The Hateable Socialite - Why We Love to Hate-Watch Her

From the Kardashians and Paris Hilton to Emily Gilmore and Moira Rose, we relish the lives of real and fictional socialites, people whose job is just to be in the upper echelons of society. In part, watching these people feels like wish fulfillment. But we also crave stories about socialites’ downfalls—stories that allow us to experience a certain schadenfreude and a sense of superiority over those who are so above the rest of us in terms of money and status. The socialite embodies the best and worst America has to offer—but they just may be more complicated and less in control than we think.


Drama ostensibly comes from problems and obstacles—so why do we love watching people who seemingly have none? From the Kardashians and Paris Hilton to Emily Gilmore and Moira Rose, we relish the lives of real and fictional socialites, people whose job is just to be in the upper echelons of society. In part, watching these people feels like wish fulfillment–it lets us imagine what it would be like to have your biggest problem be scheduling a family photo shoot

But we also crave stories about socialites’ downfalls, of them experiencing tragedy, loss, and even complete bankruptcy—stories that allow us to experience a certain schadenfreude and a sense of superiority over those who are so above the rest of us in terms of money and status.

The socialite embodies the best and worst America has to offer —but they just may be more complicated and less in control than we think. Here’s our take on our love-hate affair with the socialite and whether the voyeurism of watching her is really hate or rooting for her.

“I don’t skate through life, David. I walk through life in really nice shoes.”

- Schitt’s Creek

The Girl We’re Obsessed With Criticizing

The most common attitude that TV, film and audiences take toward socialites is to judge and criticize them. There’s an entire cottage industry for following the various scandals of Real Housewives, ranging from infidelity to deeply harmful financial crimes. One reason that we’re fascinated by stories of these people’s downfalls is that the majority of socialites tend to be people who are born into privilege, and who enjoy a quality of life, opulence and luxury we can only dream of for no reason other than the luck of birth. So it’s enjoyable to see them lose their meticulously-maintained control on their lives or get humbled to be more like the rest of us – whether it’s Paris Hilton dealing with the leak of her sex tape, the collapse of the Bouvier Beales in Grey Gardens, or the fictionalized riches-to-rags story of Schitt’s Creek.

And whether their luck came from birth, marriage or other circumstances, stories about socialites often follow them being tricked. Often, this makes it impossible to tell whether or not a popular figure gets attention for being loved or hated—people like the Kardashians inspire so many reactions, both positive and negative, that it’s difficult to separate the two.

Plots of The Kardashians even play into this knowledge that viewers are likely to find the subjects out of touch and a little cringe-worthy at times – like when Kris Jenner cheers on Kylie for being able to successfully complete a trip to the grocery store. And the Kardashians seem well-aware that a big contingent of their online audience is there to criticize their plastic surgery or take pleasure from scandals like Tristan Thompson repeatedly cheating on Khloe. It’s a core appeal of reality TV that the women of Real Housewives, contestants on The Bachelor, or the brokers of Selling Sunset are simultaneously objects of obsession, love, and disdain. Look at how Kathy Hilton, in the same week of 2022, drew ire on Twitter for mistaking Lizzo and the main character from Precious, and also was trending on Twitter for delighting Real Housewives of Beverly Hills fans with a scene of her hilariously demanding a cheese plate at a friend’s home.

It sort of makes sense that in our post-age-of-the-antihero TV-scape, we can’t get enough of the socialite – we’re not concerned with whether she’s exactly admirable, because she’s endlessly entertaining and illuminating about our current state of affairs.

“She changes her hair? I’ll make it news. She goes to Starbucks? I’ll make it news.”

- Sellebrity 20/20

Inventing Anna’s portrait of Anna Delvey is the rare socialite we’re sort of encouraged to root for, largely because she wasn’t one—this con artist scammed her way through this elite world, stealing from the rich people around her while expertly pretending to belong to their culture. In fact, part of why we remain captivated by Anna is that she remains unrepentant, and seems to have a callous attitude toward her “victims” (I.e., the real socialites in her orbit). Though it would seem there’s a conflict between her socialite exterior and con artist reality, on the other hand, creative lying has always been core to the American elite.

“Anna Delvey was a queen bitch but the way that she did it made you feel like she was queen bitch for a reason.”

- Inventing Anna

Why the Socialite is As American as Apple Pie

Socialites have always embodied the tension between old money and new money–between aristocracy and the American dream of self-reinvention. This is at the heart of a foundational story of modern America: F Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby–where the old money-rich New Yorkers summer on the East Egg and the new money folks are physically separated, just across the water on the less fashionable West Egg. Jay Gatsby is the template for the self-made American socialite: a man from a lower-class background who transforms himself into someone worthy of upper-crust attention. But Gatbsy does all this to win the heart of Daisy Buchanan, a socialite born into a life of luxury. And his striving doesn’t work. Gatsby’s had to turn to criminal activity (bootlegging) to make his fortune, which doesn’t fit with Daisy’s world, and however rich he gets he can’t attain the security and establishment protection of Daisy’s aristocratic husband Tom.

This tension at the heart of The Great Gatsby provides a template that helps us understand even American socialites to this day – particularly the strivers among them.

Our modern idea of the socialite was shaped most formatively by Paris Hilton’s rise to massive fame in the early 2000s. Paris was, in some ways, a Tom Buchanan, the heiress to a generations-old hotel fortune, but she was also a Gatsby in how she captured the public imagination through creating a relationship with the paparazzi like no socialite ever had. Her reality show The Simple Life was based on the incongruity of seeing Paris and Nicole Richie, two extraordinarily wealthy socialites, attempt to do “normal” jobs and navigate the institutions we engage with every day. But if casual observers frequently thought the joke was on Paris, anyone looking closer saw she was actively playing a character—it was an act of reinvention enabling her to further build her own brand.

“Paris Hilton’s brand is luxurious, rich, and wealthy, something most of us will never obtain. That’s why we love it.”

- Sellebrity 20/20

Still, the ultimate 2000s socialite and master of reinvention is the modern Jay Gatsby: Paris’ onetime assistant and stylist, Kim Kardashian. Kim was already the daughter of successful lawyer and businessman Robert Kardashian, and she grew up around extreme wealth and fame, but for years Kim was an outsider looking in at the most elite level of society. Kim found her breakthrough by leveraging her seemingly demeaning sex tape as an opportunity to become a reality TV star, and from there, pivoted into being an entrepreneur, influencer, and media brand. It’s no coincidence that she is also the most enduring of the generation of ’00s media personalities: Kim has constantly reinvented herself through several marriages, careers, and attitudes toward the public. Even now, her desire to go to law school is a way of shaking up our entrenched biases about socialites by trying to do something totally different: get taken seriously.

The Great Gatsby also helps us understand one of the most popular modern fictions about American socialites: Gossip Girl. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald himself, writer Dan Humphrey is on the outer edges of an elite social world, and eventually writes a book about his experiences that explores his attempt to reinvent himself and the seeming impossibility of making it to the inside.

Like Daisy Buchanan, Serena van der Woodsen is an ambivalent insider who epitomizes what is so attractive about this world but in her heart of hearts, considers abandoning it entirely.

While Daisy chickens out, Serena does end up with her Gatsby, Dan, an ending that perhaps makes her a little more sympathetic. Still, her story underlines that it’s impossible for her to truly be anyone else and she shouldn’t want that anyway. To this day, even descriptions of Anna Delvey are highly reminiscent of Gatsby’s background. And the public’s mixed feelings about what she did reveal how we still can’t help sympathizing with Gatbsy’s drive to rise by any means necessary into a world that’s near-impossible to penetrate.

“If I wasn’t born into this world, maybe I could write myself into it”

- Gossip Girl

Does the Socialite Suffer, Though?

For the lucky few who do get to be this ultra-socialite, whether born or made, is the life really all it’s cracked up to be? Though people like Paris Hilton, and Kim Kardashian became enormously successful, they’ve also suffered a lot in private, in sharp contrast to the person they play in front of the camera and sometimes because of their status. Recently, Paris Hilton has drawn attention to the abuse she suffered at the hands of the so-called “troubled teen industry,” and highlighted the experiences of other survivors of the Provo Canyon School. Though at first these people seem to not have problems, they often merely have a facade that hides their problems much better. And now, those issues are reflected in burnout and breakdowns that plague practically all influencers—people who are, essentially, our modern-day version of classic socialites, meant to constantly be seen.

Ultimately, we watch socialites because they embody the dramatic inequality at the heart of our society—the same force that created the Gilded Age, and led us to be so fascinated by stories like The Great Gatsby. As individuals, we’re generally powerless to do anything about the fundamental imbalance between the elite and everyone else—so instead, we focus on the people who are most indicative of injustice, something we can trace back to prior figures like Marie Antoinette. The most sympathetic socialites onscreen are often the ones who fight back against the system, and who seem, in some respects, to repent for their lifestyle. Daisy Buchanan and Serena van der Woodsen get points with the audience for making some attempts, but the people we like most go even further. Down-on-their-luck socialites Alexis and Moira Rose on Schitt’s Creek are at first treated as the butt of the joke like Paris on The Simple Life, when they find themselves thrust out of their high-status life. But eventually, they turn their actual skills in event planning, publicity, and performance toward ends outside of themselves.

As we watch the socialite, we engage in the fantasy of finding that one with a heart of gold who’s truly willing to repudiate inequality. Yet we know on some level that it’s not going anywhere – and so we’ll continue watching both fictional socialites and the real deal.