At the age of 93, there is very little that Gloria Vanderbilt has not done in her life. The only child of American railroad heir Reginald Vanderbilt, she was raised by her aunt, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney in New York, and became an avid traveler with a creative eye and curious spirit.
In the 1950s, she took up acting, working her way from the stage to television dramas; then fashion design in the '70s, becoming an early adopter of blue jeans with her own namesake label. She modeled for famous photographers like Richard Avedon and Horst P. Horst, married four times, had four sons, Anderson Cooper among them, and is said to have dated Frank Sinatra, Marlon Brando, Howard Hughes, and Roald Dahl. Legend also has it that Holly Golightly in Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's was inspired by her—he later did include her in Answered Prayers as "Gloria Vanderbilt DiCicco Stokowski Lumet Cooper," a crack about her many marriages. Through it all, Vanderbilt remains one of New York's most fascinating characters.
Today, Vanderbilt is a prolific artist and author, and in 2016, was the subject of a documentary about her life called Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt & Anderson Cooper, which was directed by Liz Garbus and allowed Vanderbilt to tell the long, complicated story of her life in conversation with her son, who does this for a living.
And yet, there is very little that Gloria Vanderbilt isn't afraid to still take on. And in April, with the coaching of Cooper, she joined Instagram.
"She thinks it is the best thing ever," wrote Cooper in his own Instagram caption announcing that she had joined the social media platform. Yes, it really is Vanderbilt herself doing all the posting from her iPad. She thinks about her captions carefully, is wary about posting too many times a day, and isn't personally convinced by the merits of selfies or food pictures. With over 75,000 followers and counting, she also admittedly loves the thrill of likes. In many respects, it makes perfect sense for Vanderbilt, a woman who has spent a lifetime in the media, to take to a platform as public-facing as Instagram.
For her, Instagram is a way for her to stay connected with not only her son, but also the world writ large. When I slid into her DMs one afternoon asking to speak with her, I heard back from her studio assistant almost immediately with the message: "Ms. Vanderbilt wanted us to respond."
And what a gift her responses turned out to be! Now, we can all benefit from the class and enthusiasm with which Ms. Vanderbilt approaches social media.
Your son, Anderson Cooper, was the one who convinced you to finally get an Instagram account. What made you decide to finally take the plunge?
It took me a while to understand the point of Instagram. Anderson would show me people's accounts and it often seemed like a lot of pictures of plates of food. I mean, there is nothing wrong with loving your food, but it just didn’t grab me. I love a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and have one for lunch nearly every day, but who wants to see a photograph of that? But then I realized that Anderson works so much and travels so much, that this would be a way to see more of him and what he is up to, so I downloaded the app, and then I discovered it made me feel more connected not only to his life, but the lives of some of my friends.
What were your hesitations about joining? And what were your first impressions of the platform and how people use it?
I’ve never been someone who has spent a great deal of time paying attention to what other people are saying about me. From the time I was a child, when I was the subject of a vicious custody battle that was making headlines every day for months, I just decided not to read what people wrote about me, so the comment section was something I was not sure I was ready for, but finally I thought, 'Well, what the hell? What is the worst that could happen?' My first impression was that I found it fascinating what people decided to post. The image they have of themselves that they want to share with the world, and also what they are thinking about in any given moment in time. I do sometimes want to suggest to people that they shouldn’t share quite so much, I like a little mystery, don’t you?
Now that you’re a user, what do you like about it? Dislike about it? Are you addicted yet?
I could see how one would become addicted. Anderson warned me about this. It’s easy to get carried away, particularly when you suddenly see people “liking” a photo you’ve posted; how can one resist feeling thrilled? I saw a story Anderson did on 60 Minutes recently and it turns out that positive feeling from “likes” is all about dopamine. Those ”likes” trigger a little hit of dopamine in us, so I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who feels it. I am trying not to get too sucked in, though I love thinking about what to post and what to say.
Do you use it on your iPad, or iPhone, or both?
Both. I love my iPad and the iPhone is something I’m just getting used to. I’ve had a flip phone up until recently, but Anderson insisted I should upgrade. I just got the iPhone 7—I think that’s what it’s called. I don’t use many apps; it’s just too confusing, but I make do.
How do you go about posting every day? Do you draft captions and take the photos yourself, or is anyone giving you a hand?
Sometimes I come across the photos online and then I save them and use them, though I do credit the photographer, of course. Sometimes I snap some photos in my apartment. Sometimes when Anderson comes over I will ask him to take some pictures and send them to me. I write the captions myself, but I love the process of thinking about it, deciding what to share and what not to, that is really the fun part for me.
What advice has your son given you about what to post, what not to post, and how much to post?
Well, certainly he warned me not to post too much—no more than once or twice a day—and not to get sucked into the comment section and hurt if someone says something mean. In fact, he suggested I not read the comment section, but easier said than done. Most importantly, he just told me it should be personal and a true reflection of what I am interested in, so that is what I am making it.
Do you check notifications and messages people send you? If so, what are some memorable ones?
I’m not even sure I know what notifications are, and I’m still learning about direct messaging. For now, some people in my studio check direct messages and answer questions if appropriate. They always make it clear it is not me. I have communicated directly with some people who have bought artwork from my studio Instagram account, @gloriavanderbiltstudio, because I like to write personal messages on the back of my work and so I like to ask them who the work is for. I love it when people send me photos of my artwork hanging in their homes. It is a wonderful feeling to create something, to love it, and then to release it out into the world and see where it ends up.
How does it make you feel to have over 75,000 followers? (And counting!)
I absolutely cannot believe it! Truly. Anderson was with me when he sent out an Instagram message on his account mentioning that I had joined Instagram, and suddenly people started following me. I had absolutely no idea anyone beyond my friends would have any interest in following me. I am very touched by people’s messages to me, which I may not often read directly, but Anderson will sometimes come by and read some to me, or someone in my studio will read me some. It always gives me a great lift!
Who are some people you like following and why, including your son?
Well, I love following Mia Farrow, DVF, Aurelia Thiérree is lovely and fascinating, Andy Cohen of course, and Kelly Ripa, Sarah Jessica Parker...I am a little slow on following people, but I am sure the list will grow as I get the hang of it more.
As an artist, do you find Instagram do be a good tool for creative people to share their work?
Oh, absolutely. I think Instagram is wonderful for artists! First of all, it allows you to see so many artists’ work that you might not see otherwise. I love looking at some of the artists that Anderson is following or galleries around the world. My studio began an account at the same time that I did, and we decided to occasionally offer some of my work there. It has really taken off. Creating art, painting or drawing, is such solitary work, and it’s lovely to post an image of your work and to be able to hear directly from people and to see where one’s work ends up and how it is incorporated into their lives. Preparing a show of work in a gallery takes so much time and planning; there is an immediacy to Instagram that I love.
Have you ever taken a selfie, and would you ever post one?
Hmmm...That’s an interesting question. I have not taken a selfie. I don’t love the angles of selfies. I’ve had the pleasure of working with so many great photographers over the decades, and I am not a photographer. Besides, I often feel like selfies are a little bit about exclusion. It sometimes feels like people are showing you how much fun they are having, but if they were really having that much fun, would they be taking time to stop and photograph themselves? It seems to me selfies are really a way of saying, 'Look at me, I am having more fun than you are right now,' but is that really true? I mean, I’m sure many people are having a ball, but why make someone else feel bad about what they are not doing? Perhaps I am overthinking it. I certainly have no problem with people wanting to take selfies, but it’s just not something I feel the need to do. Also, my life is pretty routine. I paint, I read, I have my peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch, and then I paint some more and read some more. Why would I want to interrupt that to snap an awkward picture of myself? Also, as I mentioned before, a little mystery is not a bad thing.
Is Twitter next?
Oh, no, never! Anderson has shown it to me, and it looks dreadful. No, Instagram is enough for me…But who knows what they will invent next? It’s like reading a great book, you turn each page eager to see how it all ends up! Excelsior!
Watch: Anderson Cooper on Gloria Vanderbilt and "Nothing Left Unsaid"