An Unlikely Socialite

James Kurisunkal (New York magazine)

For socialites in New York City, there was one place to visit on the Web: For a full year, the mysterious Web site declared “itself unofficial judge, jury, and executioner of 10021—the Zip Code of upper Park Avenue and Fifth, and the home of many young women who appear on the charity-ball circuit. Each fortnight, the Web site released a ‘Social Elite Power Ranking,’ scoring the women on their personal style, public appearances, and publicity efforts,” wrote Isaiah Wilner in New York magazine.

Then, suddenly, on April 26, 2007, shut down. New York society was abuzz—but luckily, the gliteratti flocked, instead, to Park Avenue Peerage. This new Web site, which had launched in March, also chronicled the lives of the rich and fabulous, though without the same snark that had been famous for. But like its famous predecessor, the owner behind Park Avenue Peerage remained a mystery.

Until, that is, Isaiah Wilner’s “expose” in New York magazine two weeks ago: The Duo Behind Socialite Rank Confess How and Why They Did It. The 6,400-word tome is probably of little interest to most people—and even to most New Yorkers—but the final page offered perhaps the juiciest tidbit of all: The owner of Park Avenue Peerage, who wrote with such authority about the New York social scene, was no insider. In fact, he was an 18-year-old Indian American college student—from Illinois:

“I live in Urbana, near a farm,” he whispers when I call. “Oh, my God! I’m not supposed to reveal anything. I’m like—I’m not even white! Do you know how f****** riotous this would be? I am not the poster child. You would not even believe what I look like.”

Adds Wilner:

[He] was precocious, but not in the usual way. He spent his adolescence reading The Book of Royal Lists. “I’m schooled in the Fields, the Swifts, the Pullmans, the Masons, the Armours, the Ogdens,” he says. “And then we have the Pritzkers and Crowns—oh, and I love the Boston Brahmins. I’m obsessed with them.” Suddenly, he interrupts himself. “Do I sound psycho? Do I sound like a loser? Like someone who didn’t make it? At the core, I’m a researcher. I’m an investigator.”

His name is James Kurisunkal, and after he was “outed” in New York magazine, he wrote on Park Avenue Peerage:

I’ve been to all of the balls (naturally by way of Patrick McMullan), I’ve been fitted (it was an obvious stretch for whichever designer), and I’ve been in the Post. It’s a simple fact that every glorious debutante of our age deserves a proper and befitting coming out and I refused to give myself anything else.

He went on to write:

There should be no skepticism behind my identity. I really am a freshman at the University of Illinois updating this website from my dorm room. I know that it’s a bit surprising, but you must believe me. I live next to fields of corn and soybeans and my desktop is open with party pictures from Anchor and Marquee. I know.

This website is wholly of my own creation. I am not a figurehead for any triumvirate of social pirates. I’m not a planned public relations ploy to throw anyone off track. I am not Anisha Lakhani’s nephew or second cousin, once removed. (I could show you family charts to prove that one.) I have no secret motives or agendas … I find pictures, I find people, and I write about events and individuals that are relevant to New York society.

Finally, he declared his noble intentions:

Park Avenue Peerage is a not a den of mud-slinging. This isn’t a place to post accusations to destroy reputations. Society can and should stand for something much greater—the active pursuits of beauty, grace, and above all, charity. With Socialite Rank now offline and their founders disgraced, Park Avenue Peerage will continue as it did and post stories to uplift and delight.

I had the chance to speak with James to find out why he is so fascinated with the high life and how he updates his weblog—all from his college dorm room.

What fascinates you about this world? How did you get into it?
I was born and raised in Chicago. My father is a library clerk, and my mother is a nurse. School subjects sometimes couldn’t get keep me fascinated so I had to learn to educate myself otherwise. Interests in the realms of castles and coronets slowly yet surely developed into those in CeCe Cord and Coco Chanel.

I think I was a kid who was interested in like organized things, a kid who was interested in true exclusivity. There’s nothing more exclusive than being born into something. This is something you can’t do. It just has to be.

It was my fascination with the theory of birthright that got me hooked to socialites. Celebrities have to get on stage to grab our attention. Socialites have the privilege of not having that obligation.

How did you get into reading
I was very into Paris Hilton, the heiress culture, the lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-famous-from-just being born culture, looking up names, reading books, seeing individuals. I liked studying the barons of industry and seeing where their descendants are. Fashion and all that came after, naturally.

Were you surprised when shut down?
I knew it was shutting down. The way they were writing, the way they were doing stuff, the way they said “this is going to be the most important” listing, it all sounded like they were going to die.

What prompted you to start Park Avenue Peerage? What fascinates you about this world?
I’ve had this site for two months now. I’ve just had so much knowledge built up in me, studying that sort of group or niche of people. And I wanted to share my knowledge. I’ve studied my genealogy books just as much I’ve studied my look books.

[The people featured on my site] are reaping the benefits of what their ancestors did. They are heirs. I think you can interpret that word in many ways—even push it in different directions. Culturally, they are their heirs, but their intentions are different. Maybe it’s not to raise the net worth of a company, but to raise the net worth of their own personal attention potential.

Are you envious of the people you cover?
No. They live their lives, I live my own. It’s just nice to know what they do.

How are you able to pass as a member of the New York social set? Most people are shocked that an 18-year-old Indian kid from Illinois is the mastermind behind your site.

See, I have a lot of knowledge of that world, and I think if you educate yourself enough, you can pass as anything. I wasn’t acting. I was very honest. I never said anything more than I was. I never said this was a group of three socialites, a designer and a PR exec. I passed as an insider because people interpreted me as that. People take what they want. I’m just a warehouse of information.

You wrote that Park Avenue Peerage is not like SocialiteRank in that it won’t tear people down or be as catty. Aren’t you worried about not maintaining an audience?

SocialiteRank was a den of mud slinging. Supposedly, the authors themselves created the most controversial stuff, spread the most vile rumors. People who say they love snarky comments, I feel like they’re saying they love lies. These are good girls who just happen to spend time donating to charities and dressing well.

You say that with such confidence!
I know what it means to not be good. I know what badness is in celebrities. Like spitting at photographers—these girls don’t do that.

What prompted you to “come out” to New York magazine?
I think the writer’s intentions were really pure. He wanted to expose SocialiteRank as what it was, for trying its best to destroty the lives of these girls. At the same time SocialiteRank didn’t make those girls. But more than that, it put them down. And that was annoying.

So I felt, why shouldn’t I come out?

Are you afraid you’ll lose your audience now that they know who you are?
I’d rather not answer that question.

What are you studying? What’s next for you? Are you going to maintain the site?
I’m an English major at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I have no end plans for my site. It depends on what I’m posting, what I get, how I get it, how I want to give it, what I want to give to readers.

How much time do you spend on the site?
It really depends on what I get and what I research. The thing with running a blog like this is that it really depends on what I get. On a slow day, it might take me a long time [to dig something up]. It can take anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours a day. It’s enjoyable for me—I do this for fun.

What else are you involved in on campus?
I am active in the LGBT community on campus. I was the political co-chair last semester. I go to all the conferences. I am an editor for Montage, our undergraduate literary journal.

Did anyone know that you ran this site before it became public knowledge?
Neither my friends nor my family really knew.

They obviously know now. So what’s their reaction?
Of course it was a little, it was shocking. Here I was, their friend, on Web sites with my name on them. It’s interesting to see how someone they lived with privately become a public figure. They were just like, I can’t believe that’s you. But then, for most people, hardly anyone knows. The campus newspapers have not even approached me.

You’re obviously a very mature writer. Do you have plans to pursue journalism?
I like writing. I would love to pursue other literary options. I haven’t been on the school newspaper. I wrote one article in high school. I was part of the all-city newspaper in high school; I was their associate editor. I was the editor of fiction for a national polyphony magazine, and at my high school, I was an editor of prose for our school literary journal, Verve.

What media do you consume?
I read The New York Times, Vogue, New York Observer, New York Post, New York Daily News, Arts and Letters Daily, W, Fashion Week Daily, I also read online tabloids like Perez Hilton.

OK, just for fun: Which socialites do you love/admire? Which designers?
I can’t rank them, but some of my favorites are Tinsley Mortimer, Fabiola Beracasa, Jules Kirby.

As for designers, for women, I like Karl Lagerfeld and Alexander McQueen. For men, I like Yohji Yamamoto.

So when are you actually coming to New York?
I don’t know. I don’t know if I will. I have no definite plans at this moment.

May 21, 2007
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