BECOMING A LADY
BRITISH REALITY TELEVISION AND THE DEVELOPMENT OF GOOD MANNERS
by Amelie Gillette
I was at an after-party for a rave when I found out that Princess Diana had died. I’m not bragging, obviously. “After-party” and “rave” are words that haven’t been used boastfully since about 1997, and even then it was mostly among teenagers in parts of the country that were the absolute last to get the raves-are-thumping-neon-nightmares memo: high-school kids in pacifier necklaces and bright yellow SUGAR DADDY T-shirts in New Orleans in 1997—which is exactly who I was when a skinny blond kid named Jason, who looked like he was being swallowed from the feet up by denim, ambled across the dewy green grass of the lakefront, flopped down on the blanket beneath the tree where my friends and I were wasting our lives, and exhaled, “Y’all, did you hear? Princess Diana is dead.”
This being an after-party for a rave, none of us moved for the next twenty minutes or so, at least until the sky stopped spinning and the ringing in our ears went down to a mildly pleasant hum. Finally, someone spoke: “I know how to curtsy to Princess Diana.” For me, this sentence was especially surprising to hear, mostly because I was the one saying it. Still, I did know how to curtsy before royalty: hands at your sides to keep your skirt full but also to steady yourself, the right foot tracing a slight semicircle on the floor before coming in behind the left foot as your knees bend in almost a crouch, your head bowed gracefully. (Only actual royalty get the head bow—an important distinction in New Orleans, where Mardi Gras kings and queens walk among the plebes.) Within a few minutes, I was on my feet, fluffing out my oversized jeans to give the impression of a skirt, and practicing the curtsy that had been ingrained in me many years ago in Mrs. Abadie’s manners class. “Damn. That’s some debutante shit,” my friend Aristede, who was dressed head-to-toe in vintage polyester, observed. Elena, my best friend since third grade, who was wearing her hair very short and very platinum blond with very many dyed leopard spots, laughed. “Your mom would be so proud.”
From what I understand, entry into the demimonde of New Orleans debutantes amounts to an accident of birth. If your mother was a debutante, you can be one too, even if you’re battling some kind of terrible deformity like a cleft palate, an unfortunate unibrow, or a Yankee father. I’m sure there are other ways to get in—joining the appropriate Mardi Gras organizations, making the right friends, or other social climbing skills that are usually the province of Edith Wharton novels, an elaborate scheme of sizable donations, and secret payoffs to certain key figures in the murky deb underworld—but I’m not certain what they are. All I know is that my mother was a deb, as evidenced by the large photograph of her, resplendent in long white kid-leather gloves and a cream-colored satin gown, hanging in my parents’ dining room. And, just as I inherited her impressive height and green eyes, I had been passed along the opportunity to hang photographs of myself as an intimidating debutante (probably for the express purpose of taunting my reluctant daughter) in my own house someday.