The answer to this question often depends on who you ask. By some definitions, socialites have been among us as long as humans have had urban centers – which means that the first socialites probably appeared on the scene in the city of Harappa in present-day Pakistan well over 5000 years ago. Socialites were no doubt fixtures in ancient Rome, since by at least one definition, socialites are “well-born” women who are married to wealthy, prominent men who give large, extravagant parties – although in that male-dominated society, it is doubtful that even wealthy Roman women had much to say in the planning of such events.
At their best, socialites today are those who use their wealth, influence and social skills to promote and raise money for charitable, socially-responsible and progressive causes. At their worst, they provide fodder for gossip columnists with their outrageous, extravagant misbehavior and arrogance in public.
Interestingly, Americans had little appetite for stories of socialites for the half-century between 1930 and 1980; ostentatious and arrogant displays of wealth were considered my most middle-class Americans to be in poor taste. Occasionally in the late 1950s and early 60s, one might hear occasionally about “jet-setters” (celebrated in Frank Sinatra's performance of Come Fly With Me by songwriter Jimmy Van Heusen), but generally, socialites were related to the “Society” or ” Style “sections of Sunday newspapers.
That all changed during the 1980s. For the next quarter-century, socialites – people who had either made a great deal of money or who had inherited it – became almost everyday news. Additionally, the line distinguishing socialites from celebrity entertainers became increasingly blurred. People such as the late Anna Nicole Smith and heiress Paris Hilton, who had done nothing more than come into money, became “celebrities.”
Today, the pendulum seems to be swinging the other way. After a generation of ostentatious displays of wealth and conspicuous consumption by the priviledged, average working Americans are growing increasingly impatient and weary of socialites. To their credit, some socialites are taking note of the many serious problems in the country and the world today that have resulted from the last thirty years and are again using their power, influence and money to effect positive change – an example of socialites at their best.