A socialite is a person who spends much of their time arranging or participating in social events. While they are not compensated monetarily for their efforts, socialites may receive payment in other forms, such as increased respect or reputation among their peers. Socialites are usually fairly wealthy by independent means, as they must have time and resources to devote to their social activities.
Some of the earliest socialites were the wives or mistresses of royalty or nobility. Until recently, the job of a queen or high lady was mostly ceremonial, leaving them with a large amount of free time. Some royal or noble ladies devoted themselves to charitable works, but many used the resources of their husband or family to fund a glittering life.
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In those times, being a socialite was not necessarily a pleasure, but rather a duty and means of survival. Painfully shy queens, often from foreign countries, were sometimes forced into playing a gracious and wealthy hostess to people that scorned and despised her. Mistresses also had to pay heavy prices for their social reputation, desperately using their people skills to obtain favor in the court and retain the interest of their royal lovers. On the night she received word that her beloved daughter had died, the famous 18th century socialite Madame de Pompadour was forced to dress up and make merry for a party, as doing otherwise risked the fickle affections of King Louis XV of France.
As wealth rose throughout America in the 19th century, the socialite developed into a role that brought power and influence. Wealthy women, who rarely worked or raised their own children, built an elaborate societal structure based on financial means and social ability. Men made rich off of family inheritance rather than career also lived the life of a socialite, an existence gently taunted by Oscar Wilde in his play The Ideal Husband. As in earlier times, the socialite world remained a dangerous hotbed of intrigue, blackmail, and gossip.
Today, the lifestyle of socialites remains attached to wealth and free time. However, not all modern socialites are unconcerned with social issues, and many flashy events are held as benefits or fundraisers for charitable causes. Spouses and family members of politicians often uphold a social lifestyle, hosting lunches, parties, and activities in order to support the career of their political relative.
The socialite life is often passed down through generations, particularly in extremely wealthy or aristocratic families. Children are often expected to take on hosting duties for their age group, so even pre-teens may have an early entrance into the lifestyle of social mavens. The intrigue and cruel side of this lifestyle is a popular subject for entertainment; in 2007, Gossip Girl, one of the most successful new television shows of the year focuses on the life of New York socialite teenagers and their parents.
While it may seem pleasant to loll around planning parties and having brunch, socialites can have a difficult existence. Life is often based on reputation and conformance, and can be a hard place for anyone controversial. From Madame de Pompadour to Jackie O to Princess Diana, the effects of a life in the spotlight have proven to be potentially damaging to leading a happy life.