One sun-starched weekday afternoon, after Maria tapes a Flyers segment for Comcast SportsNet, she and I are standing outside XFINITY Live!, trying to figure out how to get back downtown. I suggest the subway, an idea quickly shut down. There are no cabs. Maria roams into the middle of Pattison Avenue and accosts a passenger-less black stretch limo, begging it to take her home. The skeptical driver eventually relents when she tells him she’s an “on-air personality.”
In the limo, the driver says her name sounds familiar, but he doesn’t recognize her. “Oh, you don’t need to,” Maria says. “I’m not famous.” This seemingly schizophrenic exchange captures Maria’s status pretty well. On-air personality? Yes. Famous? Not quite. In a celebrity-starved city, though, Maria passes for it. And that has the snobbier veterans of the gossip scene a little irked.
“I really don’t know anything about Maria becoming, quote, a ‘celebrity,’” Michael Klein says of his, ahem, colleague. “Not trying to be a jerk here, but I don’t even think she’s widely known among Philadelphians. She’s widely known among a crowd that reads HughE’s blog.” Jimmy Contreras, a pseudo-celebrity in his own right, betrays similar confusion. “How she relates to Feastival, no one really knows. You know, like, she’s not a chef, she’s not in the restaurant world,” he says. “In Philadelphia, anybody can be who you wanna be as long as somebody buys into your crazy.”
To a certain degree, Maria’s local brand of celebrity is the product of a new media landscape in which journalistic norms have been so corrupted that your best friend can also be your best material and nobody really raises an eyebrow. And if your best friend happens to have a loyal Twitter/Instagram/Facebook following, the incentive to promote her increases. Maria’s entrée into the media sphere of Philly.com is merely an update on the ultra-connected old-boy’s-club networking her father specialized in. Maria’s high-school pal Sarena Snider—daughter of Ed—helped set up her first TV auditions. Jesse Rendell—son of Ed—is her agent. Her boss at Philly.com is Lexie Norcross, whose father co-owns the papers and Philly.com. All of them bought into her crazy.
Maria works a room as well as Taki did. But while he did it with a clear goal—promoting Drexel—it’s unclear what Maria’s is.
Even the most loyal members of Team Maria seem unwilling to accept that “media personality” will be the fate of Taki’s only child. Especially if her rise coincides with—and helps enable—the downfall of Philadelphia’s serious journalistic institutions. As a former Inquirer staffer says of Maria, one of the “New Voices” Philly.com has hired in lieu of professional writers: “The fact that Maria Papadakis is a rising media star sort of makes me quiver.”
“You go through certain passages in your life,” Eliana says. “I don’t say, ‘This is where Maria will be in the next 20 years.’” Sam Katz, a Taki admirer, cautions me not to “write the final chapter for Maria Papadakis.” “There is something missing from her life—probably her father, who would be telling her probably [to do] something different. Probably telling her to go to graduate school by now.”
But Maria has already been to graduate school. That this fact has been obscured by her new role suggests she’s not so much an unworthy fauxcialite who’s climbed to the top of an especially gossipy house of cards, but rather a woman who, fueled by friends and associates eager to capitalize on her fame, has been penned into a role that reinforces Philly’s parochial self-love but doesn’t do justice to her capabilities. During an undergraduate business-consulting course six years ago, she led a team that created an ad campaign for a Subaru competition, “Fall in Love with a Subaru,” that the carmaker would pick up, tweak, and broadcast nationally within months. When she approached Gerry Lenfest with an idea one evening last summer at the Prime Rib, it was to save the newspapers, not to undermine them.
And yet it’s easy to see why the life of a Philly celebrity can be so tempting. In early September, Maria sent me a schedule of her upcoming tapings. She was particularly excited about a shoot during which she’d rappel off a wall with a local athlete. Trouble was, she couldn’t find any athletes willing to film it with her. One evening I got a text from her asking if I wanted to fill in; they were shooting a teaser segment, and I’d be on camera. Could be fun for the story, I thought. Besides, a little exposure never hurt anyone. So I talked myself into it, undone by a little celebrity status-seeking of my own. “U were the first person I asked. Ur special!” Maria texted. “Lol.”