You probably remember the pre-college pull: The anticipation after application, the excitement of acceptance. The jitters of pulling up to campus on move-in day, the boxes full of stuff lugged up many flights of stairs—all these are common experiences. But few students experience them followed by a camera crew. That is, until Jaime Gleicher, star of the MTV show Rich Girls, came to Barnard in the fall of 2003.
On camera, Gleicher is nervous as she gets ready for college—she says this multiple times. She packs an overwhelming amount of clothes and despairs at saying goodbye to her dog. She anxiously waits for her friend Ally Hilfiger, daughter of designer Tommy Hilfiger, to arrive at her apartment, hoping to load her clothes into Ally’s Range Rover for the drive down Riverside Drive. But each admission of worry is paired with a smile.
Behind the scenes, Gleicher is more than just nervous—she is panicked. “I nearly fainted,” she tells me. “I did not want to get out of that car with that camera crew.” Gleicher already knew her relatively private life was about to become public. The reality of the commitments she had made suddenly hit her. She would keep this camera crew with her during her first week of classes. She was contractually obligated to promote the show, even as she started college. As other students arrived ready for a fresh start, she arrived as a seasoned teenage reality star.
Jaime Gleicher’s coming-of-age was televised, from prom night to her first days at Barnard. When the cameras shut off, the façade of reality TV fell. Gleicher has since learned from her past and uses it to help others today.
At age 17, Jaime Gleicher, then a high school senior, wrote the start to a young adult novel she hoped to someday publish. Even to her, it seems unclear how her writing ended up in the hands of MTV. But MTV read her work and loved it.
In a whirlwind, Gleicher was signed on as a producer, and after that, “it was all kind of downhill from there.” Rich Girls was one of the first reality shows of the 2000s, bursting onto the scene in the wake of shows like The Osbournes and Real World. The show followed Gleicher and her best friend Ally through their last semester of high school in New York City.
The Jaime in Rich Girls is a far cry from the Jaime I meet. She bounds into the Nylo Hotel, all smiles. Her laptop has rainbow decals, and as I catch a glimpse at her jewelry, it, too, is colorful and bright. The Jaime I meet still has the sweetness of the Jaime from Rich Girls, with the cheerful tone and a constant beam. But now, she carries a renewed confidence, a sense of self she seemed to lack on the show.
On Rich Girls, which ran for one 10-episode season on MTV, we see Gleicher stressed over late summer packing, excited as she signs into NSOP. The rest of the show has a certain edited cadence. Full of shopping adventures and private cars, the two girls waltz through the city.
As Hilfiger says in the show’s opening montage, the girls “prance around this damn city like it’s [their] shopping haven.” One episode follows the girls exiting a store after shopping, then cuts to the back of a limo, with Hilfiger leaning on Gleicher, surrounded by bags. “We found everything except for a prom dress for both of us,” Gleicher smiles. They drive by Park Avenue, and Hilfiger teases Gleicher about being a future “Park Avenue mother.”
You get a very loose sense of Gleicher and Hilfiger’s personalities from watching the show. They have a generic early 2000s teenager look, clad in denim and polos. Both are bubbly and excited, and the friendship between them seems genuine (though the two parted ways soon after the show was done filming). Although the conversations aired are often about travel and clothes and school, they seem like fairly well-adjusted teenagers, albeit clueless at times. Nevertheless, they are Rich Girls—wealthy, privileged, and isolated young women.
But this is the magic of reality television. It shows you a convenient truth, an edited reality, a one-dimensional view of two young women, too young to know the mess they’ve gotten themselves into. A coming of age, displayed oh-so-conveniently on your screen.
Gleicher was unaware of the impacts of reality TV—it was uncharted territory. At first, she hadn’t intended to be on the show herself. She wanted to be a writer, and reality TV seemed like the perfect platform. As a student at New York’s well-known Professional Children’s School, which serves students working in the entertainment business, Gleicher felt compelled to pursue every professional opportunity she could. But she didn’t realize that she would end up starring in Rich Girls, not writing.
“Knowing the editing, all that ... had this been now, my parents would never ...” she trails off. She starts again, “But back then it was my writing that was, in a sense, getting published, and [my parents] supported that.”
On her first day at Barnard, Gleicher excitedly put a whiteboard on her door with a welcoming message: “Hi! Come on in!” In response, people wrote messages like, "You should die" and “Go away."
Before the show aired, Gleicher’s life had been centered on school and writing. “I was very academic,” she recounts. But while in high school, Gleicher had also struggled with an eating disorder.
While the cameras turned off shortly after Gleicher’s arrival at Barnard, the show aired during her first semester of college, from fall 2003 to winter 2004. Most students struggle to adjust to college, but few undertake this challenge so publicly. Gleicher was not able to put her high school past behind her. Any silly mistakes she made were caught on camera. And with the airing came criticism.
“I was severely online bullied,” she says. “I remember the darkest nights, I would stay up at my computer and read comments of people, calling me ‘fat,’ ‘elephant,’ ‘whale,’ ‘She should just kill herself.’” But when she arrived at Barnard, the backlash was not relegated to online forums or unkind reviewers.
The combination of public scrutiny and cyberbullying took a toll on Gleicher’s mental health. “My eating disorder came back. I was completely and utterly depressed,” she says. “I mean, there were nights where I thought I didn't want to live anymore.”
Gleicher ended up taking time off from Barnard to get help. Contrary to online speculation—even in 2009, a column jokingly wondered of Gleicher, “Did Barnard eat her up?”—she did not fail out of school.
“It would have been a real disservice to myself had I stayed through all the noise of that, because I needed to go there as I truly was,” Gleicher says. ”And the show had morphed me, in many ways, into someone that I wasn't.”
Gleicher spent three years in treatment programs for her eating disorder and depression, a fact she is not ashamed of. Afterwards, Gleicher returned to Barnard to complete her degree in English with a concentration in creative writing—her thesis was a series of personal essays about her three years off from school.
Gleicher remembers her time at Barnard fondly. The school supported her through her time there, from the camera crew phase to her graduation in 2011. She thrived under the guidance of caring faculty, focusing on creative writing and psychology. But despite taking many courses in the latter, she did not major in the subject.
After graduation, Gleicher pursued her master’s degree in social work at New York University Silver School of Social Work. She didn’t go to the Columbia University School of Social Work, because, she laughs, “I felt like I actually would be really sad being up there and not being at Barnard.”
Gleicher credits her interest in psychology towards her time at Barnard and her own struggles with mental health.
“Had I not ended up in a psychiatric hospital, had I not met the treatment providers who dragged me out of that dark place, I don't know if I would have ever fallen into this line of work,” she says.
“I wouldn't give this line of work up for anything,” she adds. “This is who I'm meant to be.”
Gleicher’s first job after graduating from NYU was with the renowned psychologist Dr. Jen Hartstein, as a dialectical behavior therapist. Gleicher originally met Dr. Hartstein while working at the New York Center for Living, a young adult outpatient rehab.
Gleicher’s study of creative writing taught her to study characters, to understand their nuances and motivations. She does the same thing as a therapist.
“I just needed to read people for a living,” Gleicher says. “And that's what I do.” Mary Gordon, Millicent C. McIntosh Professor in English and Writing, with whom Gleicher is still in contact, encouraged Gleicher to tell her story, first through her thesis, and now through a memoir she is writing.
Gleicher worried at first about working with clients. A quick Google search of her name reveals her involvement in Rich Girls. Patients’ parents have called her, questioning her about this past. But she is not deterred.
“My favorite saying is, ‘Be the person you needed when you were younger,’” she recites. For Gleicher, these people were mental health professionals, who helped her recognize and face her challenges. Currently, she sees about 20 clients a week. All of them have her number, which they are encouraged to call at any time.
Gleicher recognizes herself in many of her patients—her time on Rich Girls chronicled the life of an insecure young woman, unable to find her place in the world.
“You know, the fabulous New York City life I was lucky enough to be able to afford, and the shopping and the things and the frills, all of that was covering up pain and insecurity that I felt,” Gleicher says. The same cycle is evident in the patients she sees, with the added anxieties of social media creating “reality shows on their social media feeds.”
Gleicher’s work in dialectical behavioral therapy centers on mindfulness and empathy. And outside of work, Gleicher is similarly mindful, connecting a centered mind to a healthy lifestyle as an avid fitness aficionado. After our interview, she will round the corner from the hotel lounge where we sit to the 77th Street SoulCycle for an ACLU benefit ride. She’s also a recent devotee of Pure Yoga.
Beyond fitness, Gleicher is also involved in various nonprofits. The causes she supports are deeply personal: She’s on the junior executive committee of Silver Health Hospital, the psychiatric hospital that she says saved her life. She’s also on a committee for Active Minds, a nonprofit organization promoting mental health on campus, particularly support for suicide prevention.
From Gleicher’s involvement with Active Minds, we begin to discuss the suicides that have been hitting close to home, at Columbia.
“Suicide is very real. It happens. So, you see someone struggling, you've got to say something,” Gleicher urges. “Everyone is struggling in their own way. And dialectal behavior therapy, there is a skill which is practicing love and kindness. It's hard. We're all human. We don't always practice love and kindness.”
The mental health resources we now have are more extensive than what she had access to in the depths of her own struggles. Citing social media, Gleicher notes that “it’s so much easier” to get friends’ help today, or to reach out to someone in need. Even so, she notes that colleges across the nation need to improve their mental health services to meet the needs of their students.
She is humbled by her work and appreciative of her past, despite its many challenges. She has lived, and still lives, a very privileged life, not only financially in her youth, but in the connections that have allowed her to overcome her obstacles and create a fulfilling life for herself.
Gleicher has read enough articles about who she is, or rather, who she was. Now she wants the world to know her truth, in her own words. “I have lived a very, very, very happy, private life,” Gleicher says. This is a privacy she’s worked hard to maintain, but she is willing to break it in order to tell her story, again. The memoir she’s working on is something she hopes will reclaim her past and tell the world the truth behind her experiences.
Jaime Gleicher is not the girl on the TV screen. Arguably, she never was. For her, the greatest compliment is a recognition of that difference.
“Oh, you're so different now,” is, for her, the greatest compliment.
“I have made such a conscious effort to be as far away from what was and to give back and to find a career that was really fulfilling and that [her brief flirtation with fame] was not fulfilling to me.” she says. Gleicher credits her time on campus as a motivator for that change, for giving her the awareness “that you can evolve … you can change. So, that's all Barnard.”
Ella Koscher contributed reporting.
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