Desperate Housewives: The Reinvention of the Main Line Mom

Interior designer? Closet organizer? Publicist? Party planner? The truth about Philly's new career women

“People think they can just jump into it. They think, ‘I know a lot of people. I’ve been on Philebrity. I’m friends with newscasters. I’d love to be able to call and get a table at Amada whenever I want one. I could do that,’” says one local publicist who’s suffered through this drama. “Then they call me and say, ‘What do I do?’ This happens all the time. It’s so frustrating. Because I’ve worked really, really hard to get where I am.”

At least those poseurs call for advice. “There are two different personality traits at work here,” notes another legit pro. “The bravado that prevents them from calling real experts for help, and the bravado that got them into the jam in the first place,” because they didn’t have any experience/plan/skill in their “new profession” from the start.

The result can be a minor jam, like the Main Line woman who, in the course of three years, transformed herself into a real estate agent, then started a clothing line, then ended up as a personal trainer … with only one client. That was because she refused to train anyone in the morning. She just didn’t want to work out at—gasp—7 a.m.

The jams get a little tackier, though, when you accept actual money from actual clients who actually believe you are what you say you are. Take, for example, the Cherry Hill fashionista who decided she’d be a “stylist.” Her first client was a woman she wooed on the playground. They scheduled a shopping day, with the client paying a set fee. At one store, however, the “stylist” got a fitting room of her own and began to play dress-up for herself. At the end of the day, guess who had the most bags? “I have girlfriends to shop with,” the client later complained to pals. “I don’t have to pay them.”

But there’s no stickier, staler, ranker jam than one that involves not hundreds of actual dollars, but thousands.

One “personal organizer” came so highly recommended by the friends of a Bryn Mawr mom that she had no hesitation about hiring the woman to organize her closet. Previously, the “organizer” had dabbled in decorating after friends saw her house and begged her to help with theirs; she’d now branched out. The estimate for whipping the Bryn Mawr local’s messy closet into shape? A cool $2,500. There was just one teensy problem: “She had no idea what she was doing,” the client says. “She actually got overwhelmed measuring things out at Ikea. She screwed up so badly.”

Except, it seems, when it came to sending invoices. One for an additional $1,000. Then another for $1,500. When the client didn’t pay immediately, the bills were re-sent, this time threateningly stamped IN ARREARS. In the end, the Bryn Mawr mom owed a staggering $7,000—for a closet she hated. Painted in oh-so-neutral Wilmington Tan. (The “client” has since discovered that Bryn Mawr is filled with rooms painted Wilmington Tan, all done over by you-know-who.)

“We were social friends,” the client says. “I had to pay her. I had to.”

“THIS WHOLE THING is flat-out dangerous,” says True Prep’s Birnbach. “You’re spending your friends’ money. It could get ugly. It could lead to The War of the Roses at Agnes Irwin.”

But she gets it. They all do. When relevancy is on the line, it’s impossible not to compete. To be thinner. To marry the better guy. To have smarter kids. To get the new Fendi bag. To have an identity of your own.

“Some of them really don’t want to be doing what they’re doing,” says one local professional in a popular DIY field. “They just want to be famous, on TV, in a style magazine, all as a validation of their good taste and their beauty.”

Validation is one thing. Exploitation is another. “You can put on a new hat and call yourself whatever you want,” says Seidman. “But are you responsible for your mistakes?”

In the end, the responsible party has to be the friend who’s writing the check. But it can be very hard separating the stylist from the style-lost. How do you know if the “organizer” handing out cards at book club even owns a tape measure? Or if the “decorator” at Pure Barre class is just in it to get the discount at the Marketplace?

It’s better, then, when choosing friends, to stay on the safe side of the Reinvention.

The safest?

The “novelist.”

We’ve all met her. She tells people she’s working on a book. She’s been “working on it” for a long time, without writing a single word. She can then decide not to continue writing it because (a) someone else just published “exactly” what she was writing; or (b) she just came up with an even better idea, which she can now start over with and “work on” for a long, long time. As a result, she doesn’t need to put out one friend, or ever actually prove that she’s doing what she saysa she’s been doing. And not one pal needs to open her Gucci checkbook, so no one gets hurt. It’s just the “novelist,” and the nods and indulgent smiles she gets, often accompanied by the knowing “Good for you.”

I’m that person,” says former high-powered PR gal Beth Dunn, now a mother of two in sleepy Mays Landing. “I never even took a writing class, but I decided I’d write a book.” But Dunn actually did write the book, Social Climbers, based on her experiences growing up on the Main Line, and self-published it. Last fall, she was getting nips of interest from Hollywood about turning it into a film. So she started a business called Social Climbers LLC, “for tax purposes.” And, of course, she got the requisite business card. And Facebook page.

But Dunn’s a lot more self-aware about her fauxness than most of her peers. “I ‘own’ a business,” she says. “But I spend most of my time at the spa.”