On a chilly night in New York’s East Village, DJ Harley Viera-Newton strides through Lit Lounge, where she is spinning tonight. Flannel-clad, hirsute young men lean over one another to greet the 21-year-old New York University student, her slender figure poured into a black minidress, her long hair unkempt. Since she began booking gigs three years ago, Viera-Newton has signed with Elite models, starred in campaigns for Uniqlo and DKNY and become Dior Beauty’s house DJ, playing her favorite pop and punk tracks at its events and inspiring an on-the-go makeup palette clutch. “I’ll do some crazy event uptown for Dior, in a gown, overlooking Central Park,” she says in her charmingly ambiguous accent (the daughter of a record exec and a Brazilian model, she grew up in London, then moved to L.A. at age 10). “And the next day I’ll be here with all my friends. It’s a fun mix.”
Viera-Newton is part of a youth tide hitting the turntables of Manhattan, armed with style, social cachet and, ideally, a modicum of musical taste. DJing—and the visibility that goes with it—has replaced handbag designing as the go-to profession for It girls and boys. The flock of hobbyist DJs for hire includes A-list models Jessica Stam and Agyness Deyn, actor Leo Fitzpatrick, artist Nate Lowman and rock-royalty spawn Alexandra Richards. They work fashion shows and store openings and have residencies, or regular gigs, at nightclubs—often based on the fact that a promotable name brings press and the right crowd to a venue.
Unsurprisingly, New York’s more venerable DJs are not pleased with the influx of pretty-young-thing competitors. Until recently the field had a high barrier to entry: DJs had to buy expensive turntables, amass a huge record collection and spend years learning sophisticated scratch-and-mix techniques. But now anyone with a laptop or an iPod can download hundreds of songs in minutes and “spin” a set with a mere click of a button. “Being a DJ used to take a lot of dedication—now all it requires is a little computer savvy,” says Jahi Sundance, 30, who began DJing in New York 15 years ago. Adds fellow full-time DJ Jesse Felluss, 31, “Do I think there is animosity there? Absolutely. It’s good for filling the crowd to have names, but the party suffers because they aren’t as good as guys who do this for a living.”
But backlash from the professional community clearly hasn’t lessened the appetite for this new strain of DJ. Mandie Erickson, director of public relations firm Seventh House, has hired Deyn and fashion designer Benjamin Cho, among others, to spin at her clients’ events. Part of the attraction, she says, is proximity to gossip-column fixtures. “We’re all voyeurs—everyone wants to get into someone’s head, and music is such a personal way [to do that],” says Erickson. “You realize that they love the Smiths like you love the Smiths.” Even more valuable may be the DJ’s pals: Samantha Ronson’s fees spiked to more than $25,000 after Lindsay Lohan started accompanying her to gigs (a source says that Ronson’s rate has dropped to $15,000 postbreakup).