Is Friend-Digging the New Gold-Digging?
Back when people still read books instead of binge-watching Netflix, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth was a cautionary tale for the aspiring social climber. Pity poor Lily Bart, who tried too hard to find a wealthy and eligible suitor and ended up—spoiler alert!—in even worse shape than simply penniless and alone.
It’s likely a few stragglers with stars in their eyes still scheme with the intention of finding a rich husband or wife. But the repercussions of marrying solely for money don’t always play out so well, and the truth is it’s overkill. Why chain yourself to an otherwise unappealing spouse when private jet rides, unending stays in that Lyford Cay guest cottage, hundreds of thousands of Instagram followers, or almost any other modern-day status symbol is attainable via a strategic friendship?
“People realize you can monetize social cachet.”
“You don’t come to New York to look at butterflies,” says one fashion publicist who married a man in the travel industry not for love but for access to international first class tickets. “You come with a goal. It’s very business-driven.” Meaning it’s all about your network. In turn, gold-digging, that classic pastime, has begat “friend-digging”—using your closest circle to get ahead.
Social climbing in this manner has been around for centuries. Think of John Jacob Astor, Truman Capote, Madonna, or even Donald Trump. “You’re either on the Z list or the D, moving to C or B or A,”says R. Couri Hay, a publicist hired by social figures to make names for themselves in New York. “Wherever you start, you’re moving up with well-placed appearances, well-written notes, and memorable conversations.”
Or by getting tips from The Social Climber’s Bible, which the writer Dirk Wittenborn published with his niece Jazz Johnson as a parody. One section discusses how our Pilgrim forefathers “would have starved to death had they not shamelessly sucked up to the Indians and invited them to cater that first Thanksgiving.” Wittenborn says he was astounded to learn that many readers use it as an instruction manual. Tips range from investing in art or films to get closer to the right kinds of people, to how exactly to behave at a cocktail party. However, readers of different ages take different meanings from the book.
“The goal now is to make their lives seem more fabulous than they are.”
“I’m from a generation that wanted our lives to be a French movie, but I see a lot fewer people these days looking to have an a air. It’s not a very romantic time,” Wittenborn says. “The goal now is to make their lives seem more fabulous than they are, and they go into the exchange that way. There’s not a lot of guile anymore.”
Especially now that it’s easier than ever to seem more extraordinary than you might be. Friend-digging has become so widespread because, in the social media age, it earns dividends. Instagram means there are benefits, both social and financial, to appearing to have a fabulous life—beyond, you know, actually having one.
“People realize you can monetize social cachet,” says one movie executive. “Look at Hannah Bronfman. I made fun of her when she was posting all this stuff”— i.e., selfies anywhere and everywhere—“but now she’s making a lot of money.”
The executive believes that it’s all about aligning yourself with the right people not just in real life but also virtually. A stylist can get endorsements and deals by showing off her celebrity friends and clients, for instance. “Then you become part of the squad.”
The fact that it’s so easy nowadays to connect with the people you aspire to befriend—via e-mail, Instagram tags, direct Twitter messages—means the targets of friend-digging are more suspicious than ever.
“I get outreach every day on social media for connections, for favors, for jewelry,” says one popular and successful jewelry designer. “It gives people who are strangers the feeling that they can be intimate with people they aren’t.”
“No question the internet makes it easier to find people,” says Jean Shafiroff, a philanthropist and the subject of a 2017 New York Times profile headlined “Climbing the Socialite Ladder, One Gala at a Time.” Now that she has arguably made a successful ascent, Shafiroff herself often receives e-mails from people she does not know requesting invitations to parties. “I’ll certainly google them and find out what they’re about,” she says. “But you don’t do that. You don’t invite yourself to parties. If someone wants to be a friend, they should invite me out for a cup of coffee.”
A simple iced latte at Via Quadronno, though, can lead to a lifetime of fielding requests from a relentless mooch. Hay, the publicist, believes that social climbing hasn’t changed much over the years.
Certainly, having money to donate to well-regarded and fashionable causes helps, but some less expensive tricks of the trade include finding an older, established mentor; sending subtle gifts; making well-placed appearances; and mastering the art of sparkling conversation.
“People still expect you to be clever and witty and smart and savvy and current while staying away from religion and politics,” Hay says. “But it’s such a crowded space. It’s harder and harder to stand out.”
Of course, there’s having money, and then there’s having access. “Once you get the McMansion, you’re going to feel hollow unless you have all the tinsel on it,” Wittenborn says, meaning that the quest for status doesn’t end with things. Over the summer, in St. Tropez, one globe-trotting socialite who has maneuvered her way onto many a private jet watched as a blonde New Yorker made it onto a mutual friend’s yacht without an invitation several days running. The blonde took photos of the scene and posted them on social media as soon as she got on the boat.
“She has her own money—it’s not that,” says the globe-trotter. It’s about being in the right place at the right time with the right people. And if they can’t get there on their own, some strivers will invite popular houseguests to stay with them in the hopes of tagging along to the happening party when they themselves haven’t been invited. If Instagramming from an exclusive event is the new social currency, some people will get it by any means necessary.
“You don’t look at it as if they’re using you. You look at it as, ‘I don’t want to be lonely.’ If you’re a billionaire, you have a lot of empty houses to fill.”
But perhaps friend-digging is just a term that surfaces when you simply don’t like the people you’re hanging out with. “If I had a billion dollars, I’d be happy to have my friends travel with me,” says the globe-trotter. “Wouldn’t you?” Another New York–based socialite echoes that idea, observing that sometimes those who seem like friend-diggers to outsiders are really just people you happen to enjoy having around. “You don’t look at it as if they’re using you. You look at it as, ‘I don’t want to be lonely,’” says the socialite. “If you’re a billionaire, you have a lot of empty houses to fill.”
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