When the esteemed editor of this fine publication offered this writing opportunity, I was honored to accept. I face this question on a daily basis with every acquaintance of a certain background on the peninsula. It is rarely asked aloud, but it is there, simmering in the eyes as they dance around it with a “How-are-you?” and “Is-everything-okay?” and the like. I have a handy arsenal of defense ready. For you see, I’ve discovered that many are curious, but too polite to probe. I’ve never had that problem, which would lead one to think I am an ideal candidate for reality TV. But the truth is a little more complicated, as most things are once you get beyond the skin of it.
It — that show — began as a documentary on Southern gentlemen. The original producer — whom I know through mutual acquaintances in Manhattan and Los Angeles — contacted me over two years ago to view a “sizzle reel,” an industry term for a project on film you have created to spark interest to sell to a network. I was intrigued by the quality of the work but alarmed by the cast of characters he’d included. I said to him, “You need some actual gentlemen in this thing. Let me see who I can get to meet you.” I then reached out to my friends — some old Charleston scions as well as good men, who might best be described as hipsters of the Upper King type but gents all the same — and finally, the big fish, a dear friend and inarguably a consummate Southern gentleman and a bonafide bon vivant of the old guard.
Alas, nothing ever came of my suggestions and the project went forward, finally landing on the network. It was then that I decided to withdraw. Unlike many, I am an avid fan of the network and have watched a great number of reality TV shows. They can be great entertainment. But I also was fully aware of how that double-edged sword can cut. I consulted with members of the community here whom I respect — clergy, family friends — who were very clear to me in no uncertain terms: No. One young man from a storied family said to me, “Anyone involved with that show will be toxic south of Broad.”
You see, unlike many outsiders who move here, I am very fortunate. I have been visiting Charleston for more than half of my life and staying with friends, watching their children grow, attending church services, school plays and graduations. It can be difficult for a person whose college career is long behind him to meet friends in a new town. So in that regard, Charleston embraced me right from the gate. I am very grateful and protective of those relationships and experiences and did not want to endanger them.
I also own a business. My brand, Social Primer, began as an etiquette blog and through an amazing course of events propelled me to a gig designing bow ties for Brooks Brothers and finally creating my own label, which I based here. Social Primer Charleston was created and inspired by my daily interactions with Charleston men. Their dress, manners, style and civility were manna from heaven; I tried to capture that essence in my collections. My greatest delight is when I spot one of these fine gents sporting one of my creations around town. What a full, glorious circle of art imitating life — real life as we know it here. As you can imagine, it was a tough decision business-wise to walk away from the show in season one but personally and socially it was right for me.
Then the show was renewed for a second season and the producers came calling again. “You played hard to get last year, Cooper. It worked. We want you. What will it take to get you on board?” After another round of consultations with the people I trust and admire the sentiment was the same as before. Not no, but hell no. Do not do it. Then one night over scotch on a piazza a local businessman looked at me and said, “You’d be a fool not to do it.” The exposure of being on a national television show is extraordinary and publicity is free. I reconsidered, negotiated hard with regard to what I would and would not do and then, finally, agreed.
I love Charleston. I love her history (I hold the tour guide license), her society, her civility, her buildings and her people. I love her style, her decorum, her traditions, her insistence of propriety and her wild side behind closed doors. I love meeting grandees and Gullahs. The only thing I dislike is tourists, even more so than humidity.
I fully respect the distaste many have for the show. When I showed season one to my family last Thanksgiving, my mother and her sisters grasped their pearls at the goings on. I had become immune to the antics, but seeing it fresh through their perspective was a reality check and made me question my involvement all over again. I will tell you I am pleased with my portion on the show now that it has aired. The network was good to me and to their word. I was allowed to wax nostalgically and poetically on what I love about the city. My brand was prominently featured. They even asked me to create a facsimile of a gala event, which I dubbed Founders’ Ball, to give the audience a taste of society. Of course it was exaggerated because I am exaggerated. But there were some good people who braved the cameras and attended to support me. And that was the generosity that makes me love the people here all the more.
At this time we — the cast — are in limbo. The network (as of press time) has not announced a season three, but all signs indicate there will be. It was a ratings bonanza for a prized demographic, which comes as no surprise. There are a large number of people out there who delight in taking a visit to Charleston, even through the lens of people acting up. The beauty and grace is still there, no matter who is drinking what or arguing with whom. Charleston can rise above and it does. As for me, I have not been asked to return and at present do not know if I will if so asked. But I want to make this message clear to the town and people who I love and respect as holy. Should any situation become dishonorable to Charleston or her people, you can be assured I will exit stage left, on or off the camera. No adventure is more valuable to me than the one I live traversing these ancient streets every day and night, living and loving among a people I hold in the highest esteem. Not even a glimmer of fame will change that. But I will admit, I like being approached by fans who say they love Charleston and feel like the show lets them visit, if only for a televised hour.