Bright Lights, Big City, Niche Fame

At Lucien, the always crowded art-world-adjacent French restaurant in the East Village, there is a long table right next to the curb that did not exist until Thanksgiving 2021, which is when the publicist Kaitlin Phillips decided that it must.

“It’s Table 0,” she explained one night as she flitted from spot to spot, lap to lap, finishing her friends’ steaks and pouring from a steroidal, Instagram-friendly jeroboam of champagne. “They can never tell me they don’t have a table for me because technically, this table doesn’t even exist.”

Oh, but it does. On a recent Friday it was crowded with a smoking, drinking, carefully curated crowd that included the musician Dev Hynes; David Velasco, the editor in chief of Artforum; the cult comic Lauren Servideo; the artist Sarah Morris; and the doorman from the club Paul’s Casablanca, who looks like a skinnier version of the photographer Mario Sorrenti: same glasses, same hair.

They, along with the other dozen-ish young, attractive, well-dressed aspiring Sevignys, had been invited by Ms. Phillips to discuss her for the benefit of a reporter.

“For whatever reason, she’s becoming, like, the most powerful P.R. person in New York,” said Ryan McNamara, an artist for whom Ms. Phillips has — without being paid — done publicity. “I literally don’t know how this person is becoming that thing but, like, I love her. I always used to tell her, ‘No one told you New York has died!’ She acted like it was still ‘Bright Lights, Big City’!”

Ms. Phillips, 32, is a publicist who started as a writer, and who still sometimes works as a writer, but writer is maybe overstating matters: Her work mostly consisted of her private Twitter feed (@yoloethics), party reporting for Artforum and a sex diary for n+1.

Over the past two years, though, her knack for attention gathering, and her determination to create the kind of off-kilter, exclusive, cooler-than-everything-else scene that has defined earlier moments in Manhattan — but this time with herself at its center — has eclipsed everything else.

As Mr. McNamara put it, she models “a very particular kind of New York glamour: the girl from Montana who comes here and somehow is wearing a $3,000 dress and all she has to her name is this roll of quarters.”

“We all want that New York,” he said.

No ‘Safe Press’ for Her

Ms. Phillips has, in the words of her friend and client the podcaster Leon Neyfakh, “a strong drive for self-mythologizing.”

“I think she believes that self-mythologizing is what it’s all about,” he said.

It’s a strong trait for a writer, sure, but as it turns out, it could be an even stronger one for a publicist.

She describes her professional sweet spot as “very niche famous people,” by which she means people who are interesting to her, and to the other people she finds interesting. “People who aren’t necessarily known outside of downtown, but are instrumental to that scene,” is how she describes it. Her clients almost uniformly describe never even considering a publicist other than her.

Ms. Phillips represents particularly cool friends for free. Or not exactly free, because she gets in exchange, sometimes, is stuff— paintings, furniture, meals out — but more commonly, what she gains is the credibility that comes from an association with the galleries and artists and novelists she has decided are hers. Among them: the Dutch painter Jamian Juliano-Villani, who recently opened O’Flaherty’s, a gallery in the East Village.

“She’s pretty scatterbrained,” Ms. Phillips said. “I knew she wouldn’t even take a meeting to discuss doing P.R. for the gallery, so I just started doing it without even speaking to her. I would just call her and be like,Hey, this journalist is going to call you.’” In December, Ms. Juliano-Villani was the subject of a feature in New York magazine. She didn’t particularly like the piece, Ms. Phillips recalled, but it was high-profile.

“So much of press is like, they teach you safe press,” Ms. Phillips said. “I’m incredibly into, like, edging.”

The East Village restaurant Lucien is something of a clubhouse for Ms. Phillips.Credit…Brian Finke for The New York Times

Enough paying clients have sought her out that now Ms. Phillips recently left Cultural Counsel, the arts P.R. agency that hired her when she was down and out, and striking out on her own.

She has worked with the film studio A24, a watch manufacturer, an unspecified number of tech clients Ms. Phillips refused to name (“a profile of me is not how I’d recommend they be contextualized”), a steady stream of podcasters, the independent designer Rachel Comey, bigger names Burberry and Prada.As it turns out, Ms. Phillips also works with Lucien, the restaurant where she asked me to meet her.

She got the Prada job through the artist Carsten Höller, who made the metal slide that serves as an exit from Miuccia Prada’s office in Milan. “We dated for, like, a summer,” she said, “and he brought in some clients. And I probably did some P.R. for him. Anyone I’m dating usually gets quite a bit of P.R. for himself.”

These niche-famous people are the types who are living out the latest chapter in what it means to be in this particular corner of Manhattan at this particular moment and feeling certain, as most people want to feel when they are young and ambitious and freshly arrived, that it is the absolute center of the world: that no one anywhere is cooler, no one anywhere is having as much fun, no one anywhere is as envied as these talented, young and pretty people drinking from an enormous, ridiculous bottle of champagne on the sidewalk, gathering cheerfully under a phalanx of umbrellas when it briefly starts to pour.

‘She’ll Probably Describe Me as Fascist-Adjacent’

Ms. Phillips’s self-promotion doesn’t bother her clients; rather, they benefit by the association. Jennifer Venditti, a casting agent, was put in touch with Ms. Phillips by A24, which was publishing a book about Ms. Venditti’s offbeat casting sensibilities.

“When they said she’s a character, I’d never put that together with a publicist before,” Ms. Venditti said. She was expecting something different: vocal fry, perhaps, an overzealous blow-dry. Black clothing worn so as not to distract from the client, the main event.

Ms. Phillips was something else entirely: tall, pale and willowy with her strawberry blond hair in some trendy haircut (a wolf-cut? a shullet?), and a pair of mousy, normcore librarian glasses.

Her friend Joshua Cohen, the novelist who recently hosted Matthew Gasda’s play “Dimes Square” in his SoHo loft and then won the Pulitzer Prize, said in an email: “I tend to think of her as a hustling Madame de Staël, out working the streets with a BlackBerry, yes a Blackberry, a change of clothes, and the multiple personalities of all the Mitford sisters.”

Presumably he means the witty and literary Nancy, the regal Deborah, the muckraking Jessica, but does this description include Unity — Adolf Hitler’s lover and so committed a Nazi that she demi-lobotomized herself in a suicide attempt when Britain entered World War II?

Ms. Phillips would probably enjoy the implication: She has a Mitford-like appreciation for the power of shock. Ms. Phillips is unshy about using aggressively anti-P.C. language. She tells of advising one of her many friend-clients not to speak to a certain New Yorker writer in order to avoid the “libtard” point of view. (In the run-up to this story, she called a friend whom she shares with this reporter and said, hopefully, “I think she’ll probably describe me as fascist-adjacent.”)

It’s an extremely self-conscious affect, meant to startle the earnest millennials and their neoliberal predecessors who reigned during Ms. Phillips’s first years in New York. Her desire to plant her flag elsewhere radiates off her in waves: She’s proud of her relationship with Purple magazine, for instance, which she says loves to run pictures of her rear end. She brags about how her life turned around when a rich older boyfriend started paying her rent. (She met the now-ex-boyfriend, the art director Chris Habib, when she direct messaged him asking for a copy of a poster he had created for Harmony Korine’s X-rated film “The Brown Bunny” that shows Chloë Sevigny performing fellatio. “I’m sure whatever Kaitlin has said is correct and I have nothing but respect for her,” Mr. Habib wrote in an email. “The New York Times, however, is another story.”)

Ms Phillips also brags about just failing to show up for work for three months straight because she felt like going to Paris. She wasn’t fired; it was, rather, another deliberate act of personal branding.

Lately, a lot of style involves a certain amount of historical cosplay: skater kids in old Air Jordans and North Face puffers, Brooklyn moms feathering their hair above their clogs. Ms. Phillips’s era of choice is turn of the (most recent) century. She has a Rolodex. The largest piece of art in her apartment is a massive photograph of Candace Bushnell. Even the choice of Lucien as home base fits the mood board, with its frisée salads and its lardons and its moules marinières. (The restaurant won a Time Out award for best French bistro in 1999.) Her performance is a layering of irony and references and name-dropping that can grow exhausting to unpack. What is actually happening, and what is a joke about what is happening?

Although a lot of her notoriety comes from Twitter, Ms. Phillips’s feed is only mildly controversial — her biggest scandal was not taking Covid restrictions seriously. She hosted and attended some parties, she sneered at virus restrictions and the people who followed them, particularly people in her media world.

Mostly, though, her (private) Twitter feed is stuff like this: “Something I’ve noticed lately in the sponsored Tracy Anderson Method instagram ads: No one can keep up with her bizarre ever-changing routine. In the background, they’re flailing around, looking up for guidance. Too complicated!! Close crop on the video.”)

It took Ms. Phillips some time to accept my follow request on Twitter, and when I pressed she offered: “Close friends on Instagram is funnier, I’d say,” and then added me there. I checked it every day, and found mostly soft-focus shots of collarbones and skinny limbs emerging from old-looking T-shirts, very few faces, and the production and consumption of lots of summer-in-the-country food, like corn and pies. She also took some very pretty hikes with her infant niece in a carrier.

Ms. Phillips’s talent lies not in the production of genuinely scandalous or even controversial content, but rather in her ability to gain a reputation as someone who might, at any time, really go wild, while actually streaming the same old banal images as everyone else.

“I think she’s one of those New York characters like Arianna Huffington, or Al Sharpton, or Donald Trump, who just realizes the rules that everyone else is playing by are kind of made-up,” said Ben Smith, a former New York Times media columnist and co-founder of the coming news site Semafor.

As much as her reputation as a maven of social media precedes her, Ms. Phillips tends not to promote her clients there, save the odd Instagram story. She prefers to pitch one-off profiles to freelancers and a small roster of legacy media brands: Vogue, Artforum GQ, New York magazine, The Times. (Articles about her clients have appeared in the Styles section, as well as other parts of the paper.)

She likes her boundaries blurry, and when it comes to journalists she fans hard, a trick for which lifestyle journalists have fallen since the birth of the genre.

“Twitter is my work, drinking is my work,” she said. “You meet people on Twitter and then I invite them to my house because if a writer knows you it’s incredibly hard to ignore the emails.”

Part of the mystique Ms. Phillips has created for herself is that she’s having too much fun to actually make use of her many talents.

It was an astute act of editorial matchmaking when an editor at Bookforum sent her a stack of Laurie Colwin books to write about, and an equally astute act of self-branding for Ms. Phillips to explain that although she read them all, she probably wouldn’t bother writing the piece. It feels like no accident that several of her clients describe her with some variation on “so much more hardworking than you’d think!”

From Montana to Manhattan

The biography, as Ms. Phillips tells it, goes like this: childhood in small town Montana, parents are a pastor and judge who had grown up dirt-poor on family farms. Her siblings were star athletes, so Ms. Phillips was accepted socially. Still, she said, “I didn’t like my life before I went to boarding school,” which she did in 2002 after a family moved to town and suggested that Ms. Phillips would be eligible for all sorts of financial aid at the leafy boarding schools of the Northeast.

Off she went to Emma Willard, a mass of fancy Gothic buildings in Troy, N.Y., whose alumnae include Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Jane Fonda and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.

Next came Barnard, where she accrued a lot of student debt but did not finish her degree because of her refusal to satisfy core requirements. According to Ms. Phillips, a big part of why it didn’t matter was that she had already figured out her career: She would be, in the great tradition of clever women making their way in the big city, a writer.

She had already proven shrewd: During summers back in Montana, Ms. Phillips worked at a resort that the poet Mary Karr visited every year. When Ms. Karr called in a reservation, Ms. Phillips moved the writer to her section, and told her she was headed to Barnard. Ms. Karr offered the waitress a job as her assistant. “And then she was like, ‘You have to work at n+1,” Ms. Phillips recalled. “I didn’t have to interview. She just called Keith Gessen,” one of the journal’s co-founders.

Ms. Phillips was now in the literary scene. She wrote some sex diaries for n+1. (A sample passage: “I hate when cabdrivers ask me if I want to take the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s like, ‘No man, I want to kill myself, but on the Triborough.’ Anyway, I get Tindr. I get a match.”)

Kaitlin Phillips at home.Credit…Caroline Tompkins for The New York Times

Her signature style involves unrelated observations strung together, as disaffected as it is disjointed. The depth, this form implies, is in the writer’s ability to see what everyone else has missed. Profundity is hoped for in the empty spaces left by the lack of explanation.

She tried recapping “Girls” for New York magazine, and eventually found her calling as a party reporter. She said her signature technique was recording everything anyone said near her because she typically got so drunk she would never remember what she had heard or seen.

The truth is that Ms. Phillips doesn’t really like writing very much, because it’s an act best performed alone.

“All you do when you’re a writer is you stay home,” she said. “I hated it. And you don’t make any money. I didn’t want to write, I just wanted to hang out with writers.”

In 2017, Mr. Habib suggested that she take a look at her unpaid student loan debt, which was growing from neglect. He made a deal with her: If she would reveal personal vulnerability by saying she needed a job on social media, he would match her loan payments. So she did it.

The person who bit was Adam Abdalla, the founder of Cultural Counsel, which has made a practice of hiring writers and publishes a website about its clients featuring commissioned pieces by people like Sheila Heti. Ms. Phillips seemed like a natural fit. “She was out and about,” Mr. Abdalla said. “She’s generally known, so if she’s making a call, it’s a peer rather than a cold call.” Mr. Abdalla knew what he had: He didn’t put her on big accounts, like museums, say, and he often paired her with a more established account executive. But when it came to getting single stories published in a roster of old-school locations, no one could beat her.

“I think she is self-aware about what she can do and what she doesn’t want to do,” Mr. Abdalla said. “She’s also pretty good at throwing a party. That’s a pretty big part of this job. She can get people to show up.”

“It took me two years to embrace being a publicist,” Ms. Phillips says. “In my mind I was like, ‘I’m going to pay off my student loans and then I’m going to go back to writing.’ I was not invested in my clients. I was not interested in being a publicist, branding as a publicist, letting anyone know I was a publicist. I just knew that they were dumber than writers and then all of the sudden I was that person. And then I realized I was good at it. Like, better than other publicists. And then I realized that if I placed a big story I’d get the same rush I’d get when I’d written something.”

And P.R. didn’t stop her from being the character she had begun to create in n+1: She could still be madcap, screwball, horny. She could still be the girl with the roll of quarters, the main character in the story she’s now getting paid to spin. For Ms. Phillips and her friends, an endless stream of suggestive social media posts is just as good, if not better, as a movie or a play or existence in bound book.

Ms. Phillips aggressively tried to spin this piece, before I had even finished transcribing my notes, even as she insisted to me in an email that she had never, even once, been embarrassed. Several times when I emailed a secondary source — a client, a friend — to set up a short interview, she would post my email on her Instagram feed: a move, I can only imagine, intended to communicate that she was in control.

And then: a flood of articles came out about Dimes Square, the downtown scene she was playing a role in mythologizing. She seemed to lack her usual certitude when it came to how she would like to play her relationship with that scene. She suggested a profile of her would be the nail in the coffin of the whole thing.

“There’s something cringe about me,” she wrote on Twitter, “but there’s even something more cringe about caring about me.”

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