At the height of the party—that insanely zeitgeisty bubble the mid-1980s New York City period personified when Andy Warhol and Madonna were leading the cool kids—Cornelia Guest was, quite literally, the princess of the ball. And when your dad, Winston Guest, is a cousin of British icon Winston Churchill, your mom, C.Z. Guest, is the grandest of Manhattan’s legendary socialites and your godparents are, impossibly, King Edward VIII, the Duke of Windsor, and his wife, Wallis Simpson, well, we’re not talking Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian territory here. Cornelia Guest is unquestionably, undeniably, unbelievably certified society royalty. American royalty, that is.
BY RICHARD PÉREZ-FERIA
I first met Cornelia in the 1990s in a very different NYC than the one where she first made her big splash years earlier. Gotham’s joie de vivre was replaced by the triple demons of the insidious AIDS pandemic, justified racial strife at the hands of police brutality and a soaring unemployment rate. The Big Apple of the early ’90s didn’t feel like a city in the mood for fun and games but our girl rolled with the punches as she has done so often throughout her fascinating life.
Cornelia Guest made her official societal debut in 1982 at the exclusive International Debutante Ball at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City, and was crowned “Deb Of The Year” ultimately culminating in 1986 with the title “Deb Of The Decade” prompting The New York Times to refer to Cornelia as the country’s first “celebutante.” But why her?
The newspaper of record explained the Cornelia Guest phenomenon thusly: “Before Cornelia Guest, debs were quiet about their ambitions. They aimed to mingle with the equally posh and then marry—she had different plans.” Her gorgeous mother concurred: “Cornelia is some number—she’s a star!” To further burnish her “non-civilian” status, Cornelia’s soirée at the luxe hotel was no mere outing, the teenager’s coming out extravaganza attracted the likes of pop art deity Andy Warhol (a childhood friend), Prince Egon von Fürstenberg, supermodel Cheryl Tiegs, fabled heiress Doris Duke and celebrated author Truman Capote who famously described Cornelia’s celebrity-filled party to People like this: “Cornelia has a No.1 name. The Guests are from real patrician stock, unlike the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers, who are descended from crooks.” So, there’s that.
But the successful, happy life Cornelia has carved out would perhaps seem unrecognizable to the ambitious, Studio 54-loving, kind-hearted socialite of yesteryear. Today’s Cornelia is a fierce animal rights activist, passionate philanthropist, ambitious entrepreneur and, perhaps most incredibly (and publicly), an accomplished, talented actress. In other words—and this is something anyone who meets Cornelia can attest to as well—the Manhattan native is in constant motion propelling herself, the planet, her causes forward in the chicest manner imaginable. It’s a wonder to witness.
Of all her divergent interests, I believe Cornelia feels the most affinity with horses, her first love. Her father was an internationally-known horse racing aficionado who would take young Cornelia to Saratoga Springs, NY, the mecca of American horse racing, every summer season, clearly further igniting her animal rights activism gene. Cornelia is widely celebrated for her relentless advocacy for animal causes, including her unwavering support for the Humane Society Of New York, and was even named by Donna Karan as one of the “Women Who Inspire.” The list goes on. Cornelia was the face of PETA’s famous “I’d Rather Go Naked” anti-fur advertising campaign. She was also named Project Gravitas’ “Woman Of The Month,” helped design a line of cruelty-free leather jackets and just recently partnered with Fabulous Furs to create a line of faux fur jackets. Oh, and she also founded the Artemis Farm Rescue in 2016. Fierce. All of it—fierce.
For Cornelia’s professional sizzle, she has now established herself as not only a legitimate actor, but a producer as well. In 2017 she launched Cornelia Guest Productions and has co-starred in a number of acclaimed film and television projects including David Lynch’s Showtime re-boot of Twin Peaks: The Return; Netflix’s Carrie Pilby starring Gabriel Byrne and Nathan Lane; Amazon Prime’s Halston and the film The Shuroo Process coming later in 2021 from Emrhys Cooper. Now, that’s a working actor.
When I last spent quality time with Cornelia was pre-pandemic at her stunning country cottage in New York’s beautiful Hudson Valley at an intime, chic, perfect dinner party she hosted, as one would expect, exquisitely. As all of us were regaling each other with some of our more fantastical tales from our fantastical lives, I kept an eye on Cornelia throughout the festive evening and thought about the powerful arc her life had taken. The best-selling author of Cornelia Guest’s Simple Pleasures (among others), the reality television participant of The Food Network’s hit show Rachael vs. Guy, the Bruce Weber model, the Town & Country correspondent—and suddenly it all hit me at once—this Cornelia Guest is a straight-up, no-holds-barred rebel.
By masterfully playing the unbelievable cards she was dealt—a double whammy of unrivaled grace and undeniable privilege—Cornelia Guest didn’t lay back and become a collector of beautiful, vacuous people as she could have easily done; instead, she chose to fight like hell for defenseless animals and the underprivileged around the world. That’s the Cornelia I saw that night in her inviting home laughing at my anecdotes and making all of us there feel so very special because the truth is Cornelia believes that all living creatures on this planet are special indeed.
Just before the world went into lockdown, Cornelia made a big move and left her beloved New York for Texas to, she says, make a better home for the menagerie of animals she has rescued, including a fair share of mini horses, donkeys, Guinea hens, a Sulcata tortoise, ducks, chickens, peacocks and, of course, her coterie of rescue cats and dogs.
I was eager to catch up with Cornelia to see what wisdom she’d be imparting on me (and my fellow PuraPhy loving friends) this time around. I can honestly say that of all the hundreds (thousands?) of A-list celebrities, athletes and other bold-faced names I’ve been fortunate to know in my life, I’ll always have a special spot for Cornelia Guest mostly because of the respect I have for the important choices she’s made in her life, something I can’t say about everyone I know. Oh, and I happen to genuinely like her a lot—definitely not a given in her fabulosity orbit.
So, yeah, I’d love it if you’re able to catch even a glimpse of the Cornelia I’m so happy to know. Don’t get me wrong, I do love me some Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian (I mean, c’mon now), but long before today’s all-encompassing, cacophonous, glitterati/paparazzi machine overwhelmed our collective pop cultural universe, there stood a striking, solitary, determined blonde teenage girl, rebel and proud New Yorker who, without much noticeable effort, conquered a city, an era, an idea. And that, folks, are how legends are made. I think it’s time to meet Cornelia Guest, a true American original.
Hi Cornelia. So happy you’re doing this with me. I think the last time we saw each other was at your intimate—and super chic—dinner party you hosted in your charming oasis in New York’s Hudson Valley. How have you been coping during these terrifying, trying times?
Hi Richard. Thank you; I’m so happy to be doing this with you. It’s been quite the year—for all of us. As you may have heard, I moved to Texas just before we knew what was heading our way. It’s been a wild and, as you said, terrifying ride. But I’m very grateful to be alive and healthy. I just feel so terrible for all the people and businesses who have suffered as a result of this terrible virus.
When I think of you, Cornelia, the boxes I place you in keep changing: Are you an iconic socialite? A generous philanthropist? A talented actor? A tireless animal rights activist? Or, I suppose, are you all of those things at once?
Why, thank you, Richard! You’re so sweet. I’d hope to live up to all those things. But, above all, I’m a dedicated actor and a fearless voice for the voiceless—especially animals.
I know you’ve relived this aspect of your life repeatedly, but for those PuraPhy readers who may not be as familiar, could you recount one or two celebrity anecdotes you’ve experienced? I mean, as a teenager living in Manhattan, you were smack in the middle of the red-hot fame zeitgeist hanging out with Andy Warhol and all of the characters who inhabited Gotham’s glamourous glitterati.
You know, going to a museum with [world-famous “starchitect”] Peter Marino or Andy Warhol is always the best art lesson in the world. Nobody knows art history like Peter Marino. He’s an amazing encyclopedia. But the truth is simply this: The creativity in New York City was incredible at that time. Everybody was free and creating magic—real magic.
I remember one really fun night you and I met up at the Chateau Marmont—just after we randomly ran into each other in Beverly Hills—when I first began to have an appreciation for your tireless dedication to the cause of animal rights. I know you grew up loving horses and I’m guessing that love blossomed to other defenseless creatures.
Well, yes, Richard, you know I do love horses. I’ve had a very strong connection to horses ever since I was a small child. In fact, as you may remember, I even started a miniature horse and donkey rescue a few years ago. But I’ve always loved all animals. As a little girl, I’d always bring home strays and injured animals. My home was basically “Cornelia’s Ark!” [Laughs] I’m so happy and grateful my parents indulged this.
How long have you been a vegan? What do you think is still the biggest misconception about vegans in our country?
I’ve been vegan for more than 15 years now. I think one of the biggest misconceptions about vegans is that we’re all angry, judgy people. Based on the vegans I know; the opposite is true. I think another misconception is that our food is bland or unsatisfying—even today—which is bizarre. Have you tried a Beyond Burger? They’re just as good and satisfying as the real deal.
So many of PuraPhy readers, who are clearly interested in CBD, functional mushrooms and a slew of other plant-based products, seem to be a lot more open to exploring Eastern methodologies in their wellness routines. Do you have any experience or thoughts about untraditional or holistic approaches to wellness? Is meditation, for example, something you practice?
Oh, yes. Personally, I love to meditate.
It’s always such a thrill when I’m flipping around the million DirecTV channels on my Flintstones-sized flatscreen and happen to catch you in one of your myriad acting roles. I›ve always been curious: Does acting come naturally for you? Was being famous at a young age propel you into acting?
I do love to act. You know, some things do come more naturally to me than others. It’s definitely a lot of work, but always being able to play different people is so much fun.
In 2017, you portrayed “Phyllis Hastings” in the acclaimed Showtime reboot Twin Peaks: The Return. How was that high-profile experience for you? How was David Lynch to work with?
It was all very thrilling. I was so happy to get the part and for the opportunity to work with such a genius as [show creator] David Lynch. He truly is a force of nature. And he was so kind to me on set. It remains as one of the highlights of my career.
Tell me about your latest film. It’s coming out this year, right?
Yes! Fingers crossed that The Shuroo Process will come out this year. It was yet another fun project to work on. Everyone involved was so talented and so nice. And we filmed in upstate New York, which, as you know quite well, was lovely. At the end of 2020, I acted in Gigi Gaston’s 9 Bullets with Lena Headey, a project that I’m also very excited about.
After an incredible lifetime of notoriety, accomplishment and hard work—and an incredible lifetime of notoriety, accomplishment and hard work left to go—anything you’d do differently? What if I told you could relive one day?
You know, this a really great question, Richard. Honestly, I don’t think there’s anything I’d do differently. Everything I’ve done and lived through—both good and bad—has led to where I am today. Absolutely no regrets. But, if I could relive one moment, I think it’d be Dior’s Tiepolo Ball at the Venice Biennale, in 2019. I attended with my dear friend Peter Marino. It was just like a fairytale. Simply magical.
You know how much I love our conversations, and, of course, you never disappoint, my wish would be that more people would get to know the silly, kind, hilarious woman you actually are. So, leave me with something to think about before I go. Do you have a mantra or words you live by?
Wow, thank you for the kind words, Richard. As far as words to live by, Winston Churchill comes to mind: “Never give in. Never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in, except to convictions of honor and good sense.”
PORTRAIT: STEWART SHINING