“I think a lot of people are obsessed with this word ‘socialite,'” said 25-year-old Fabian Basabe at the Upper East Side restaurant Mediterraneo in late December. “What does it mean? One who is social? I don’t understand it.
“I like this whole ‘It Kids’ concept better than I do ‘socialite,'” he said.
Mr. Basabe leaned back against the camel-hair overcoat he had draped against the back of his chair. Dressed in jeans, loafers, a rust-colored Oxford shirt and olive sweater, he looked like an uptown prepster prince with a Caesar haircut and a strong jaw.
An “It Kid,” he explained in a stilted cadence, is “kind of like a social celebrity: You’re recognized within your community as someone who is fun and out there and you would like to know.” It Kids “really have a personality and they’ll better you, and you want to be friends with someone like that.”
Call him what you will, but Mr. Basabe has mounted quite a campaign to become one of Manhattan’s It Kids, the first one in memory who says he’s a Knight of Malta. By spending lavishly and behaving conspicuously at the city’s most popular nightspots and social gatherings-from Bungalow 8 to the Mercedes Maybach party at the Guggenheim-Mr. Basabe has attained the kind of social status that money can buy in New York. He’s been spotted out on the town with Elizabeth Kieselstein-Cord and the Hearst girls, Amanda and Gillian, seen in Page Six and Patrick McMullan’s party photos, and had a good run in the media last year. In October, Gotham magazine named him one of the city’s most eligible bachelors. A month later, Quest magazine put him on the cover. And last August, the E! Entertainment Network included Mr. Basabe in its Young, Rich and Famous special, which continues to run sporadically on the cable channel. Sandwiched in with the Olsen twins, Nicole Richie, Paris Hilton and Malcolm in the Middle ‘s Frankie Muñiz, Mr. Basabe was depicted as a “New York socialite who’s got the young-rich-and-famous thing down,” according to the cable network’s Web site.
This spring, Mr. Basabe is slated to appear on television again, albeit in a much larger role, when the Learning Channel unveils the second season of its reality show Faking It . One of the episodes will follow him as he immerses a Nebraska girl named Grace Coffman in New York’s social whirlpool. The program will focus, of course, on whether the corn-fed Ms. Coffman can be primped and prodded into becoming a social X-ray. But some habitués of the city’s nightlife will be watching to see if Mr. Basabe can pull off no less of a metamorphosis: from anonymous party boy to telegenic spokesman for the It Kids.
Not everyone will be rooting for him. “He’s a little cocky; he’s a little full of himself,” said Johnson and Johnson heir Casey Johnson, who has encountered Mr. Basabe at various haunts around town. “The only way he can get anywhere is if he buys a table.” By this, Ms. Johnson meant the tables that big shots reserve at nightclubs where the mandatory bottle of liquor runs in excess of $200. “He’s always going on about how much money he has.”
But though money buys a helluva lot more social cachet in this town than it did 15 years ago, Ms. Johnson opined that Mr. Basabe had yet to make it to the inner sanctum of the city’s young social scene.
“He’s friends with all those younger girls, but if you ask Serena or Samantha Boardman or Jennifer Creel, they’ve never heard his name,” she said. “He just came on the scene like two years ago. He thinks it’s a huge deal to go to Bungalow 8 and gets so excited, but he doesn’t go to any of the Dior parties, or any cool parties.”
“She’s not a friend of mine,” said Mr. Basabe, who added that Ms. Johnson’s comments were “unjustified” and had “no substance.”
Even fans of Mr. Basabe tend to agree that he came out of nowhere. Jason Oliver Nixon, the editor in chief of Gotham , said he wasn’t aware of Mr. Basabe until he saw the E! Young, Rich and Famous special last summer. “I’m like, ‘I have no idea who this guy is,’ and he didn’t even register,” Mr. Nixon told The Observer . “But the night after the show, I was at Indochine and I saw him, then I went to Hue and he was there, and I think I saw him at Soho House. I had never heard of this guy and thought he was a self-creation, then I started seeing him at parties, openings and with celebrities.” Instant validation!
That said, Mr. Nixon added, “I have no idea who he is. The description in the documentary was very vague-he was the son of a South American telecom mogul or something.”
Mr. Basabe wasn’t much more specific when describing his past. He said he was born in New York City, the son of an Ecuadorean father, also named Fabian, and a New Yorker mother, Maryann, both of whom now live in Bal Harbour, Fla. Basabe père owns the Boulevard Hotel on Ocean Drive in Miami’s South Beach area and, until recently, operated two well-known restaurants in the area, Bravo and I Paparazzi. He reportedly gave up the latter eatery when his landlord kicked him out in favor of a higher-paying tenant. Mr. Basabe also said that his father had made quite a sum in the telecom business in addition to inheriting money from his father’s beer-brewing business, though he declined to be specific. What he didn’t mention was that in late 2002, his father filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy in the Southern District of Florida, according to a lawyer involved in a property dispute with Basabe père . The bankruptcy case was eventually dismissed, and Basabe fils told The Observer that the filing was part of his father’s “business strategy” in the property dispute. Mr. Fabian’s father and his lawyer, John Allison, didn’t return calls.
While many of his nightlife contemporaries attended St. Bernard’s, Buckley and Trinity, Mr. Basabe said he went to Lawrence Country Day School in Woodmere, N.Y., (now the Lawrence Woodmere Academy) until he was 7, when the family moved to Ecuador for four years, then to Florida. Back in the States, Mr. Basabe, by his own admission, began bouncing from school to school until he finally graduated from the Cheshire Academy-where J.P. Morgan once attended-in Cheshire, Conn. “We say it’s because my father moved around for his job a lot,” Mr. Basabe said with a smirk, “but I was a troublemaker.”
When it came time for college, “I was supposed to go to N.Y.U., but I wasn’t ready for New York at 18,” Mr. Basabe said. Instead, he matriculated a coast away at Pepperdine in Malibu, Calif. He majored in international relations, he said, but left before graduating in 2000.
As he talked about his background and his return to Manhattan between sips of spring water and careful bites of penne à la cecca at Mediterraneo, Mr. Basabe sounded an awful lot like one of the rich subjects of Jamie Johnson’s Born Rich documentary-a man loath to define himself by something so bourgeois as a job. “In my South American background, it’s so impolite to say ‘What do you do?'” he said. “It’s basically ‘How much money do you have?'” When asked, Mr. Basabe said he sometimes retorts that he’s “self-unemployed” or “retired.”
And yet, shortly after he left Pepperdine, Mr. Basabe said that he did seek employment. “I was like, O.K., maybe I’m not adjusting to the New York thing,” he said. “Maybe the New York thing is to take an investment job.”
Mr. Basabe said that he walked into the Morgan Stanley satellite office at 43rd Street and Madison Avenue and pitched himself as someone who had connections. “I just went in and … gave them my spiel,” he said, adding that the position of “account coordinator” was created for him.
Mr. Basabe said he told his boss, “I have a lot of family friends that all have banks that need someone like you to manage their money, so why don’t you let me work on relationships and bring in business at my pace?” He added, “I didn’t do very much the first month that I was there, and then, month two, I brought him in a $10 million 401(k)-but I have no idea what that means.” Then he laughed. “I just think it’s pretty big.”
Morgan Stanley branch administrative supervisor Alana Albritton’s description of Mr. Basabe’s responsibilities didn’t sound so fancy.
“He worked as a cold caller-a
telemarketer solicitor type,” she told
The Observer .
Mr. Basabe disputed Ms. Albritton’s description and referred us to former Morgan Stanley senior vice president David Drucker, who said he hired Mr. Basabe to work “for me, exclusively,” within Morgan Stanley in a “marketing” capacity. “The firm paid him X, and I contributed Y,” said Mr. Drucker, who added that he had an occasion to meet Mr. Basabe’s family. “I attended a couple of black-tie dinners with his father, this Knights of Malta thing.”
The Knights of Malta, a Catholic lay group composed of well-heeled donors and avid volunteers who donate large amounts of money and time to the church, loom large in the younger Mr. Basabe’s conversations. He said he was knighted along with former Indonesian first lady Dewi Sukarno-that would make her a Dame of Malta!-in “either 1998 or 1999” in Rhodes, Greece. “He’s always talking about them,” said one junior socialite who requested anonymity.
Mr. Basabe didn’t last long at Morgan Stanley. “The conversations were really boring; the lunch places that they wanted to go were just too boring,” he said. “I did it for six months, and then I couldn’t do it anymore.” What Mr. Basabe really wanted to do was plunge into the rich veldt of New York nightlife. “So I left, and I’ve been having a lot of fun ever since.”
“We call him Pre-Fab Party-add water and stir,” said his friend, Harper’s Bazaar executive editor Kristina Stewart, who met Mr. Basabe at a dinner party when he first arrived in New York. “He’s assembled quite a crew of table-dancing, expensive-liquor-purchasing, paparazzi-friendly cohorts. They’re single-handedly keeping New York nightclubs afloat these days.”
“He has so much charisma,” gushed another friend, Annie Churchill, whose husband is a descendant of Winston.
Many of Mr. Basabe’s relationships with women seem to be platonic, though he said he’s “promised” to Martina Borgomanero, whose family owns La Perla. He said they still see each other, but not exclusively, so she doesn’t mind that he has turned into a gentleman walker. “I think it’s better to be semi-single when you’re young, because you’ll miss out,” he said. (Ms. Borgomanero could not be reached for comment.) Mr. Basabe has also been seen out with Ms. Kieselstein-Cord, which is how Marquis co-owner Noah Tepperberg first met him. “They came to this fashion show together and were dancing all night. This guy’s an incredible dancer.”
Ms. Kieselstein-Cord declined to comment on Mr. Basabe, however, and from inside a tanning bed in Los Angeles, Ms. Johnson dropped a clue that may explain Ms. Kieselstein-Cord’s silence.
“He has to have Elisabeth get him in everywhere,” she said.
“You can call the club owners,” Mr. Basabe replied. “I pride myself on my kindness and my loyalty.”
It was during one of his many nights out that Mr. Basabe said he was approached by E! “I had so much fun,” he gushed at Mediterraneo, losing some of his stilted Park Avenue pronunciation. “I had this camera group following me around. I felt like a superstar, and I haven’t even begun my life.”
Mr. Basabe let the E! camera crew accompany him even though, he said, his parents had always cautioned him and his younger sister: “Don’t be too high profile-especially growing up in South America,” he added. “It’s not as safe as New York.”
But now that Mr. Basabe has felt the buzz of TV celebrity, his defenses have dropped.
“I’m not shying away,” he said. “So if you want to do a show about New York, I’ll give you a tour!
“I recently decided I wanted to be a TV personality,” Mr. Basabe continued. But don’t confuse that with a desire to act. “I don’t think I’m an actor, I would never put myself up there with Robert De Niro or Edward Norton, Jack Nicholson or anything.” Rather, Mr. Basabe wants to be a “personality that can get attention, and that people enjoy being around or watching. I think a lot of people would appreciate knowing that there are people that are taking advantage of a good life,” he said. “I’m fun and I go everywhere and I do everything.”
Unlike most aspiring TV personalities, who start by auditioning for Good Morning, Kalamazoo , Mr. Basabe has been spared the long, slow slog through local television. “These people are all coming to me, and I’m gonna see how the next two projects go-and if I can establish myself as enough of a TV personality instead of a society personality, I’m going to get an agent and go forward … and then I could take that into modeling or something.”
Mr. Basabe doesn’t know how he came off in his episode of Faking It . He’s waiting to see a tape. Learning Channel spokeswoman Keisha Bullock said he was selected “as a coach for his knowledge in these circles …. We just sort of did our research. We had a short list, and we had all those people try out for the show. Fabian tried out and we chose him.”
For the first two weeks, Mr. Basabe and two other “mentors,” including publicist Catherine Sexton and an international etiquette coach, groomed Ms. Coffman for the Manhattan social circuit, taking her to Bumble and Bumble for a new hairstyle and shoeing her at Christian Louboutin. The last two weeks, Mr. Basabe said, he took Ms. Coffman around to parties, introducing her to his friends as a girlfriend from McLean, Va. He said he chose the area because the people there are wealthy but not especially high-profile.
According to Mr. Basabe, his charge didn’t quite grasp the dynamics of the Manhattan social whirl. When they were making up her back story, Mr. Basabe said, Ms. Coffman suggested that her father should be a billionaire who owned the new $350,000 Mercedes Maybach. Mr. Basabe said he enlightened Ms. Coffman: “I’m like, ‘Don’t say you have a Maybach, you silly girl- I don’t have a Maybach!”
In another instance, he said, “I’m explaining to her what I do, and she’s like, ‘So, what, so you go to lunch and you don’t do anything. So you go to parties-and then what?’
“So I think she missed the point,” Mr. Basabe concluded. Ms. Coffman couldn’t be reached for comment, but Ms. Bullock said, “I think that’s why our participants enter into the show; they want to try something that they’re not used to.”
While Ms. Coffman was grappling with the city, Mr. Basabe was grappling with issues of his own. He said he felt “kicked out of the group” while he was showing Ms. Coffman around, because a lot of his “beautiful friends” didn’t want to be on camera.
In the end, Mr. Basabe said, both parties were relieved to go back to their original lifestyles. Indeed, he said that from the get-go he knew the premise of transforming an outsider into a Manhattan insider would never work. “You don’t come to New York and fool people,” he said. “One thing I love about this city the most is that it weeds out all the extras.”