True Prep Interview with Preppy Handbook Author Lisa Birnbach

Author Lisa Birnbach talks about The Official Preppy Handbook's updated companion, True Prep, which just came out on paperback last week.

Lisa Birnbach, author of the popular 1980’s prepster manual The Official Preppy Handbook (used copies sell for $249 on Amazon.com) is celebrating the paperback release of its updated companion True Prep ($12.95). She visited Providence last week for an appearance and reading at the Brown Bookstore. I sat down with the Brown University graduate to find out about the new book and what it means to be a true prep in today’s society, especially with the universal popularity of reality television and “thingies” (smartphones, iPads, iPods, etc.). What’s a polite preppy to do?

How did the new book come about?

It all started when I friended Chip Kidd on Facebook. He’s a very well known cover designer at Knopf (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group). I didn’t understand the etiquette of Facebook, and I thought I was being presumptuous by asking him to be my friend. It was quite embarrassing. But he accepted right away, and then he messaged me, and said, “Is this really you?” It turns out he was a big fan of the Preppy Handbook, and we made plans for lunch. We had a nice long three-hour lunch in April or May of 2009, and we talked about doing an update of the book. The idea had been brought up before, but I had never wanted to do it, because I thought it was better to leave well enough alone. I didn’t want to jinx it. But then I started to realize how many changes have taken place since the eighties; cell phones, social media, reality television, texting at the dinner table, schools going coed, divorce, rehab. It really was time. There were so many reasons. And with the economy, I thought, if the book can make people smile a little bit, then I’ll do it. 

Do you have a favorite section of the new book?

I like the “Uh-oh” series about mummy getting ideas. One of the new realities of the 21st Century preppy is the fact that—uh-oh—mummy thinks she’s going to have a career. Now some women, of course, have had major careers and had careers right after college or graduate school, unlike their mothers. This is a section about the stay-at-home mother who did not have the financial impetus to work and decides one day—when maybe her kids don’t need her as much or maybe her husband doesn’t need her as much—that she’s going to work. The section is narrated by her teenage kid, and it’s like, “Uh-oh. Mummy is a decorator.” I had a friend pose for all four of the pictures, and she does have a teenage daughter in my daughter’s class at school. My friend was very spirited about it. In the first picture, mummy is all decked out and wearing the best accessories, but she is really impatient. She hasn’t figured out that she’s in the service industry and she is the one who is serving. She’s kind of irritated that she can’t get the fabric when she wants, that her friend for whom she’s redoing the mudroom is indecisive, and it’s too much hassle for her. So the next thing we know, we thought mummy was a decorator. She got her card printed, she got the discount, and she was so excited. There are swatches all over the house, but now mummy’s taking her real estate exam and she’s going to be a real estate broker. Poor mummy, she just doesn’t know what to do with herself.

It seems like there is a lot of interest in your books from a whole new generation. I noticed a lot of high school students are writing to you for preppy advice on your Tumblr page and on Twitter (@LisaBirnbach). What do you think about that?

There are a lot of high school kids. I’m glad because I was more confident that the people who were around when I wrote the first book would naturally gravitate toward True Prep, but I didn’t know whether kids would love it, and they seem to love it. For one thing, they grew up with fewer rules than we did. And I think people essentially want rules. There were a lot more guidelines when I grew up. None of us grew up wearing shorts on an airplane; none of us grew up wearing flip flops to work. Men did not wear khakis without a sport coat to work. And everybody’s sort of making their own way the way they want, but I think everybody would like someone to say, “You know, you’d be a lot more successful in your life if you wore a tie.” And “You’d be a lot more successful if your tie wasn’t a handpainted model with an anchor covering her strategically.” I think people do want some structure. And I think people know I am telling them with good humor and a sense of play.

What’s your definition of a perfect preppy day in Rhode Island?

For me, it would be like the day I had in Newport today, except for the weather [It was pouring buckets]. But for the true preppie, it would go something like this: Wake up late. Take the dog, Cornelius “Corky,” for a long walk, but tie him up on Wickenden Street and get a cup of coffee over there and have a bohemian morning of reading the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. Then go back home, change for the run or for the pilates class, and drop off Corky. After that, it would be time to stop off at work, where you would be an antiques dealer or a decorator, or maybe if you’re very ambitious, an architect or a historic renovations person. Check in at the office. Do a few things there. Move around the papers on your desk, and then go meet a couple of friends for lunch. Don’t be responsible for ordering wine at lunch, but if one of your friends suggests it, go along with it. Have a fun lunch, go back to work, and then leave early to go to a cocktail party with friends.

What are some of the most socially obnoxious things that preppy wannabes do?

The biggest misconception about preppies—and I think the so-called preppy wannabes are very much to blame—is snobbery. Preppies are not snobs. Snobbery is in bad taste and it’s embarrassing, but embarrassment is something else that’s gone the way of quill pens and patience. Even John Hughes, who made all those movies, Pretty in Pink and Sixteen Candles, misunderstood. He lived in suburban Chicago in some pretty preppy communities. If you are a snob to people, it really shows how hard you are trying to be perceived as somebody from a good background. Most people from nice homes have been so well imbued in good manners, and at least pretending to be warm, that preppies should not be accused of being snobby. That’s a really bad thing. And it’s not about being fancy. I think most people misunderstand and think a big bag with a huge logo is preppy. No. It’s the exact opposite. You really want to be low key. If you have a lot of money, you don’t drive the world’s fanciest car. You don’t put your name on buildings. You give money philanthropically anonymously or through a foundation. Being discreet is a big thing. You don’t say, “My Porsche is in the garage.” You say, “My car is in the garage.” You don’t say, “I got water on my Gucci shoes.” You say, “My shoes got wet.” It’s about good taste. “Gossip Girl” is not the real thing. The Hamptons are getting less and less preppy by the year. Some of them have become little outposts for “The Real Housewives.” Very slick, very shiny, very new money; new breasts, new lips, new Louboutins. That’s not preppy. Preppy is your old faded shorts, and your old sandals or loafers that you can never get the sand out of them.

What do you think about those “Real Housewives?”

They are despicable. I keep wondering how they can watch themselves. I don’t mean any in particular, I mean all of them. I haven’t seen them all, but how can these people have seen another version of it and not realize they were going to look bad, too? They are edited for ultimate catfight drama. Reality TV has ruined the world. The shows are hypnotic. The irony to me is reality. You watch a show like “The Bachelor” or “The Bachelorette,” and in no other circumstance are you competing against thirty other people to have sex with a stranger you don’t know and do it on camera. In no other reality are you drinking champagne in a bikini in a hot tub with cameras. It’s the opposite of reality. And “The Real Housewives;” do you know any grown women who fight like that? I’ve never heard of such a thing. And then do it with a microphone strapped to their thong? It’s preposterous and it’s ugly.

Who is the perfect prep in today’s media, or movies or television?

Gwyneth Paltrow has the cred. She didn’t go to college though. That’s a little bothersome. She went straight into acting, but for some of the preppy roles she has played, she didn’t need any skills. She had already had an archery instructor, a music instructor, a dancing instructor and her accent. She fits the mold. Except most preppy women do not have facial treatments every day and work out obsessively like that. It’s more preppy to take it easy. She’s a bit of an overachiever. She needs to drink more, I think.

Three necessary articles of clothing to be a True Prep?

A blazer. I often say a blue blazer, but it doesn’t have to be blue. It can be tweed. It could be corduroy. It can have patches on the elbows. A blazer pulls it all together. You can go almost anywhere if you have one. And places like Newport, which is rarefied but wonderful, there are dress codes, of course. Not always, but sometimes.

A pair of loafers. Uggs are not preppy. I know a lot of people who don’t wear socks all year. In Rhode Island you have to wear socks, but you’d be amazed how many people out there –it’s like a religion to them—they never wear socks.

The button-down shirt. And the button-down refers to the collar, not the buttons down the front. A lot of people don’t know that. A lot of people think a button down is any shirt that buttons. A button-down has a shirt collar that buttons down. Because sometimes collars get really wild and you can’t tame them. They bother you. They could bother me. Or if they’re ironed funny, they could get big, and Robert-Goulet-like. You are only really secure if your shirt’s collar can be reigned in.

What’s the most ridiculous pair of pants you’ve seen, in terms of print?

There’s this store… Actually there’s a branch in Newport, called J. McLaughlin. For men, they do wide whale corduroys with all manner of beast and foul. Also Vineyard Vines did a Santa Claus khaki. It was a dog with a Santa Claus hat. It was so many things at once. I am not sure if it was sincere or ironic?

Now a question for my single, preppy lady friends. Where is the best place for a single preppy female to meet her future preppy husband?

A party where she knows a lot of people, and where her friends can set her up. You have to depend on your married friends I think. You have to have them introduce you to someone at the club or at a museum fundraising event, because those are preppier than fundraisers for diseases.

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