photography by TERRY RICHARDSON
style by MEL OTTENBERG
interview by OLIVIER ZAHM
Love him or hate him, when you see DEREK BLASBERG show up at a party in New York, Paris, Istanbul, or Tokyo, you know you’re definitely in the right place. Over the past five years this brilliant, personable young man from Saint Louis, Missouri, has turned himself into the new Bob Colacello, documenting nightlife and high society in writing and photographs. Not only that, he’s showing everyone how much fun he’s having dancing and entertaining — while making us all envious of the way beautiful young women tend to surround him. But what we like most is his vintage/Middle-American/Upper East Side/high fashion/dandy style. With his first book, Classy: Be a Lady Not a Tramp, now a certified New York Times Bestseller, Derek tells us all he’s learned about etiquette.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How does it feel to be a New York Times bestseller of the month?
DEREK BLASBERG — It’s very exciting. I didn’t know if it was going to do very well because it’s a commercial book. You spend a lot of time doing artistic or avant-garde stuff, so you never know if it’s a good idea to do something that’s commercial or mass-market — especially when it’s a guide for young girls. There are a lot of good guides for girls out right now. But a lot of others give fame and success top priority, and encourage girls to do whatever they need to achieve those things — like doing tacky reality shows or behaving improperly. I thought it might be a good idea to do a book that says you don’t need to be a drunken skank to be popular.
OLIVIER ZAHM – The humor of the book probably contributed to its success, too.
DEREK BLASBERG – Well, I do like to think I’m funny, and I think that people take advice better if you make them laugh rather than if you talk down to them. When someone tells me to do something, I do the opposite, just out of habitual rebellion. But if someone presents something in a funny or comical way, I listen.
OLIVIER ZAHM – You have to be ironic to deal with the surreal-ness of life. Your generation doesn’t seem to take anything seriously.
DEREK BLASBERG – But there’s also a sense of entitlement in my generation. We’ll see if we’re still laughing when we get old.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How would you define your personal style? I love it.
DEREK BLASBERG – You do? It’s more preppy and American than yours. Girls have so many more options — I just put on a shirt, a suit, and a bow tie and I’m ready to go. I also like cravats. I like to draw attention to my face. It’s my moneymaker.
OLIVIER ZAHM – You’re also a good dancer. I can tell you love to dance.
DEREK BLASBERG – Well, I think I’m a natural athlete. My mom made a scrapbook for me after I graduated and there are all these clippings in it of me as a young athlete. I used to be very athletic. I don’t know what happened. Maybe I should form a V magazine volleyball team. We could take on Purple. Me and Stephen Gan versus you and Caroline. Beach volleyball — topless!
OLIVIER ZAHM – I think it’s rare to see a writer with a good beat. Have you ever seen Bob Colacello or Andy Lauer on the dance floor?
DEREK BLASBERG – Maybe that’s why I have so many girlfriends. Maybe my whole career is based on my ability to gyrate.
OLIVIER ZAHM – Maybe, if dancing is only seen as merely superficial. You’re not just a distant observer of nightlife, you’re part of it. You’re part of what you write about. This is a new kind of position, a new kind of journalism — to be a part of it.
DEREK BLASBERG – I never thought about that, but it’s true.
OLIVIER ZAHM – I’m also a part of it. I express what I do.
DEREK BLASBERG – Maybe you suffer the same criticism from the people who are not a part of it that I do. Oftentimes, if they’re not a part of it, the people who report on or cover the same events or the same lifestyle we do criticize it. I’m often criticized for being friends with my subjects.
OLIVIER ZAHM – Do you feel that you created yourself?
DEREK BLASBERG – To a certain degree I think I did. When I moved to New York in 2000 to go to school I didn’t know a single person. It wasn’t a conscious decision. Perhaps some people plan to move to New York, buy a suit, work at this or that magazine, and make friends with this and that person, but I didn’t.
OLIVIER ZAHM – Did being in New York affect your decision?
DEREK BLASBERG – When I was applying for colleges, I looked at USC, Georgetown, and Duke. I often wonder if I’d gone to another school what I’d be doing now. Maybe I’d be a miserable investment banker. So it’s true, I think a lot of it had to do with NYU. I double-majored in journalism and dramatic literature.
OLIVIER ZAHM – Was it your plan to become a journalist?
DEREK BLASBERG – When I moved to New York I didn’t really know that there was a fashion industry. Growing up in Missouri, there’s a Neiman Marcus, but no Rodeo Drive, no Fifth Avenue. As a young person, I didn’t understand that there were stylists and make-up artists. I grasped that magazine images were important and influential, but I had no idea how they were constructed — that there was an art director, a production team, retouching. When I moved to New York I discovered the world that creates this world. I wanted to work in fashion when I realized it was an industry. I thought for a while I wanted to be a stylist or a photographer. But my skills were as a writer.
OLIVIER ZAHM – But now you do everything. Taking pictures is a part of your work.
DEREK BLASBERG – Yes, it is, in a way. But I only shoot the people I like. When I was young, I always had a film camera. Someone gave me a digital camera for my birthday three or four years ago. I loved being able to see pictures immediately.
OLIVIER ZAHM – Do you still have time to read?
DEREK BLASBERG – I don’t read as many books as I used to. And because I work for several magazines — including Style.com, which is so immediate — I write every single day. There’s never a break.
OLIVIER ZAHM – Does it come naturally to you to write about an event, about a party?
DEREK BLASBERG – I typically write at night, when I come home, before I go to sleep.
OLIVIER ZAHM – Even if you’re really tired? Even if you’re drunk?
DEREK BLASBERG – Yeah. I probably shouldn’t say this, but I’m very fortunate to be able to express myself in the written word very easily and quickly. I don’t take too much time, knock on wood. Maybe one day I’ll wake up and I won’t be able to do it. Maybe then I’ll become a photographer.
OLIVIER ZAHM – That’s not wood, Derek, it’s glass! I don’t know why, but Bob Colacello comes to mind when I see you.
DEREK BLASBERG – I love Bob. I will take that as a compliment, in comparison to some of the things I’ve been called. Have you read his book, Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close Up? It’s about the 13 or 16 years Bob worked at Interview, and how he left. It’s about how he went to Columbia to study film and met Andy and his time working with him. It’s like a biography of Andy from Bob’s personal perspective. I’ve spent time with him and he seems smart and happy, and unaffected and unchanged by his relationships with the people he admires — which is how I hope I’ll continue to be. He’s lived in and reported on a world that he wasn’t born into, and yet he maintains his own sensibility.
OLIVIER ZAHM – And he’s a g knows ood writer. He how to write biographies and he’s very curious about what’s going on. Maybe you should write his biography.
DEREK BLASBERG – You think so? Holy Terror is sort of the first half, his life after Andy died. Maybe it’s time to write the second half.
OLIVIER ZAHM – Bob started at Interview around the same time as Glenn O’Brien, right?
DEREK BLASBERG – Yeah, I think Bob brought Glenn on.
OLIVIER ZAHM – You say in your book that when you moved to New York you took some classes at a health center to become a “sexual health advocate.”
DEREK BLASBERG – You’ll be sad to hear that it’s not a class on how to seduce women. It’s more educational. It’s about how diseases are spread, the importance of safe sex. It was an NYU program that was organized by students. I led these seminars and went around to other students. They didn’t preach abstinence, only to be careful about what you got into. They handed out condoms and lube. They wanted everyone to be aware of the dangers of coming to New York, where everything is so up-for-grabs.
OLIVIER ZAHM – You also give sex advice to young ladies. You say it’s very important for young people to create their own definition of monogamy.
DEREK BLASBERG – That was one of the things that came from the sexual health advocacy program. It’s important to realize that my idea of commitment and monogamy might be different from yours or anyone else’s. One person might think monogamy is psychological, allowing him or her to sleep or be intimate with other people. Another person’s idea of monogamy might be that he or she can’t even hold hands with someone else.
OLIVIER ZAHM – I think it’s an interesting part of your book because your generation is very apprehensive about sex. I wouldn’t say it’s conservative today, but to me there’s not much sexual freedom. There’s a lot of misunderstanding about what sex is. It’s perceived in a similar way to drugs or alcohol.
DEREK BLASBERG – That’s interesting, because I always thought my generation was too sexualized. You see people on these television shows — one guy is with 30 girls, has sex with all of them, and then he marries one of them. A number of guides out now say that you can sleep your way to the top, to become famous. There’s a book called something like How To Become Famous In Ten Minutes, which suggests that people do a reality show and make a sex tape. Those are terrible things to suggest to young women.
OLIVIER ZAHM – Derek, what do you think about the obsession with the self-promotion we see in New York, among those of your generation. How old are you, 25?
DEREK BLASBERG – I turned 28 last week. So old. I think that perhaps this economic crisis will pull some of that back. There was a time in New York when you could literally show up from Topeka, Kansas and, if you were a sample size, you could borrow a dress, go to a store party, and become famous.
OLIVIER ZAHM – You’re surrounded by what the press call socialites — musicians, photographers, talented students. How do you explain the cultural importance of young girls and boys today, at least for style and fashion? Are they even more important than models?
DEREK BLASBERG – First of all, I don’t hang out with those sorts of people because of their jobs or because they’re culturally important. But right now, because of the structure of the fashion media, you see a lot of websites portraying fashion editors as the new muses, more so than, say, models. You’ll see Carine Roitfeld from French Vogue and Taylor Tomasi from Marie Claire. Ten years ago they’d never have been seen by the public. Now they have a forum where their sartorial decisions are made public. I think that’s exciting, because that sort of style is very personal. So you’re seeing real, for lack of a better word, women becoming more exposed and influential. You’re also seeing celebrity style becoming more manufactured by a team of stylists, make-up artists, and assistants who say, “Wear this.” What they seem to be saying is that, if you wear this dress, you’ll get this amount of attention.
OLIVIER ZAHM – Take Chloë Sevigny, for example. For my generation, when I started, she was the style icon of New York, but she was alone. She was on the cover of a few teen magazines — she was the trendy girl. She wasn’t an actress yet, but she was already representing the style of New York.
DEREK BLASBERG – I think it’s because Chloë is so unique in what she wears. I love Chloë, and I still think that she’s the style of New York.
OLIVIER ZAHM – Absolutely. I agree with you. But my point is that in ’92 or ’94, she was basically the only girl to emerge. Then a Hollywood-embraced style emerged, and all these young actresses became fashion icons. And now it’s even more varied because of all these so-called socialites.
DEREK BLASBERG – I think the day of the socialite is over. I think a lot of people who were for a long time called socialites aren’t anymore. For years Lauren Santo Domingo was called a socialite, but to me she was never just a socialite. She worked at Vogue and she’s now a fashion editor. I always thought the way she stayed so aware of her fashion and how she looked was for a reason much bigger and more important than simply having her picture taken. She was interested in designers. Those are the sorts of girls that I like. A lot of them want to be socialites to be popular. I’m not interested in those girls.
OLIVIER ZAHM – You must be the guy on the New York social scene with the most girlfriends. Did you know that?
DEREK BLASBERG – I’ve heard that, but I’ve never counted! I think it’s because I’m a nice guy. I say in the book — no offense — that there aren’t a lot of ladies in the world, or gentlemen. — I know. I gave up on that ambition. — It’s true in the sense that there are the common courtesies of being nice — holding the door, standing up for a lady, pulling the chair out, dancing, picking them up, waiting for them outside if they’re late.
OLIVIER ZAHM – What’s the importance for a girl in having a gay best friend?
DEREK BLASBERG – There’s an entire essay in my book about that. The point I wanted to make is that girls think that a gay best friend will be there for them, to help them pick a dress to wear, to tell them how to wear their hair, to be there when their husband doesn’t want to go out. I like to think that it’s not a service-type thing. But I’m lucky because all of my girlfriends love me as much as I admire them.
OLIVIER ZAHM – Will your next book feature advice for men?
DEREK BLASBERG – I’ve thought about that. I even have a title for it. I just don’t think men buy books. Something tells me that the men who would buy a book on etiquette and manners don’t really need it. And that the men who do need such a book wouldn’t buy it.
OLIVIER ZAHM – I agree with you when you say a lady should believe in love. If you don’t believe in love, are you not a lady, then? Are you lost?
BYRDIE BELL – You’re screwed.
DEREK BLASBERG – You’re fucked.
OLIVIER ZAHM – What should a tramp believe in, then?
DEREK BLASBERG – A tramp believes in fame. A lady believes in love.
OLIVIER ZAHM – Good answer. What does the word sexting mean?
DEREK BLASBERG – Well, it’s a new word for the text messages that are often skanky and highly provocative in nature. We saw a lot of them when Tiger Woods’ mistresses came out. They were sensationalized in The New York Post. He’d write something like: “I want to spank you and your girlfriend tonight when my wife goes to bed.”
OLIVIER ZAHM – How did the papers get a hold of them?
DEREK BLASBERG – The girls sold them. But beyond the danger of someone else finding them, I think there are things you should say in person and not with your digits. I think it’s fine to flirt with people in an email or text message. But maybe it’s become too common for young girls to say really explicit things on their phones. Some girls say things that they never really wanted to actually do.
OLIVIER ZAHM – But can’t sexting be a vehicle for romance?
DEREK BLASBERG – Perhaps, but it can be dangerous, too. And it’s not just text messages. Some people send nasty pictures of themselves. I think that even when it’s flirtatious, one should maintain a sense of modesty.
OLIVIER ZAHM – Why is it that when I’m reading your book it occurs to me that tramps might be more fun to hang out with than classy ladies?
DEREK BLASBERG – Well, I think that’s a misconception. I think women think that to be fun they have to behave like drunken sluts. I don’t think that’s true.
OLIVIER ZAHM – Maybe the complete woman needs to have both sides.
BYRDIE BELL – It’s true. I have more fun playing the tramp than I do playing the lady.
DEREK BLASBERG – Maybe that’s because you know when to be one. Like you say, you’re playing a role. You can act like the tramp, but you know you’re a lady. It’s different from a tramp trying to act like a lady.
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