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The Self-Made Socialite


The girls eventually returned to New York to live with their mother, who was working as a translator for the United Nations. Gloria and Norma entered American universities, working their way through school. With her youngest daughter in mind, Pina moved to Forest Hills, "knowing that the public school was very good," says Dayssi, because "it was a very Jewish neighborhood."

It was as a student at Forest Hills High School that Dayssi developed her tendency to join. Her mother allowed her out of the house only for school-related activities, so Dayssi signed up for as many as possible: the school newspaper, the volleyball team, the basketball team. "The girls on the other teams, who were mainly African-American, would taunt me because they thought I was the cheerleader," she says. "But I could play. I could check people under the boards and hold my own."

Adam Waldman, a Forest Hills classmate, recalls a ski trip to Vermont he planned for about 30 friends. "I did a foolish thing by not telling everyone to kick in $2 for insurance," he says. "Dayssi ended up breaking her arm on the slopes, and she had to get a job after school to pay off her medical bills."

Fitting in socially was tricky. In Colombia, the Olarte sisters were considered gringas because they attended an elite American school; in New York, they were Latinas. "It's weird to always be the outsider," Dayssi says. "The benefit is that eventually you get used to it, and it stops bothering you. I've always been in the position of being the outsider, and I don't feel a lot of pressure to be the insider."

In the past decade, New York society has undergone a sea change. "How you're born is no longer relevant," says Paul Wilmot, the society publicist. "The media dictates who is 'society.' Society equals numbers of clippings."

Enter Dayssi Olarte de Kanavos, party-page regular. "She beams for the camera," says photographer Patrick McMullan. "I like someone who makes an effort for me, like a model." (Which, in fact, she was: As a college student, she was featured in commercials for Coca-Cola and Reebok.) When Dayssi wanted McMullan to attend a Miami City Ballet gala, she personally saw to the details of his free travel and hotel accommodations; ditto for Vogue's Mary Hilliard.

Her coziness with the media, say her detractors, just goes to prove that she's not of their class. "She's the first to pose and the last to leave," gripes one observer. "She vamps it up. Ladies don't do that." Another illustrates the point: At the Whitney's annual gala in October 2000, Dayssi playfully held a rose to her cheek for several prolonged moments while keeping one eye on New York Times lensman Bill Cunningham. "She didn't stop until Bill snapped her 'candid' photo," the witness says. It ran in "Sunday Styles."

All this press is necessary to do her charity work, Dayssi argues; the fund-raising world hinges on such media exposure. If Dayssi solicits underwriting for an event and the sponsor knows her photo -- and an accompanying caption mentioning his company -- will likely end up in the press, she is that much more likely to secure the donation.

The designer gowns are also key; fashion magazines are all more apt to run a photograph if the subject is wearing a favored designer. But designer gowns can cost thousands of dollars. "She's a borrower, not a buyer," says one socialite, meaning that Dayssi borrows samples from designers instead of purchasing their wares -- a practice that is, in fact, not unusual among the benefit set. "The social group into which she has thrust herself thrives on people's bank balances," says another. "Dayssi has had to beg and borrow to maintain the appearance that she's of this world. She is pretending to be something that she is not."

Dayssi dismisses talk about money as crass, and says that as far as the dresses are concerned, she borrows and buys. "If you get photographed in one of these dresses, you basically feel like you can't wear it again. If you have to buy a new dress every time, it's a waste. I'd rather give my money to charity."

So why the venom? "I think there's a bias because of her Latin American origin. I think it's subtle, but it's there," says one socially active acquaintance. "Either you're a Wasp, a German Jew, or a rich Irish Catholic. Those are the three big pillars in this town. She's Hispanic -- and very, very pretty -- and a lot of girls are irritated by that." And not unlike her romanticized Bogotá, Dayssi is impeccably formal, unfailingly discreet, annoyingly polite. She doesn't swear or gossip. To some, her manner can be read as snobbery.

Her friends see a different side of her. "There is something very, very kind, very nice, very giving about Dayssi," says one, the shoe designer Vanessa Noel. "Dayssi is very attractive, so I imagine she attracts jealousy and bitchiness. People need to get a life." "She's gorgeous," the designer Christina Perrin, another friend, says with a laugh. "I can see why people would be mad." "I think Dayssi is a lovely and beautiful woman," agrees socialite Muffie Potter Aston. "Sometimes when people are beautiful, the stones get thrown at them first."

"This is a cozy group, people who collided at Brown or were introduced by their grandmothers," explains one social observer, "and then this person foists herself upon them. They like inviting people in. But she has robbed them of their ability to choose."

In 1981, Dayssi enrolled at Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration, where she undertook a social curriculum that must have served as a training ground for the Manhattan benefit scene: an Ivy League Greek system. "She was always one of the three of four prettiest girls at Cornell," says a college acquaintance. But no matter how pretty, Dayssi could not pass for Wasp. "She was in Alpha Epsilon Phi, which is for the good-looking Jewish girls and good-looking Italian-American girls," he recalls. "Kappa Kappa Gamma and Delta Gamma were the two best. AEPhi was a runner-up, but it was not Kappa or DG."

Nevertheless, freed from the strict confines of her mother's home, Dayssi blossomed socially. She became close friends with an Italian-born woman from Mexico named Roberta Petruzzi; over summer vacation, Dayssi brought Petruzzi home to Bogotá. While there, Petruzzi joined a hunting party that included Dayssi's uncle, a few of her aunts and cousins, and her oldest sister, Gloria. Dayssi stayed home as the group took off on a small plane. The airplane crashed, killing everyone onboard.

"I didn't take any time off, I didn't even tell my counselors at school," Dayssi recalls. "I was so distraught, I thought if I immersed myself in studying . . . " Her voice trails off. "I thought, This way, I'll have to work all the time and I won't have any time or space to think about this."

Dayssi graduated from Cornell in 1985 and moved to Manhattan, where she waited tables at Canastel's on Park Avenue South and worked as a real-estate consultant before deciding to study for a graduate degree in real-estate finance and development at New York University.

During this time, she was dating an Italian prince named Clemente Imperiali. Along with a group of Italian friends, she became involved with the Junior International Club, a party-promoting-and-networking clique comprising European and South American expatriates and "princesses of countries that didn't exist anymore," according to an occasional attendee. One night in 1985, she met the JIC's founder, Marc Biron, at the Palladium; soon, she was lending her name to help promote his events.

When Biron was enlisted to create a junior committee for Save Venice, he signed Dayssi up immediately because she knew many young Italians in New York -- and because he recognized her savvy. "She knows the social press very well," Biron says. "She's better than a P.R. firm."

Imperiali and Dayssi broke up, and at a dinner party in 1991, she met Paul Kanavos, a handsome real-estate developer from Boston, a Greek-American. Dayssi had arrived at the dinner late as usual, while Paul was in the midst of discussing an environmental-zoning issue with another guest. Dayssi burst into the conversation and challenged Paul's argument. "I looked across the table," Paul recalls, "and said, 'Who is this girl?' Nothing has changed since that moment. She is the love of my life."

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