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The Self-Made Socialite

Bogota-born and Queens-bred, Dayssi Olarte de Kanavos has hurdled gilded barriers to become a star of the elite charity circuit. She's captivated the society press, but some of the Park Avenue set is less than charmed.


It is eight o'clock on the evening of the Byzantine Ball, this year's benefit for the tony Young Friends of Save Venice charity. The Metropolitan Club is awash with cascades of white gardenias and hundreds of votive candles floating in shallow pools, and two of the three co-chairs, Nadja Swarovski, the crystal heiress, and Alexandra Lind Rose, the socialite–cum–fashion designer, are greeting guests and gamely posing for photographers in the marble receiving hall. By 8:30, a crush of masked women in feathered, beaded headdresses and extravagant Renaissance gowns is mingling with men in capes -- even a few in tights. Soon the crowd -- investment bankers, heirs to South American fortunes, Euro expats, even an archbishop -- is so tightly packed that there is precious little air for air-kissing. The photographers retreat, somewhat disheveled, to the less populous lobby for a breather. But the third co-chair, the aristocratically named Dayssi Olarte de Kanavos, has still not arrived.

At nine sharp, Dayssi, in a two-piece gown of red and white satin, with a strand of huge pearls slung low around her shapely waist, glides up the stairs and into the lobby. Her shiny raven hair has been sculpted into tight ringlets that frame her face. She holds a luminous mask of silver, affixed to a rod and encircled by a large web of bright baubles. The photographers are rested and ready.

She heads past them toward the crowd.

"Dayssi! Dayssi!" they call after her.

On cue, she stops, pivots, and then seamlessly maneuvers the mask behind her head, creating a perfect backdrop for her perfect face. She smiles radiantly, turns again, and disappears into the sea of slender women with improbable décolletage. From then on, you need only look for a camera's flash to locate her. (Once you do, you find that during the dinner she has cannily seated herself next to Robert Haskell, the social reporter for W and WWD.)

Whether or not a calculated gambit, Dayssi's late arrival -- and her playful way with the press -- pays off in print, landing her photograph in WWD and Harper's Bazaar (sans her co-chairs), among other publications. As her behavior frequently does, it also places her at the center of the whispered gossip of the mavens of Fifth Avenue. "It's just plain rude to be this late to your own event," sniffs one.

A 38-year-old self-made socialite, Dayssi Olarte de Kanavos has cheerfully been breaking through social barriers -- or, more accurately, adroitly navigating her way around them -- for the better part of a decade. She is not the product of a venerable or moneyed Manhattan family: She grew up in Bogotá, Colombia, and Forest Hills, Queens. She doesn't have a fantastically wealthy husband: Paul Kanavos is a merely successful real-estate developer. She doesn't even have an upper-crusty, socially impeccable address: She lives with her husband and three young children in a rental duplex in a Trump high-rise on Third Avenue. And unlike all the wealthy young women who devote their days to Sotheby's or upscale publicity firms or one of the glossies, she doesn't have a glamorous career. She calls herself a full-time mom.

Nevertheless, Dayssi has established herself firmly in the inner circle of New York society. She has been chosen for Vogue's best-dressed list, pictured on the cover of Town & Country, and invited to participate in top-tier society philanthropies: Save Venice, New Yorkers for Children, Memorial Sloan-Kettering, Alliance Française, Jazz at Lincoln Center, and the Wildlife Conservation Society, to name only a few.

"Does she have the credentials?" asks a college classmate. "Well, who cares about credentials anymore? Brooke Astor was the Dayssi of her time. Let's not forget that."

Not exactly; Astor married into a vast fortune. That Dayssi has managed to join society's elite ranks despite her relative lack of funding is perhaps her most astonishing coup. "She seems to have pulled off a social LBO," says Vanity Fair society editor Kristina Stewart, "leveraging an adequate amount of money and looks into a monolithic enterprise." She achieved it, explains Stewart, through "dogged, calculated, relentless enthusiasm. Some call it social ambition."

Others call it charm. The word that is invariably used to describe her, except by detractors, is nice. Dayssi creates heat -- in both colloquial senses: She generates media buzz but also has earned the ire of a small but powerful coterie of society purists. They call her "the Flower From the Bronx" -- to some, all outer boroughs are interchangeable -- and criticism of her deportment has become something of a sport. Snipes one, "It is unacceptable to act like a snob when you're from the Bronx and not Bronxville."

Dayssi herself takes such criticism in stride; it's evidence of her considerable confidence. "I don't think I have to go around showing people who I am in order to prove that I merit being here," she says mildly. "For every person who doesn't like me, there are ten who know who I am. I look myself in the mirror every morning. I like myself, and I like what I do. I have taken on a responsibility in the community."

But Dayssi's success without the Establishment bona fides stimulates something deeper than envy. "Her background and her relative lack of wealth threaten the structure of the social world," explains one observer of the Park Avenue tribe. "She's breaking down barriers that they don't want broken. If she can get into society, then what is it? Society is just an illusion, then, a joke."

Despite what the gossips say, Dayssi's past is anything but pedestrian. In fact, she has all the trademarks of a Danielle Steele heroine: aristocratic roots, reversals of fortune, tragedy.

She was born in 1963 in Bogotá, the third daughter of Pina and Daniel Olarte. Daniel had run away from his prosperous family ranch in Santander, Colombia, to seek his fortune in Bogotá, putting himself through college and building a successful career as a real-estate investor. "My dad was a 'charm a dog off a meat truck' kind of guy," Dayssi says.

The Olartes lived a privileged life in Bogotá -- a formal, conservative city that prided itself on its cultural accomplishments and European style. Convention dictated, for example, that even in the late sixties a married, upper-class woman should not venture outdoors without white gloves. Pina bristled in such a cloistered environment; she announced, when Dayssi was 9, that she was moving to New York to enter the graduate-school language program at Barnard College. Daniel and the girls joined her.

The Olartes' fortune, so ample in Bogotá, afforded them much less in New York, where the family lived in a brownstone apartment on the Upper East Side. "Our quality of life was very different," Dayssi remembers. "There we had maids everywhere. Here we had a nanny, but we didn't have staff." The transition was particularly difficult for Dayssi's father; when Pina decided to make the move permanent, Daniel returned to Bogotá with the girls. Soon after, Pina and Daniel divorced.

Gloria and Norma, Dayssi's older sisters, had grown into beautiful young women, and they sailed into Bogotá society. "They were definitely the belles of the ball," says Ana Sokoloff, who then lived in Bogotá and now oversees Latin American paintings for Christie's. But Daniel faced ongoing financial challenges. He gambled most of his fortune on a food company, and when the business crashed, it took the family's savings with it. He let the household staff go, cut off the girls' clothing allowance, and stopped sending money to Pina in New York. One day, Dayssi remembers, she and her sisters missed the school bus, and because they could not afford a taxi, they got a ride from their dad, who had sold the Mercedes but held on to an old delivery truck. The girls were mortified to be seen in the truck, so Daniel promised to drop them off a safe distance from the school's entrance. Instead, she says, "he went straight to where the school buses were pulling in. My sister was screaming, 'Drop us here! Stop!' But my dad circled around and honked the horn and said, 'Always be proud of who you are.' "

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