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Who's That Girl?

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That she had been featured in Madonna's Sex book tongue-kissing the suddenly more-naked-than-thou pop star naturally fueled the fires of speculation about their relationship. In queer urban circles, Ingrid Casares became an icon almost overnight as the girl with magic lesbian powers who managed to nail all the cool chicks. She was also roundly assumed to have busted up Madonna and Bernhard's friendship, which only furthered her legend. All of that nastiness eventually lost its teeth, and Casares settled into a less complicated, if no less difficult, public persona as Madonna's Best Friend. "I could discover a cure for cancer," she said last year, "and I'd still only be known as Madonna's girlfriend."

About a year and a half ago, Casares's boldfaced name began to turn up all by its lonesome. Casares and Paciello opened Liquid on Washington Avenue in South Beach on Thanksgiving weekend in 1996, and the club helped push South Beach -- already lousy with hype and a certain kind of tan, bleary-eyed glamour -- into the realm of America's Official International Playground for the Rich and Famous. Finally, the honky-tonk strip of beach had its own world-class nightclub and four-star hotel, just in time to house and entertain all the VIPs pouring into town.

After having been perceived as a coattail-riding, star-fucking hanger-on, Casares emerged as a strange sort of Regine-Steve Rubell hybrid for the nineties -- the potential heir to the nightclub-impresario throne that has remained empty all these years, save for a brief occupation by Nell Campbell of Nell's and Area/MK ringmaster Eric Goode in the late eighties.

Early in 1997, Casares came to Manhattan to reconnoiter the dismal nightlife landscape, which had been sliding into irrelevance and depravity, culminating in the Peter Gatien trial and the flameout of oddity turned monster Michael Alig, who confessed to murdering his drug dealer, chopping him up, and tossing him into the Hudson. With money from her wealthy Cuban-exile father -- and surrounded by lawyers and publicists -- she set about the business of looking for space, securing a liquor license, petitioning community boards, transferring leases, and finding vendors. Unlike Miami (where Casares grew up and is a beloved figure -- and friends with the mayor), New York presented a challenge. You can't, for example, simply buy a liquor license for $30,000, as in Miami; you must apply and be deemed worthy.

Casares's trials were often reported in the gossip columns, usually with a Liquid's-coming-to-New York! excitement. By March, things got complicated. The landlord of Les Poulets, the Latin-music club on East 22nd Street where Casares wanted to open Liquid, backed away from the negotiations, and the battle ended up in the Post. Jack Newfield -- inspired by calls from community-board activists in the Flatiron District -- devoted three columns to the story. In one, Deputy Mayor Rudy Washington said, "The city opposes a license for Liquid at this location, or any location in the city," which seemed a bit severe -- bizarre, even -- given Casares's high profile and the importance of nightclubs to the city's economy (worth $2.9 billion last year), not to mention the fact that Washington's position, according to Casares's lawyers, raises restriction-of-trade issues. Most damning, however, was a piece by William Bastone in The Village Voice accusing Paciello, her partner, of being a violent, drug-dealing mobster.

Paciello, 26, denies all of the Voice's accusations -- except for his troubled and violent youth, which can be verified by a fairly long rap sheet, including felony assault, criminal mischief, disorderly conduct, car theft, and grand larceny; with most of these cases, charges were reduced and he never served a prison sentence.

"I grew up in Brooklyn," Paciello says. "I have a lot of friends. It doesn't make me a gangster because I hung out on the corner with people when I was growing up. They're childhood friends of mine, and they will remain friends."

Needless to say, the article sealed Casares's fate. On April 8, anticipating imminent rejection by the State Liquor Authority, she withdrew her application for a license.

Casares, as she and her legion of famous friends will tell you, is not used to hearing the word no. "Ugh! I wake up in the morning and I have this overwhelming feeling of defeat," she said the day after the SLA hearing. "I just can't imagine that these fuckers just said no to me! There's some weird conspiracy going on between the other nightclubs -- who don't want competition -- the community boards, and the press. I don't care how powerful my people are; I can't compete with people who are demonstrating, and people who are bursting into my landlord's office, and people talking to the press every five minutes."

"She is totally bewildered," says her lawyer, Richard Fischbein. "She's been hit with a sledgehammer. It's vicious and sick, but it's typically New York."

And Casares, despite her beach-town street smarts, perpetual tan, and world-weariness specific to those who grow up around people constantly on vacation, is at heart a New Yorker: impatient, stylish, sharp-tongued, industrious, clever, and a bit cold. She is used to pulling things off. Ironically, in her big bid for if-you-can-make-it-here legitimacy, she was shot down by New York, and none of her famous and superconnected friends could save her.

I first met Ingrid Casares on Easter Sunday four years ago, at Madonna's house in Miami. I was there as editor-in-chief of Vibe magazine, nervously orchestrating an interview and an expensive cover shoot with Madonna and Dennis Rodman. After a daylong production in and around downtown Miami, we all returned to Madonna's house and ordered takeout. While Madonna and Rodman went outside to eat and talk, I hung out in the kitchen drinking beer with Liz Rosenberg, Madonna's longtime publicist and de facto Jewish mom, and Madonna's then-personal assistant, now manager, Caresse Norman. Before long, Casares turned up, followed by the actress Debi Mazar, who had only come over to take a bath in Madonna's tub. At one point, k. d. lang called and the phone got passed around.

There was something delightfully surreal about being with Madonna's inner circle of best girlfriends, sitting around the kitchen table, gossiping and bickering and talking about Madonna. At one point, someone lit up a joint, and Casares -- after admonishing everyone for being a "bunch of potheads" -- talked very candidly and hilariously about having been in and out of drug rehab. I instantly liked her.


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