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The society girl gets serious

Sloanes are finding there's more to life than parties these days. Why, some are even working for a living, says Vicky Ward

Vicky Ward
Thursday 06 April 1995 23:02 BST

The crowd of hopeful screenwriters attending Robert McKee's intensive screenwriting course last weekend must have been faintly surprised to see among the throng Annabel Heseltine, 31, daughter of the President of the Board of Trade. She looked very much the part, swathed in brown suede, short boots, an Indian shawl and silver jewellery. What on earth, they must have wondered, is she, the archetypal dbutante-turned-socialite, doing attending such a forum?

The answer is, trying to get serious. Despite a reputation as a professional partygoer and socialite, for the past seven years Heseltine has been trying, slowly, to make her mark on Fleet Street. She freelances for a national newspaper, she explains, and the course is a bid to broaden her knowledge.

Her ambition marks a new trend among upper-class girls in their twenties and early thirties: careerism. Twenty years ago society girls were destined for a life of breeding and housekeeping. They were famous for their parents, their wealth or their boyfriends. Susannah Constantine, 32, the former girlfriend of Viscount Linley, was one such example: bulbs flashed as she drifted from party to party and no one questioned her somewhat superficial raison d'tre. It was completely acceptable for pretty, wealthy girls with smart walkers to do nothing but socialise and appear in glossy magazines. Those days are over - though an isolated few, including Victoria Althorp, Countess of Spencer, remain left behind. Part of her angst may be due to the fact that nothing in polite society these days is as infra- dig as to be seen doing nothing. And no one marks it better than Heseltine and Constantine, the latter now a successful sports columnist.

Ewa Lewis, Tatler's social editor, believes that the Lloyd's dbcle is largely responsible for the change in attitude. "Nobody," she says, "not even the very rich, can afford not to work now. Even those at the top end of the social strata with huge inheritances realise they've got to struggle to keep it up. The upper classes have got their backs against the wall."

It is not just the fear of not having a private income to fall back on that is spurring twentysomethings jobwards. The "late marriage" is another factor. Twenty years ago, smart girls did a London season (a summer of champagne, introductions and parties) straight after school. If they had not found a rich, preferably titled, husband by the end of that season - and certainly by the age of 24 - they had failed. "Now," Lewis says, "smart girls cannot necessarily rely on getting married at all, let alone making a good match."

But there is another, more intrinsic, shift in the traditional attitude of the dbutante: her attitude to work. For the first time in decades, the female upper classes are finding it not only acceptable, but positively de rigueur, to have a serious job. The label "bimbo" is one they now fear above all others. "It's hard to know whether it's actually gone so far as to become unacceptable not to work, but certainly friends of mine who aren't doing anything apologise for it now," says Heseltine. "And when a friend of mine who recently gave up her job explained to a man that she was a housewife, he turned away and ignored her."

It is not necessarily feminism per se that has wrought the change; high society girls are a long way from imbibing the ideologies of Susie Orbach or Naomi Wolf. "I would like nothing better than not to have to work, but no one else seems to. It's become trendy to work," confided a former dbutante now in the throes of a serious city career.

She agrees, however, that she has been influenced by women who have managed to combine a career and a glamorous social life. The social event of last year was not some great dance or grand wedding but a party at the Ritz, attended by the Princess of Wales. It was hosted by Barbara Amiel, wife of the Canadian newspaper magnate Conrad Black; Lady Carla Powell, Italian consort of Sir Charles Powell, Lady Thatcher's former adviser on foreign affairs; and Tessa Keswick, daughter of the late Lord Lovat and Kenneth Clark's chief adviser.

The crucial thing about Amiel, Powell and Keswick is that they are not only married to members of the social lite, but are also serious thinkers in their own right. Amiel made her name as a trenchant political columnist long before she became Mrs Conrad Black two and a half years ago. And those behind the scenes in the Thatcher regime say Lady Carla had almost as much influence over the Prime Minister as her husband.

"God! I admire Barbara Amiel," exclaims one young working deb. Whereas 20 years ago, people would have styled themselves on Grace Kelly, Jackie Onassis or a particularly beautiful duchess, today's female role models are far from passive and are strikingly self-sufficient.

So fast has the trend of balancing a good career with a glittering nightlife grown that Heseltine was even able to write an article last year justifying the "season" as a means of networking. "The other day, I found myself picking up the phone. I dialled the Countess of Walton's number. It is useful to be able to get straight through to a Saatchi's account director on the basis that, one frivolous summer, we attended a few parties together."

Young women who "did the season" in the late Eighties are today working in everything from investment banking to advertising. There are the inevitable cluster who have gone into fashion magazines, PR and secretarial work, but they take these careers much more seriously than their forebears did. "The key thing," says Ann Barr, co-author of the Sloane Ranger Handbook, "is university. So many go to university these days, and that naturally leads to decent jobs."

Nowadays "society chics", as the tabloids sometimes dub them, appear far more often in print for work-related matters than they do as socialites. Jenny Halpern, daughter of Sir Ralph Halpern, the clothing magnate, is a prime example. Halpern Associates, whose client list includes the Notting Hill restaurant Beach Blanket Babylon, is growing and growing. Julia Ogilvy, wife of James, son of Princess Alexandra, is always referred to as the managing director of Hamilton & Inches, Scotland's leading jeweller.

And as for those who aren't so intellectually blessed? "Debs used to do a tiny bit a typing and the odd bit of cooking, but nothing very much more," says Peter Townend, long-time organiser of the season. "Nowadays, if they do those things, they take them far more seriously. There is also far more cachet in being, say, an upmarket florist, or dressmaker than there ever used to be. Nobody ever thinks in terms of `the shop girl' or `tradesperson'; upmarket housewives like being served by people of their own class."

But perhaps those reaping the greatest rewards from Sloaney girls getting serious are their male counterparts. Eligible bachelors now realise the value of the female career, both financially and psychologically. "Yes, I want a very rich wife. Yes, I want a wife who is going to give me an heir," an eligible peer of 27 announced at dinner last week. "But I don't want someone who is stupid or someone who hasn't got something to do other than spend all my money on clothes and go to parties."

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