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The Self-Made Socialite


In 1993, they married at the Metropolitan Club, allowing Dayssi to focus on re-creating in Manhattan the life she might have led in Bogotá.

Part of the transformation included giving herself a more glamorous calling card: She goes by Dayssi Olarte de Kanavos, while her husband is simply Paul Kanavos. In Colombia, Dayssi explains, women refer to themselves using the maiden name, followed by a de and the married name. "It's really very, very common," she says.

However, Dayssi's sister Norma Becker, who lives in Westchester, does not go by "Norma Olarte de Becker," and according to a Colombian journalist who lives in New York, such a name structure is antiquated: "She would never go by 'Olarte de Something' if she were in Bogotá."

Soon, she had a breakthrough worthy of her glamorous looks and moniker. In 1996, Town & Country editor-at-large Michael Cannon visited the office of Save Venice to see to some business. "I looked over the desk," he remembers, "I saw a gorgeous head of hair, and then I got a look at that face, and I said, 'Oh, my God.' " Cannon included Dayssi and her mother, who now lives in Connecticut, in a "Mothers and Daughters" feature that May. In July 2000, to celebrate a Save Venice masquerade ball, T&C ran a photo of Nadja Swarovski and Dayssi on its cover.

The luminous cover photo had a spiraling effect. When Lucile Peyrelongue, the wife of L'Oréal's former longtime president, Guy, hoped to begin a junior committee for her favorite charity, the Alliance Française, she looked to the society magazines, and from there to Dayssi. "Even though she had not been involved with the Alliance Française, she agreed to be a chairman," she recalls. Dayssi took on the job with enthusiasm, and Peyrelongue has been so impressed that last year, when L'Oréal served as a sponsor of the Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute Ball, she placed Dayssi on the ball's most coveted committee.

But while the Town & Country cover was arguably Dayssi's launching point, it also became the touchstone for all those who have the Tiffany knives drawn for her. "Suddenly, she was there," says one. "That cover put her at the forefront of a place she didn't deserve to be. It presented her as the new 'It' girl. It propelled her from nowhere."

Dayssi dismisses this, saying simply, "I've been photographed in WWD since 1988."

On a sunny afternoon in February, Dayssi walks down the stairs of her large, bright duplex and raps her fingernails against the mirror-lined walls. "We rent," she says. "The mirrors are not my idea."

She has just returned from a Memorial Sloan-Kettering Associates Committee meeting at the Metropolitan Club. Dayssi's 5-year-old daughter, Sophia, is hosting a play date for three friends. "Mommy!" she squeals as she runs to Dayssi's side. "Can we play in your room?" "No jumping on the bed," Dayssi replies sternly. The four kids race straight into the huge master bedroom. "Maybe some people have more art and sculpture than I do, but I want a childproof house," she says, tipping her head toward a blue velvet sofa. "I love this couch, but it's been spilled on a million times. I wouldn't want it any other way."

Across the hall in Dayssi's office, a laptop is hooked to a large flat-screen computer that is, in turn, hooked to a palm pilot. When she meets new people -- at a benefit, at a dinner party, on the street -- she scribbles their contact information into her palm with a few notes about their background and interests. When she returns home, she syncs the information into her Excel database, which can cross-reference her lists: JAZZ NY, MSK, FAMILY, ALLIANCE FRANçAISE.

Her computer system helps her keep track of whom she has invited to what, where she sat them, whether they seemed to enjoy themselves. "I want to be as professional as possible," Dayssi says, leaning against a desk.

Despite her packed schedule, Dayssi spends very little time actually socializing with the jet set. Paul sets limits on what the couple can attend: only two events a week. "I will do almost anything not to wear a tux," he says. The two have dinner at home every night at 6 p.m. with their three children. Dayssi spends every Wednesday with her mother and picks her children up from school every day. "It means that I can't go to every fashion show," Dayssi says, "but if you make too many exceptions, then you're not a full-time mom anymore."

Sitting in the quiet of her office, surrounded by cabinets and cardboard file boxes brimming with documents regarding children in foster care, pediatric-cancer care, and art restoration, Dayssi allows that she is cognizant of the mean-spirited whispering she provokes.

After Vogue named her to its best-dressed list in August 1999, she received an anonymous letter mailed from the Upper East Side. The sender indicated that he or she was alerting the social set of Dayssi's Queens roots and chided her for allegedly claiming to descend from Colombia's aristocracy. The letter included a racial epithet directed toward Hispanics.

In April 2001, another envelope arrived at Dayssi's apartment. Inside was a photocopy of an editor's letter -- entitled "Starting Over" and chronicling New Yorkers who had reinvented themselves -- that ran in the March issue of W. The sender had highlighted the opening passage:

Over lunch not long ago, a friend began to dish about a certain hard-charging young woman, still considered new on the New York social scene, who not long after marrying had changed the family surname. This particular woman wasn't trying to gloss over evidence of an ethnic background by lopping off a few letters. Rather, she strategically added two: "de," in the hopes of giving her husband's family tree a round ring of aristocracy.

Dayssi insists that the woman W is referring to "couldn't be me. It doesn't make sense. We celebrate Paul's being Greek." But in case she and Paul ever decided to pursue the identity of the writers, Dayssi has saved the letters in Ziploc bags and filed them under F for "fan mail."

She offers this anecdote: Recently, someone she had considered a friend approached her at an event."I heard about the article in New York," the woman said. "That's great. You've worked for it."

Dayssi was mortified. "I said, 'I turned it down over and over again' " -- absolutely true, by the way -- "but she just looked at me like this" -- Dayssi raises a perfectly arched eyebrow and smirks -- "and said, 'Oh, come on! We all know how much you want this.' "

She leans against her desk, and her eyes well up with tears. "That's just not true! Those who know me know I'm not superficial."

She looks at her watch, takes a deep breath, and wipes the moisture from her eyes. She has to go. She is late for her next engagement.


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