Although the common theory tends to go that the kind of vapid, all-surface-no substance role model directly uploaded to the DNA of the western world’s young women didn’t exist until the age of Instagram and other online mediums, it’s worth recognising each development has its roots somewhere further back in time. In the case of the female evolutionary scale that has led us all the way down to a ghastly Bride of Frankenstein such as Kim Kardashian, we need to rewind a couple of decades and remember that this is a phenomenon that existed before widespread digital democracy created the lemon-sucking Facebook profile picture.
The death of one-time international socialite Tara Palmer-Tomkinson at the age of 45 from an apparent brain tumour, whilst sad in someone so young, served to remind most (I would imagine) of her existence. If one is old enough, her death could provoke the memory of how it was once impossible to open a paper or switch on the TV without seeing her face. Twenty years ago, she was one of the so-called ‘It Girls’ that kept the paparazzi occupied when their sojourns in Paris tunnels had backfired somewhat. Nocturnal creatures who only came to life at midnight – like Cinderella in reverse – the It Girls were party animals whose sole role seemed to be to live out their lives across tabloid pages, their coked-up hedonism occasionally interrupted via their season-tickets at the Priory before resuming the high life and then eventually being snapped-up by flabby-faced old rockers old enough to be their fathers and turned into breeding machines. And that was the 90s.
Cometh the new century, cometh the new breed; whilst the 90s It Girls largely emanated from wealthy dynasties, their post-millennium successors were of humbler stock, working-class girls made good. Their influence filtered down to the masses in a way Tara Palmer-Tomkinson’s posh blueprint never could. Once the 90s party was over, Tara and her contemporaries Tamara Beckwith and the Hervey sisters (Lady Victoria and Lady Isabella) found the only way to maintain a high-profile was to join TV’s burgeoning celebrity circuit, making up the numbers on renowned turd-polishing exercises such as ‘I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here’, ‘Come Dine with Me’, ‘Celebrity Masterchef’, ‘The Farm’, ‘The Jump’, ‘Love Island’, ‘Dancing on Ice’ et al. Trading on their past notoriety and their chronic lack of evident talent, it seemed an obvious progression.
Their celebrated equivalents in the 60s already had careers before receiving a similar level of attention and labelled as exotic appendages to male movers and shakers – Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy were models, Marianne Faithful was a singer, Jane Asher was an actress – but the 90s It Girls had more in common with their immediate predecessors, the late 80s Wild Children such as Mandy Smith and Amanda de Cadenet. Looks and attitude that chimed with the mores of the moment sealed their success rather than an ability to do anything more challenging than could be achieved by your average shop-girl in Newcastle city centre on a Saturday night. Daddy’s credit card simply opened doors that were then out-of-bounds to those whose moment would come with the advent of reality television.
Tara Palmer-Tomkinson’s shambolic appearance on comedian Frank Skinner’s chat show in 1999, in which she seemed to be on another planet to the host, is one of those TV car-crashes that routinely feature alongside Sam Fox at the Brit Awards or endless Oliver Reed piss-ups on cheap and shoddy ‘100 Greatest/Worst’ compilation shows; but it acted as a reminder of how even rich 24-hour party people have a breaking point. I recall seeing it when it aired and feeling unexpectedly sorry for a young woman whose willingness to play the performing seal for the media would have unpleasant consequences both for her and for the young women to come.
By the first decade of the twenty-first century, appallingly exploitative programmes such as ‘Geordie Shore’ were already highlighting the pernicious effect the likes of Katie Price and Jodie Marsh were having on the mindset of young women who would never enjoy the material benefits of Tara Palmer-Tomkinson. Encouraged by manipulative middle-class television producers to out-gross each other in terms of profanity and promiscuity (puppet-masters who viewed them as a separate species in a manner that echoes the way David Attenborough analyses the animal kingdom), the gullible pawns in the freak show game that reality TV morphed into were the 90s It Girls reborn as council estate slappers.
Once the internet superseded television as the prime medium for youth interaction, the resurrected ethos of everything a young woman has to offer revolving around how she looks had become so entrenched that it gave birth to the synthetic images that continue to clog-up online discourse. Trading on the traditional insecurities teenage girls under a permanent spotlight that judges their merits solely on appearance are afflicted by, the rise of Facebook in particular requires a standard look in which a heavy dose of cosmetics and easily-available photographic trickery manufacture a strange, alien-like impression of the opposite sex that bears little relation to the reality. The emaciated bodies and what a girlfriend of mine refers to as ‘oversized lollipop heads’ have transformed the desired female frame into a unrealisable ideal that even Barbie would regard as impossible to achieve.
WAGs, Paris Hilton, Sheryl Cole, and the hideous Kardashian clan have taken what was once the province of a frivolous elite to which Tara Palmer-Tomkinson belonged and have remodelled it as a regressive role model that elevates appearance over intellect, reversing half-a-century of feminist advancement and returning the aspirations of our sisters, daughters and nieces to that of ensnaring a male partner by exaggerating physical feminine traits to a cartoonish level that any man with a semblance of taste would ironically run a mile from.
Tara Palmer-Tomkinson and her ilk were having a good time when they were young because they could afford it and they knew they had nothing else in their armoury; that this good time happened to coincide with a post-Diana craving for Bright Young Things with nothing to say was pure serendipity. They weren’t to know that their excesses receiving out-of-proportion national coverage would lead to the next generation taking their lead as a dispiriting design for life.
© The Editor