Taylor Swift: The New Girl
When famously confessional pop star Taylor Swift bought a house in one of the state’s most reserved communities, the neighbors wondered how they might make her feel welcome. Then came the paparazzi.
By Alyssa Giacobbe
Illustration by Jessica HJ. Lee
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She’d read about it in Us Weekly, or on Perez, or somewhere, it didn’t really matter, where the super-zoom photos had shown Swift and her parents touring a pricey waterfront property and shaking hands with local realtors. “I said, ‘That’s baloney,’ ” Adams remembers. “There are always rumors in Westerly — this one’s buying a house, that one’s buying a house — and most turn out to be false.”
This one wasn’t false. The Colonial-style, royal wedding cake of a house at 16 Bluff Avenue had sat empty for years when Swift was first spotted there in April. A few weeks later, the moving trucks rolled in, the pop star reportedly having wired the entire $17.75 million purchase price — a steal at more than $6 million less than its original listing — in one lump sum.
After that, says Adams, the father of two teenage girls, the feeling humming around Westerly could best be described as, well, OMG. “All of my daughters’ friends — everyone — was like ‘can you believe?’ ” he says. For Adams, who owns Westerly screen-printing shop J. Mack Studios, the decision to make T-shirts memorializing the mood was less a decision, really, than an inevitability. He and his graphic designer pulled a photo of Swift off the Internet, “Warhol-ized it,” as he says, and printed up a few dozen Ts with the image and the new neighborhood catchphrase splashed across the bottom: OMG!!! Watch Hill!?!?
“I thought they were just a little fun, creative thing for us to do,” Adams says of the shirts. But not three days after they were hung in the window of Woodees on Broad Street, on sale for $15 each, Adams got the call from Nashville. The T-shirts, said the voice on the other end of the line, violated Swift’s intellectual property; Adams was to please stop selling them, effective immediately. Soon, he found himself starring in online reports chronicling the “brouhaha” he was engaged in with one of the world’s most popular, and profitable, working musicians, stories with provocative, page view-generating titles like “Taylor Swift’s Entourage Terrorizes Rhode Island Over a T-shirt” and “Rhode Island T-shirt Company’s in ‘Trouble, Trouble’ Over Taylor Swift Tee,” the latter employing a play on some of Swift’s song lyrics, which the tabloids love to do.
Adams began fielding four or five interview requests a day, though declined most, especially after he found himself misquoted by celebrity blogger Perez Hilton. In the end, he says, “I don’t think I did anything wrong, but I didn’t want to come across as trying to capitalize on the press attention. That’s not my style. And I actually think it’s pretty cool she’s here, really neat.”
Which has become the drumbeat repeated by most — though certainly not all — Watch Hill residents who have something to say about Taylor Swift, and most do. Everyone loves her, or so they like to say. Local teens tweet excitedly about sightings: “T. Swift is throwing a rager in her new watch hill house tonight” and “Just enjoyed the watch hill fireworks right next to @taylorswift13 house & saw all of her friends running around! I’m basically famous.” Their parents are excited, too. Says Watch Hill realtor Lori Joyal, mom to a fifteen-year-old Swiftie, as fans are called, “We’re all happy that she’s here.”
And why not? By most accounts, local and otherwise, Taylor Swift is a polite twenty-something who loves her parents. Though she did host a big party to celebrate the Fourth of July, one of her “all-time favorite” holidays, she isn’t actually throwing ragers up in that new house of hers and, in fact, she’s not much for vice. (“If it doesn’t taste like candy or sparkles,” she told Esquire, “I usually don’t drink it.”) She does, however, eat pizza with her girlfriends. And though she makes lots of money (a reported $57 million last year alone), she shops at Marshalls, just like us! As Joyal says, “She’s a nice girl and a nice role model. She’s got a mother and father with her and seems to have all the right foundations that we like to have for our kids.”
But nice might not matter, and if Watch Hill has reason to worry about their new high profile resident it’s likely not because she doesn’t say please and thank you. It’s because she’s a celebrity, and a big one, and big celebrities come with certain inevitable accoutrements. In Swift’s case, these have included — in rumor and in reality, and one is no less meaningful than the other when it comes to small-town drama — movie star friends, an armed security force, helicopter patrol, neighborhood kids moonlighting as paparazzi, the Hollywood gossip factory and more press than Watch Hill has seen, like, ever. In fact, most famous people are perfectly pleasant in “real life,” especially when they’re new in town, and maybe especially so when their popularity depends on record sales. It’s the rest of us who make the trouble.
The Westerly village of Watch Hill was first developed in the late nineteenth century as a summer resort, a simpler alternative to glittery, gilded Newport, and for the centuries since it has stayed that way. There are about 500 taxpaying properties in this part of town, which unscientifically translates into “not more than fifty to seventy people in the winter and a few thousand in the summer,” according to one local. Most families have been there for generations and everyone knows everyone else, especially in the off-season. It embodies an exclusive quaintness few corners of Rhode Island can still claim.
“Watch Hill has remained a remarkable, very special community, even with a whole lot of changes around it,” says Chaplin Barnes, a Westerly resident for more than sixty years who wrote the book, quite literally, on the place, called Watch Hill Through Time: The Evolution of a New England Shore Community. As executive director of the Watch Hill Conservancy and a member of various other local boards, it’s his business to know who moves in and what their plans are, generally speaking. While there’s no town ordinance preventing owners of historic houses — and most homes here are historic, including Swift’s — from doing whatever they like to their property, Barnes notes that the majority of new residents in Watch Hill take great care to follow historic guidelines, often referring to the Conservancy, and his book, to do so. He looks forward to meeting Swift.
Swift bought the Bluff Avenue house largely furnished, and her biggest alteration so far seems to have been the exterior addition of a giant American flag. That and the small white sign at the top of the driveway, beneath which fans leave letters and gifts, that calls on a line from one of her recent chart-toppers to ward off would-be intruders: “I Knew You Were Trouble When You Walked In,” it reads, and then, “NO TRESPASSING.” The sign is not an overreaction or an attempt to be characteristically cute, though it is that, too: Police have responded to several complaints of fans, and others, scaling the walls or sprinting past the guards to get a piece of Swift’s lawn or a glimpse of the star herself. The first came in May, when a twenty-two-year-old Chicago man was arrested for walking her private grounds. Afterwards, Westerly Police received “1,000 calls in the span of an hour” from local and national media looking for comment on the “obsessed superfan” who’d swum a mile in freezing cold waters to reach Swift’s house, most of which was not true though printed in whole or part anyway. “We weren’t expecting that,” says Chief of Police Ed St. Clair, who used to answer his own phone. These days, he lets most calls go to voicemail first.
If Watch Hill, which boasts no nightlife, only a handful of restaurants that stay open past 10 p.m. and a resident ratio that favors retirees, seems an odd choice for a twenty-two-year-old megastar so, too, does the house, and at first people wondered if it was simply an investment, a place to stash many millions of excess dollars, at least for a little while. In recent years, Swift, whose romantic relationships often inspire her lyrics (“…Trouble…” was reportedly an ode to floppy-haired UK boy bander ex Harry Styles), has developed a reputation for letting her love life dictate her purchase, and sale, of pricey real estate. “People say that about me, that I apparently buy houses near every boy I like — that’s a thing that I apparently do,” she told Vanity Fair in April. “If I like you I will apparently buy up the real estate market just to freak you out so you leave me.” That said, last summer, while dating Conor Kennedy, Ethel’s seventeen-year-old grandson, she did buy a $4.8 million compound in Hyannis Port. After she and Kennedy broke up, she sold the house, less than a year after she’d bought it, for nearly $1 million more than she’d paid.