Maria traces the genesis of her celebrity to 1999, when she appeared in a spread in the Inquirer magazine at age 14, playing a piano. “My dad opened the doors for us to be a public family,” she tells me. That’s undoubtedly true, but it was only once her father died that she began to leverage her visibility into something that resembled a career. Taki died of pulmonary complications of lung cancer, which was in remission, on April 5, 2009, at the age of 63. Nine days later, hundreds of people attended his funeral at a Greek Orthodox church in Broomall. It was a bipartisan bulwark of the state’s power elite—Bob Casey, Michael Nutter and Tom Corbett, among others. Maria, then a 23-year-old recent Drexel grad pursuing an MBA there, delivered the most eloquent and moving of three eulogies.
She told the Drexel contingent that while she may have been Taki’s only child, he felt he had 20,000 more. She ended bittersweetly, addressing Taki directly: “I wouldn’t trade the 23 years I had with you, or even the pain of losing you, for a thousand years with anyone else.” When she finished, the massive crowd was on its feet, its applause sustained. Several weeks later, during a memorial service at the university, she gave another speech. Afterward, Ed Rendell told her she absolutely needed to go into politics or TV.
That summer, HughE discovered Maria, and Maria introduced HughE to the glitzy charity circuit, giving her a powerful new flank for her charm offensive. Three years later, at a fund-raiser at the Prime Rib, Maria approached newly minted Inquirer/Daily News owner Gerry Lenfest with a pitch: Failing newspapers, she argued, could prop themselves up with more video content. Lenfest got her a meeting with Philly.com. Deciding she was more valuable on-air, the Philly.com people began sending her out with a camera crew to do goofy stuff. That autumn, her video debut coincided with her blockbuster wedding, and a star—sort of—was born.
It’s a rainy afternoon in late August, and Maria has just finished shooting a Quizzo-related segment for Comcast at Mac’s Tavern in Old City. Maria’s taking iPhone pictures of her crew—Twitter beckons—when her mother walks in. The three of us sit at a table in the back. Maria orders a Guinness; I follow suit. Eliana drinks water. Maria’s dressed in a white lace top and dark-washed skinny jeans.
“Ultimately, I want to be able to tell a great story in any format,” Maria says when I ask about her ambitions. “I think the greatest opportunity to tell a great story is when you can reach not just 100,000 people but the world, and maybe make a difference.”
It’s fitting that Eliana’s present. Maria rarely talks about her professional motivations without invoking her parents. The storytelling desire, for instance—which led her from wanting to be a writer to singing lead for her high-school ska band to a stint in L.A. working for a big-shot music producer—she traces back to her father’s bedtime tales. “In some ways, I feel like I need to carry on my family’s legacy. My dad and mom have done amazing things for this city and the tri-state area,” she says. “I want to make sure that because I was given all these wonderful tools and opportunities, I don’t want to be the jerk that goes”—she mock shoulder shrugs—“eh.”
I ask if she feels any contradiction between living up to her father—who spearheaded a historic university turnaround—and the frivolous, lighthearted work she’s doing now. On the contrary, she says. It was Taki who encouraged her to hit the charity-ball circuit: “My dad was like, ‘You’re in a position where [they] want to take a photo of a striking blonde. … Be sure you’re on time.’”
Not long before Taki died, Eliana brought a tape recorder to his room at the University of Pennsylvania hospital so he could leave a message for Maria, who was in D.C. to audition for a TV gig. The words he spoke turned out to be his last. “You have the voice, the charisma, to engage people,” he told her, encouraging her to pursue a career that let her use them.
The TV shows, the party pics—not only would Taki have approved, Maria suggests; it was all his idea. You go to fund-raisers to build up social capital. Bringing along a camera crew—that’s just smart PR. Which helps explain how Maria and I find ourselves in a white Lexus on a Monday in September, speeding to a golf course in the suburbs.