Meet Audrey Gelman: She’s Like Marnie—Only Successful

Audrey Gelman and Lena Dunham last week at Capitale, from Ms. Gelman’s Instagram account.

Audrey Gelman and Lena Dunham last week at Capitale, from Ms. Gelman’s Instagram account.

Audrey Gelman first appears in season two of Girls—which premiered Sunday night—coming out of the bathroom. She is carrying a tallboy that dwarfs her tiny frame, scolding her clingy boyfriend, Charlie, and looking for some weed. “Hi Audrey,” Marnie Michaels (played by Allison Williams) says, shooting daggers at her rival. Ms. Gelman’s role as Marnie’s headband-wearing foil, however, is an extended inside joke.

In real life, Ms. Gelman, 25, is close friends with newly minted Golden Globe winner Lena Dunham, and, by most accounts, is the model for Marnie herself: driven, serious, tightly wound.

These qualities serve her well by day as the spokesperson for Scott Stringer—Manhattan borough president, former mayoral hopeful and shoo-in for comptroller—as she walks reporters through wonky white papers on everything from Silicon Alley to economic abuse as a form of domestic violence. But she is equally comfortable downtown, where she lives with roguish fashion photographer Terry Richardson, mixes with young Hollywood and is a fixture at Cinema Society screenings and fashion shows.

“She doesn’t get a lot of time off, so the fact she can do all that is really extraordinary,” said Mr. Stringer, noting that Ms. Gelman generally sends him the day’s news, with commentary, by 7 a.m. The night before we spoke with him, she had also been out with him until 9:30. “That’s a hell of a work week,” he said.

Mayor Bloomberg once gushed about how Girls might inspire young women to pursue Hannah Horvath’s New York dream, but Ms. Gelman might be a better advertisement: Holly Golightly with a career. “Local politics is a pretty grubby, unglamorous scene, and she is like a bolt of lightning in that scene,” one veteran City Hall reporter told The Observer.

Ms. Gelman, who is a dead ringer for The O.C.’s Rachel Bilson, has large, brown eyes that can turn from sympathetic to sharp in an instant. Reporters who work with her say she can be nitpicky and tenacious on Mr. Stringer’s behalf. A total Marnie, in other words, though unlike Ms. Gelman, Marnie would never have a barrio-style tattoo inside her lower lip that says, “Let’s Go Mets.”

Another of Ms. Gelman’s five tattoos matches one of Ms. Dunham’s: a single word—“staunch” on her left tricep—an homage to Little Edie of Grey Gardens fame. Ms. Gelman and Ms. Dunham have been friends since they first met as high school students in Manhattan, becoming besties when they arrived at Oberlin together. Ms. Dunham told The L Magazine earlier this year that no one other than Ms. Gelman has “a cultural/emotional vocabulary I understand so well.” The accompanying scrapbook shows them in their campus days, a little less poised but not much younger, so quickly have they ascended the ranks of Manhattan’s power players.

Unlike Ms. Dunham—whose parents are both established artists—Ms. Gelman wasn’t born into Manhattan’s creative class. Her father is a microbiologist (and a fourth-generation cantor). Her mother is a psychologist. Raised on the Upper West Side, she attended the public Lab School and Bard High School.

Ms. Gelman dropped out of Oberlin after two years to work inside the high-pressure D.C. press shop for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. “In every campaign, there are a few interns and junior staffers who manage to stand out, and she was one of those,” said Howard Wolfson, who ran the Clinton campaign and now serves as deputy mayor. “The staff was impressed with her.” She went to work for Mr. Stringer in May 2010 and quickly rose to lead spokesperson—purportedly the youngest in city government, though this fact is surely cited more frequently than it is checked.

At a recent Stringer presser in Riverside Park on a chilly Sunday afternoon, Ms. Gelman could be found at the borough president’s elbow in a stylish bubble coat and enormous tortoiseshell glasses.

Mr. Stringer has done a lot with his modest post—turning the borough president’s office into a white-paper factory. The topic this Sunday was reform of the city’s animal shelters, and Ms. Gelman hustled armloads of press releases and staple-bound studies through the small crowd amid constant baying from the nearby dog run. Later, she posted an image of the TV coverage of the event to her personal Instagram account, alongside snaps of her cat, Lyle, and her French ombré manicure.

Ms. Gelman serves as a refutation to stiff social media gurus everywhere. Their advice is for outsiders. Use your real name? Her Twitter handle is @grumplstiltskin. Post a representative picture? Her avatar is Cam’ron in pink fur. Don’t post compromising images? She appeared in a light boudoir video for DKNY Intimates. Don’t date Terry Richardson? Well, that’s not social media advice, but her 18-month relationship with the whipping boy of feminist blogs seems to confound all but their intimates. (Complex magazine is in full-blown denial about it, having named Gelman the 21st “most desirable bachelorette in NYC” as recently as September.)

“I think they are actually a very interesting match,” downtown publicist Gina Nanni told The Observer. “People have the wrong impression about Terry, that he’s this guy living this debauched life, but he’s the nicest, sweetest guy. He’s a teddy bear.”

“Having your most public aide dating Terry Richardson, that can’t be great for you,” said one veteran city hall reporter of Mr. Stringer. “It’s distracting.”

But the borough president, who has been photographed with Mr. Richardson on more than one occasion, shrugs off such talk. “I view her differently because of the work she does here,” Mr. Stringer told The Observer. “The focus of her life is to be a government professional. The rest is extracurricular.”

The rules are changing. Can you feel it? Not so long ago, 20-somethings had to choose between promising City Hall careers on the one hand, and tattoos, lingerie ads and dangerous boyfriends on the other. Now “the rest is extracurricular.” Public and private are being renegotiated and Ms. Gelman stands at the frontier.

At last week’s after-party for the season two premiere of Girls, she could be seen agilely policing these shifting borders.

Mr. Stringer had just zipped back from Albany and Gov. Cuomo’s State of the State address to arrive at Little Italy’s chic party space Capitale, which was shoulder-to-shoulder with celebrities, from ?uestlove to Cindy Sherman. Ms. Gelman waved Steve Buscemi over to meet the beep and his wife, Elyse Buxbaum.

“I live in Brooklyn, so you’re not my borough president,” Mr. Buscemi said winningly as he pumped the pinstriped politician’s hand. “But you’re a very good borough president.” The Boardwalk Empire star pivoted to Mr. Richardson, who stood nearby, and Ms. Gelman snapped a picture of the pair.

Is Gelman, like lightning, a true anomaly, or is she a sign of things to come in a world where social media launders influence between divergent spheres—as long as you speak all the tongues?

“You know you are fluent in a language when you can think in that language and you don’t have to translate from one to the other,” Mr. Wolfson observed. “And that is her ability, to think fluently in social media.” Interestingly, before Ms. Gelman arrived, Mr. Stringer’s office suffered a social media scandal when an aide derided President Obama on her personal Facebook page. Ms. Gelman would be too cagey for that, and is canny enough to know that the answer is not to become invisible, but to appear as one wants to appear—professional, connected and recently manicured.

Witness her divide-crossing work with Downtown 4 Democracy, an alliance of creative professionals that formed around Howard Dean in 2003 and raised $1.5 million for John Kerry in 2004. The group had been largely dormant, but was rebooted in support of President Obama under Ms. Gelman’s direction, with a book, events and conspicuous support from Mr. Richardson and Ms. Dunham, who—at times—has also supported Mr. Stringer’s causes.

“The things that are an asset to her now might not have been an asset 10 years ago, when politicians hadn’t figured out how to speak to people like me,” observed Ms. Nanni, a founding member of Downtown 4 Democracy, discussing Ms Gelman’s unique position at the crossroads of many worlds.

After Mr. Stringer and his wife departed the Girls premiere, Ms. Gelman and Mr. Richardson held court before a passing parade of young celebrities like Aziz Ansari and Jonah Hill, whom Ms. Gelman air-kissed as fluently as she had the local TV reporter who’d arrived late to the Stringer presser earlier in the week. She sat and texted as a friend sketched her portrait, which would later appear on Vogue’s website.

A few minutes passed and Ms. Gelman turned to a reporter, whom she had allowed to linger for a moment. “I’m going to go back to my personal world now,” she told The Observer, shutting things down like just another press conference.