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New York’s erstwhile It girl

From working at Vogue to trending in Manhattan social circles and encountering controversial men, Plum Sykes has seen it all

brunch Updated: Jan 27, 2018 23:26 IST
Farhad J. Dadyburjor
Farhad J. Dadyburjor
Hindustan Times
plum sykes,vogue,harvey weinstein
Plum (whose real name is Victoria) became famous when Anna Wintour plucked her from British Vogue and dropped her into Manhattan’s social swirl(Robert Fairer)

Once considered an It girl of New York society, Plum Sykes nowadays leads a life that’s a far cry from those heady days when she worked at American Vogue. She’s busy looking after her two daughters on their country estate on the outskirts of England in Cotswolds, if not tending to her 24 hens. It’s also the place where she managed to write her third novel, Party Girls Die in Pearls, a chick lit-meets-Agatha Christie murder mystery set in 1980s Oxford.

The reality of fiction

The book has plenty of fashion of that time inspired by the era’s trendsetters like Princess Diana, and is bound to be at least partly autobiographical, given that Plum studied at Oxford in the late ’80s herself. “I think all books are in some way autobiographical,” she says. “I just don’t see how you can write a book – a whole book and not pull in things directly from your life! Writers who say they don’t are lying.”

In Mumbai to promote her book, we’re holed up in her hotel room because she has to watch over her 11-year-old daughter Ursula. The main character in her book is called Ursula Flowerbutton – just a mere coincidence? “It is derived from my daughter’s name,” admits Plum, “coupled with a name I saw on a grave in a churchyard – Dr Samuel Flowerbutton from 1800. And I thought, what a brilliant name! So you just kind of pick up those things.”

Behind celebrity scenes

Plum (whose real name is Victoria, with the nickname being derived from an English plum called Victoria) became famous when Anna Wintour plucked her from British Vogue and dropped her into Manhattan’s social swirl.

“When I first moved to New York (in 1997), I was pretty intimidated by everything and had only been there for two months when Anna invited me to her home for dinner,” she recalls. “The guests included Tina Brown and her husband Harold Evans, Isabella Rossellini and whoever her husband is. Wait – I’m not sure if it was her husband. Anyway. Anna asked me to lead the way for dinner and I put one foot forward and slipped and tumbled down the flight of steps. When I looked up, I could see everyone’s faces filled with horror, wondering if I had broken my neck. And in front of me was my Prada shoe with the broken heel. Anna’s husband David actually taped the heel back so I could walk around the rest of the evening. Later Anna was like ‘why do you wear that rubbish’ – because she always only wears Manolos,” says Plum with a hush.

“I met Trump a couple of times. He was quite funny, actually — of course at the time he wasn’t going to be President”

Was she ever intimidated working with ‘Nuclear Wintour’ (as the press has dubbed her)? “She is quite intimidating. She’s a very fair boss and a great manager of people, which is why she is the greatest editor in the world. But I think a lot of her skill comes from being enigmatic as a person and being clear as a boss – from that dichotomy,” says Plum, who’s still a writer with the magazine. “After 20 years of working for her, I still don’t know what she thinks about anything!” she laughs, admitting that most of what was in The Devil Wears Prada was “completely true”. “Everyone thought the character of (her assistant) Emily was based on me, but I was never Anna’s assistant,” she insists curtly.

She’s partied with the rich and famous of New York, including two of the most notorious men of our time – Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein. “I met Trump a couple of times. He was quite funny, actually – of course at the time he wasn’t going to be President.”

As for Weinstein, she was one of the lucky few left unscathed in her encounter with the business mogul. “He was the publisher of my first two books. To me, he was very charismatic, but it was a business relationship. What can I say – I was a 34-year-old journalist, I wasn’t a 21-year-old actress in a hotel room! I only ever met him in his office with my agent and my editor...” She pauses. “I don’t think anyone really knew the extent of what was going on. I didn’t, at least. I think it’s awful. I’m just really glad I never wanted to be an actress,” she says drily.

Whilst both men share a similar vein of belligerence, arrogance and abusive behaviour, Plum adds, “The one thing about both these men is that they will always remember your name no matter after how long they meet you. That’s what made them so good at their job as social networkers.”

From HT Brunch, January 28, 2018

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First Published: Jan 27, 2018 22:02 IST