The Self-Made Socialite

Photo: Frank W. Ockenfels 3

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.’ “

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.”

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.

The Self-Made Socialite