In the late aughts, right before the financial crash, the world of Manhattan socialites was upended by an 18-year-old blogger in Illinois.
The college student’s blog, Park Avenue Peerage, chronicled the comings and goings of the city’s elite as they ventured from red carpets to charity balls. “Queenmaker: The Making of an It Girl,” a new documentary from Hulu, tells the story of a teenage interloper in New York society right as the socialite bubble was pierced by the internet. Packed with nostalgia and pop culture, the film explores a time that set the stage for modern influencer culture.
“[The film] represents the shift from legacy media to the digital revolution,” “Queenmaker” director Zackary Drucker told The Washington Post. The documentary features the publicists, heiresses and bloggers who defined the decade and unpacks the ways their lives were warped by the internet and a culture of misogyny. It also takes an up-close look at one of the most prolific bloggers from that era and how her life was shaped by the experience.
As millions of users began to spend more time online in the 2000s, they increasingly turned to blogs as a default medium for entertainment and news. At the same time, the reality-TV boom and tabloid culture were colliding, democratizing fame and forever altering the public’s perception of who was notable — and worthy of scrutiny.
In New York, this meant that parties and events that were once documented only in a newspaper’s society pages, if at all, were suddenly being chronicled online through Patrick McMullan photos and a burgeoning group of blogs such as Gawker and Socialite Rank, which tirelessly documented the escapades of the city’s most privileged women. Manhattan heiresses were suddenly thrust in front of a global audience on the internet.
These blogs wove storylines, often vicious ones, pitting women against each other and concocting drama out of thin air. Two of the most notable socialites at the time were Tinsley Mortimer and Olivia Palermo. Mortimer was a blond Southern debutante who had married the heir to an oil fortune. Palermo was a young, blue-blooded New School student who hailed from Greenwich, Conn. The two were often spoken about in opposition to each other in a manufactured war meant to keep readers of Socialite Rank, a society blog run by two Russian emigres, hooked.
After threats of litigation shut Socialite Rank down, Park Avenue Peerage, a competing blog run by an 18-year-old in Illinois, took up the mantle. “Queenmaker” details that college student’s transition from scruffy, awkward teenager to Morgan Olivia Rose, a trans woman working as a sex worker in Chicago. It documents the ways in which her life was forever altered by the women and cultural forces she blogged about.
“Morgan is so emblematic of trans life for me,” said Drucker, who is also a trans woman. “She felt very familiar to me immediately. And the question of this film was always what ratio is the socialite world to Morgan’s story, and it was a weaving of the two and figuring out how to create balance and counterbalance.”
Rose details her struggles in the years during and after running Park Avenue Peerage and the toll it took on her psychologically. After landing an internship at New York Magazine, she traveled to the Hamptons to work for a woman in PR. There, she dealt with racism and eventually returned home to Chicago, crestfallen and confused about her place in the world.
The landscape of New York City socialites, meanwhile, seemed glamorous, but there was a dark side. Mortimer was told that the job of being a socialite was like performing in a silent movie: Women were to be seen, but never heard.
“You had this era when women were not able to articulate their oppression,” Drucker said. “The way that manifested in the aughts was outright fat-shaming, this paradigm of beauty centering around being emaciated, being a model. You had women being applauded for looking skeletal. … It’s still so omnipresent off camera, of course, but the ways that the women talk about themselves are so tainted by that trauma.” Socialites were viciously lambasted online for not being thin enough, or beautiful enough, with hordes of commenters and bloggers tearing apart their every move.
One of the most famed bloggers of the era was Emily Gould, a writer at the website Gawker. In the film, she revisits the sometimes cruel stories she wrote. As a young woman, Gould was also subject to relentless misogyny. At one point in “Queenmaker,” Gould is shown in a 2007 CNN clip, arguing with Jimmy Kimmel (who was guest-hosting “Larry King Live”) about the changing notions of privacy and the internet when Gould gives prescient analysis of the internet’s effect on the world.
“I think that there’s a shifting definition of what is public and what is private space for everyone, not just celebrities,” Gould tells Kimmel. “The internet, blogs, Myspace, no one has the reasonable expectation of being able to walk down the street and not have what they’re doing be noticed by someone anymore.”
Kimmel talks over her in the remaining seconds of the show.
“I love that relic of Emily Gould,” Drucker said. “It’s a great moment of encapsulating the misogyny that women were vulnerable to and the things that were happening around them. [Gould] really represents the future in that moment, and these dusty men represent the past. I think that film represents that shift and the cultural shift that everyone has been part of.”
Drucker said that filming the documentary in 2021 allowed many of its subjects a level of perspective and distance from the events of the aughts, which ultimately allowed them to reflect more heavily on their own role in the system. After surviving the first year of the coronavirus pandemic, Drucker said, people were willing to be more gracious and to forgive old enemies.
Ultimately, it is Rose’s story that stands apart from the other women’s, her struggles showing the deep systemic hurdles that trans women face.
“All of us look to heroines and archetypes as our models to create a sense of self,” Drucker said. “For Morgan, that was these women. Morgan really did reinvent herself.”
Drucker said the film “exposes the ugly face of sexism and how truly vicious it was.”
Her goal with “Queenmaker,” she said, “was to really pull back the curtain and say, ‘This is where we’re coming from. This is recent history. This is within our adult lives. This is how women were being talked about, and women were being told to shut up.’ It’s crucial that women today, that young women today, know that’s where we’re coming from.”
Centering a trans woman as part of that story is even more crucial, because trans people across America are facing increased online bigotry and hate while fighting for equal rights in the face of restrictive laws.
Drucker said she hopes viewers watch the movie and realize that the rights that have been earned should not be taken for granted. “That’s what the trans movement is carrying towards,” Drucker said, “for women, but for men, too, who are also hurt by the patriarchy. We’re fighting for gender justice for everyone.”