A few days before Feastival, Maria tells me to meet her outside the Symphony House on Broad Street, where she lives. We’re headed to the platonic ideal of a “Philly famous” event: Maria has been selected to compete in a celebrity golf putt-off in Lafayette Hill along with 6 ABC anchor Matt O’Donnell, Eagle wife Julie Dorenbos, and former Eagle wife Susie Celek, our chauffeur today.
At 12:30 p.m. I open the door to the Lexus and squeeze into the backseat next to an oversize Louis Vuitton handbag. In front of me, Susie immediately begins applying eyeliner, which worries me, because she’s also playing with her GPS, making cameos in Maria’s iPhone selfies, and driving the car. I scribble “It feels exceedingly dangerous” in my notebook. “One thing you’ll notice about me is I love to multi-task,” Maria announces while composing a tweet, apparently speaking for both of them.
Maria has a habit of introducing me as her “friend”—perhaps residual confusion from her relationship with HughE—so I quickly make it clear to Susie that I’m a reporter. “Wait, hold on—so do I have to say things like ‘Off the record?’” Susie asks bemusedly. We swerve into a discussion of the disappointingly non-scandalous elements of Maria’s life, including her tame bachelorette party in Atlantic City the weekend before last Halloween. Susie says she had no need for a risqué costume: “I dress like a hooker on a random Wednesday. I make bad choices all year round.”
Though Susie rotates through the same substrata of Rittenhouseworld that Maria does, the difference between the two is stark. In February, Susie made out with an intern during a segment on WIP; in her Twitter profile photo, she’s wearing lingerie and crouching behind a tiger. Maria seems sheepish about the exhibitionist tendencies demanded of a budding “media personality” here.
“They’re telling me to dress more youthful, and sexier,” she told me earlier that morning after doing a promo spot for Feastival on the Preston & Steve Show on WMMR. (Maria is a close friend of Marisa Magnatta, a producer on the show whose fame is truly mysterious.) “And I’m like, ‘I want girls to know that if you have a great personality, you’re funny, people enjoy you, you can wear a trash bag and people are going to watch.’”
Maria, who professes a deep love for Disney World and drops Dickens references, doesn’t quite carry herself the way one might expect of a stilettos-and-hair-extensions debutante. “I think that just from the surface of Maria, you would think that she would be stuck up,” says Sabrina Tamburino, another social-circuit regular and HughE’s first muse. “Like, she’s so not what people probably think she is, like ‘You know she thinks her shit doesn’t stink.’” Indeed, Maria is almost painfully eager to please, asking incessantly, “Am I boring?”
She was thrust into the spotlight by two colliding forces. First, there was Taki, hired by Drexel in 1995 for the presidency of a crumbling institution. “It was like 13th grade before he got there,” says journalist Paul Davies, who covered Papadakis for the Daily News. In his 13-year tenure, Taki added a law school and a medical school and brought U.S. News & World Report glory to Drexel. By the time of his unexpected death, Davies says, he was basically the “Greek Ed Rendell.”
Though Taki and Eliana were outsiders, they soon secured A-list status here. Maria went to Baldwin; Eliana threw extravagant parties. Taki’s political skills were the stuff of legend. As a result, the Papadakises took on an unlikely old-money cachet—the kind that attracts people like HughE Dillon.
HughE is a 50-year-old former paralegal who’s instantly recognizable by his trademark black garb and impressively symmetrical rotundity. He has more or less monopolized the business of deciding the city’s who’s who. For decades, Philadelphia society “was whoever made the boldface names in the Sunday paper,” says former Inquirer gossip columnist Michael Klein, who now writes for Philly.com. That “sort of fell by the wayside five years ago—there really wasn’t any society coverage. So I guess HughE came along at the right time.” HughE’s first project was Tamburino, whose mother was of middling political importance. When Sabrina married a man 25 years her senior in 2009, HughE needed a new girl. At Sabrina’s wedding, he met a friend of Maria’s who suggested they meet. The rest is, well, on display at PhillyChitChat.com.
“I could see that the Papadakises were accepted by society,” HughE says over lunch. “So she was that socialite that I really wanted. … Everyone in the social registry, everyone on the Main Line, knew who she was.” HughE says that former Daily News gossip columnist Dan Gross once asked him why he always took pictures of nobodies. Now, Maria would be his rebuttal.
In 2010, Maria was identified in a Klein column simply as Taki’s daughter. By 2011, “socialite” found its way into a piece by Gross. By 2012, she was hosting gigs and webisodes. Her November marriage to Main Liner Brendan Kent—it prompted lavish spreads in the Inquirer and Philly Mag’s Philadelphia Wedding—was an announcement that she had arrived.
Back in the car en route to the golf course—HughE is already there, waiting for us—Susie brings up the wedding out of the blue. “You know what I used for my coffee cup this morning, girl? That teacup I got from your bridal party or whatever it’s called.” After some negotiation over what that thing is actually called, she adds: “Fuck, that was fun! I’m so glad you got married for that alone.”
“Well, as long as it was a good party and everybody had a good time,” Maria says.