The Life of Syracuse’s Favorite Socialite
By Lorna Oppedisano | Photography by Alice G. Patterson
Jamie Ann Owens — more widely known as Syracuse content creator, SocietyGurl — has had an appreciation for all things vintage, fabulous and ladylike in Syracuse since she was about 3 or 4 years old. Her mother and aunts — ladies who were always “dressed,” Jamie remembered — taught her elegance and grace at a young age.
And then there was her imaginary friend turned personality.
“Christine Jonvay,” Jamie said, adopting a slight French accent to theatrically enunciate each syllable.
Her mother would call Jamie’s name, and receive the answer, “I’m not Jamie. I’m Christine.”
When Jamie was invited to a friend’s house for a tea party one day, she insisted on getting a specific outfit — because that’s what Christine wore. The young girl needed a pillbox hat with birdcage netting, a dress “that had to flow,” a purse and a cigarette case, Jamie said with a hearty chuckle, her eyes glittering at the memory.
“[My mom] went to the thrift store and found that outfit, and I walked — in her heels — all the way to that tea party, as Christine, gloves and all,” Jamie said. “So, very early on, I wanted to be, you know, a lady.”
Jamie hasn’t stopped being a lady and standing out. From Syracuse to Oswego to New York City to Syracuse to Ithaca, and back to Syracuse; from Christine Jonvay to SocietyGurl; from actress to content creator highlighting Syracuse culture to model to mother — everything Jamie does, she does with “a little bit of sparkle,” as she puts it.
You have to be a little “off,” she explained.
“And I like that ‘off,’” Jamie said. “I believe that I’m a little ‘off’ to go around with red hair, floating around the city all day and telling people to drink cocktails and eat. You have to be.”
Jamie was born and raised in Syracuse. When it came time for college, she attended SUNY Oswego to study music theater, with a focus in opera. During her junior year, she followed her passion to New York City for a short stint, before eventually coming back to Syracuse.
Once she’d returned home, she discovered two things that would greatly influence her future: technology and her husband.
At the time, Jamie didn’t want to leave New York City, so her father asked her what would convince her to stay in Syracuse.
“At that time, computers and internet were becoming big, so I said, ‘I want a computer.’ I didn’t think he would go buy it,” Jamie said. “Well, he bought a computer. And from then, I started learning about the internet.”
Shortly thereafter, Jamie met a man at Borders bookstore. He wasn’t her usual type, but she thought he was cute.
“There was something so charming and so darling about him, and I fell in love,” she remembered. “And he kept me here.”
The birth of SocietyGurl
The couple moved to Ithaca for a short time, but eventually felt home calling, and settled back in Syracuse.
By that time, Jamie had a goal in mind: she wanted to be a socialite, a lady. She might have outgrown Christine Jonvay, but that spark of grandiose, old-fashioned, fabulous living hadn’t left her.
Then one evening, Jamie told her husband she wanted to dye her hair red. She’d just do highlights, she promised. So, he went to bed, and she went to work with the bleach.
“And before I knew it, I was just blonde,” Jamie said. “And I was like, ‘Oh well, I might as well just do it all!’”
When he saw the fiery red hue the next morning, she joked with him: “I have a plan,” she said. She didn’t realize that overnight, she’d nurtured that seed already planted in the back of her mind, and her alter ego, SocietyGurl, was about to flourish.
Around the same time, Jamie and her husband began exploring their city — going to wineries, visiting apple orchards — and posting videos of their adventures online for family to view.
Unbeknownst to her, the Syracuse New Times’ Ty Marshall stumbled upon the videos. He reached out to Jamie. She had to wonder: why did anyone but her family want to watch their videos?
“I think they’re really cool,” he told her. “I think you could do something.”
So, they sat down, talked it over and came up with a plan: Jamie would develop the character of SocietyGurl into more of a brand, and create video content for Syracuse New Times. Jamie stars in the clips, clueing the viewer in to the city’s hidden and not-so-hidden gems. Her husband shoots the videos, and Jamie edits.
Before long, their popularity grew. Jamie still remembers the first time she was recognized in public.
“I was in Al’s [Wine and Whiskey Lounge]. And my husband and I were just drinking, and this girl screams — now, mind you, it’s Al’s, so it’s loud — this girl screams from the back of the place,” Jamie said, still slightly in awe of the experience. “She goes, ‘Oh my god, you’re SocietyGurl!’ And I’m like, ‘What?’ And she just comes up to me and hugs me. And she goes, ‘I love your videos.’”
It was surreal, Jamie recalled. What started out as a video diary of sorts for her family was morphing into social media followed by “all kinds of people,” she said. Strangers now approached her to talk about the new vintage dress they’d bought after watching SocietyGurl, or the new cocktail they’d tried.
All things considered, SocietyGurl let Jamie feed her creativity, and was someone who had always existed on some level.
“But these people are taking a piece of me, and they’re applying that to their lives,” Jamie said. “And that’s freakin’ special. It’s an honor.”
The constant spotlight
Portraying SocietyGurl is a work of art. While the alter ego has always been in her to an extent, the pressure to stay in character can weigh heavy. Keeping the consistency going can be a challenge in any form of media, Jamie explained.
“I want to give people the best quality that I can give them in video content,” she said. “And I believe in what I see in our community, and I want to do it honestly.”
When Jamie and her husband started making videos, they enjoyed a fair amount of anonymity. They would go check out the next place on their list, and blend in. Sure, Jamie’s red hair might catch a stray glance or two, but otherwise, they were simply a couple documenting their travels.
With the growing popularity of their videos, people eventually began asking Jamie to review their newly opened establishments. While she does love promoting all the city has to offer, SocietyGurl is not a reviewer or a critic, Jamie stressed.
“And I think that’s important, because my job is not to make people feel like they are less than,” she said. “My goal is to make people see the beauty in our community, whether it be a restaurant or a business or a product.”
When people see Jamie “out of character” from time to time, it can take them by surprise, she said. People tell her she “looks different,” she said.
“And that’s happened quite a few times in Trader Joe’s,” she said with a laugh. “‘You look different’ — or, I had one girl go, ‘Oh, you looked better last time.’”
It’s not always easy to hear comments like that, Jamie said, but she understands it. After all, she created SocietyGurl.
“It is a character,” she said. “She is a character.”
SocietyGurl collaborated with Syracuse New Times for about three years, and still produces some content for them from time to time.
But within the last year, the brand reach has begun to expand nationally.
When she submitted a cocktail video to Pinup Industry Magazine, they loved it so much they asked her to do more videos with them, and she’s now worked with them for a few months.
It’s helped her connect with others interested in the vintage lifestyle and the pinup community nationally, through conventions and events, and brought SocietyGurl a more national audience.
While Jamie’s happy the brand is expanding, the self-proclaimed “100 percent Syracuse girl” isn’t going anywhere, and doesn’t plan to stop promoting the Salt City.
“I will always showcase my community, because this is where I live,” she said. “If I see something awesome, I’m going to tell you about it.”
The best surprise
As SocietyGurl began to pick up, and her husband’s job as a system architect was going well, life threw the couple a surprise.
While she was editing a video, Jamie noticed her stomach looked different. To quell any curiosity, she took a pregnancy test, assuming she’d see negative results. To her surprise, the test result was positive. Thinking she was crazy, Jamie took more tests — about 14 more. Every test resulted positive. The couple just sat there, she remembered.
“Are you OK?” she asked him.
“I’m nervous, but I’m OK,” he answered.
“We can do this,” she said.
“Yeah,” he agreed. “We can do it.”
Their son, Griffin, was born, and they couldn’t be happier.
“He’s just the best — the best thing that ever happened to me,” she said. “He’s a spitfire. He is my child, 100 percent. He’s got a temper, and he’s 1. He’s a little sassy. I love it.”
Being a mother has changed Jamie’s perspective on life. She doesn’t take things too seriously anymore, she explained, adding that as long as Griffin is eating and has a roof over his head, she’s happy. It’s a rare feeling that she hopes more people will get to enjoy, she said.
Griffin — their “best surprise ever” — has changed her husband, too, Jamie said, her eyes shining brighter than her hair.
“The things that he says to my son when he thinks I’m not listening are the most amazing things that you can ever hear,” she said.
Mastering graceful confidence
It’s been a long journey for Jamie and SocietyGurl. In a lot of ways, it’s just beginning.
Along with being a media personality and content creator for a nationally-expanding social media channel, Jamie has emceed and modeled in Syracuse Fashion Week, with a group of people she described as loving, inviting and strong.
While Syracuse Fashion Week is known for its inclusive diversity, more generally speaking, Jamie knows she faces challenges being a shorter, plus-sized model of color, she admitted.
“But I rock it,” she said.
From a young age, her mother and aunts instilled in Jamie the value of inner beauty and grace. It’s important to be confident, kind and humble, she explained. Now that she’s older, she’s learning more “about this new part of [herself] — of being sexy, being beautiful, no matter what,” she said. Her alter ego has helped Jamie gain that knowledge.
The secret to SocietyGurl’s — and Jamie’s — graceful and modest confidence is simple.
“Be. Happy,” Jamie said, stressing each word. “Be happy. The only thing I can tell you is: if you wake up in the morning and you take the littlest things and you make them so big — and they take over your life to the point where you’re not happy — you’re never going to live. In order to live, you have to be happy.” SWM
To follow SocietyGurl online, visit thesocietygurl.com or facebook.com/thesocietygurl. Jamie is one of the Salt City Belles, a group that promotes the vintage lifestyle in Central New York. To find out more, visit saltcitybellesandbeaus.com.