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Kelly Killoren Bensimon was a multi-hyphenate long before James Franco helped make the term a millennial buzzword. She’s been a model, magazine editor, jewelry designer, television personality and author; now add novelist to her long list of accomplishments. Bensimon’s first fiction work, A Dangerous Age (Gallery Books), debuts this June — just in time to become a must-read at chic watering holes from the East End to St. Tropez. Here, we catch up with the author, likely the chicest novelist in America, to talk about the book, her new jewelry line, and why she loves the Hamptons, where she has been a mainstay for most of her adult life.
After so many successful lifestyle books, like American Fashion and In the Spirit of the Hamptons, why the move to fiction?
I’ve been writing all my life and have been working on this novel since I was at Columbia [where one of her teaching assistants was George Stephanopolous]. After being on Housewives [The Real Housewives of New York] and having this huge platform, my agent said, ‘Why don’t you write a novel about your real life? You have an insider’s take on publishing, modeling, fashion and art — worlds that are so interesting to a lot of people.’ And I have an unusual perspective on all of them.
Your previous books were visually driven. Was it challenging for you to work with text only?
In A Dangerous Age I like to say each page is decorated with content. The pages are packed with visual descriptions. People want to know where I’ve been, where the characters have been, what they’ve been doing, wearing, eating and saying. Many of the conversations in the book are ones I have actually heard — and I wrote them down.
Your novel has been described as a comedy of manners. It’s about four very contemporary women who have reached considerable success in different fields but are now facing major crises in midlife. Why this story arc?
My writing professor always said, ‘Write about your real life, about what you know.’ I chose Lucy, Sarah, Billy and Lotta—not because they’re women from my different friend groups, but because they represent different aspects of my own personality. One is the wild girl I wish I could have been, but couldn’t because I had a lot of responsibility at a young age. The uptown girl represents a phase when I was married and was more social; the model, the person I was before I married; the foodie, Billy—well, I have always been obsessed with food and wanted to show this character’s great quest for knowledge and to be the best version of herself. The writer is me.
Who is the character you feel closest to — the narrator, Lucy Brockton?
Not necessarily. It depends. She is similar to me in that she’s an ex-model; I’m an ex-model. She’s a writer; I’m a writer. I was married to someone artistic; she’s married to one of the most famous artists in the world, but she’s exposed to an environment that very few people are privy to.
While the average reader may find the worlds you write about fascinating, do you think they can relate to your characters, who in one way or another are privileged, either in terms of opportunity or physical appearance? Or will they think, ‘Sure, it’s easy for someone like Kelly Bensimon to thrive in these different social sectors?’
People don’t understand I worked very hard to get where I am. I wasn’t born with a silver spoon. My parents were educated and afforded me the luxury of education, but it wasn’t that I could just do what I wanted to do. I am very proud of who I am and what I have achieved and what the future holds, just like Lucy.
Although you started writing some of this novel when you were at Columbia, how long did it take to get it into final form?
A good novel takes a while. It took me more than a year to write.
How do you think you’ll stand out as a first-time novelist?
The novel is very voyeuristic and incredibly inner circle. It’s packed with information and decorated with fashion and style, with things that are very current.
Could you please comment on some lines and points from the book regarding the scene in New York City:
“New is everything.”
Look at all the attention that something like the Met Breuer recently got. That’s exactly what I’m talking about.
“To be a socialite is one of the most cutthroat things in Manhattan.”
Most of the women we think of as socialites today, the city’s most philanthropic women, are incredibly hard working, very well educated, and often entrepreneurs. You think of someone like Aerin Lauder. To be prominent socially in Manhattan now, you can’t just represent a standard of elevated living, the way CZ Guest and Nan Kemper once did.
“Isn’t all love unrequited? You never get it back from the person you’ve given it to?”
But isn’t that the beauty of it? To try to love? Is it always about loving and expecting the same love back? It wouldn’t be love; it would be something else.
“Is it possible to want what we already have?”
Sometimes people don’t see what they have.
“How can any two people [in a relationship] hope to pull it off?”
The entire book is about a quest for love, pure love, unrequited love, how people love, how people fall in and out of love. What [relationship therapist] Esther Perel discussed in her TED talks was a big influence.
“Should your desire be an eternal pursuit?”
Desire feeds the soul. It’s the ultimate quest.
“Can you be happy with what you have?”
I think life is diminished without a goal. A lot of type A personalities gravitate to New York—they are constantly wanting more because more is more; that feeds them. But I think this [dynamic] is one of the reasons I have been able to reinvent myself. Contemporary society has allowed me to do that. The more I’m curious about, the more people are curious about [me], and the novel deals with that.
You have another big launch this year, a new jewelry line for HSN, Kelly Killoren by Kelly Killoren Bensimon, which will have a lower price point than your other collections. Why did you decide to go in this direction?
When HSN approached me about a lesser-priced line, I jumped at it. It’s such an honor to be part of that. I’ve been working with accessories for the better part of my career and loved seeing the best of the best while I was editor of Elle Accessories. When I traveled around the country, I couldn’t understand why people didn’t have the same access to the incredible accessories I was constantly feeding them at the magazine. They weren’t available. So this is an exciting opportunity to bring my sense of style to the HSN customer.
The new line is described as being all about travel. How so?
It’s a destination vacation line influenced by my travels. I spent two weeks on [the Italian island of] Panarea and worked with an amazing jewelry designer there. He taught me to be playful with what I’m doing, not to be afraid to mix metals, like silver and brass, as well as high-end gems. He inspired me to mix it up. While I have been designing necklaces since I was a model, it was in Panarea that I started adding medallions to my pieces. And people really responded.
Since this is our Hamptons issue, let’s talk about the East End. How long have you been going there?
Since I was 16. The first town I visited was East Hampton.
What are your plans for this summer?
To spend a lot of time with my kids out there. We’ll be eating tons of ice cream and fried chicken and stopping by Surf Lodge with my amazing friends. I also plan to ride as much as possible at Sea Aire with trainer, Laura Bowery. I’ll be riding in the Hampton Classic again.
Do you have a favorite Hampton?
No, but I have favorite parts of different Hamptons. For riding, it’s Bridgehampton; for food, East Hampton; for fun, social events and beautiful homes, Southampton.
It’s hard to say. Each is unique, with a different group of people. It depends on what I’m up for. I love Flying Point and Georgica. Ditch Plains is also one of my favorites.
What’s an ideal day like for you in the Hamptons?
It would be to wake up at my best friend’s house in East Hampton and go riding. Then we’d walk around in riding clothes and stop and get a green juice in Bridgehampton or a coffee at the Golden Pear. After that, I’d go antiquing. I love to decorate my home and am always looking for unusual furniture and rugs. I love Sage Street Antiques in Sag Harbor. I also keep an eye out for medallions, for jewelry with unusual shapes. I love things that are imperfect, that have flaws. Everything has a story. Just because it’s not perfect doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an amazing story. It usually does. Then I’d put on a bathing suit and have lunch, perhaps at the Maidstone Club where they have great lobster salad rolls. After that, I’d head to Georgica Beach with my kids or to Ditch Plains to watch the surfers, maybe surf with my daughter or paddle around in the ocean. Then we’d go to the Big House Beach, Clam Bar or Surf Lodge.
Do you do the party scene in the Hamptons?
I’m not a big out-to-dinner, late-night kind of person. I’m into daytime activities. I typically ride very early. I prefer to eat at my friends’ houses during the summer, but when I do go out, I like Nick and Toni’s. They have the best fish.
Why do you think the Hamptons have retained their mystique, despite the huge influx of people each summer?
The beach culture that is still raw and authentic!
A Dangerous Age comes out June 7. Killoren Bensimon will be signing books at Rizzoli in New York on June 7 and BookHampton in East Hampton on June 11.