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“You’re looking very blonde,” Mary Wells told Lesley Stahl, welcoming Stahl to the advertising legend’s Park Avenue apartment, where the ladies of Wowowow.com were sipping wine and martinis and admiring a Klimt reproduction painted by Hubert de Givenchy.
“Look who’s talking,” Stahl retorted.
Alongside the platinum-haired Liz Smith and Joni Evans, the effect was nearly blinding. (White-haired Judith Martin, also known as Miss Manners, was the unblonde exception).
“We’d like to have some hot Spanish dancers,” confided Smith, referring to the lineup of women on the site, aimed at women over 45. “And some black women.”
Evans, most recently senior vice president at William Morris, conveyed the apologies of Vogue contributing editor and Wowowow co-founder Joan Juliet Buck for arriving late — she’d been delayed en route from Barry Diller’s boat with Vanity Fair editor in chief Graydon Carter and Washington Post Co. chief executive Donald Graham.
“Oh, that’s so chic,” Smith couldn’t resist saying.
Blonde: yes, mostly. Well-connected, certainly, and wealthy by most standards. But with the five founders having invested $200,000 each in a month-old site that is both aimed at a big audience and anchored by their first-person narratives, these women are convinced they can tap into a more universal female experience. They hope to achieve that with blogs from the five women and all their friends, such as Whoopi Goldberg and Lily Tomlin; horoscopes; features, and news links.
That’s despite the undoubtedly humbler lives of the site’s potential and existing readers. The contrast surfaced in Wells’ recent post on Barcelona (it began, “You haven’t been to Barcelona recently? Odd. This year everybody on a boat, a plane, or a running tour was in Barcelona”), where a handful of comments complained of elitism. In her own defense, Wells said: “The truth is, we all started out with nothing. None of us came from a rich family. And none of us were given the jobs that we had; none of us were given our careers. None of us were given anything that I’m aware of….”
“And none of us had any success trying to sleep our way to the top,” Smith interrupted.
And anyway, Smith added, “I don’t really think a Web site of a lot of aspiring young women that nobody ever heard of would be as good as this one is.”
The Internet may beg to differ. But in the meantime, years after mastering publishing, television, advertising and show business, the Wowowow women are shedding their fears and giving this brave new world a shot. (They are not alone, of course, in entering the crowded Web world from traditional media — this week, former Jane editor in chief Brandon Holley’s site for Yahoo, Shine, launched, and Tina Brown said she was developing a news site for Diller’s InterActiveCorp.) The site, said Candice Bergen, a contributor and a late arrival that evening, “is a good sort of brain gym for the elder among us.”
Said Evans, who is serving as chief executive: “[The Internet] is the most exciting form of communication — and I’ve been in communications my entire life — that I’ve ever experienced.”
That’s partly because of the instant gratification and feedback it offers to those who came of age with long lead times. In the month since Wowowow’s launch, it’s drawn a comparatively engaged and active following of commenters, proof that all this isn’t falling on deaf ears. (Evans said the plan is to find future “wow women” among the better commenters.)
And the co-founders are learning how to participate in this conversation. Wells, who responded to the commenters complaining in her Barcelona thread, said, “I’ve found replying is a desperate situation. You start to reply and you can’t do anything else in your life.”
The transformation is not yet complete. That night, Smith, 85, was offering a folded-up copy of The New York Times, blithely eschewing digital news sharing, asking people if they had read the article on Arianna Huffington’s Web triumphs. And Bergen confessed she is still “afraid” of digital photography.
“I feel I’m still learning,” admitted Stahl, who said she wanted to do more video. The women have been given compact digital video recorders meant to capture parts of their lives. “I’ve always had camera crews. I’ve always had people who walk around with lights on and I’ve never had to think about it.”
A process that puts a veteran broadcast journalist on equal — or shakier — footing with a neophyte also can be freeing, and the women are letting loose to varying degrees. Notably, Smith’s refusal to self-censor, seen most recently in Thursday’s offhand admission that she had used “a bit of cocaine for fun and games,” hasn’t gone unnoticed in the younger and better-known ends of the blogosphere.
Beyond the stubborn refusal to become irrelevant in a changing world, there’s earnestness in this, too, the women say: a desire to teach what they’ve learned hurtling through the glass ceiling.
“Personally, it filled a real hole of just hearing other women’s experiences,” said Evans. “Sharing your own, having intelligent, thoughtful conversations with women who are single-minded, independent-minded, not looking to find a man, not inheriting money but really earning it on their own — there was no place for that kind of conversation.”
Smith again: “And actually, this whole group has already found a lot of men that they wish they hadn’t.”
“I have a dream we will eventually be 1,000 women…,” said Wells, dreamily. “The kind of women who are coming in now and writing educated and caring things, as well as full of fun. Maybe there will be three or four things that we do in our time that will really make a change and will make a difference.”
“Yeah, we have real aspirations, too,” said Smith. “To develop — what’s it called? — the part that’s changing the world. I feel very challenged by that, but I don’t know quite what to do with it.”
As they figure this and other things out, they have steeled themselves for the relentless pace of 24-hour media, even those of them who are still working full time. As Smith yelled after Stahl upon her farewell: “Don’t sleep! Never sleep!”