Whereas the original Gossip Girl centered on the rivalrous rift between former friends Blair Waldorf and Serena van der Woodsen, its HBO Max successor is a tale of two half-sisters trying — and often failing — to connect. (Some small spoilers ahead for episode one of the series.)
Julien Calloway (Jordan Alexander) is Constance's new queen bee, an Instagram "It" girl whose influence both in and outside of the hallowed halls of the infamous New York City prep school precedes her. But hiding behind that flawless smile is a whole lot of insecurity. "Julien uses her influence to gain validation," Jordan tells Teen Vogue during a recent press day for the series.
She's knocked off her axis by the arrival of her younger half-sister Zoya Lott (Whitney Peak), a talented freshman attending on an arts scholarship. If Julien lacks the confidence to be herself (without actual and metaphorical filters), then Zoya is fiercely the opposite. Zoya isn't concerned with influence or social currency. "In her head," Whitney says, "she doesn't really matter. Nobody's going to be affected by what she wears or how she carries herself." And it's that sense of freedom — to be unabashedly true to herself and her values — that "makes her likeable and, eventually, influential."
Despite their differences, Julien and Zoya "really do want to have a relationship," says Whitney. "But they're two very different people from two contrasting environments."
Jordan describes Julien and Zoya's relationship as "tumultuous." They share a mother but grew up separately because their dads hate each other. (Long story short: Mom left Julien's dad for Zoya's dad.) So they've had to forge their sisterly bond in secret, through daily texts and hushed phone calls. With Zoya now at Constance, it finally gives them a chance to truly understand one another.
That is, if everyone else around would stop making things so complicated. Julien's friends, the upper crust of the Upper East Side, don't appreciate that she's been keeping secrets from them, especially ones that could jeopardize her reputation (and brand deals). "Zoya and Julien are like a ship trying to dock in a storm," Jordan says. "The intention is there to reach their destination, but there's so much going on that's trying to sink the ship and pull it back out to sea."
Some characters, like Julien's devilishly cunning friends/PR team Luna (Zion Moreno) and Monet (Savannah Smith) devise their own machinations to keep the sisters apart, while others, like Julien's perfectly nice, albeit slightly self-righteous boyfriend Obie (Eli Brown) come between them naturally. It takes less than an episode for him to start falling for Zoya, which puts a Good Guy like Obie right in the middle of a love triangle.
"Obie is a guy who wants to do the right thing but isn't always sure how to," Eli tells Teen Vogue. Everyone on this show comes from money (even Zoya and her dad can maintain a lifestyle on the Upper West Side), but Obie is disgustingly rich — a fact that makes him feel a little uncomfortable (but not, like, that uncomfortable). Still, he's aware of his privilege, and he uses it to give back to his community, not to build a social media following. "His parents are very big developers, and he's constantly trying to influence them to not be megacorporation devil people," Eli says. And eating the rich is an interest that he and Zoya share.
The mutual attraction between Obie and Zoya puts Gossip Girl back on the map. Now armed with an Instagram account, she still knows everyone's secrets — and in a smart twist, we, the viewers, know hers — but will she drive a wedge between Julien and Zoya like she did to Serena and Blair all those years ago? Whitney hopes not.
"In the original it was very much Blair versus Serena from the pilot episode," she says. "But Julien and Zoya actually want to make things work." Somehow we think that's easier said than done.
Gossip Girl premieres on July 8 on HBO Max.
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Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue