Can you be popular without being beautiful? Can you be happy without being popular?
According to Jazz Johnson (yes, heiress to THOSE Johnsons) and Dirk Wittenborn (her uncle, Emmy-nominated producer and screenwriter) there is truth to both of these questions. But you probably won’t have as much fun, or as much money.
I was delighted to receive a copy of their new book, The Social Climber’s Bible, which has easily topped my list of this year’s favorites thus far. As you know, I’m a big reader (or bookworm or nerd, depending on your opinion); what I read either turns out to be better than expected, or not as good as I’d hoped. This one is definitely in the former category rather than the latter.
The Social Climber’s Bible is a funny and fabulous reference best enjoyed in a bubble bath with a glass of cheap wine. For someone who collects legitimate self-help books, it was entertaining for me to experience one so tongue-in-cheek that I had to ask the authors if it was applicable advice.
Their quips were relatable to the point that I could’ve written some of their slogans, such as “the fact that you will never be able to love another person as much as yourself does not mean you are shallow, it means you are finally ready to have a mature relationship” and “I care enough about me not to believe anything they say about me is true if I don’t want it to be.” There’s even a helpful guide to thank-you notes on page 123 which I should probably use for sending one to Dirk and Jazz. Or is that too predictable?
Other memorable tips and “empowering thoughts” include:
You are a special person who could be more special if you had more special friends.
We want you to appreciate your shortcomings as much as we do.
Never underestimate the value of kissing your hosts on all four of their cheeks.
If you prefer satirical, sarcastic humor and poking fun at yourself (and the world around you) as much as I do, then you’ll love this book. It also makes a great gift for a friend moving to a big city who actually wants to become rich and famous, because the most laughable part about it all is that social climbing really does work. But, like anything else in life, you should never take it too seriously.
First off, I really appreciate you taking the time out of your busy schedules to do this.
Dirk Wittenborn: No problem.
Jazz Johnson: It’s good for us, it’s good for you, so we’re happy about it.
Who came up with the idea for the book?
JJ: We both kinda came up with it accidentally. From the start, we knew we wanted to do a book about society and manners. Social climbing is so prevalent nowadays and it’s been so widely adopted by society that we couldn’t talk about society without having a huge conversation about social climbing.
DW: It was based on things we observed. Both of us spent tons and tons of time together growing up, so we just observed people. And we reached the conclusion, when we were kids, that the worst thing you could do was become friends with someone because of what they do. We were appalled; when did ass-licking become networking? People don’t mind being called an embezzler or things like that, so why does social climbing have this pernicious thing about it? But it’s part of our culture.
JJ: It’s almost hypocritical that people aren’t okay with this term.
DW: All these books that you read that are cautionary tales are about being well-liked… cautionary tales became how-to manuals for success.
So, it started as an idea about the social climbing already happening in your society?
DW: Not just high society, but society in general, in popular culture.
JJ: But we also took a look around at our friends. Dirk and I see each other a lot in East Hampton, New York in the summer community, and the social life is a bit cut-throat, so we were kind of just observing this happening all around us. We started thinking, do our friends have more friends than us? Are they more successful? The self-help comes in because you realize that social climbers are so successful because they’re so polished and calm. They’ve created their reality in a way that causes them to be the life of the party.
DW: And not feel bad about what they’re doing, they’re just accepting it as it is. We found a way to poke fun at self-improvement. I mean, what’s wrong with who we are? People have this obsession with powerful people and what others think of them. It seemed so skewed and screwed up that it seemed great for satire.
JJ: You’re going out there and you’re saying, I’m going to force my way into this party or into this networking set or this business group, even if I’m not wanted. You say it enough and it becomes true. You believe that you’re wanted there. What other people say isn’t true if you don’t want it to be. You can’t get through life cowering from other peoples’ judgement.
DW: We tried to pick things that were true — slightly embarrassing, but true — and people, while they’re laughing at it, can think about what they do. But certainly, you’re out there in Los Angeles, and the way people reinvent themselves is astounding.
Yes, LA has been an adventure. I grew up in a small town, and it wasn’t like this. Out here, it’s all about who you are and who you know and what you do and how much money you make.
DW: But even in a small town, it’s the captain of the football team, or the owner of the Subaru dealership, or the leader of your church organization. They’re popular, on a different level, but it’s everywhere you go. It’s part of America, social maneuvering. People came here to climb the ladder.
That’s interesting. I guess I haven’t noticed that it happens everywhere.
DW: Religious freaks and criminals came here in the beginning and reinvented themselves. It’s part of our cultural DNA.
Had you ever worked on a project together before, and do you think you’ll do it again?
DW: Maybe, yes. It was fun.
JJ: Depends on how much money’s involved.
What was your favorite part about working as a team, and what was your greatest challenge?
JJ: We’re kind of lighthearted people who enjoy humor and we’re relatively sarcastic, so I think we had a lot of fun and had a lot of laughs. And that’s really what kept us going throughout the writing of the book. It was a long project. There’s a lot of material there.
DW: We spent months on this front porch on Long Island and we’d meet up and go through it again and again and again. “Is that funny?” “Does that suck?” “Have you been smoking crack this morning, how did you think that’s funny?” People we know would occasionally walk by to get to this dock and we’d try out the jokes and the funny bits and it became a family affair. Jazz’s brother would walk by and we’d run it by him to see if he’d laugh. He’s always been an asshole.
So it sounds like you didn’t have much trouble, it was just repetitive.
JJ: Dirk and I are very close with our immediate families, so we’d try to meet and he’d get a call or I’d get a call and that part was frustrating at times but it kind of added to the humor.
DW: Or child emergencies. We have children who are best friends.
You may have already answered this question, but how much of the book is based on your own personal experiences and how much was based on what you’ve observed from other people?
JJ: It’s from what we’ve experienced and seen close at hand; primarily first-hand experience.
DW: But, we did go to a couple people who gave us tips that were shocking. There was a well-known, powerful person in the arts and movie business and they said, “If you go to a party, the clever social climber looks around for the partners who are bored. Pick that person. That’s who you go after.”
That’s the Sleeper, right?
DW: That’s the Sleeper. It’s the gay man or straight woman, and you can become their friend and then you get invited on holidays and get a better job and you’re in the perfect position to steal the Big Fish away. My jaw kind of dropped and then they pointed to a few people who had done that…
JJ: But a lot of people really didn’t want to meet with us. It made them nervous to even talk about the subject.
DW: And sometimes they’d be the biggest social climbers we know.
Do you consider yourselves social climbers, or did you get to skip the process due to your upbringing? Was there ever a time when you had to climb anyway?
DW: Well, Jazz and I had very different childhoods. My sister is Jazz’s mother. My father was a child professor. It wasn’t something I grew up around.
JJ: People often make the assumption that because I’m a relatively wealthy person and I’ve grown up in family of great wealth, I think they assume that I’ve been handed this kind of lifestyle. But at the end of the day, you really have to do some social maneuvering and networking to get ahead and meet the kind of people you want to know to make your life more interesting. Or, get more fabulous! Everyone has been in the position of walking across the room with the intention to talk to someone who can add something to their life experience.
DW: The worst social climbers, the ones who spend the most time thinking about social climbing, are in fact really wealhy and really powerful people. Because they think they deserve the best. Everybody wants the one-of-a-kind, the ultimate view, the best friends. But just because you have an incredible beach house with 18 bedrooms, you have to fill those bedrooms up with people who will make you look good. I came to New York with nothing, became a writer, wrote movie scripts and stuff. But there are people who you meet, that you can bump into, who can change your life. And if you look at a show like Girls, where all the girls are already rich and famous…
JJ: Yeah, their parents are famous. They’re rock stars.
DW: It’s interesting how uncomfortable people are with how the world works. But it’s always how it worked, and probably how it always will work.
What are your experiences with people who want to take advantage of you because of your status? Any crazy stories about people trying to sleep with you or something like that?
JJ: People think I lead a more fabulous life than I do…
DW: And then they see what Jazz looks like in the morning.
JJ: But yes, there are places I have access to that people want access to.
DW: People have gotten to know me because they want to get to be pals with an actor or actress. I’m just a screenwiter, but people want to know other people that I know. People have tried to get to know me because they want to know Jazz’s mother and father, or just get invited to their parties. I don’t entertain like that. But you feel like you’ve had a tick attached to you and they drop you really quickly when they realize you can’t do anything for them.
JJ: And, dating guys in college… sure, the smart ones are thinking about the future potential of a marriage but then again at that age, they’re so afraid of commitment that it doesn’t even work out that way.
DW: And Jazz has good radar for that stuff.
JJ: People were kind of surprised that I wasn’t marrying someone who also was part of a fabulously wealthy, connected family. And I think that happens a lot. That’s one of the ways that the dynasties of this country extend their family legacy and long-term wealth, by making those strategic alliances. I’ve observed that people are very calculated about that strategy and they’re well-publicized. Lauren Bush and Ralph Lauren’s son, or Ivanka Trump marrying that Kushner boy.
DW: There’s no mystery to it. The whole concept of “gold diggers” is funny. Again and again and again, you just happen to fall in love with people with yachts and private planes? They say it’s serendipity but they’re in the market for it. Have you ever dated a cab driver?
But do you guys want your readers to take this book seriously, or is it supposed to be tongue-in-cheek? It sounds like it’s supposed to be funny, but they can probably find things that actually work.
JJ: On the one hand, it’s absolutely absurd. One’s happiness isn’t based on climbing the status ladder. On the other hand, yes, there are things in this book that everyone has undeniably done to change their position in life.
DW: We wanted people to laugh and then hopefully, think about it a little. But the more successful or accomplished or beautiful you are, the more people are going to be attracted to you. But writing hand-written thank you notes helps. People really like it. Flattery WILL get you everywhere. Certainly, if you compliment people they’re gonna like it. It works.
JJ: I think that at the end of the day, people shouldn’t take themselves so seriously. As Dirk said before, you want the reader to start taking a closer look at that question — why is it that we are bending over backwards to be someone more socially accepted, richer, more powerful — why can’t we just be who we are? So, that’s kind of a serious subject.
DW: And what will people do to get ahead? Where do you draw the line?
I think that’s a really good message. That what my blog’s about.
DW: You have to love the game beyond the prize. And laughing at anything is the healthiest thing. You just have to laugh at it.
JJ: So, you switch your place cards. Is it kind of bogus? Sure, but don’t deny it.
DW: The only thing wrong with it is getting caught.
JJ: Be honest with yourself.
DW: It’s not bad to do drugs, it’s bad to get caught doing drugs.
JJ: I don’t know if I agree with that statement.
DW: You know what I mean.
After seeing your Jet Etiquette video, I can definitely imagine the book being adapted for a movie or a TV show or something like that. Have you guys thought about that?
DW: Yep, that’s our hope. Working on that right now.
Would you actually be in it?
JJ: No. Definitely not.
DW: It’d be the reality TV version. It’d be too insane, though that would be pretty comical.
JJ: We’re too old for that shit.
DW: Well, you’re not. I’d have to get a body double. But who knows, you never know.
What else is next for the two of you? What are you working on now, or are you mainly promoting the book?
DW: Well, Jazz is a full-time farmer.
DW: Yeah, she has a farm. I’m working on a new novel and have a movie script that’s in development.
JJ: I do a fair amount of competitive horseback riding and we have a shooing club and breed heritage turkeys and… the whole country life. I’ve got two little kids.
Sounds like the more glamorous country life.
JJ: I don’t know if “glamorous” is the right word, but it’s definitely exciting.
What are your words of wisdom for young Mountaineers and future Big Fish? Or entrepreneurs, or anyone trying to become successful?
JJ: Honesty is rarely the best policy. And, flattery will get you anywhere.
DW: Always be nice to everyone.
I like that.
JJ: Don’t make any enemies.
Originally published on The Loudmouth Lifestyle