| NEW YORK
NEW YORK Their wardrobes are full of designer clothes, they drink cocktails at New York City's coolest bars, dabble in drugs, have sex in places like the back of a limousine -- all while still in high school.
Hit U.S. television show "Gossip Girl," which follows the lives of students at an elite Manhattan private school, has been likened by critics to "Sex and the City" for teenagers, with salacious story lines and trend-setting fashion.
While it is not a big TV hit, boasting only mixed ratings, the CW network series has generated a strong Internet audience and buzz further fuelled by a brash marketing campaign with billboard ads showing the teenage characters in steamy scenes.
Blake Lively, 20, who plays character Serena van der Woodsen, says even she is surprised by plot lines of the show.
"Everybody is dating everyone and sleeping with everyone and there's lots of scandalous stuff happening in the Upper East Side," she told a news conference. "Even I am shocked; I'm expecting my sister, that I don't have, to be my father."
Lively appears on the billboard ads, most of which show her in moments of passion with a male character and feature provocative text message shorthand such as "OMFG."
More recent ads, promoting the show's second season starting in September, play up criticism by parental and cultural commentators, using phrases such as "mind-blowingly inappropriate" from the Parents Television Council.
Lively told Reuters in an interview that the critics only feed the buzz machine that "Gossip Girl" marketers are constantly stirring to keep people talking about the show.
"They try to sell it racier and sexier than it actually is," she said.
"If (critics) watched the show they would see it is not as racy as it actually seems, but because we don't have numbers it is about buzz. (The marketers) try to put us in the tabloids all the time and make up crazy stories about us," Lively said.
While U.S. Internet TV viewing is growing -- a Harris Poll this week showed one fifth of Americans watch prime-time programs online -- the CW network recently pulled episodes of "Gossip Girl" off its Web site to try to boost TV ratings.
CW, jointly owned by CBS Corp and Time Warner Inc, has said it aims to appeal mainly to younger women.
Lively said most teenagers know the show, based on a popular and racier series of young-adult novels by Cecily von Ziegesar, was "heightened reality."
"It's like gossip magazine on TV. People love to gossip and watch people living glamorous lives," she said. "I don't think we're trying to preach to anyone how to live their life."
"Gossip Girl" fan Layla Alter, 14, lives in New York and is eagerly anticipating the new season.
"It's like 'Sex and the City' with more drama and for younger kids," Alter said. "It's kind of like what you want life to be ... all the girls come off really pretty and dress really well and are so confident."
Trend forecasters and fashion executives say the show's extravagant fashions are influencing youth spending and inspiring designers. Even its wardrobe designers have said they aim to set trends, not follow them.
Carol Platt Liebau, a cultural commentator who has written about a sex-obsessed culture damaging young girls, said while the show was entertaining, depicting "high school girls as little more than gossipy sex objects is simply a tired cliche that does all females a disservice."
The show, she said, teaches teenage girls that "sexiness" is more important than character or intelligence.
"(It) glamorizes and normalizes the kinds of behaviour that may seem charmingly risque and sophisticated when little girls see them on TV, but which, if emulated in real life, can result in emotional and psychological distress for them," she said.
But for some teens, there's a simple reason to love the show. "It's just about the drama," said 14-year-old Carmen Hall.
(Editing by Michelle Nichols and Eric Walsh)