Cecily von Ziegesar
A nice girl's guide to misbehaving
Cecily von Ziegesar's books about the antics of privileged Manhattan teenagers have parents in a tizzy. Lauren Mechling meets her
Cecily von Ziegesar has blonde streaks in her hair and diamonds in all the right places. There's an especially nice one on the ring finger of her left hand. "I guess I was popular in high school," she says, smiling.
School days are close to von Ziegesar's heart. The 32-year-old New Yorker has channelled her inner 16-year-old into a series of saucy novels, revolving around Manhattan's junior set, which have become a literary phenomenon in America.
Teenagers, it seems, can't get enough of her controversial Gossip Girl books, which feature privileged schoolgirls behaving badly, smoking, swearing and having sex.
While commercial fiction for teenage girls has always flirted with the naughty side of life, exploring the embarrassing terrain of padded bras and late-night rounds of spin-the-bottle, von Ziegesar has upped the ante considerably.
Her books' bite-sized chapters (with titles such as "An hour of sex burns 360 calories" and "As usual, b is in the bathroom and n is stoned") tell of teenagers throwing orgiastic parties in four-star hotel suites and throwing up in taxis on the way home. "The whole idea came out of my experience of growing up in New York," she says.
And her clued-up characters wouldn't be caught dead playing spin-the-bottle. That's so four years ago.
Television rights to Gossip Girl have already been snapped up and von Ziegesar's four-book contract is being extended to eight titles. Meanwhile, Bloomsbury, best known as the publishers of the squeaky-clean Harry Potter books, have acquired the British rights to the series, which will hit the shops early next year.
Gossip Girl's initial print run, in April last year, was 35,000 copies. Twice as many are now in print, while the sequel, You Know You Love Me, is selling at an even faster rate. And as with the Harry Potter books, the series is attracting a legion of grown-up fans.
Connie Pirrone, a 24-year-old employee of Conde Nast magazines, says: "It certainly mirrors what a lot of the girls whom I work with went through at school. I can't wait for the next one."
Von Ziegesar is well on the way to earning a fortune, but not everyone, it seems, is happy.
The explicit sexual content of her books, which are aimed at the over-14s, has got parents and school librarians across America in a real tizzy. One critic has described the series as "Sex and the City for children".
Another, Alexandra Ribis of literary magazine Avenue, calls the characters "poster children for debauchery and despair in a Prada-pampered world". Arthur Cornell, chairman of the educational charity Family and Youth Concern, has criticised Gossip Girl for "exploiting" young readers. Von Ziegesar's former English teacher, when asked whether she intended to teach the books in class, replied, haughtily: "I don't think so."
Von Ziegesar remains unrepentant. "I actually think that [the criticism] just makes people want to read the books. I'll stand by them. I don't think anything the kids do is there for shock value or is all that offensive. It's just based on the way kids behave."
Like the heavy-drinking, heavy-petting girls she writes about, von Ziegesar attended one of Manhattan's most exclusive private schools: Nightingale-Bamford. She admits that she didn't spend too many weekends in the library. "I remember, in my senior year, one of my teachers taking me aside and saying: 'You look really tired'," she says. "This was when I was being a bad kid and she knew that something was wrong."
She describes her school days with a freakish clarity - from the way she and her friends rubbed their cigarette ash into their school uniforms, to the complicated hierarchy of her class's popular group.
In high school, she used to hang out with a girl called Kate who ran around with an older gang. "They were, like, weird Long Island people," she says. "We would just go to their houses and do inappropriate things." One day, an old friend pulled von Ziegesar aside and told her it was time she stopped running around with Kate.
Criticism doesn't seem to bother her. She swears that she is writing only about what she knows. "I was worried about the fact that I'm 32 and maybe my experience would be out of date, but it seems the girls still do exactly the same things."
The eating disorders, sadly, are as common as ever. The girls in her books seem to vomit up breakfast, lunch and dinner. One character, Blair Waldorf, eats crème brûlées, then rams her finger down her throat.
"It was almost seen as cool to do that at my school," recalls von Ziegesar. "It was just something that everybody did. It was terrible, but it was as common as smoking cigarettes. It was often the case that girls didn't actually have a disorder, but would make themselves throw up so they could talk about it afterwards."
In the books, the characters attend the Constance Billard School for Girls, but school hardly seems to be the point. In one of the few classroom scenes, the students convene to find out whose film project has been chosen to be screened at the Cannes film festival. The winner is given two tickets to Cannes and three nights at a five-star hotel. Aspirational stuff, but von Ziegesar swears it's not far from the truth.
She met a gaggle of her readers at a recent book signing: "Talking to them, I realised it is fiction, but these girls really do exist. They were saying it's like reading about their friends."
Life for von Ziegesar doesn't seem to have slowed down much since high school. She is now the mother of eight-month-old Agnes, but she and her husband were out partying at an art fundraiser the night before our interview.
Over coffee, she rubs her eyes and says she's exhausted. But like any good party girl, she knows how to rally herself the morning after, speaking with enough pep to make everything she says sound irresistible.
Sometimes, she loses her train of thought, but she makes up for it by punctuating a good deal of her sentences with punch-drunk laughter. "I have no sense of what I should or shouldn't talk about," she says. "I just blather. Which is why it's fun to write Gossip Girl. I do tend to just talk about anything."
After leaving school, von Ziegesar attended Colby College, a small, liberal arts college in Maine. Then, she spent a year in Budapest, working for a local radio station, before returning to the United States to study creative writing at the University of Arizona.
On vacation in New York, she went out drinking one night and met a dashing Englishman. "I was living with my boyfriend in Arizona at the time. I went back and he just knew I'd met somebody else." A few months later, she was living with the Englishman in north London. They married within a year.
In London, von Ziegesar found a job in publishing and started to write a "very strange" novel for young adults, about an English boy whose father is a Wild West hero. In 1998, the couple moved to New York.
Von Ziegesar found a job with a book packaging firm that comes up with ideas for fictional series - and it was here that the Gossip Girl theme came to her. Instead of commissioning another writer to work on it, she decided to have a crack at it herself.
Working at weekends and in the evenings, it took her four months to write the first book. "I was just so into it, it came so easily because I felt that I was writing about people that I know." She didn't do any research, but simply relied on memory. "The girls show more skin these days, but I think, generally, they behave the same way as when I was growing up."
So, when little Agnes gets a bit older, is von Ziegesar going to wrap her up in cotton wool and spirit her out of harm's way? Not a chance. "I would send her to Nightingale-Bamford," she says. "I think I got a great education."
Sex and drugs tales to tempt
Sunday August 25, 2002
It is a world where overprivileged youngsters take drugs, have sex - often with each others' boyfriends - get raped and drink alcohol until they pass out.
Now Bloomsbury, which published the innocent adventures of Harry Potter, is banking on the tales of a group of fictional Manhattan children to be their next literary sensation. Dubbed ' Sex and the City for children', Cecily von Ziegesar's Gossip Girl series has already been a huge success in America. The books are based on the exploits of a group of students attending Spenford - modelled on Spence, America's most expensive girls' school, where actress Gwyneth Paltrow was badly bullied.
Von Ziegesar's hard-drinking, bulimic and love-starved teenagers smoke cannabis in Central Park, vomit on monogrammed scarves after a night drinking in a plush hotel, and plot complex sexual escapades at their parents' penthouses. Bloomsbury hopes the books will repeat their success in Britain, as readers discover the cast's exploits, coldly observed by an anonymous webmistress who relates the tales with malicious glee.
'These self-absorbed, trust-funded characters are poster children for debauchery and despair in their Prada-pampered world where one's social life is as important as getting into Yale or Harvard,' said Alexandra Ribis from the American literary magazine, Avenue . 'These books depict the sad underbelly of the American dream that underscore the sadder social truth that money can't buy you love and esteem, just better rehab.'
The first book in the series, Gossip Girl , is to be published in Britain in March, followed by the second and third books, You Know You Love Me in June, and All I Want Is Everything in October.
The books, which have been compared to what might result if Danielle Steel and Judith Krantz ever turned their attention to teenagers, are designed to appeal to girls of 14 upwards. They revolve around the exploits of the shallow, popular Blair Waldorf, her stoned boyfriend Nate and her former best friend, the beautiful Serena van der Woodsen, who returns to Manhattan after being expelled from her boarding school and sets about manipulating the delicately poised relationships of her schoolmates.
They have been a runaway success in America, where fears that their questionable content could cause a backlash of puritan disapproval were swept away by the sheer success of the first title, which has been reprinted four times since its publication last April, leading to talk of a film and an adult version of the series.
Although the behaviour of the books' characters is excessive, Von Ziegesar insists they are drawn from actual models. 'The stories are based on the people I went to school with, who were fabulously rich and wild,' she said. 'These kids drink, talk, dress and act like adults; they're jaded by the time they hit 18.'
The series has already caused considerable interest on this side of the Atlantic with Sugar , the teen magazine whose readers are aged from eight to 14 - and which caused uproar six years ago because of its casual allusions to oral sex - already expressing interest in serialising the titles. W.H. Smith has grudgingly agreed to stock the books in its teenage section, on the condition that Bloomsbury produces a special edition carrying a sticker warning parents of the books' potentially offensive nature.
'We wouldn't take up these books if we felt they would jeopardise the morals of their young readers,' said Rosamund de la Hey, children's marketing director at Bloomsbury. 'But these books are for the children, not their parents, and it's pointless to pretend this sort of behaviour doesn't happen.'
De la Hey concedes that the books contain potentially offensive material, but insists the topics are addressed in a responsible manner. 'There are references to sex, drugs and alcohol. But there is only one case where sex is actually described, and it's done in quite a romantic way.'
Critics in America have,
however, been more critical: 'While the activities of these youngsters are not
glamorised, they are presented as business as usual,' said Amy Coffin of The
Book Haven, a book club for US teenagers. 'While older teens will be able to
separate the drama from reality, younger teens could admire the vindictive
natures and twisted pleasures of the cast, and adopt smoking, drinking and
promiscuity as the real-life fast track to popularity.'
28 October 2002 15:25 BDT
Protests at sex and drugs in teen publishing sensation
By James Morrison Arts and Media Correspondent
25 August 2002
The publishers of the Harry Potter novels are to risk their wholesome reputation by targeting a new set of books, branded "Sex and the City for teenagers", at girls as young as 14 years old.
Gossip Girl, a set of four novellas following the fortunes of a group of rich and glamorous New York high school friends, features heavy drinking and swearing, references to drug taking and, of course, much talk of sex.
In one scene, a 16-year-old girl is described "gaping at" her boyfriend's "hard-on" as she prepares to surrender her virginity to him. Another involves a gang of teenage boys joking about a different girl's expulsion from college for allegedly having group sex in her bedroom.
The content of the novels is provocative from the outset. The opening chapter of book one, called simply Gossip Girl, opens with the main character Blair swigging from a crystal tumbler of her mother's vintage scotch.
Within the first 30 pages alone, conversations between the girl friends cover topics as diverse as cosmetic surgery, sex, heroin and Prozac.
News of the impending release of the books by Bloomsbury is bound to prove controversial.
But Emma Matthewson, who is editing the Gossip Girl range for its UK publication early next year, says she believes the novels responsibly tackle issues of concern to today's teenagers, while delivering "fast-paced, very easy, fun reads".
"Most teenage girls have thought about relationships, boys and shopping, the kinds of themes covered in these books," she said. "As soon as I started reading the first one, I thought, 'this is exactly what you need to do if you really want to prove to young people that books are exciting'.
"We're looking at an age range of 14-plus, because the books do contain strong language, and there are references to sex and things like smoking pot in Central Park."
Asked about the sexual content of the books, which include at least two scenes in which Blair and boyfriend Nate are thwarted as they prepare to make love for the first time, she said: "There are no gratuitous sex scenes. A couple of characters do sometimes get on the bed together and cuddle, but it doesn't get any further than that.
"We do want to be responsible, but at the same time there's a lot of talk of sleeping with boyfriends and the main character talks about losing her virginity on her 17th birthday. That's what girls and boys of that age think about."
However, pressed on the strong similarities between the Upper East Side party set inhabited by the girls and the scenario of Sex and the City, she added: "That's how we would think of it, as a junior Sex and the City. Junior in the sense that we don't have full-blown sex."
Since it first hit the shelves in America in April last year, the Gossip Girl range has become something of a publishing sensation. The novels, by US author Cecily von Ziegesar, were granted an initial print run of 35,000, but it soon became apparent this was nowhere near enough to sate demand and, to date, more than 60,000 copies have been sold.
As in the US, the launch of the range in Britain next March will be accompanied by a self-consciously hip promotional campaign aimed squarely at the teen market. Thousands of postcards will be distributed through cinemas, cafés and bars, while samples will be available through Claire's Accessories and Top Shop. There will be a strong internet marketing campaign; in Gossip Girlmuch of the dialogue takes place via email and text messaging.
Family groups have already expressed strong reservations about the books. Arthur Cornell, the chairman of the educational charity Family and Youth Concern, said he feared they would "exploit" vulnerable and confused teenagers for commercial gain.
"We have to decide as a culture whether we are involved in a duty of care to young people or whether we see them as a market for exploitation," he said. "There's a danger that, based on the actions of a minority of young people, this kind of thing helps create a new normality, and puts pressure on others to do the same."
His views were echoed by Peter Luff, Conservative MP for Mid Worcestershire, who six years ago tabled a private member's Bill calling for a clampdown on the sexual content of teenage magazines.
"The question is, are they portraying sex, drinking and drug-taking in a glamorous or a cautionary way?It sounds to me that they are not really engaged in a serious educational purpose, and they are trying to make money out of a vulnerable group of people, and probably increasing their anxieties as a consequence."
by Cecily von Ziegesar
Book Review by Amy Coffin
Ever wonder what the lives of the chosen ones are really like? Well, I am going to tell you, because I am one of them. I'm not talking about beautiful models or actors or musical prodigies or mathematical geniuses. I'm talking about the people that are born to itthose of use who have everything anyone could possibly wish for and who take it completely for granted.
It's a luxe life, but someone's got to live it.
Who is Gossip Girl? Nobody knows for sure but she's the queen of a tell-all web site devoted to secrets of New York City's junior elite.
This week's gossip focuses on a handful of privileged teens. Everyone's abuzz with the news that Serena van der Woodsen has mysteriously returned from boarding school in New England. Rumors fly regarding her sudden arrival, and all of them are horrible.
Serena's former best friend, Blair Waldorf, is less than happy to see her. With Serena gone, Blair has been in the spotlight. She's not ready to give up the attention or her boyfriend Nate, who runs to Serena like a puppy.
Gossip Girl follows several days in the lives of these clique members. The majority of their time is spent drinking, smoking and looking bored. The book's chapters are divided by juicy dish from Gossip Girl's own web page.
There isn't much depth to the novel's cast. Then again, beautiful people are pretty shallow to begin with. Author Cecily von Ziegesar colors her characters with lots of pretty clothes from big-name designers, making this tale sort of like a fashion magazine without the pictures.
The story builds up to the Kiss on the Lips charity fundraiser held by Blair and friends. The usual high school stereotypes are represented: the freshman dying to be like her upper classmates, the goth-like anti-socialite, the unknown boy who wants the well-known girl, and the obnoxious rich jerk who thinks he's God's gift to women. Add to that Blair-Nate-Serena love triangle and you've got yourself a bona-fide trashy novel.
The conclusion is somewhat open. If this were a stand-alone book, the ending would be a disappointment. However, a sequel is already on its way with more secrets and scandals. Goody.
Gossip Girl is billed as young-adult fiction geared toward the Teen People/Cosmo Girl crowd. Younger teens may admire the cast and think the smoking, drinking and promiscuity are part of the fast track to popularity. Parental guidance should be considered. Older teens are more sophisticated and should be able to separate the drama from reality.
However, von Ziegesar's book isn't just for teens. Adult readers can also find twisted pleasure in the woes of the junior elite. The publisher markets this book as a Sex in the City for the younger crowd. Perhaps, but the vindictive nature and scandal give the novel a Melrose-Place feel with characters you'll love to hate.
Gossip Girl is the perfect vacation book. Pack it in your beach bag and go. The dirty deeds of these naughty rich kids make for great weekend reading. Ladies, if you're embarrassed to admit you're buying the book for yourself, just say it's for your niece. Why not indulge your urge? You know you want to read it.
like most juicy
it started at a party
"I watched Nickelodeon all morning in my room so I wouldn't have to eat breakfast with them," BlairWaldorf told her two best friends and Constance Billard School classmates, Kati Farkas and Isabel Coates. "My mother cooked him an omelet. I didn't even know she knew how to use the stove."
Blair tucked her long, dark brown hair behind her ears and swigged her mother's fine vintage scotch from the crystal tumbler in her hand. She was already on her second glass.
"What shows did you watch?" Isabel asked, removing a stray strand of hair from Blair's black cashmere cardigan.
"Who cares?" Blair said, stamping her foot. She was wearing her new black ballet flats. Very bow-tie proper preppy, which she could get away with because she could change her mind in an instant and put on her trashy, pointed, knee-high boots and that sexy metallic skirt her mother hated. Poof—rock star sex kitten. Meow.
"The point is, I was trapped in my room all morning because they were busy having a gross romantic breakfast in their matching red silk bathrobes. They didn't even take showers." Blair took another gulp of her drink. The only way to tolerate the thought of her mother sleeping with that man was to get drunk—very drunk.
Luckily Blair and her friends came from the kind of families for whom drinking was as commonplace as blowing your nose. Their parents believed in the quasi-European idea that the more access kids have to alcohol, the less likely they are to abuse it. So Blair and her friends could drink whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted, as long as they maintained their grades and their looks and didn't embarrass themselves or the family by puking in public, pissing their pants, or ranting in the streets. The same thing went for everything else, like sex or drugs—as long as you kept up appearances, you were all right.
But keep your panties on. That's coming later.
The man Blair was so upset about was Cyrus Rose, her mother's new boyfriend. At that very moment Cyrus Rose was standing on the other side of the living room, greeting the dinner guests. He looked like someone who might help you pick out shoes at Saks—bald, except for a small, bushy mustache, his fat stomach barely hidden in a shiny blue double-breasted suit. He jingled the change in his pocket incessantly, and when he took his jacket off, there were big, nasty sweat marks on his underarms. He had a loud laugh and was very sweet to Blair's mother. But he wasn't Blair's father. Last year Blair's father ran off to France with another man.
No kidding. They live in a chateau and run a vineyard together. Which is actually pretty cool if you think about it.
Of course none of that was Cyrus Rose's fault, but that didn't matter to Blair. As far as Blair was concerned, Cyrus Rose was a completely annoying, fat, loser.
But tonight Blair was going to have to tolerate Cyrus Rose, because the dinner party her mother was giving was in his honor, and all the Waldorfs' family friends were there to meet him: the Bass family and their sons Chuck and Donald; Mr. Farkas and his daughter, Kati; the well-known actor Arthur Coates, his wife Titi, and their daughters, Isabel, Regina, and Camilla; Captain and Mrs. Archibald and their son Nate. The only ones still missing were Mr. and Mrs. van der Woodsen whose teenage daughter, Serena, and son, Erik, were both away at school.
Blair's mother was famous for her dinner parties, and this was her first since her infamous divorce. The Waldorf penthouse had been expensively redecorated that summer in deep reds and chocolate browns, and it was full of antiques and artwork that would have impressed anyone who knew anything about art. In the center of the dining room table was an enormous silver bowl full of white orchids, pussy willows, and chestnut tree branches—a modern ensemble from Takashimaya, the Fifth Avenue luxury goods store. Gold-leafed place cards lay on every porcelain plate. In the kitchen, Myrtle the cook was singing Bob Marley songs to the souffle, and the sloppy Irish maid, Esther, hadn't poured scotch down anyone's dress yet, thank God.
Blair was the one getting sloppy. And if Cyrus Rose didn't stop harassing Nate, her boyfriend, she was going to have to go over there and spill her scotch all over his tacky Italian loafers.
"You and Blair have been going out a long time, am I right?" Cyrus said, punching Nate in the arm. He was trying to get the kid to loosen up a little. All these Upper East Side kids were way too uptight.
That's what he thinks. Give them time.
"You sleep with her yet?" Cyrus asked.
Nate turned redder than the upholstery on the eighteenth-century French chaise next to him. "Well, we've known each other practically since we were born," he stuttered. "But we've only been going out for like, a year. We don't want to ruin it by, you know, rushing, before we're ready?" Nate was just spitting back the line that Blair always gave him when he asked her if she was ready to do it or not. But he was talking to his girlfriend's mother's boyfriend. What was he supposed to say, "Dude, if I had my way we'd be doing it right now"?
"Absolutely," Cyrus Rose said. He clasped Nate's shoulder with a fleshy hand. Around his wrist was one of those gold Cartier cuff bracelets that you screw on and never take off—very popular in the 1980s and not so popular now, unless you've actually bought into that whole '80s revival thing. Hello?
"Let me give you some advice," Cyrus told Nate, as if Nate had a choice. "Don't listen to a word that girl says. Girls like surprises. They want you to keep things interesting. You know what I mean?"
Nate nodded, frowning. He tried to remember the last time he'd surprised Blair. The only thing that came to mind was the time he'd brought her an ice cream cone when he picked her up at her tennis lesson. That was over a month ago, and it was a pretty lame surprise by any standard. At this rate, he and Blair might never have sex.
Nate was one of those boys you look at and while you're looking at them, you know they're thinking, that girl can't take her eyes off me because I'm so hot. Although he didn't act at all conceited about it. He couldn't help looking hot, he was just born that way. Poor guy.
That night Nate was wearing the moss-green cashmere V-neck sweater Blair had given him last Easter, when her father had taken them skiing in Sun Valley for a week. Secretly, Blair had sewn a tiny gold heart pendant onto the inside of one of the sweater's sleeves, so that Nate would always be wearing her heart on his sleeve. Blair liked to think of herself as a hopeless romantic in the style of old movie actresses like Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe. She was always coming up with plot devices for the movie she was starring in at the moment, the movie that was her life.
"I love you," Blair had told Nate breathily when she gave him the sweater.
"Me too," Nate had said back, although he wasn't exactly sure if it was true or not.
When he put the sweater on, it looked so good on him that Blair wanted to scream and rip all her clothes off. But it seemed unattractive to scream in the heat of the moment—more femme fatale than girl-who-gets-boy—so Blair kept quiet, trying to remain fragile and baby-birdlike in Nate's arms. They kissed for a long time, their cheeks hot and cold at the same time from being out on the slopes all day. Nate twined his fingers in Blair's hair and pulled her down on the hotel bed. Blair put her arms above her head and let Nate begin to undress her, until she realized where this was all heading, and that it wasn't a movie after all, it was real. So, like a good girl, she sat up and made Nate stop.
She'd kept on making him stop right on up until today. Only two nights ago, Nate had come over after a party with a half-drunk flask of brandy in his pocket and had lain down on her bed and murmured, "I want you, Blair." Once again, Blair had wanted to scream and jump on top of him, but she resisted. Nate fell asleep, snoring softly, and Blair lay down next to him and imagined that she and Nate were starring in a movie in which they were married and he had a drinking problem, but she would stand by him always and love him forever, even if he occasionally wet the bed.
Blair wasn't trying to be a tease, she just wasn't ready. She and Nate had barely seen each other at all over the summer because she had gone to that horrible boot camp of a tennis school in North Carolina, and Nate had gone sailing with his father off the coast of Maine. Blair wanted to make sure that after spending the whole summer apart they still loved each other as much as ever. She had wanted to wait to have sex until her seventeenth birthday next month.
But now she was through with waiting.
Nate was looking better than ever. The moss-green sweater had turned his eyes a dark, sparkling green, and his wavy brown hair was streaked with golden blond from his summer on the ocean. And, just like that, Blair knew she was ready. She took another sip of her scotch. Oh, yes. She was definitely ready.
"To my Blair Bear," Mr. Harold Waldorf, Esq. said, raising his glass of champagne to clink it against Blair's. "You're still my little girl, even though you wear leather pants and have a hunky boyfriend." He flashed a suntanned smile at Nate Archibald, who was seated beside Blair at the small restaurant table. Mr. Waldorf had chosen Le Giraffe for their special dinner because it was small and intimate and trendy, the food was fabulous, and the waiters all had the sexiest French accents.
Blair Waldorf reached under the tablecloth and squeezed Nate's knee. The candlelight was making her horny. If only Daddy knew what we're planning to do after this, she thought giddily. She clinked glasses with her father and took a giant gulp of champagne.
"Thanks, Daddy," she said. "Thanks for coming all this way just to visit me."
Mr. Waldorf put his glass down and patted his lips dry with his napkin. His fingernails were shiny and perfectly manicured. "Oh, I didn't come for you, darling. I came here to show off." He cocked his head to one side and pursed his lips like a model posing for a picture. "Don't I look great?"
Blair dug her fingernails into Nate's leg. She had to admit her father did look great. He had lost about twenty pounds, he was tan, he was wearing gorgeous French clothes, and he seemed happy and relaxed. Still, she was glad he'd left his boyfriend at home in their château in France. She wasn't quite ready to see her father engaged in public displays of affection with another man, no matter how good he looked.
She picked up her menu. "Can we order?"
"I'm having steak," Nate announced. He didn't want to make a big fuss over what he was having. He just wanted to get this dinner over with. Not that he minded hanging out with Blair's flaming father: it was actually kind of entertaining to see how gay he'd become. But Nate was anxious to get back to Blair's house. She was finally going to give it up. And it was about time.
"Me too," Blair said, closing her menu without really looking at it. "Steak." She didn't plan on eating much anyway, not tonight. Nate had promised her he was completely over Serena van der Woodsen, Blair's classmate and former best friend. He was ready to give Blair his undivided attention. She didn't care whether she ate steak or mussels or brains for dinner—she was finally going to lose her virginity!
"Me three," said her father. "Trois steak au poivre, he told the waiter in a perfect French accent. "And the name of the person who cuts your hair. You have marvelous hair."
Blair's cheeks flamed. She grabbed a bread stick from the basket on the table and bit into it. Her father's voice and mannerisms were completely different from when she'd seen him nine months ago. Then, he'd been a conservative, suit-wearing lawyer, all clean lines and sharp edges. Perfectly respectable. Now he was totally camp, with his plucked eyebrows and lavender shirt and matching socks. It was so embarrassing. After all, he was her dad.
Last year, Blair's father's coming out and her parents' ensuing divorce had been the talk of the town. Now everyone was pretty much over it, and Mr. Waldorf was free to show his handsome face wherever he pleased. But that wasn't to say that the other diners at Le Giraffe weren't taking notice. They definitely were.
"Did you see his socks?" an aging heiress whispered to her bored husband. "Pink-and-gray argyle."
"Think he's got enough crap in his hair? Who does he think is he, anyway? Brad Pitt?" a famous lawyer asked his wife.
"He's got a better figure than his ex-wife, I'll tell you that much," one of the waiters remarked.
It was all very amusing, to everyone except Blair. Sure, she wanted her father to be happy, and it was okay for him to be gay. But did he have to be so obvious about it?
Blair looked out the window at the streetlights twinkling in the crisp November air. Smoke billowed out of chimneys on the roofs of the luxurious townhouses across Sixty-fifth Street.
Finally their salads came.
"So it's still Yale next year?" Mr. Waldorf said, as he stabbed at a piece of endive. "That's where you've got your heart set on going, right, Bear? My old alma mater?"
Blair put her salad fork down and sat back in her chair, leveling her pretty blue eyes at her father. "Where else would I go?" she said, as if Yale University were the only college on the planet.
Blair didn't understand why people applied to six or seven colleges, some of them so bad they were called "safeties." She was one of the best students in the senior class at the Constance Billard School for Girls, a small, elite, all-girls, uniforms-required school on East Ninety-third Street. All Constance's girls went to good colleges. But Blair never settled for just plain good. She had to have the best of everything, no compromises. And the best college, in her opinion, was Yale.
Her father laughed. "So I guess those other colleges like Harvard and Cornell should send you letters of apology for even trying to get you to go to them, huh?"
Blair shrugged and examined her newly manicured fingernails. "I just want to go to Yale, that's all."
Her father glanced at Nate, but Nate was looking around for something else to drink. He hated champagne. What he really wanted was a beer, even though it never seemed appropriate to order one in a place like Le Giraffe. They always made such a fuss about it, bringing you a cold frosted glass and then pouring in the Heineken like it was something special, when it was just the same old crap you could get at a basketball game.
"What about you, Nate?" Mr. Waldorf asked. "Where are you applying?"
Blair was already nervous about losing her virginity. All this talk about college was just making things worse. She pushed her chair back and stood up to go to the bathroom. She knew it was disgusting and that she had to learn to stop, but whenever she got nervous, she made herself throw up. It was her only bad habit.
Actually, that's not exactly true. But we'll get to that later.
"Nate's going to Yale with me," she told her father. Then she turned and strode confidently through the restaurant.
Nate watched her go. She looked hot in her new black silk halter top, with her straight, dark brown hair hanging between her bare shoulder blades, and her skintight leather pants hugging her hips. She looked like she had already done it, many times.
Leather pants tend to have that effect.
"So it's going to be Yale for you, too?" Mr. Waldorf prompted when Blair had gone.
Nate frowned at his champagne glass. He really, really wanted a beer. And he really, really didn't think he could get into Yale. You can't wake and bake and take a calculus test and expect to get into Yale—you just can't. And that was what he'd been doing lately. A lot.
"I'd like to go to Yale," he said. "But I think Blair's going to be disappointed. I mean, my grades just aren't that good."
Mr. Waldorf winked at him. "Well, just between you and me, I think Blair's being a little hard on all the other schools in the country. No one says you have to go to Yale. There are plenty of other schools out there."
Nate nodded. "Yeah. Brown seems pretty cool. I have an interview there next weekend," he said. "Although that's definitely going to be a stretch, too. I got a C on my last math test, and I'm not even taking the AP," he admitted. "Blair doesn't think Brown is even a real school. You know, because they have less requirements, or whatever."
"Blair has impossibly high standards," Mr. Waldorf said. He sipped his champagne, his buffed pinky pointing outward. "She takes after me."
Nate glanced sideways at the other diners in the restaurant. He wondered if they thought he and Mr. Waldorf were together, boyfriends. To squelch such speculation, he pushed up the sleeves of his green cashmere sweater and cleared his throat in a very manly way. Blair had given him the sweater last year, and he'd been wearing it a lot lately to reassure her that he wasn't about to break up with her or cheat on her or do whatever it was she was worried about. "I don't know," he said, grabbing a roll from the bread basket and breaking it violently in half. "It would be great to just take a year off and go sailing with my dad or something, you know?"
Nate didn't understand why, at seventeen, you had to map out your entire life. There would be plenty of time for more school after taking a year or two off to sail around the Caribbean or go skiing in Chile. And yet, all of his classmates at the St. Jude's School for Boys were planning to go straight to college and straight to grad school after college. The way Nate saw it, they were signing their lives away without thinking about what they really wanted to do. For example, he loved the sound of the cold Atlantic spraying against the bow of his boat. He loved the feel of the hot sun on his back as he hoisted the sails. He loved the way the sun flashed green before it dropped into the ocean. Nate figured there had to be more stuff out there like that, and he wanted to experience it, all of it.
As long as it didn't require too much effort. He wasn't big on making an effort.
"Well, Blair's not going to be happy when she finds out you're thinking of taking time off." Mr. Waldorf chuckled. "You're supposed to go to Yale together and get married and live happily ever after."
Nate's eyes followed Blair as she walked back to the table, her head held high. All the other diners in the restaurant were watching her, too. She wasn't the best-dressed or the skinniest or the tallest girl in the room, but she seemed to sparkle a bit more brightly than the rest of them. And she knew it.
Their steaks came and Blair tore into hers, washing it down with gulps of champagne and mounds of buttery mashed potatoes. She watched the sexy way Nate's temple throbbed as he chewed. She couldn't wait to get out of there. She couldn't wait to finally do it with the boy she was planning to the spend the rest of her life with. It couldn't get more right than that.
Nate couldn't help noticing how intensely Blair was wielding her steak knife. She cut the meat into huge hunks and gnawed on them ferociously. It made him wonder if she'd be that intense in bed. They'd fooled around a lot, but he'd always been the more aggressive one. Blair always just kind of lay there, making the sorts of mewing sounds girls made in the movies, while he roamed around, doing things to her. But tonight Blair seemed impatient, hungrier.
Of course she was hungry. She's just thrown up.
"They don't serve food like this at Yale, Bear," Mr. Waldorf told his daughter. "You'll be eating pizza and Combos in the dorms with the rest of them."
Blair wrinkled her nose. She's never eaten a Combo in her life. "No way," she said. "Nate and I aren't going to live in a dorm, anyway. We're going to have our own place." She stroked Nate's ankle with the toe of her boot. "I'll learn how to cook."
Mr. Waldorf raised his eyebrows at Nate. "Lucky you," he joked.
Nate grinned and licked the mashed potatoes off his fork. He wasn't about to tell Blair that her little dream of them living in an off-campus apartment together in New Haven was even more absurd than the idea of her eating Combos. But he didn't want to say anything to upset her.
"Shut up, Daddy," said Blair.
The plates were cleared. Impatient, Blair twisted her little ruby ring around and around her finger. She shook her head to coffee and dessert and stood up to head for the ladies' room once more. Twice in one meal was extreme, even for her, but she was so nervous she couldn't help it.
Thank goodness Le Giraffe had nice, private bathrooms.
When Blair came out again, the entire waitstaff filed out of the kitchen. The maître d' was holding a cake decorated with flickering candles. Eighteen of them, including one extra for luck.
Blair stomped back to the table in her pointy stiletto boots and took her seat, glaring at her father. Why did he have to make a scene? It wasn't her fucking birthday for another three weeks. She downed another glass of champagne in one gulp.
Waiters and cooks surrounded the table. And then the singing began.
"Happy birthday to you…"
Blair grabbed Nate's hands and squeezed it tight. "Make them stop," she whispered.
But Nate just sat there grinning like an asshole. He kind of liked it when Blair was embarrassed. It didn't happen very often.
Her father was more sympathetic. When he saw how miserable Blair was he increased the tempo and quickly finished the song. "You smell like a monkey, and you look like one too!"
The waitstaff clapped politely and went back to their posts.
"I know it's a little early," Mr. Waldorf said apologetically. "But I have to leave tomorrow, and seventeen is such a big birthday. I didn't think you'd mind."
Mind? No one likes to be sung to in public. No one.
Silently Blair blew out the candles and examined the cake. It was elaborately decorated with marzipan high-heeled shoes walking down a spun-sugar Fifth Avenue, past a rock-candy model of Henri Bendel, her favorite store. It was exquisite.
"For my little shoe fetishista," her father said, beaming. He pulled a wrapped present out from under the table and handed it to Blair.
Blair shook the box, expertly recognizing the hollow, thudding sound that a pair of new shoes makes when they're shaken in a box. She tore into the paper. MANOLO BLAHNIK, said the type in big bold letters on the lid of the box. Blair held her breath and pulled off the lid. Inside was a pair of beautifully crafted pewter leather mules with adorable little kitten heels.
"I got them in Paris," Mr. Waldorf said. "They only made a few hundred pairs. I bet you're the only girl in town who has them."
"They're fantastic," Blair breathed.
She stood up and walked around the table to hug her father. The shoes made up for him humiliating her in public. Not only were they unbelievably cool, but they were exactly what she was going to wear later that night when she and Nate had sex. Those and nothing else.