17 OCTOBER 1998, Page 18


Toby Young on what suddenly made two unknown Britons known to all Manhattan New York WITHIN the small, close-knit group of British expats living here, something approximating a seismic event occurred recently. The New York Times Sunday `Style' section devoted a large portion of its front page to an article about Lucy and Plum Sykes, 28-year-old British twins who work for fashion magazines over here. It would not be an exaggeration to say that they woke up the following morning to find themselves famous.

To understand how this happened, it's necessary to grasp the power of the New York Times. The press in general enjoys much more prestige in America than it does in Britain, and the New York Times, by some margin, has the most prestige of all. 'When you tell people you're a reporter for the Times,' says David Mar- golick, a journalist who covered the O.J. Simpson trial for the paper, 'they really snap to attention.'

The enormous respect commanded by the New York Times in the American media sometimes makes it difficult for the paper accurately to report a news event, since how it covers a story can itself become part of the story. For instance, if the New York Times decided not to report the latest developments in the continuing Clinton sex scandal on its front page, and instead relegated them to page 19, that fact, by itself, would be treated as a news story by the rest of the media. It's the jour- nalistic equivalent of Heisenberg's uncer- tainty principle.

The essence of the article about Lucy and Plum was summed up in the sub- heading, 'The Sykes twins are the latest British export to bedazzle the city social scene.' Now I know Lucy and Plum quite well and this is a slight exaggeration, to say the least. I have dinner with Lucy about once a week, and, though she certainly bedazzles me, I am about as far from the city's social scene as it's possible to get.

But, because the New York Times has reported that they have the whole of Man- hattan at their feet, they now effectively do have the city at their feet. It may not have been strictly true but, by reporting it, the New York Times has made it so. Since the article appeared, Lucy has been deluged with offers. 'The phone hasn't stopped ringing,' she told me from her hotel room in Milan last week, where she was attend- ing the fashion shows. 'I've never had so many invitations. It's a bit scary, actually.' She and Plum have even been contacted by someone describing himself as a `celebrity travel agent' who has offered them free, unlimited, first-class travel.

Needless to say, the British press hasn't been slow to follow up the story. A few days after the New York Times articles appeared, the Daily Telegraph ran a piece headlined 'Twins twinkle in Manhattan'. I was contacted by journalists from the Evening Standard and the Daily Mail, both wanting to know, in the words of the Mail reporter, 'how two girls from Kent man- aged to conquer Manhattan'. It's a heart- warming tale of two plucky English gals clambering to the summit of New York society and planting a British flag. Sudden- ly, Lucy and Plum have been transformed into the equivalent of those two British editors here, Liz Tilberis and Tina Brown.

It's fascinating to watch two people you know being turned into celebrities overnight. It's as though the giant lottery finger has come out of the sky and singled them out. One minute they're sitting oppo- site you in an inexpensive bistro gossiping about your friends, the next they're hiding behind dark glasses in the Concorde depar- ture lounge. The sheer arbitrariness of it all makes it seem rather comic, like something out of an Evelyn Waugh novel.

Not that it's altogether surprising. In addition to being twins working in the same prominent job, Lucy and Plum are both gorgeous and about as posh as they come. In New York, where even the homeless regularly have celebrity status thrust upon them, this is more than enough to guaran- tee fame. If Andy Warhol was still alive, he'd have immortalised them in a series of silk-screen prints by now. They were It girls waiting to happen.

Not everyone is rejoicing in their success. I have to confess to feeling a twinge of jeal- ousy myself, (free, unlimited, first-class air travel!). I can only imagine how other, less celebrated American women working for Manhattan fashion magazines feel. In the original article, the New York Times reporter managed to extract a fairly chippy comment from Sally Singer, fashion editor of New York magazine. 'I look at the Sykes sisters,' she said, 'and I think, OK, my ancestors were born to work in the fields, and theirs were born to walk into parties.' If their colleagues are making that kind of remark on the record, I'd hate to think what they're saying about them behind their backs.

An additional danger of this kind of exposure is that Lucy and Plum will become famous for .15 minutes and then vanish without trace. The New York Times reporter also interviewed Sarah Giles, an Englishwoman who came over to New York with Tina Brown to work on Vanity Fair in the early Eighties and who, for a time, was linked with the property tycoon Mort Zuckerman. 'As long as you have a great job, you can have a lovely time,' she said. 'But if you happen not to be doing so well, you get a different view.'

From my own selfish point of view, the greatest danger is that Lucy will now be so deluged with invitations that she'll have less time to spend with me. She and Plum have been elevated to a status so far above mine that our paths will simply never cross in the normal course of events. I'll glimpse them from behind a police barricade as they emerge from a Lincoln Town Car on their way into a film premiere, surrounded by paparazzi screaming out their names.

A friend of mine has had the unpleasant experience of seeing her oldest friend become an A-list movie actress. She tells me the worst part is not that she now spends less time with her, but that when she does she is automatically regarded as a member of her friend's entourage, some pathetic hanger-on basking in reflected glory. Two weeks ago, my friends and I formed a happy little expat community over here. From now on, I fear, we'll be known as Lucy and Plum's 'posse'.