This piece originally appeared as part of Rolling Stone’s annual Hot List, in the July/August issue of the magazine.
Hello, Upper East Siders! You know you missed them. The hotly anticipated Gossip Girl sequel — a fresh take on the debauched YA series-turned-CW megahit — is finally here. Premiering July 8th on HBO Max, the show is set in the same world of über-privileged and über-troubled Manhattan prep-school teens as the OG iteration, only this time there’s a notably diverse cast and, as showrunner Joshua Safran promised on Twitter, none of the “slut shaming” or “catfights.”
That doesn’t mean there won’t be drama. For months, plot details have been tightly guarded except for character names and short descriptions. But Safran (who wrote and produced on the original, alongside creators Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage, who produce here) has teased that social media will be integral to how the new titular Gossip Girl spreads word of the goings-on in the rich-kid scene.
Whitney Peak, who previously starred in Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, was one of the first actors cast. She plays Zoya, a newbie to this posh and cutthroat upper-crust setting — “kind of the Dan Humphrey” of the new group, Peak says, referencing Penn Badgley’s character from the original, who served as an audience surrogate. “She introduces the viewer to the world.” (Peak is quick to caution that Zoya isn’t like Dan — who was eventually revealed to be Gossip Girl — in all ways.)
The 18-year-old Peak, born in Uganda and raised in Vancouver, says she connected with Zoya’s sense of alienation. The character is green to the Manhattan upper-crust world she is thrown into headfirst, and her storyline follows the tension between her desire to be part of it and to resist the nastier parts. “A lot of things she’s experiencing I’ve already had a taste of,” Peak says. “Being an outsider in a new world and having to decide if you’re going to stick to your morals or try to change yourself to fit in, to make the adjustment less painful.”
Model and skateboarder Evan Mock related to his character, Aki, too — though it would be weird if he didn’t. Safran had used a photo of Mock as visual inspiration for Aki, which led to the 24-year-old Hawaii native securing his first-ever acting gig.
“I talked to Josh for the first time at the end of 2019,” Mock says. “He said, ‘I’ve been staring at your face the last couple months. It would be awesome if you just tried out for this part.’ ” It took over a year, but Mock was officially cast last fall.
Unlike Peak’s Zoya, Aki is already embedded into the high society, dating Audrey (played by Emily Alyn Lind), the daughter of a well-known athleisure designer whose boldface name sometimes appears in the local tabloids. But he’s still struggling to find his footing in many ways: The couple’s relationship is getting a bit dull, and a different member of their inner circle has invaded the couple’s romantic life to shake things up. As a result, Aki and Audrey have to begin answering some tough questions about who they are and what they want. As Mock says, “He’s a skater and just figuring out his life, as I am.”
Mock and Peak’s co-star Jordan Alexander, however, had to do some deep diving outside of her own experiences to prepare for her role. The 27-year-old actress and musician, who hails from Toronto, plays influencer Julien, and for research made a “finsta” to follow influencers she wouldn’t usually seek out on Instagram. “Following a lot of those influencer pages can be toxic for me,” Alexander says. “I wanted to have it separate from my personal account.”
Virtually visiting the life of jet-setting, free gifts, and exquisitely Facetuned photos ended up being eye-opening — Alexander’s Julien carries herself more like a small business personified than a typical high-school It Girl. It also makes the strongest case for now being the perfect time to revisit Gossip Girl: Thanks to social media, the perfect-from-the-outside worlds of Serena, Blair, Chuck, Dan, and Nate are easier to re-create and aspire to today than ever before.
“Living that high life is almost what everyone is expected to do with Instagram,” Alexander says. “Online, everyone is on the Upper East Side.”
MOCK: Grooming by Amy Komorowski. Shirt by Vintage Tee; pants by Vintage Japanese Worker; shoes by Fragment Design x Air Jordan 3.
DOHERTY: Styled by Warren Alfie Baker. Outfit by Hermes.
BROWN: Grooming by Laila Hayani for Forward Artists; styled by Donte McGuine. Outfit by Gucci; earring by Saint Laurent.
LIND: Hair by Kale Teter. Makeup DJ Quintero. Styled by Amarsana Gendunova. Blazer by Ralph Lauren; shirt, pants, and tie by Thom Browne.
SMITH: Hair by Keita Moore. Makeup by Ursula Stephen
ALEXANDER: Makeup by Ernie Robinson; hair by Dana Boyer for The Wall Group.
PEAK: Hair by Naeemah Lafond for the Wall Group; makeup by Tyron Machhausen for the Wall Group. Vest and jewelry by Chanel; hoodie by R13; pants by Fyoocher; shoes by New Balance X Jaden.
MORENO: Makeup by Keita Moore for the Only Agency; hair by Owen Gould for the Wall Group.
Produced by Lynda Goldstein for Pix Producers.