She’s the queen of street style. She sits in the front row at the Couture shows. She’s married to a male model.
We know all of these things about 30-year-old Olivia Palermo, the fashion icon and alumna of MTV reality show The City. But paparazzi sidewalk photos and a few years on a reality show don’t paint a full picture of a person. The real OP, as her team calls her, is more mysterious. And she’s been that way for much of her adult life.
It’s not that Olivia avoids speaking to the press and granting interviews: she actually does it quite often. In the last month alone, POPSUGAR has connected with Olivia on three different occasions: at a preview for her Nordstrom collection; on the phone for this piece; and at a special New York Fashion Week dinner.
During each of these encounters, Olivia was, what I like to call, “delightfully enigmatic.” She offers conversation, but not in excess. She has the rare gift of knowing just how much to reveal — without disclosing too much.
Interviewing Olivia is a good challenge for a reporter, particularly if you set out to uncover something interesting and insightful.
Being slightly unknowable is a good public relations strategy and a wise move considering the business Olivia has built. She’s created that mighty accomplishment for a celebrity: a brand. The Olivia Palermo enterprise is sizable at this point, between her website OliviaPalermo.com, guest designing for a long list of brand partners, modeling, and endorsements.
“I have a very small team that I work with, that I really trust and value their opinions,” she said. “That’s basically it. It’s me at the end of the day — a small team and me. I think we manage to do a great job.”
“It is important to you to be recognized as a businesswoman?” I asked.
“You know what — in the line of work that I’m in, and everything that I do, it is a complete business. And I love it,” she said. “I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t.”
Olivia Palermo, the diplomat.
And I love it.
I'm in, and everything that I do,
it is a complete business.
And I love it.
Even back in 2006, when Olivia was starting out as a public figure, she seemed media savvy. As the story goes, Olivia almost fell into being famous. While a student at Manhattan’s New School, where she focused on media studies, Olivia began attending charity events with friends. Society photographer Patrick McMullan snapped a photo of Olivia at a gala. One photo led to more photos. That first party led to more parties. Her love of a pretty dress and perfectly done hairstyle got her on the fashion world’s radar.
Before she knew it, Olivia’s social rise was deemed worthy of note by The New York Times in early 2007: its piece detailed Olivia’s in-demand status in the front rows of Fashion Week. Photos from that time prove that Olivia’s look and demeanor are essentially unchanged: her hair is long and styled with a curl; her outfits are unique, yet elegant; she has a clear gift for accessorizing; and she seems both pleased and patient as her photo is taken.
Now, Olivia’s good taste is the foundation of her growing brand. She’s known for having a certain elegance that seems like a throwback to the era of Audrey Hepburn, white gloves, and impractically small purses. You’ll never see Olivia wearing sweats.
“I definitely don’t leave the house until I’m fully pulled together,” she said, clarifying that the habit persists even if she’s going to the gym with her husband, model Johannes Huebl, or walking her dog, Mr. Butler. “I start my day fully dressed and ready to go. You never know where the day leaves you. That’s how my mother is; I definitely learned from her.”
Olivia is famous for mixing high-end designer pieces with more affordable, so-called high street items. She’s known for her love of Zara, much like another fashion icon — the Duchess of Cambridge. Olivia’s style is simultaneously elevated and accessible. Fans love to see what she wears, whether she’s at a fashion show or walking down the street.
I asked her if it ever seems like a lot of pressure, that part of her job is getting photographed regularly.
“No,” she replied. “I just get dressed for myself and my environment for the day — what I’m feeling for the moment.”
Since her launch onto the social scene nearly 10 years ago, Olivia has seemed content to let clothes do some of the talking. Olivia seemed to know in her early 20s that there was an art to choosing the perfect words or turns of phrase — or choosing to simply say nothing at all. By late 2007, New York magazine recognized Olivia’s reluctance to give too much away in interviews. (They also detailed what is possibly her only pseudo-scandal to date, the story of a letter, now determined to have been forged, in which Olivia purportedly begged other New York socialites to let her join their group.)
But soon, Olivia was presented with a special opportunity. MTV came calling.
Perhaps nothing has done so much to raise Olivia’s profile as her two-season stint on MTV’s The City. On the show, 22-year-old Olivia appeared opposite Whitney Port as the pair suffered through junior-level jobs at Diane von Furstenberg, People’s Revolution public relations, and Elle magazine.
Stars from that era of MTV reality shows — including Olivia, Whitney, The Hills’ Lauren Conrad, and Laguna Beach’s Kristin Cavallari — were new sources of fascination for the network’s female audience. The shows became a conversation point for many young women, who were intrigued by stories of similarly aged women struggling through personal and professional challenges — and generally looking fabulous while doing so.
Before social media made stars appear accessible, it felt possible to actually know Olivia, Whitney, Lauren, or Kristin. Ten years on, they have each built their own unique brands and careers, supported by the fans who felt so close to them during their time in the MTV spotlight.
But Olivia was unique in one key way: she never gave too much of herself away on The City. In a genre in which the norm was gossiping, drinking, staying out late, and breaking down, Olivia was the opposite. She was quiet. She was restrained. There’s no meme of Olivia Palermo crying. She earned a reputation for a certain degree of iciness after her two seasons on the show, which to me seems misplaced. She wasn’t awkward, really: she was practicing the art of never saying too much. She was thinking even beyond MTV. She was thinking about her brand.
Critics have long alleged that The City and The Hills were, essentially, scripted dramas. And Olivia herself has admitted that her role on the show was, to some degree, a performance. “I thought it'd be a wonderful learning experience, being in front of the cameras,” she said in a 2009 interview with New York’s PIX11 News. “And acting is something I'd always wanted to do.”
I definitely learned from her.
The City went off the air in 2010, and Olivia pivoted back to the world of fashion. The following year, she launched her website. And the business of Olivia Palermo, fashion expert, began to grow.
Olivia has always been confident when it comes to her editorial eye. She doesn’t use a stylist and mixes brands, colors, and patterns all on her own. Now Olivia’s knack for identifying trends is being leveraged in her company’s next big push: partnerships. Over the last year, Olivia has worked on collections for BaubleBar, Westward Leaning, Ciaté London, and Aquazzura. She modeled for the cult luxury skincare brand La Mer. Olivia’s latest project, a capsule range for Nordstrom’s Chelsea28 brand, arrived in stores this week.
Olivia’s old friends from the editorial world have been very supportive of the Nordstrom collaboration; reviews of the collection are quite good. “I’m really happy,” she said. “It’s really wonderful, and I’m really excited. We’ve been working on it for the last few months, and now that it’s finally out, it’s great to see the reaction. I’m really grateful.”
Perhaps due to her growing power as a designer and collaborator, Olivia has assumed something of an oracle-like position in the fashion press. It’s hard to find an interview with her in which she isn’t being quizzed about one emerging trend or another.
I myself am guilty of this: in a piece last year, I wondered aloud whether Olivia felt that the Carolina Herrera separates she wore to her 2014 wedding had launched a craze among brides to ditch dresses in favor of two-piece looks.
Acknowledging that she’d seen “one or two” imitators on Instagram, Olivia approved of the trend that she herself had begun. “Brides today are a bit more modern,” she replied, explaining why a traditional dress may not be one’s top choice. “You kind of want that extra touch.”
Fashion advice, though, is a one-way street for Olivia. She gives it. She does not receive it, as she explained when I asked if she ever turns to anyone for style tips.
“I don’t,” she explained. “I really just go with what I see in the trends and on the runway.”
And it takes work to get that firsthand knowledge of what’s on the runways. There’s a logistical challenge in taking a team along as one travels twice a year for shows in Paris, Milan, or London, not to mention the between-season and Couture presentations.
It’s a lot of travel, but Olivia has been doing it for years. She has a system. “Some people take a subway, and they have their times and days when they take it — that’s the same thing with us when we fly back and forth to Europe or to Asia,” she explained. “We have a preferable route.”
Team OP has traveling down to a science at this point. She and Johannes love the punctuality of the German airline Lufthansa. Their suitcases? Always Rimowa. They use the same local drivers in any given European city. And then there are the baggies.
“Another tip of mine,” Olivia shared. “Baggies are fantastic. I put all of my cosmetics, my makeup, everything in Ziploc bags because they really keep things organized and clean.”
Organization is a big thing for Olivia, though she’s not one to give into the craze for Marie Kondo-level decluttering. Instead of thanking and discarding à la Kondo, Olivia saves for later.
“I do lots of Spring-cleaning,” she said. “But I also do a lot of archiving as well.”
When they aren’t traveling, Olivia is able to enjoy her Brooklyn home with Misters Huebl and Butler. Weekends are low-key.
“Probably going out to dinner, maybe seeing a movie, or seeing some friends, or having friends over and having a nice dinner together,” Olivia said of their typical Saturday night. She and Johannes like watching television together, and favorites include Mr. Selfridge, House of Cards, Homeland, and Madam Secretary.
But Olivia says, “Everything in moderation.” Couch dwelling is balanced by regular exercise and a good diet. Olivia loves FlyBarre and Bikram yoga but passes on SoulCycle as it “bulks up your legs a bit.” She was a rower until her early 20s. Now she and Johannes ski in the Winter and play tennis in the Summer.
“Growing up, my parents were always very healthy,” she said. “It’s just a normal thing to be healthy and work out.” She’ll try buzzy food trends, like juicing. “Of course, you try new things,” she said. “But I have a great sweet tooth as well.”
She watches television, but she takes care to exercise. She eats healthy, but also eats unhealthy. Olivia has a knack for agreeing with and enlarging the scope of a discussion, an interpersonal gift that’s the hallmark of a good conversationalist.
She’s exceedingly polite. Among the POPSUGAR editors who have met or interviewed Olivia, everyone I have spoken to agrees that she is an unfailing master of etiquette. Olivia is a woman who minds her manners, always.
“Thank you, sir!” Olivia brightly said to her driver in the middle of our conversation, as she left her car and entered Milk Studios for the photo shoot. To me, she added, “I might lose you — I’m sorry to cut you off, but I’m walking in!”
POPSUGAR fashion reporter Allison McNamara has been won over by Olivia. Allison, who has interviewed Olivia upwards of 10 times, remembers that before her third or fourth go around Olivia greeted her with a broad, “Hi, Allison!” It stood out to Allison because so few fashion people remember — or admit to remembering — reporters’ names. Having done her own stint in the journalism world, at Elle, Olivia likely knows that being friendly and kind can go a long way.
Olivia even politely indulged my inquiry about the well-being of her dog, Mr. Butler. He’s so cute; I couldn’t help but ask.
“Mr. Butler, he’s great,” she said. “He’s been a little under the weather for the last few days, but he’s perking up. He’s like a little person. He’s adorable. Thank you so much for asking.”
“Is he going to do a campaign anytime soon?”
“You know what?” she said, laughing. “He’s been an option for a few campaigns, but nothing has gone through yet. Maybe sometime. I would love that. Mr. B . . . he does love the camera. He’s not shy about it. It’s quite embarrassing.”
And finally, with these two questions about Mr. Butler, I got a peek at the real Olivia: a proud dog mom who is actually a little funny. Her much-lauded sense of style and her love of affordable fashion have made her somewhat relatable to fans. But really, what’s sweeter to learn about someone than the fact she’s more or less reduced to a pile of mush when you start discussing that most American of topics, the family dog?
Olivia has long known that keeping her cards close to her vest is a good long-term business strategy. But answering some questions — the