I’m roaming around a giant warehouse by the Delaware River, looking for Maria Papadakis.
Maria isn’t hard to spot when she’s onstage with a mic in her hand, her long blond hair spilling onto her bright blue dress. When she’s not onstage, like right now, I have more trouble. The event is called Feastival. Maria’s emceeing, and if there’s such a thing as Philadelphia society, much of it is here, swilling absinthe cocktails and clogging Pier 9 to the point of non-maneuverability.
Before I find Maria, I find her mother, Eliana Papadakis, who flashes a gap-toothed smile and gives me a hug. She tells me she’s just arrived from “the other event with Liam Neeson.” Eliana is the widow of beloved Drexel president Constantine “Taki” Papadakis, and a veteran of the philanthropic/charitable cause scene. She quickly cuts the chitchat and begins picking off VIPs.
“Richard! Richard!” Richard Vague is summoned. “Did you see Maria?”
“I did,” drawls the board president of FringeArts, which is what we’re celebrating tonight. “How could I miss her?”
“Did you like her?” Eliana asks.
“I love both of you,” he says, then floats off.
Moments later, Eliana spots Comcast matron Suzanne Roberts, treading slowly. “Suzanne! Suzanne! Oh my God!” Next up, Ed Rendell, distracted by two young women and not in the mood to talk. Retreating, Eliana whispers to Marsha Perelman, who has recently materialized: “He’s aged.” Her longest conversation takes place with Tom Knox, a Papadakis family friend who, along with 500 other people, was on the guest list at Maria’s wedding, which was held last November to great fanfare. (The marriage ended seven months later, to less fanfare.)
“He’s writing a story about Maria!” Eliana tells Knox, pointing to me. “Do you want to say anything about Maria?”
“She’s very pretty,” he says.
“She’s very outgoing, attractive, she’s going to be very successful in life,” he adds.
I nod and tell him that many of her friends say she has the ability to accomplish whatever she wants to.
“Well, not whatever,” Knox says. “But most things.”
Feastival is precisely the sort of power-crowd schmoozefest Maria got acquainted with at the Drexel president’s mansion in Wayne. It’s also a good illustration of the professional niche she’s now carved out for herself. Since her father’s death in 2009, the 28-year-old has become an all-purpose cheerleader for the city, hosting a monthly arts expo, a video series on Philly.com, and a show for Comcast SportsNet. She’s also shooting episodes for a national TV program, the details of which are currently embargoed. Maria owes much of this success to her ubiquitous presence in society photographer HughE Dillon’s party pictures, which turned her into an object of gossipy fascination. “She was absolutely famous,” HughE says, “until I made her famous on a bigger scale.”
Famous is a relative term. In Philadelphia, it doesn’t take much to get there. Here’s one route: A society photographer decides that you’re a bona fide member of said society. He befriends you, makes you his muse. Hundreds of photographs later, your name and face have become inextricably lodged in the city’s consciousness, and the rest of the local media begin to play along. This dynamic is in full force at Feastival, where HughE Dillon of PhillyChitChat.com photographs Philly.com contributor Maria Papadakis and her soccer-player boyfriend Chris Konopka—their relationship was first reported by the Philadelphia Daily News, which is principally owned by the same guys who own Philly.com—and promptly sells the image to Philadelphia magazine, which sponsors Feastival.
All of this incestuousness makes it more or less impossible to figure out if Maria’s fame is, in fact, warranted. Is she a pretty blond legacy kid taking advantage of a celebrity-starved city? Or a bright girl squandering her impressive credentials by spending her time smiling for the camera? Put another way, does she owe her current station in life to the city’s insularity? Or is it Philadelphia that’s holding her back?
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.
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.
There are two pictures Maria carries with her everywhere. One is of Jesus. The other is of Taki. In her apartment is a framed copy of “The Papadakis Laws”—nine can-do aphorisms written by her dad. And when Maria got married to investment banker Kent, it was a decision very much influenced by Taki.
On their first date, at Alma de Cuba in 2010, Kent told her he wanted to marry her. Maria, whose father had wooed her mother in near-identical fashion, was emotionally fragile. “After the death of my dad, family became super-important,” she says. “It was just a matter of picking the right person for that marriage.” That she tried to fill the void so soon suggests an overly rigorous interpretation of Papadakis Law No. 3—“If it’s worth doing—it’s got to be done right now!”
Maria may have jumped into marriage, but the wedding itself was far from a rush job. Several attendees evoked the film The Philadelphia Story to describe the genteel glamour of it all. It was the social event of the season.
Maria and Eliana (and, of course, HughE) took Amtrak to New York to gown-shop at the salon where the reality show Say Yes to the Dress is filmed. Maria fell for a $20,000 gown adorned with faux pearls, but it ultimately proved too pricy (says Maria) or too clunky (says HughE). The Monique Lhuillier dress she went with instead was more reasonable: in the $7,000 range.
The dress was from New York, but the wedding couldn’t have been more Philadelphia. The ceremony took place at St. George’s Cathedral, where Maria walked down the aisle alone, to “leave space” for her father. Everyone—Jannie Blackwell, Carl and Roberta Dranoff, Charlie Pizzi—was there. Garces Catering did the filet mignon and sea bass; a soprano and a tenor from the Opera Company of Philadelphia sang “Maria” from overhead. HughE was the best man.
Seven months later, it was all over. “The Papadakis laws say, ‘You can make anything work,’” Maria says, shaking her head. “We just weren’t people who fit right together. Unfortunately, Maria found something she couldn’t change or fix.”
The precise reason for the breakup, which a writer from—you guessed it—Philadelphia magazine first reported in June, remains maddeningly murky. (Kent didn’t respond to requests for comment.) Maria’s friends all said the same thing about the breakup.
Hadas Kuznits, CBS 3 reporter: “I have no idea what happened.”
Marisa Magnatta: “See, that’s, like, a really weird thing. I just really didn’t know that much about that part of her life.”
Andrew Rosenthal, Bay Area entrepreneur: “We didn’t talk about that in detail.”
To be sure, there were some potential clues dropped along the way. In a post-separation interview with a publication called Society magazine—Maria’s on the cover, standing next to a horse—she was asked what she admires most in a man. “Well, mental stability. Ha ha!” she answered. “It’s harder to come by than you think!”
At one point Maria called me twice, then texted me in a huff, telling me she needed to “clear up some facts.” HughE—try to follow along here—somehow got the impression I thought Maria had cheated on Brendan with her new boyfriend, Chris. So he called Maria to tell her. And Maria called me. In between when I talked to him and she talked to me, HughE sent out this cryptic tweet: “It’s a darn shame the wrong story’s going to get out, but the right one would destroy someone’s life.”
Finally, over dinner at her apartment one night, a few details begin trickling out. The view from her windows is spectacular. She shows me the little terrace where she likes to hang out at night and listen to the reggae emanating from the Jamaican Jerk Hut on South Street.
Over moussaka and braised lamb shank—she and her mother cooked before I got here—we get down to business. Maria dispatches several rumors: No, Brendan never cheated on her or abused her. And no, he’s not gay. So why they did break up? She’s not saying.
“We all kept it really quiet,” she says. “People are so fascinated. I would rather be on my own, in pain, suffering quietly.” But the truth is, she can’t say: An airtight prenuptial agreement forbids her from talking about certain aspects of the marriage.
I tell Maria I thought only celebrities signed pre-nups. “I’m a celebrity,” she says.
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.”