It’s the light, a kind of fire in the eyes, sometimes flaming, sometimes smoldering. It’s a gravitational force, sucking the attention of anyone around. It makes a decent actress seem great. It’s elusive, and not for sale. It’s natural, organic, innocent yet vaguely dangerous. And, like the best things in life, it’s fleeting.
It’s It: the thing every girl wants, only some girls have, and no girl gets to keep. A mysterious specter that inhabits a chosen young woman, It supercharges her with feral charisma and cool, hoisting her high before moving on. It behaves like a benevolent demon. And It is only in New York.
Think it over: the honest-to-God, modern It Girl, that special, occasional phenomenon who goes from wallpaper to ubiquity in a seeming matter of minutes, has always been unique to our city. It’s here, where we’ve traditionally treated the beautiful and even the damned with enough respect—we gave them so much space—that the almost famous actually had room to become people instead of mere facsimiles of people.
It’s here, and only here, where young women had any chance to become cool rather than mere vessels for cool to be kicked over. An It Girl was out and about; she walked our streets, shared our parks, sat next to us at the International Bar on First Avenue. She was Chloë. Parker. Claire.
It Girls are not big stars—those are Is Girls. Unlike It Girls, who first become famous for who they are, Is Girls first become famous for their work—as movie stars, pop stars, TV stars. If they’re smart, they keep their eyes on the road and don’t mistake their Is-ness for It-ness. The tragedy of Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears—both at one point promising, lovable young women with terrific careers and talent—is that they weren’t satisfied with Is-ness. They became greedy and tried to become It Girls, and ended up as train wrecks.
A true It Girl cannot be mimicked, no matter how talented the actress. The Is Girls who keep their dignity—Michelle Williams, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Hilary Swank—are just grateful to be Is Girls, and they don’t push it. They’re in bed by midnight.
But even It Girls need to grow up. It is fickle to begin with. It never sticks around for too long—a few years at most. When It leaves, the suddenly disowned ingénue may try to coast on a cloudy cushion of reputation. But It’s influential wake, too, will soon evaporate. So if she’s smart—and smart is one of the It Girls’ most defining characteristics—she will work. And if she’s good, and very lucky, she becomes a Was Girl.
Being a Was Girl isn’t a bad thing—far from it. So let’s call her a Wuz Girl. A Wuz Girl has talent—talent enough to keep herself in front, talked about. She will never be a mega-star, but she will always be an original. No media concoction, her self-possession and character carry her through.
And she knows the value of a regular paycheck. Just look at our three cover girls: former It Girl Parker Posey has made herself an indispensable part of the Christopher Guest comedy franchise and is about to debut in The Return of Jezebel James, the new Fox sitcom from Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino. Chloë Sevigny currently stars in HBO’s strangely compelling Mormon fest, Big Love. Claire Danes is wearing khaki in Gap ads and has carved out a second career as a mesmerizing femme fatale, having stolen Billy Crudup from Mary-Louise Parker when the Weeds actress was seven months pregnant.
Ms. Sevigny was christened the first modern It Girl in 1994, when writer Jay McInerney (himself a former It Boy who turned himself into a well-padded Wuz Boy by writing about wine and marrying an heiress) labeled her as such in The New Yorker, bringing the term back into the vernacular after a long hibernation.
First used to describe silent-movie actress Clara Bow, who in 1927 starred in a film called It in which she portrayed a young woman with irresistible sex appeal, the term was out of use for years. Back then, It was, in the words of It writer Elinor Glyn, “that strange magnetism which attracts both sexes … entirely unself-conscious … full of self-confidence … indifferent to the effect … she is producing and uninfluenced by others.”
Ms. Sevigny was special: She wasn’t just part of a scene, she made a scene. She did things that others copied, like wear jelly shoes when everyone else was perched on chunky black heels. She had raver friends, skater friends, movie friends; she had so many friends she didn’t even really need an apartment. Modeling for Sassy, and then X-Girl and other hip designers, she redefined the term “model/actress.” Just shy of 20, she ruled the East Village.
Now, at age 32 she’s the ur–Wuz Girl. She’s always around, and she’s still considered cool, but looking at her, you can’t help but conjure up memories of her past glory. Remember Edie-ish Chloë? She’s in there, underneath the long, long hair and dulled stare. And the coltish legs haven’t lost their tone.
Still, what makes Ms. Sevigny different—was saves her from being a Has-Been—is a natural talent, albeit a talent largely for being her odd self. Only a woman in full command of herself could have pulled off an explicit onscreen blowjob (especially one administered to Vincent Gallo). Exhibitionistic, yes, but somehow not as sleazy as the crotch shots or nip slips of Ms. Lohan and Ms. Spears. Ms. Sevigny convinced us that she did it for art. And because we liked her, we believed her.
Now she’s found her calling not in playing leading, cutting-edge weirdoes (à la Christina Ricci), but as awkward, homely supporting characters. In Big Love, she is the bratty, buttoned-up middle wife tucked between the pillow-lipped Jeanne Tripplehorn and the irrepressibly cute Ginnifer Goodwin. In this year’s film Zodiac, she dressed like a librarian—and not a sexy one! She’s (thankfully) put playing the role of indie muse to Harmony Korine (Gummo) in the past and fully embraced her Wuz-ness. In the end, it’s far more subversive for Ms. Sevigny to play a Mormon wife than to fellate Vincent Gallo. It’s more lucrative, too. She’s making more money than ever.
And how about Parker Posey, another East Village queen? In 1995, she shot to fame with Party Girl, a film in which she pretty much played herself as an obnoxious New York scenester who paid her rent with parties. (‘‘I think Mary’s obnoxiou
s, and I’m obnoxious,” she said of her character, Mary.) Whip-thin, with sharp, scheming eyes to match her wit and cackle, Ms. Posey was a total It Girl. She tinkered with lanky writer Thomas Beller, editor of then-cool lit mag Open City; she practiced making pottery in her spare time. Girls wanted to be confident and smartass like her, and guys wanted to sleep with her.
In the early years of her career, Ms. Posey was a scene-stealer—another It Girl hallmark. In Richard Linklater’s sprawling ensemble film Dazed and Confused, she commanded the spotlight in a tiny role as the queen bitch of senior high-school girls. In Waiting for Guffman, she did the same as a “DQ” employee learning how to act. As she’s gotten older (she’s 38, though still practically lineless), Ms. Posey has stuck to pretty much the same shtick—she’s always loud, brassy and mean. She hasn’t been It for years, but now she’s firmly and gorgeously Wuz.
Even though her coolness has, well, cooled, Ms. Posey has parlayed her personality into a career. She’s not so much a scene-stealer nowadays as she is a reliable stock character named Parker Posey. She’s moved away from the indie scene over which she reigned through the mid-90’s and taken roles in films like Superman Returns and Blade: Trinity. But the most Wuz thing she’s done is sign on for The Return of Jezebel James.
Over the years, Ms. Posey has been sent hundreds of scripts for television, but she’s never said yes to one until now. Surely the fact that it’s Ms. Sherman-Palladino counts for a lot; she made thirtysomething Lauren Graham (who, if she’d ever been It, would certainly be Wuz) into a star, and Gilmore Girls is still, after seven seasons, one of the most beloved girl-oriented shows on television.
Claire Danes is a different kind of Wuz Girl. For one, at age 28, she’s younger than Ms. Sevigny and Ms. Posey. But she also got her start earlier, and in a more high-profile way. As Angela Chase on My So-Called Life, Ms. Danes was mesmerizing with her wide-set eyes and broad, shy smile. She was the long-limbed, Keds-wearing, well-scrubbed face of teenage angst in the 90’s. In 1996, co-starring with Leonardo DiCaprio in Baz Luhrmann’s rocked-out Romeo + Juliet, Ms. Danes shot to the front of the pack as a bona fide It Girl.
Ms. Danes’ time as an It Girl was comparatively brief. She followed up her early, critically acclaimed roles with mediocre ones (see Brokedown Palace, The Mod Squad.) Yet, instead of fading into the land of Has-Beens, Ms. Danes has evolved as a Wuz Girl, repeatedly putting herself out there—in movies, in her own dance performances (P.S. 122!) and, most recently, in a Gap ad (dancing, again) with Patrick Wilson.
The actress—born and bred in New York City—can still be seen around town, but no longer comports herself as an important young woman, or as something special. She and Mr. Crudup have broken up, and she’s moved on to British actor Hugh Dancy, currently on Broadway in Journey’s End. What could say “Wuz” louder dating a Brit?
Perhaps the It Girl’s most defining feature—and one that she carries with her into her Wuz Girldom—is that when you see her, in person or on screen, or read about her, you feel good and you wish her well. Which is one reason why Paris Hilton, Tinsley Mortimer and their ilk will never be It Girls: thinking too much about them produces a soggy ennui and self-loathing. You get the feeling their success is always at the expense of either another woman, or a general moral principle. And that’s not a success any sane person wants to be part of.
By contrast, It Girls, even when they become Wuz Girls, let us like ourselves for liking them. They remind us that celebrity can be fun and generous and big-hearted.
Does a real It Girl stand a chance these days? Even in New York, celebrities no longer venture out without a clump of fixers and publicists and stylists, all of whom make it almost impossible for a young actress to develop—let alone display—a real personality.
So where are the It Girls of 2007? They are surely out there. But in our obsessive need to unpack mystery rather than enjoy it, our poring over Gawker Stalker, Defamer and US Weekly, as we stalk our hometown famous with our camera phones and chronicle their every sip of latte, we’ve stripped our It Girls of their It-ness.
The fault lies not in our stars, but in ourselves. We are not worthy.