Andrew Hornery surveys the Brynnes, Blanchetts and bluebloods of Sydney's social scene and discovers there is not one but three distinct A-lists.
ACROSS the social pages it is probably the most hackneyed of terms: "the A-list".
And yet it remains the best adjective to sum up the social elite who, for whatever reason, are considered our city's most admired, desired, envied and often – rather perversely – reviled.
Staring back at us mere mortals, the A-listers pout, preen and pose from inside the gilded cage they call home, a place of red carpets and free champagne.
But exactly who is on Sydney's "A-list"? Who decides who makes the cut? Can one fall off it? And, most importantly, would you actually want to be on it?
No longer is it simply about family lineage and bank accounts; Sydney's A-list has fragmented.
Today it includes reality television stars, Kings Cross identities, bikini models and sport WAGs, as well as the society matrons who once ruled the social pages so fiercely.
"The thing about Sydney is that the very concept of an 'A-list' no longer applies. It is such a diverse city, with so many different subgroups, that one person who is considered aspirational among one group might not necessarily cut it in another group," says public relations queen Naomi Parry, whose PR and events company BLACK Communications is in the business of studying such things.
So how does one get on such a list?
"People who are clever, successful, high energy and glamorous . . . people who stand out from the crowd and stand for something, always make it to the top of everyone's list. Maybe they are V.D.G.s . . . very desirable guests."
It is people such as Parry who draw up invitation lists to some of the swankiest parties in town, from among corporate giants, wealthy families, sports stars, celebrities, artists, and just about everyone in between.
One of Parry's erstwhile rivals is publicist Mark Patrick, famous for culling his lists every six months "to keep them fresh".
That would be quite an ordeal, considering his database has 10,000 names split across various social stratas. "In the old days, you would just have the top 400 names and they would be the basis of your guest lists, but these days everyone is much more demographically based: you have your older, more establishment crowd, which is probably what the traditional A-list was, but their opinions are already set, they're past being influenced," he says.
"We now have lists for different clients to meet their specific demands."
Patrick says the commercial nature of so much of Sydney's social scene, where an event is thrown by a corporate sponsor to promote a specific product, means the very nature of an "A-list" has changed from the days when the great hostesses such as Lady Mary Fairfax would fling open the doors of the family estate to raise money for charity.
"The super-rich people still throw private events, they just don't want the attention the corporate guys are seeking.
"I think the rich people would rather not let the rest of the world see how wealthy they actually are," Patrick says.
So, who and what are the new Sydney social tribes?
Sydney's "A-list" can be broken down into three broad subgroups, the first resembling what the traditional A-list looked like in the 1980s. For the sake of this article, we will call them the Triple A's.
Then come the Show Ponies, a group of names and faces who are too flashy and outrageous for the Triple As but are an integral part of Sydney's social life because they usually guarantee a photograph in the social pages, and a plug for the event or product.
And, finally, it is the Cool Club, a grouping of painfully hip epicureans who have managed to leave their mark on the city's social radar and like whom, if the arbiters of such things are to be believed, we all aspire to be.
Many of the names that featured on this list 30 years ago remain there today. They are our city's social perennials made up of quasi-establishment names who have dominated social, political, media, and financial circles in this town for decades.
Top of the list is undoubtedly the family empires, such as the Murdochs, Packers, Lowys and Stokeses, though they appear to be an endangered species with a long list of families having all but disappeared from the social landscape, such as the once-great Fairfaxes and retail kings the Lloyd-Joneses and Myers.
It is James and Erica Packer, Lachlan and Sarah Murdoch and Ryan Stokes who are the the torch-bearers for the current generations of their respective families and, interestingly, they tend to stick together, allowing only a few interlopers into their rarefied world.
In this group it is all about what school you went to (Cranbrook for boys, with a year at Timbertop, and Ascham for girls), where you live (Point Piper, naturally), who you marry, and how much coin you have in the bank (in the billions, if you please, though if you are short a few zeros they'll still take you).
Fast-food king and Fairfax Media director Jack Cowin definitely falls into the Triple A club; so, too, does media and healthcare mogul Paul Ramsay, Alan Jones, yachting enthusiast Denis O'Neil, car salesman Neville Crichton, arts philanthropist Simon Mordant, media heir David Gyngell and the Oatley family.
Skye Leckie, wife of former Channel Seven chief David Leckie and a true eastern suburbs blueblood, is arguably the chief cheerleader of the Triple A's, having pioneered their annual love fest, the Gold Dinner, for many years.
But she is also one of Sydney's harshest critics when it comes to those names and faces who are celebrated in the social pages.
"Anyone can be a star in this town, you don't have to have any particular credentials or breeding to get into the social pages any more," Leckie opines, adding that "the media has breathed oxygen into these people".
"David accuses me of being snobby but I often pick up the papers and ask, 'Who are these people?' and 'Really, what have they done?' In Melbourne, it is still an establishment town; they don't flaunt themselves. In Sydney, it has changed so much."
During the past 20 years, Sydney's social pages have also reflected our broader society's fascination with fame, though many of the names that fall into this category are famous by default rather than by design.
In the Show Ponies stable we are likely to find the likes of Lara Bingle and Charlotte Dawson, a pair of women who appear to court attention, no matter how deserved.
While he hates to admit it, Kings Cross figure John Ibrahim is definitely a Show Pony, sitting in front rows at fashion shows and walking the streets of the Cross at night, often with a TV film crew in pursuit.
Ibrahim is acutely aware of his own image, so it is no wonder he spends a small fortune on his hairdresser.
Brynne and Geoffrey Edelsten have an equally large beauty budget but with vastly different results.
Admittedly they are from Melbourne, but the Franken-Edelstens are right at home north of the border.
Other names that spring to mind include Mark Judge, Rodney and Lyndi Adler, Mel B and husband Stephen Belafonte, Maria Venuti, former mistress Shari-Lea Hitchcock, fashion designer Charlie Brown and even Kyle Sandilands.
Then there is the long line of football and cricket WAGs.
The Show Ponies are indeed a mixed bag, but a city such as Sydney needs them because they are often the most eccentric, uninhibited, loose-lipped, controversial and, quite frankly, entertaining of our social tribes.
"If you get them to a party, you are guaranteed to get a reaction from the other guests and everybody is talking . . . which is great if that's what you want, but not everyone actually wants that," explains a high-profile Sydney hostess, who asked for anonymity.
When Cate Blanchett turned up at Sydney Fashion Week wearing what appeared to be a crocheted bedspread, no one dared to suggest it was a fashion abomination.
Indeed, it was considered a triumph within fashion circles, with "brave Cate" supporting the hottest new names of Sydney's Fashion Block: Luke Sales and Anna Plunkett from Romance Was Born.
Sales himself is a regular fixture on Sydney's cocktail circuit, turning up in all manner of ensembles, from bat-winged matinee jackets to rainbow-coloured ponchos teamed with space boots.
Life in the Cool Club must be an arduous existence, constantly trying to keep abreast of the zeitgeist.
But Sydney has managed to nurture this group well, with the likes of magazine editors Edwina McCann (Vogue Australia) and Kellie Hush (Harper's Bazaar) managing to navigate these waters with considerable finesse.
Even as he heads into his late 30s, former fashion bad boy Dan Single has ensured his membership status remains valid by hooking up with a much younger model, Bambi Northwood-Blyth.
If you can't afford to have artist Ben Quilty hanging on your walls, at least get him to your party. He sits comfortably in the Cool Club, as does arts figure Amanda Love and stylist Christine Centenera (she personally styles the rapper Kanye West).
Bar baron Justin Hemmes has made a fortune from catering to the Cool Club, ensuring himself membership, as have sass & bide designers Heidi Middleton and Sarah-Jane Clarke, who have been dressing Cool Club types for years.