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?