Julia Allison is not dead. But you could be forgiven for thinking so, since everyone talks about her in the past tense.
“Julia represented the industrialization of self-promotion,” said Jason Tanz, who profiled Ms. Allison for the cover of Wired’s August 2008 issue. “People were going to start using the Internet as a personal branding platform, and Julia was one of the first to get there.”
“I mean I met her like twice?” said Choire Sicha, editor at Gawker as Ms. Allison emerged as a favorite subject on the gossip blog.
And writing about Ms. Allison’s new reality series, Miss Advised, for the Atlantic Wire, a former Gawker writer noted the nascent TV star “disappeared to the West Coast and has not been heard from since.”
Ms. Allison, the former relationship columnist for Time Out New York, Gawker hobbyhorse, TV talking head, and leader of her would-be business, NonSociety, was once the poster girl for New York bloggers pursuing fame or infamy. She sat—or rather whirled like a dervish—at the nexus of tech-world geekery (as she was nominally a “founder”), good old-fashioned media-baiting (she rose to her sort of fame after wearing a bustier made of condoms to a Gawker party full of journalists), and New York’s fizzy hangover from a decade of Carrie Bradshaw
“I remember the first piece Gawker wrote about me. They criticized me for being ‘too nice,’” Ms. Allison told The Observer. “But that’s who I was! That was the beginning of my tenure in New York. The way I knew I needed to leave was that I wasn’t like that anymore. I was cynical. I was bitter. I saw a couple holding hands and I thought ‘just wait. That won’t last.’”
Nor did her New York celebutante life: her fame, emblematic of the period, had an expiration date.
“The internet felt smaller,” said former Gawker editor Jessica Coen, now at Jezebel. “The social guide of that internet scene in New York was a lot smaller, intimate. There were certainly less blogs then and less prominent blogs then, it felt smaller, individuals who were kind of out there stood out a lot more.”
The post-mortem tone is understandable: one of the pitfalls of constructing your entire existence around being famous is that once you are a nobody, you might as well be dead.
So, Ms. Allison must now undertake a resurrection, in the form of a reality TV show. (Surprise!)
“I tried being microfamous, she explained to us recently. “That stuff is super empty. It would be really nice to try it in a different way.” Call it macrofamous.
Since her days on the New York tech/media scene, Ms. Allison indeed moved to Los Angeles and is in the process of shutting down NonSociety, which never meaningfully distinguished itself from Tumblr. In so doing, she has taken away a favorite spectator sport: following her career (read: her attention-seeking antics). For a while, things were quiet. But with Miss Advised, launching on Bravo on June 18, Ms. Allison is staging what will either be her comeback or, like Lisa Kudrow’s embarrassing fake-reality series, her The Comeback.
The show follows three soi-disant dating experts in three different cities: a high-powered New York matchmaker whose ex calls her just as she’s enjoying a solo glass of Champagne, a San Francisco radio personality who’s willing to shock you with her opposition to monogamy.
And Ms. Allison, the ostensible star of the show.
Only nominally a “dating columnist” since wearing out her welcome at Time Out in 2009, Ms. Allison ends up with the most screen time because she’s the most voluble, the least canny about managing her self-presentation. While the two mating-and-dating professionals onscreen seem in-control, if a bit eager to find their mates, Ms. Allison is unvarnished. At one point, we see her trying on tutus (and strapping one on her dog). Later in the season, she forces herself on one date in the back of a limousine, only to ask another if he’s ready to get married immediately.
In the early going of Miss Advised’s months-long taping process, Ms. Allison says she attempted to construct an America’s-Sweetheart persona, but that the constant presence of cameras broke down her obsession with persona. “At a certain point,” said Ms. Allison on a conference call with her castmates, “I did give up trying to be charming. I failed so miserably, I just gave up. If you call that forgetting about the cameras, that’s forgetting about the cameras.” The other two women had said they forgot about the cameras immediately. “They beat me down. I had no idea I was so self conscious. I found it to be the most nerve-wracking experience.”
Ms. Allison had reason to be wary. She had been the object of derision on Gawker and targeted hate sites. She had also lost faith in love—a troubling turn for a relationship columnist.
“The worst thing that happened was that I was dumped a couple times,” she explained. “I never thought once during my tenure—that I might not find my person. Or my husband. I never expected that I wouldn’t find lasting happiness. In the last year, I thought, Oh, shit. I might have totally fucked this up.”
This realization—that she had aged out of eligibility, and that her Google results are full of her critics mocking her—coincided with allowing Bravo’s cameras into her life. “I felt like the Rodney Dangerfield of journalism, I felt like a victim, and I did the show, and my conclusion after the show was—I have to figure out a way to not say this in a cheesy way: I think I have a message now.” That message, she says, is to show people how to love themselves: “I think moving forward, the irony is that my goal for myself is to be genuinely open and genuinely transparent and not worry about what people think of me.”
It’s an irony in part because Ms. Allison’s extreme, blithe openness—turning up at a party in a condom-covered bustier; spilling the details of her every relationship, including, recently, a dalliance with John McCain’s son Jack—in the exact behavior that engendered criticism from sites devoted to savaging her.
An email exchange with the anonymous proprietor of Ms. Allison’s most prominent (and frequently unhinged) critics, the site Reblogging Donk, yielded some information as to why, exactly, Ms. Allison is such a flashpoint. “She provides a very extreme, contorted glimpse of a generation that’s gone right off the rails in terms of narcissism, seeking fame for no reason, the reality show/Facebook generation that wants to to put everything out there and expect to be adored and envied for it. We all have those people in our Facebook feed—she’s the Incredible Hulk version of that.”
Indeed, Ms. Allison’s form of extreme openness has long manifested itself in both her outfits (each Time Out New York column came with a glam photoshoot) and in an ethos of sharing when it came to her personal life. One relationship, with Vimeo co-founder Jakob Lodwick, got its own website; the McCain moment was duly chronicled across social media. But Ms. Allison claims that her old brushes with fame saw her acting out a part. “I was still attempting to make a good impression. If you do that you will be devastated by their reactions. “
“I have such mixed feelings about it,” she said of the show. “It was a painful process for me… I feel more free now, though, because it’s like, ‘You’re going to see this shit anyway!’ So that is freeing.”
While Ms. Allison admits she felt somewhat “out of control” when dealing with Gawker, she was able to manage her image to an extent, via her blog. She chose what was out there. Bravo’s editors, who have ended the marriages of many a Real Housewife, are less forgiving.
Ms. Allison certainly seems aware of the pitfalls of ceding control, and also believes this time, this run at fame, will be different. “To be famous for no reason other than your ego is a fool’s game. If you want it for that reason, you will be miserable. It’s not of value in and of itself. It’s only of value if you do something like that. And I’m not saying ‘Go work for Charity Water!’ I hate fakeness. Maybe Charity Water is your thing. No bashing. It’s not mine. My thing is young women like me who had no self esteem.”
Ms. Rambin, Ms. Allison’s former NonSociety business partner, said that on a recent chance encounter in Austin at South by Southwest, she warned Ms. Allison about reality television. (Ms. Rambin appeared on the short-lived One Ocean View in 2006.) “Emotionally, it’s one of the worst things you can do. That’s what makes it really entertaining!”
PC Peterson, the young villain of Bravo’s departed reality series NYC Prep, told The Observer: “You have no control of the editing process. Any conversation taken out of context sounds ridiculous. You’re there to make yourself look bad. Regardless of what you attempt to do, play with the script, you won’t be able to make your own way.”
Ms. Allison, with her newly found openness and her cause of showing women how to be really, truly honest with themselves, doesn’t seem worried. Asked to compare herself to reality stars of past vintage, Ms. Allison conflated fiction with reality: “People bring up [Real Housewives of New York star] Bethenny [Frankel] for three reasons. She tends to be quite frank, she tends to be intelligent and funny, and an entrepreneur. Honestly I don’t think I’m any of them. I’m much more spiritual, and much raunchier, and I’m a total geek. I love tech guys. I just want to roll around in Silicon Valley. I’m some bizarre combination. It’s not reality television I relate to but a combination of Zooey Deschanel on New Girl combined with Lena Dunham.”
Doubling down on her return to the spotlight, she will be writing about each episode of Miss Advised as it airs, for Elle.com.
“I thought of it myself!” she enthused.