Feature: Ready for Their Close-Ups: Behind-the-Scenes With Philly’s Socialites

Led by Sabrina Tamburino Thorne, a new breed of attention-loving, camera-hungry partygoers are making themselves “Philly-famous” — and turning Philadelphia society upside down

THE NEW LUMINARIES in Philly’s somewhat finite stratosphere got there mostly thanks to an unlikely star-maker: photographer and society blogger Hugh E. Dillon. Dillon — who spells his name “HughE” and pronounces it “Hughie” — is a sweetly eccentric, portly paralegal who spends his off-hours snapping photos at parties, the lone paparazzo in a town where news anchors, PR reps and politicos serve as celebs. He has access to just about everyone. But he’s especially enamored of socialites, people who, in his view, are less Paris Hilton scandal-magnets and more Brangelina-style do-gooders — so long as they’re opting for soirees over soup kitchens (where the lighting is much less flattering).

 “My goal,” he says of his website, which he started in 2007, “was to go across social and class lines and just feature people out supporting charities.” After showing up at a few events, snapping shots, and posting them on a blog he christened Philly Chit Chat, Dillon began to get invited (with camera) by publicists to their clients’ events. Soon, he was a known entity, and his little 4,300-hits-a-month blog blew up. Women on the party circuit would greet him with an exuberant “Hugheeee! Hi!,” and turn their best sides to his lens. Women like Sabrina, with her raspy, happy laugh and penchant for camera time.

“A few years ago, I said to myself, ‘Who do I want to make a buzz about?’” Dillon recalls. “And then I met Sabrina, who gave me the gift of allowing me to write about her, and to call her a socialite. She’s my Paris Hilton. Without the sex tape.” Ever since he announced Sabrina’s 2008 engagement (the party was at the Franklin Institute, where Vince Papale and at least half of City Council mingled with 300 or so other guests), HughE says, he’s seen record numbers of blog visitors, logging about 80,000 unique hits a month.

Impressive — but not to everyone. “I really don’t know why HughE chooses the people he chooses,” one Main Line gal-about-town snarks. “I think there are a lot more interesting people in the city.” All the same, she admits: “A lot of people read his columns anyway. I do.” 

“Look,” says another insider, “we’re a town that celebrates news anchors. I think this is as close as we get to glamour.”

“Do I call myself a socialite?” Sabrina asks. “No. I do think I’m fun.” And yes, she and her husband donate to charities and serve on boards and go to openings and parties and fund-raisers. “I won’t lie,” she says, and grins. “I like being photographed. I didn’t seek it, but HughE asked. I’m not super-private. I thought, Why not?