) But the mid-aughts were the age of the great socialite renaissance, and Blasberg was in the thick of it, attending the parties and then writing them up for various international Vogues and (for whom he was later given his own “Blasblog” — during which time Jezebel reported that he asked for a consulting fee from Yves Saint Laurent for a party he later covered for the site). Along the way, the New York Times featured him as an example of the growing phenomenon of “the male socialite,” and he met Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen — “We met just sort of living in New York, right? New York City’s like that, right?” And when they were launching their fashion label the Row and were interested in putting out a book, they turned to Blasberg to help them write it.

Around the time the book came out, in 2008, the publisher approached Blasberg about writing some sort of socialite handbook, and in 2010, in the dark days of the recession, Classy: Exceptional Advice for the Extremely Modern Lady arrived with a glitzy launch at Barneys. A generous read of Classy is that it’s a light, quippy etiquette guide with fun photos of Blasberg and his famous friends. A less generous read is that it’s a rather mansplainy example of a male author telling women what will and will not make them look trashy, with page-filling tips like “When buying something online, make sure the web address is secure.” Nonetheless, the book put Blasberg on the New York Times best-seller list, he was given a writing contract with Harper’s Bazaar, and an expanded follow-up, Very Classy, arrived in 2011.

In 2012, Blasberg joined Instagram. “I was late to it, actually,” he says — he had been using a BlackBerry — “but there was a point when I realized there was a whole world I needed to speak to in order to remain relevant.” It worked: The local character-about-town became a global phenomenon. Who was this person posting so many photos of himself with so many famous people?

Clockwise from top left: With Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana in Naples; with Gwyneth Paltrow en route to Cannes; with Sienna Miller in Cannes; and with Karl Lagerfeld in Paris. Photo: David M. Benett/Getty Images/Derek Blasberg/Instagram

If he’s uptown, Blasberg likes to take people to lunch at Kappo Masa, the extremely expensive Madison Avenue sushi restaurant that’s below his Gagosian office. Recently, over a $32 California roll, he was talking Instagram. “If there is one thing that Instagram does,” he said, “it provides a platform for hustlers.”

I asked him to explain exactly what it is that makes him so good at it. “I think the key is that I don’t overthink it too much — but also that a witty caption is an important part of the game,” he said. Blasberg is very partial to puns. He’ll post a picture of Stella McCartney and Rita Ora hugging one another at the Glastonbury music festival and write “GLASTO NO SHE DIDNT!,” or a picture of him lying in Karlie Kloss’s lap in Hyde Park and write “Hyde and go seek.” After Katy Perry released her song “Rise,” a photo of the singer in an elevator: “Going up? @katyperry. #RISE.” With Kendall Jenner at the Calvin Klein show: “See K at CK @kendalljenner.”

Paltrow tells me she consults with Blasberg when crafting her own Instagram captions. “There are times when I’ve been with Derek, and I’ll take a photo and be like, ‘What should I write on this thing?’ I hate writing captions, and he’s so good at it. He gave me such a good one the other day.” It’s a photo of Paltrow, Michael Kors, and Jessica Chastain in paper sunglasses. The caption Blasberg came up with: “shady dates.”

What’s most impressive about Blasberg, his friend the writer Bob Colacello tells me, is that “he’s able to give his Instagram followers enough to keep them happy — a very inside look at this special world — without making his rich-and-famous friends feel like he’s betraying their privacy. And I can tell you that takes a lot of skill.” Despite the constant Truman Capote comparisons (like Capote, Blasberg is a writer always surrounded by modern-day “swans”), William Norwich, the writer and former Vogue editor, insists they’re nothing alike. “Derek is not Truman,” he writes me in an email. “One was a graveyard with ghosts, the other is a garden on Instagram.”

There was a time not so long ago when people went out in New York City partly in order to have their photos taken — usually by Patrick McMullan or Bill Cunningham, who were part of an elite corps who decided who was worthy of being shot. They were then further scrutinized and whittled down by a party-pages editor. Instagram and Snapchat changed all this; now anyone with any sort of following can create their own version of what happened last night and share it with the world. But within these apps are complex social hierarchies based on followers and cachet and filters, and a select few have the power to tag someone and immediately garner a “Who is that? They must be somebody.” For the type of model or socialite or actress swirling through the worlds of fashion and Hollywood, it’s now more important to be in certain Instagram feeds than it is to be in the party pages or a Vanity Fair slideshow. And the Instagram that’ll get you noticed, the selfie you want to be in, is Blasberg’s.

Sitting at Kappo Masa, Blasberg told me that until recently, media outlets were wary of people like him with built-in followings. “It’s sort of fascinating to think a company wouldn’t want to employ someone who had their own brand,” he said. That has since changed — the fact that Blasberg brings an audience with him is a big draw for his employers. But maintaining the brand, he said, takes effort: “I know that on Instagram my life is going to look footloose and fabulous, but it’s actually super-structured and organized. I don’t want to complain about Instagram, I obviously have fun with it, but I have to admit, there is a certain … lack of fun knowing that it’s now used for professional stuff.” Plus, he said, staring at his phone all the time, “my eyes have gotten more sensitive. I have to sleep with an eye cover; otherwise, I get woken up by light.”

The work pays off, though — when he wants, Blasberg can now command a room like any high-powered fashion figure. In Paris, he made a quick stop at the Giles Deacon presentation. Blasberg told his old friend he loved the collection. Deacon, who was by then toggling between Blasberg and the Times fashion director Vanessa Friedman, responded, “Tell that to your friends; you know who they are.” He was sort of kidding but sort of not.

These friends will follow Blasberg to some unlikely places. One evening in late June, I met Blasberg at a Starbucks a few blocks from 1 World Trade Center, where he’d been for a Vanity Fair meeting. We were on our way to a fund-raiser he was co-hosting at a West Village bar for Micah Lasher, a college friend running to be state senator for New York’s 31st District. As we walked up West Broadway, Blasberg picked up the pace — we were late, and he was stressed because he had just gotten a text from his friend Bee Shaffer, Anna Wintour’s daughter, saying she was already there. We passed by Balloon Saloon, a Tribeca oddity that sells balloons and pool floats. “Let’s talk about the best store in New York,” he said. “Comedic inflatable rafts are a great summer hostess present. A giant pizza slice is always good, but the greatest hit I’ve found is this toilet raft they have. You can jump into a toilet!”

Blasberg should know a thing or two about summer hostess presents — some Instagram digging reveals that a few years ago, he gave that very toilet raft to real-estate mogul Aby Rosen and his wife, Samantha Boardman. But when I steered the conversation in that direction, Blasberg uncharacteristically snapped. “The way you ask these questions makes it seem like my friendships are so strategic!” he said.

We arrived at the party, and Blasberg transitioned into full schmooze mode — the talk among friends was of Giovanna Battaglia’s completely over-the-top wedding in Capri a few weeks earlier. “It was the Instagram wedding of the season,” he told me. We were a long way from the heart of the 31st District, which stretches up the West Side to the Bronx, but so was the company — Pamela Hanson, Leigh Lezark, Jen Brill, Chrissie Miller — none of whom likely lives in Lasher’s district, and most of whom seemed to have only a slight understanding of why they were there. But Blasberg called, and they came. And when they got there they were lectured about gerrymandering.

Clockwise from top left: At the Vogue Paris Foundation Gala with Mica Arganaraz, Edie Campbell, Lauren Santo Domingo, Bella Hadid, Irina Shayk, and Riccardo Tisci; with Naomi Campbell in New York; with David Geffen on the Amalfi Coast; and with Jennifer Meyer Maguire, Dasha Zhukova, Karlie Kloss, and Wendi Deng in St. Barts. Photo: Derek Blasberg/Instagram

People ask me all the time, ‘Why is Derek so popular?’ ” says Santo Domingo. “ ‘Why does everyone love him?’ ” Santo Domingo has a simple answer: “Because he’s fun to be around! Is that so hard to understand? I mean, so many people make themselves disagreeable!”

Blasberg obviously benefits from the celebrity snowball effect: Once you get a few famous pals, the rest keep on coming, especially if you run a side business maintaining the relationships. But anyone can do that, and if you can believe it, Santo Domingo’s is actually the most compelling explanation for Blasberg’s success that any of his friends have given me. In the crowd in which Blasberg runs, being agreeable seems to be a mark of honor: “No one likes to be around someone who talks about how stressed they are all the time,” Santo Domingo says. Blasberg himself frequently brings up how nice he is. If you want to be “the person people want to have around,” he says, “don’t be a gossip, don’t be a dick, don’t be unkind, have fun, smile more than you frown, laugh more than you cry, that sort of stuff.” He’s careful not to complain too much. The other week, when he was in London, “I was at dinner with Tom Ford and he introduced me to this phrase: the bitches of the riches. Like, for example, complaining that I have to go to Paris to interview Karl Lagerfeld for my CNN show would be a bitch of the rich.”

That’s not to say Blasberg isn’t above a little shit-talking or gossiping, but his relentless upbeatism appears to be a combination of genuine instinct and applied affect. “At the end of the day,” Paltrow says, “he’s a midwestern boy who can’t believe who he’s eating dinner with, while simultaneously being completely comfortable with who he’s eating dinner with.” He and a bunch of his particularly fancy lady friends are in a book club together, but Blasberg rejected reading The Girls, by Emma Cline, because he couldn’t stand the image of those women reading the raunchy, Charles Manson–inspired sex scenes. And in Paris, when we found ourselves talking about his friend Karlie Kloss showing up in Taylor Swift’s Instagram at her Rhode Island estate splashing around in matching American-flag bathing suits, he refused to entertain the possibility that the photos were professionally staged. “Well, you clearly have a glass-half-empty approach to life,” he said when I suggested they couldn’t possibly be candid. “I know that a lot of people are rolling their eyes, but I never think of things like that.” When he looks at those same photos, he said, he sees a waterslide and thinks, That looks superfun!

The night of the Lasher benefit, I emerged from the subway on my way back to my apartment and was greeted with a text from him: “Couch!” followed by the smiley-face emoji with hearts in its eyes. He asked me what I was doing and told me he had just eaten a burger. The exchange was clearly relationship maintenance (one wonders how many other women were receiving hamburger texts that evening), but looked at from a glass-half-full approach to life, Blasberg was just trying to keep the party going. The next morning, I woke up to another text: “We aren’t seeing each other today are we? #withdrawal.”

*This article appears in the August 8, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.