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Why We Need Role Models With Class

Posted: 04/08/2010 12:18 pm

One of the perks of my job as a fashion journalist is the travel opportunity. Since the beginning of the year I've logged trips to London, Tokyo, Moscow, Colombia, Gstaad, the Turks and Caico's and two trips to Paris (one for the ready-to-wear fashion shows and then for the haute couture, of course). Although it's not something I'm particularly proud of, I'm willing to admit that in addition to whiling away the long stretches of time in the air and waiting in airport lounges reading the The New Yorker and New York Times on my Kindle, I've picked up the occasional tabloid magazine. (What? There's only so many satirical cartoons and health care debate Op-eds a young man can read in one sitting!)

It was in some of these pre-boarding moments that the concept of my new book Classy (available today on Amazon.com) reinforced itself. Perusing through the page-turning salaciousness I couldn't help but wonder what sort of female role model our media is putting on a pedestal. Tokyo was my most recent trip, and on the 13-hour flight back to New York, I was shocked by the number of pictures I saw of cheesy, tactless mistresses who had committed adultery with a professional golfer or the tattooed husband of a recent Academy Award winner.

Sure, these skanks were the more obvious examples. But, digging a little deeper, the trend continued: a scantily clad Republican mistress posing for a men's magazine; profiles on the members of a certain MTV reality show that centers around tanning, diamond earrings, sexy bodies and perfect hair (and those are just the boys!); a whole generation of girls who have the bad habit of forgetting to put on underwear when wearing short skirts. It's forced me to make one giant realization: there are far more tramps in this world than ladies.

I don't mean to impugn the entertainment value of these sorts of stories -- truth be told, I still have some episodes of "The Jersey Shore" on my Tivo because they're just too good to delete -- but what I found a touch disconcerting was when I considered how hard it might be for a young woman to differentiate between what is considered appropriate and inappropriate behavior. For example, you try telling a young woman that sexual intercourse is something special between two people who love each other when she sees groups of girls offering their womanly goodies on regular cable to fallen 1980s musicians who they just met with dozens of other girls at a rented Calabasas mansion.

Sometimes it's a sex tape, or it's a teenage pole dance on an awards show, or a nudie picture that wasn't supposed to be seen by anyone but their betrothed: my problem isn't the act itself (tramps will be tramps!), but there seems to a general consensus that these sorts of occurrences should be normal, never mind the glorification and excitement of it all. And not all of the examples are so severe (or X-rated): More than once I've been sat next to a so-called well-mannered actress at a gala dinner who didn't know which were her bread plate and water glass and when to put her napkin in her lap and what was appropriate dinner conversation. (No: menstrual cycles are not appropriate.) For a few girls I've mentioned, the idea of a handwritten thank you note is as foreign as going to the record store and buying a CD.

Just to be clear: I'm not in favor of keeping kids locked up, off the internet, and send them to charm school. I don't want to instate an Amish code of dress and conduct. No, the point I'm trying to make is that we have to give today's youthful generation some inspiration, some semblance of elegance and chic in a world of scandalous tabloids and celebrity worship websites. We have to tell them that not wearing underwear in public, despite being a hallmark of a tramp, just isn't hygienic. We have to remind them of what it means to RSVP, and how meaningful it can be to send a thank you note. We should remind them that it's not entirely normal to meet your husband on an ABC reality show. We must to remind them that there are these things called books (they're like the internet with the pictures and they're printed on real, live paper).

My book doesn't seek to answer the question of why modern culture is so fascinated by reality show train wrecks and broadcasting people's private pains. (I think we'd need more than one book to fully grapple with that realization.) But what my book does answer is how today's young women can differentiate between a lady and a tramp in their own behaviors. From fashion to dinner etiquette to vices to expanding horizons: I like to think I've got a non-preachy, humorous book here, and also a helpful one.

I might seem like an odd candidate to be a new Emily Post of my generation: what could a bearded, Missouri-born 27-year-old, who grew up driving to high public school in a white Pontiac Bonneville, know about the haute couture, black tie etiquette and VIP Rooms? But hear me out: I've worked in fashion for nearly a decade. I have had a front row seat to the Manhattan fashion swirl and much of Young Hollywood's antics, both bad and good. Pair this metropolitan moxy with my Midwest morals - my parents have been married since 1974, I was one of Missouri's Scholar Athlete in 2000 and I growing up in America's heartland instilled in me an old fashioned sense of values - and you've got yourself a pretty good judge of character. I should probably state here that I've also befriended my fair share of ladies and tramps since moving to Manhattan.

So let me help you draw a line between entertainment and instruction, from who is tabloid fodder and who is a good role model. I've seen too many girls in sequined tank tops with "Slippery when wet" written on the chest to let this trend continue.

We needn't ban these shows or these magazines or these sorts of women. (Perish the thought! What would I watch on my nights of jet-lagged-induced insomnia?) Rather, let's just be clearer who is a tramp and who is a lady in this world, and who is an exemplar of society and who isn't. It's like Coco Chanel said, "A girl two should be two things: Classy and fabulous."

 
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