January 26, 1998 12:00 PM

What is it like to be a high-society debutante in the dressed-down ’90s? To be crossing that gilded threshold of wealth and status while most of your friends are home watching MTV over a slice of pepperoni pizza?

To find out, PEOPLE asked 19-year-old New York socialite Olivia Henrietta Elizabeth Trapp for permission to tag along as she prepared for her ceremonial presentation to society at the 44th Annual International Debutante Ball on Dec. 29. We picked Trapp because her background fit the traditional image of the Eastern elite. And having freely chosen to take part—debutante balls are no longer de rigueur among the blue-blood set—she was also willing to share the joys and anxieties she found on the path to debhood. As the tall, athletic Tulane University freshman conceded in a Manhattan cappuccino bar a week before the ball, the problems she was obsessing about were not those facing the average college kid on holiday break. “I am freaked out,” she said, “about the curtsy.”

That elaborate curtsy, which climaxes the presentation, is a vestige of the aristocratic 18th-century English traditions that gave America the debutante ball. Though the International is newer and less exclusive than some (such as the Debutante Cotillion and Christmas Ball), the 52 young women invited this season were screened carefully by a committee that personally knows each invitee’s family. And for Trapp, the prospect of embarrassing herself before some 800 members of that close-knit social world, in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria hotel, was downright scary. “I’ve never been in a white dress before, prancing around,” she said. “It’s, like, your moment to shine. And it wouldn’t be too funny if I fall on my face.”

Why would a modern young woman submit to such an archaic ritual? Certain aspects of the debutante tradition—such as its role in declaring oneself available for courtship—have clearly faded. But some wealthy families like to retain the custom of sending their daughters into the world with great fanfare, while others no doubt enjoy demonstrating that they can afford the $4,000-per-table fee for the evening (whose proceeds benefit a military charity). Recently, too, boosters of debutante balls—or cotillions, as they’re sometimes called—have come to emphasize the advantages of networking with prospective employers, clients and contacts. “These are very bright girls,” says Olivia’s father, Peter, 52, who is an English-born mutual fund manager. “They’ll be dealing with each other throughout their lives.”

In a sense Olivia Trapp has been on a path to the International Ball since birth. Her father and her mother—Regina Thomas von Bohlen, 52, a consultant in feng shui, the ancient Chinese art of balancing spiritual energy by altering the design of rooms and buildings—divorced in 1986, and Olivia grew up dividing her time between their well-appointed homes on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and in woodsy Millbrook, N.Y. She attended the Nightingale-Bamford School and graduated from St. Marks boarding school in Southboro, Mass., before entering Tulane, in New Orleans, with an eye toward majoring in criminology.

Olivia’s sister Sophia, who is now 26 and a landscape architect in London, debuted at the 1988 International Ball. But back in May, when Olivia received her invitation, she was unsure whether she was interested enough in the rituals of high society to attend. Yet when Sophia recalled the social advantages—and the fun—that she had had as a deb, Olivia decided to accept. Soon she began dreaming up ideas for her gown, and her debutante season was, in a sense, under way.

Nov. 24: Breezing into Razook’s, an exclusive Greenwich, Conn., dress shop, in blue jeans and sneakers, Trapp describes the gown she envisioned over the summer—strapless, satin, with hand-appliquéd white velvet—and sketched out for designer Patricia Moran. “I really don’t want it to look like everybody else’s—they all go to Saks or Vera Wang,” she says. Her mother agrees: “I want everybody to look across the room and see a magnificent gown—and my daughter in it.” Moran emerges from the studio with the work-in-progress. “This is it!” Trapp cries. “It’s all coming together. Everything is perfect!”

Nov. 29: Things seem slightly less perfect on Saturday, when Trapp and her mother arrive more than an hour late to the Bachelors’ Brunch at Tatou supper club in Manhattan, a Sadie Hawkins-style affair sponsored by the International Ball, where debs can size up potential escorts. By custom each deb must have two escorts, one a civilian and the other a military cadet who carries the debutante’s state or national flag. Trapp isn’t particularly worried about the civilian part, but with no friends in military school, she does need to find a cadet. By the time Trapp slips through Manhattan traffic jams, though, all the men in uniform seem to have been drafted. (“This one guy told me he’d been asked three times!” Trapp moans.) But she does meet some friendly debs from last year’s ball who spirit her off to lunch with a handful of cadets—including an Annapolis midshipman whose classmate back at the academy is both willing and available. Trapp has her man.

Dec. 23: Trapp is starting to feel the strain of preparation. “Everyone expects perfection,” she says. “When Sophia came out, I swear, she just powdered her face and pinned her hair up and that was it. Now there’s this whole sense of who’s going to be the most glamorous.”

Trapp’s civilian-escort situation has also grown complex. “You never ask a boyfriend, because it’s so much work,” she explains. “So I’ve got these guy friends, Lance and Nick, who are, like, my oldest friends, right?” Unfortunately, Lance was out of town when she needed a commitment, and Nick’s grandmother gave him a ticket for the Orient Express. “So I called this new friend of mine, Roddy, and he said yes. But now Lance is back in town, and he’ll be so hurt if I go with anyone else!” She sighs. “This is such a humongous production!”

Dec. 29: 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Rehearsal in the Waldorf’s Grand Ballroom. As time grows short and casually dressed couples shuffle awkwardly through their paces, tempers run hot. “I don’t have time for anything,” Trapp says.

2:20 p.m. Like many debutante families, the Trapps are sharing a $900 suite at the Waldorf Towers as a base of operations for the evening. Sophia has flown in from London, while brother Alex, 22, a Southern Methodist University student on leave, opted to stay in Dallas. The suite’s windows offer a spectacular view of the Chrysler Building’s glimmering spire. But the real focal point is Olivia, who is being transformed by Tara Quinn, a Frédéric Fekkai hairstylist:, while makeup stylist Matthew Sky of the John D’Orazio Salon empties his rucksack of paints, powders and lotions and prepares to work on all three ladies. Between the two stylists, the bill for Olivia’s hair and makeup comes to $600.

6:10 p.m. Peter Trapp appears at the door in white tie and tails, with white kid gloves and a spare bow tie in his pocket. (“I always bring it,” he explains, “in case someone needs one.”) Next comes Olivia’s civilian escort, Roddy Moorehead (Lance gave his blessing), a Harvard freshman she met last summer on Martha’s Vineyard, and the Trapp party descends to the third floor for a formal portrait by the ball photographer.

9 p.m. While her family dines in the ballroom, Trapp—now joined by military escort Shanti Holmes-McGovern, midshipman first class at the U.S. Naval Academy—chatters excitedly in a smaller dining room reserved for debutantes, escorts and friends. The debs’ plates of vol-au-vent aux champignons lie untouched.

11 p.m. The climactic processional—the heart and soul of the “coming-out” ceremony—forms in a dark, crowded room adjoining the ballroom. “I want to see everyone smiling out there!” bellows coordinator E. Stansbury Schanze. Now the line is ready to move. “God bless you! And, ladies and gentlemen,” he commands, “have fun out there!”

11:15 p.m. The lights dim, and the procession begins with a lone bagpiper dressed in Scottish regalia. A color guard of cadet escorts follows (marching to the orchestra’s jaunty take on “Battle Hymn of the Republic”), and moments later emcee Ivan Obolensky turns to his alphabetical list of home states and nations. His thundering cry of “Bermuda!” cues the first debutante, Anne Arola Trott. Under the glare of a spotlight, she approaches the front of the dance floor and turns to face the audience as Obolensky recites her name, her parents’ names and their hometown. Holding her arms up, Trott completes her curtsy with a subtle bow of the head. The crowd roars—though not nearly so loudly as they will for the six Texas debs, whose strenuous Texas Dip requires them to all but vanish face first into the skirts of white tulle arrayed beneath them.

Watching anxiously, Trapp inches forward in line, her heart drumming against her satin bodice. “Don’t fall!” she is thinking. “Don’t fall!”

11:54 p.m. “New…YORK!” The spotlight finds Trapp at last. For an instant she feels faint. But with Moore-head guiding her hand and Holmes-McGovern bearing the Empire State flag, she begins to walk. Buoyed by shouts from the Trapp table—they’re all on their feet now—Olivia glides to the foot of the stage, where she spins and waits for Obolensky to trumpet her credentials. Then she raises her arms, rotates her right leg back, and sinks slowly into her bow. Reaching the bottom of her curtsy, she holds the pose for three long beats and then rises slowly. A big whoop from Peter leads the applause, and as Trapp joins her peers onstage, her smile bespeaks her feeling of having arrived.

12:30 a.m. It’s time to dance. First to “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” then R&B and rock standards. When Lester Lanin’s band breaks into “Hot Hot Hot,” a vast conga line forms.

2 a.m. “Waiting to go out, I was, like, hyperventilating,” Trapp gushes while heading back to the suite for a post-ball party. She finally changes out of her gown and lets herself unwind. Before long the adults will be on their way home, leaving Olivia and her friends, society’s next generation, to dance until sunrise with Manhattan—and the world—far below.

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