Another day, another new Real Housewife to get to know—but if you keep up with the tabloids at all, you’re probably already well acquainted with “The Real Housewives of New York” Season 9 cast addition Tinsley Mortimer, and you may have even caught a glimpse of her mugshot that made the rounds last year.
It wasn’t exactly pretty—Mortimer’s gaunt face, over-groomed eyebrows and a dead-eyed stare, with blonde hair tinted chlorine-green in the fluorescent lights of the jail was pretty sad, in fact. But before she was arrested for allegedly trespassing at an ex-boyfriend’s Palm Beach home, Mortimer was a celebrated socialite in NYC and queen of the Park Avenue princesses a decade ago.
If, perhaps, you missed her reign as a boldfaced name, allow me to give you a refresher: Around 2005 through 2007, a wave of glossy-haired, manicured, sample-sized women ascended from the society pages to become celebrities in their own right. They followed in the footsteps of the Hilton sisters—though they’d never admit it—building whole careers off front-row tickets to fashion shows and appearances at charity balls, which glossy magazines, Page Six, and websites such as New York Social Diary documented with glee.
Their names sounded exotic—well, as exotic as the names of Upper East Side blondes could sound: Zani, Fabiola, Byrdie—and if they weren’t already, they became it after marriage (Moda Operandi’s Lauren Santo Domingo then went by her maiden name, Davis). And of the lot, Tinsley was the blondest, the shiniest, the biggest star—she had a handbag collection with Samantha Thavasa (a coveted collaboration in 2006), a beauty contract with Dior and a clothing line sold exclusively in Japan. Unlike some of her peers, high society wasn’t her birthright: She married into it when she wed high-school sweetheart Topper Mortimer, an investment banker, and began working as an assistant at Vogue (one of her colleagues there, Plum Sykes, would go on to fictionalize their extravagant lives in the classic 2007 beach read Bergdorf Blondes).
At the time, I was a teenager in Toronto hoping to move to New York for college, and from that vantage point, it all seemed impossibly glamorous. It was probably best witnessed from afar—I suspect, per the classic line from “Clueless,” their captivating lives were a total Monet—but as someone who devoured the Gossip Girl books (yes, they were books first) throughout high school, it was easy to imagine Tinsley as Serena, all glossy blonde hair and well-practiced smiles. Naturally, she guest-starred once the series became a television show.
Soon, however, cracks appeared in the facade: A wannabe socialite named Olivia Palermo hit the scene, a decade younger than Tinsley and bald-faced in her aspirations to climb to the top of the ladder—the whole saga of which is documented in a brilliant New York Magazine story on Socialite Rank, a gossip website that pitted Manhattan’s perfectly highlighted elite against one another.
In 2009, Tinsley separated from Topper and signed on to a short-lived reality show called “High Society.” And when the recession hit, it brought her gilded tower down with it. As The Cut wrote in a 2014 story, “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.”
Looking back, she could have followed the Paris Hilton path, kept up her fame in Japan and expanded to the Middle East and Central America, maybe tried a DJ career on for size; she could have parlayed her connections and notoriety into a successful fashion business, à la Santo Domingo. But Tinsley was destined for none of those things.
But has her destiny just no yet been fulfilled? Only time will tell… and lord knows we’ll see every dirty detail unfold on “RHONY.”
Originally published April 2016. Updated April 2017.