In Defense of Ultragrrrl

Sarah Lewitinn has become New York’s premier tastemaker—and that's what makes the haterati squirm

For dinner, Lewitinn opts for all side orders: a salad with blue cheese crumbles, mashed potatoes, and sauerkraut. A modern Orthodox Jew, she's also kosher vegetarian. She goes home every Friday for Shabbat dinner with her family in Cliffside Park, New Jersey. Her parents are Egyptian Jewish immigrants who fled the country during the Sinai campaign in 1956, signing away their property. Her brother Lawrence, who frequently defends her on blogs and tends her Wikipedia entry, is a real estate investor; her older brother is a TV producer for CNN. Her mother is a real estate agent, while her father is a perennial salesman with a colorful career selling everything from jewelry to real estate to his current product—art on eBay.

One of the biggest fallacies about Lewitinn is that she's a trust-fund baby with a rich family, a misconception perhaps stemming from a high-profile 1995 incident in which her father, having discovered some Torah scrolls in a museum on a family trip to Egypt, sued the Egyptian government for the scrolls to the tune of $500,000,000. (He wanted the scrolls moved into Jewish custody—the courts threw out the case, though another organization took up the cause later.) "The judge said, 'You need to give a numerical price for these Torah scrolls,' " Lewitinn recalls. "My dad's like, 'It's priceless; I can't give a figure!' And like, in an Austin Powers moment, my dad said they're worth $500 million." She laughs. "Both of my parents are not afraid of failure, and I'm not afraid of failure, which means that if you can go headfirst into something, you're gonna do really well or do your best, because you're not worried about making a wrong move."


In high school, Lewitinn took a bus after school to her first internship in 1996, a two-year tenure at ABC News' website. It was during that time that she needed an AOL screen name— Lawrence suggested Ultragrrrl, a combination of a failed feminine product he was repping called Ultrafemme and a riff on riot grrrls. Unbeknownst to them, the seeds of a perfect marketing persona were planted.

Ultragrrrrl: Photograph by Howard Huang; styling by Curtis Davis for Ken Barboza Associates; hair by Hair Q Hardy for Illusions; makeup by Brandon Zimoiyer for Williams Image Group; dress by Bonaparte NY
Ultragrrrrl: Photograph by Howard Huang; styling by Curtis Davis for Ken Barboza Associates; hair by Hair Q Hardy for Illusions; makeup by Brandon Zimoiyer for Williams Image Group; dress by Bonaparte NY

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It was also around this time that Lewitinn met Mikey Way, who many years later would become the bass player for My Chemical Romance. She met him by typing in a string of search terms (Blur, Radiohead, NYC) into AOL's search engine—she e-mailed Mikey and they became fast friends, even briefly dating. Another search, this one for "New York City" and "music journalist" turned up Marc Spitz. "She was like any other IM you would get unsolicited from someone random," says Spitz, who was working for Spin's website at the time. "Nine times out of 10, I would have closed the box and not responded, but I thought, 'Ultragrrrl, that's interesting.' "

As an intern at Spin, Lewitinn was an idea machine, if not exactly a gifted writer, which led some to criticize her behind her back. "I always planned on being in the music industry, but I never planned on being a rock critic," she says. "I never was a rock critic. I was a rock fan that had a pen."

Her college education is minimal: She has a two-year degree in advertising and marketing from the Fashion Institute of Technology. She's got a sort of George W. quality to her—she's not particularly eloquent and can come off spacey. But she's smarter than she seems, and despite her insistence that she's totally uncalculating, she's quietly used various internships and assistant-level jobs to construct her own University of Ultragrrrl course load, learning about every aspect of the music industry—writing, publishing, Web design, publicity, marketing, scouting—while working at inside.com, sonicnet.com, ivillage.com, and Ultra14, an online marketing company. At one point, she interned for a band manager, garnering a skill set she later flexed (not very well, by her own account) for My Chemical Romance. She'd gotten the gig in 2001 via Mikey Way, her old friend and former boyfriend, two months after the band had formed and before they'd even recorded their first album. A bidding war ensued, but the band didn't sign with a major because they felt they were too green, instead releasing their debut, I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love, on an indie. Lewitinn realized she was in over her head. "I was trying so hard to get them a new manager because I didn't know what the fuck I was doing," she recalls. "But I got them a bunch of meetings." Eventually, Reprise signed them in 2003—the sophomore release that resulted, Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge, went platinum.

She never saw a dime.

"People always ask me if I ever made any money and if I'm upset that I didn't, and I'm not!" she says. "I was not in it to make money. I was in it to help these bands. I love music, and sappy as it sounds, I helped these bands because I loved them. It's one of those things where you don't see the money immediately, but you feel it later on. I'll always be able to have it on my résumé that I managed My Chems. While I didn't get a $30,000 check, I did get opportunities and doors opened because of my reputation, so I had no problem with that. You can't buy reputation."

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