"I don't know if Tinsley Mortimer's hair really has tiny blond roots in the middle. That's what I've heard. Is that true? I've seen the pictures . . . but I don't know."
Last May James Kurisunkal, wrapping up his freshman year at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was trying to explain his unlikely status as the unofficial online chronicler of New York social life. He'd never met Tinsley Mortimer or her socialite friends, he'd never been to a charity party, and he was a long way from being socialite material--a Chicago kid from North Side Prep, the son of Indian immigrants who worked as a library clerk and a nurse. He'd never even set foot in New York. But on Manhattan's Upper East Side he was starting to be noticed.
Last week he was noticed in the New York Times, beaming from a two-column photo as Tinsley Mortimer herself planted a kiss on his cheek at a New York screening of Steve Buscemi's Interview.
What took Kuriskunal from Urbana to Manhattan--from speculating about Tinsley Mortimer to actual lip-to-cheek contact--was Park Avenue Peerage, a blog where he collects party pictures and recounts the comings and goings of that insular social set who get themselves photographed at New York parties in fancy dresses. He started writing it last March, but his interest in the rich and important goes back a lot farther than that.
"When I was younger I used to really love reading about kings and queens and castles, and, like, I am very schooled in European royalty. I can give you like Prince William's ancestry until the 1400s. I really can. I can write down the British order of succession in less than a minute for you for like the first 30 names. That's how much I love it. That's how much I know about it. And I felt socialites were the closest thing to an American royalty, to an American peerage."
When he started his blog, the reigning New York party-pic site was Socialite Rank, which every two weeks reduced the scene to a numbered list of socialites called the Social Elite Power Ranking. It was bitchy, it was gossipy, it played favorites, and it attracted thousands of readers. And it was anonymous; no one knew for sure who was behind it.
Socialite Rank went dark in April, amid a flurry of rumors and the threat of legal action pertaining to an e-mail that may or may not have been written by socialite Olivia Palermo. The identity of the bloggers was subsequently revealed in a New York magazine article by Isaiah Wilner, who also revealed the identity, and proclaimed the ascension, of the previously mysterious blogger who wrote Park Avenue Peerage.
New Yorkers couldn't quite believe it. How could a freshman from the Univeristy of Illinois become the most important online chronicler of the Big Apple's socialite set? Some suspected that Kurisunkal was a puppet blogger, paid off to front for an insider. "People still don't believe me," he told me in May. "People in New York think I'm some public relations poster that's trying to throw people off." I wasn't too sure about him myself. When I first asked him about the mechanics of it--how he obtained the pictures, how he knew who was where when he wasn't there himself--he was coy. But a few weeks later he was more forthcoming.
"I think that many people in New York just find it unbelievable that someone outside of their culture bubble can report on their workings," he said. "They think that you have to be there, that you have to be in New York, that you have to go to events, that you have to know these people intimately to write about them, but that's not true." So how did he know who went where? How did he get the pictures? "I don't have like incredible Holy Grail secret information. It's out there, I can just say that. The stuff I write about is things that people can find if they really want to, if they have the intent." And then: "If you are being written about, if someone is printing a niche Web site that's mostly about you and your friends, of course you are going to contact that person. How could you not? So that's how I began making contacts. With photographs, I didn't receive them for a long time. If you look at the photographs, most of them are from wireimage.com, which I use primarily because I could access that, and style.com. Those are the only two picture sources I had for a very, very long time, and I still use those two. There was no one giving me pictures until much later."
(Just to see, I tried to replicate a few items from the early days of PAP. I was able to track down the photographs and pick up the necessary gossip from places like Page Six online.)
Between our first and second conversation a lot had happened in Kurisunkal's life. First and foremost, he'd scored a summer internship at New York magazine. "To be on Park Avenue, I mean, that was just so surreal for me," he gushed. "I even walked to 68th and Park"--that's how he signs his blog items--"and I was like, 'Wow, this is what I write about, this is my user name on the Web site.' I thought it was adorable."
Last week's New York Times piece, by Eric Konigsberg, profiled Kurisunkal as he finished the internship and prepared to return to Urbana. In it, Kurisunkal again called the experience "surreal" but confessed that he went to only four parties (promotional events, really) and spent his weekends volunteering in a soup kitchen. After he arrived back in Illinois, I tried to get him to talk about his summer in more detail, but he politely declined. "Sorry," he said. "I just want to focus on my studies now."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): James Kurisunal with New York socialite Tinsley Mortimer.