Since Stephanie Wei graduated from Yale in 2005 and moved to New York, she’s worked at a law firm and an investment bank. The last time she scored her golf game regularly, her handicap was 0.9, and she guesses that these days she’d be a 4 or 5 from the men’s tees. Now she works at a public relations firm, a fine perch from which to make a stab at becoming a known quantity in Manhattan young society.
“I’m finding it,” she told me. “I’m 24 still, and this the first time I’ve ever had a break in my life. It’s always been go-go-go-go-go. I wanted to rule the world at, you know, 22.”
Ms. Wei has indeed made herself a winking pulse on the party circuit. Mention her name to any wannabe fashionista socialite between the ages of 17 and 27 and they all know her. Also, men are fond of Stephanie Wei. All kinds of guys hit on her and there’s always someone she’s seeing, although she does go through stages of being asexual. Last fall, she told me, she had a fling with Heath Ledger. Since his fatal overdose in January, she says, a tabloid has been waving money at her.
On a Monday night in the middle of Fashion Week, Ms. Wei was in the two-bedroom apartment her mother bought her in the West Village. She sat on a couch sipping a vodka Red Bull and smoking Parliament Lights, while three smooth, styling guys were across the room, patiently waiting for Ms. Wei to get ready for a night out.
There was reason to celebrate: Not only had she been to the Oscar de la Renta show that day, she had lunch with the designer—well, she and eight others, but it was enough. She showed me pictures online from the de la Renta show. There was Anna Wintour, Marina Rust, Plum Sykes, Renee Rockefeller, Angie Harmon, Aerin Lauder—and several shots of Stephanie Wei. She’s a wee lass; she says she’s 5-foot-2 and 100 pounds. She has tiny hands and size five feet (“Midget feet,” she calls them.).
“It was like, older people, you know, and I was just honored to be there,” she said. “I’m, like, shocked I’m even in the pictures, you know. I’m sort of speechless in a way. I never would have imagined, you know, sitting at the Oscar de la Renta show. And then afterwards it was like, ‘Oh, do you want to come to lunch with us?’ and I was literally, like, speechless.”
She said she’d been “deathly ill” for four days and thus had missed the fashion show of Form, a design company she was doing pre-show publicity for.
“I missed my own show after working very hard for it,” she said. “It was packed, we had over 600 RSVP’s, we had to turn people away. Tyson Beckford and Niki Taylor showed up, all my friends—front row was just a bunch of my friends. I helped get some of the social people there, like Leven Rambin—All My Children, whatever—Ally Hilfiger—through a friend—Annabel Vartanian. Then I got sick. Bedridden for four days. You want any pizza?”
There was the Tory Burch show tomorrow (“I asked Chris Burch for tickets so they are hooking it up”) and that night, the BCBG party at the Bowery Hotel, Chloë Sevigny’s party at Webster Hall, something at the Rose Bar.
Ms. Wei is out almost every night at spots like the Belmont Lounge, Bungalow 8, Martignetti’s and the Beatrice Inn—although her status there has been up in the air lately. It was there that she met Mr. Ledger. She admitted to being a party girl about town.
“Yes, I am to some extent, but I feel that I don’t want to rub people the wrong way, you know, in that Olivia Palermo kind of way,” she said, referring to the socialite and aspiring actress. “I don’t need that. I don’t want to like be seen as a silly girl. And I know you don’t think of me like that.”
I shook my head.
Her cell phone rang. A guy friend, calling to inquire about a young lady. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I think you’re, like, overanalyzing it,” she said into the phone. “I don’t know her well enough, but I can find out? I do know that she likes more artsy guys. I’m not saying that rules you out, Shawn, ha-ha! I’m not going to say anything! No-no-no, she’s a really good girl. I’m going to meet her later at Belmont.
“Oh, I’m sorry I didn’t text you back!” she continued. “I went to the Oscar show today and then I had lunch with him, because I’m friends with Moises [de la Renta]. My life is complete. I was star-struck. He’s an icon, you know? And you know Moises is such a nice guy, and his dad was so nice. But go to Belmont later, because I’m going to go—Louisa and Cece and I have been talking, we all want to meet up. Shawn, I never would. You can ask Justin about me: I never do. ’Bye, Shawn!”
Meanwhile, her three pals were staring at a laptop where a model friend of theirs was encircled by dozens of cans of Red Bull, and they were trying to guess exactly how many. They took a break to talk about Ms. Wei.
“Stephanie is not only a great person, but she was able to be a beautiful subject in a self-portrait,” said Ben Fink Shapiro, a photographer.
“Ben!” Ms. Wei hollered from the next room.
“I’m not going to describe it! She was a great subject in a self-portrait of mine that one day will, in 10, 15 years—“
“It will be in a gallery! It’s tasteful, it’s tasteful.”
Jason Ross, a model-turned-accessories designer, called Ms. Wei a “fashion altruist.”
“I think that may describe her,” he said. “Last night we met; she saw my work. She is, like, wearing it around on her wrist!”
He was referring to a leather wristband with a silver eagle that looked vaguely fascist to me.
“I showed her a couple of my pieces and she’s like, ‘I want to wear them,’” Mr. Ross went on. “And it’s really nice for me, starting out, and people wanting to sort of champion your work.”
Ms. Wei reappeared. “Moises says hi, he’s coming over,” she said.
She gave me a tour of her bedroom, which was a mess after she literally tore it apart looking for something to wear. She’d decided on a Stella McCartney top, tights and Jimmy Choo boots.
In a corner were Callaway golf clubs in a Yale golf bag. On the wall were pictures of Stephanie with her mother; with socialite Lydia Hearst; and with what looked to be her twin but was in fact Julie, her best friend growing up and, until recently, her roommate. (What happened was, after Ms. Wei returned from St. Barts in December, Julie informed her that she was in love with Ms. Wei’s ex-boyfriend. Ms. Wei asked Julie to move out: “I’m not mad, I’m just you know, sad,” she said. “We grew up together, known each other since we were two and a half. We were like sisters.” This happened around the same time Ms. Wei’s grandmother died. It had been a “challenging” period, so she escaped to St. Barts for a second time, just before New Year’s.)
She showed me a small poster with an inspirational message that her friend John Kluge Jr., son of billionaire mogul John Kluge, gave her. There was a picture of Chris Brady, grandson of Nicholas Brady, the treasury secretary under Reagan and the first President Bush. Young Mr. Brady—a financier, party boy and skilled swordsman—ran with a fast crowd at Yale and helped Ms. Wei advance socially there. In New York he introduced her to friends like Barbara Bush and Dabney Mercer (Tinsley’s sister).
“We’re best friends—we tell people that his family adopted me from rice paddy fields for 80 cents a day,” Ms. Wei said of Mr. Brady. “We say this to the WASP-iest, whitest people, it’s hilarious. If you look around the room a lot of times, I’ll be the token Asian. I was a rice paddy worker for Halloween last year.”
Stephanie Wei’s mother, Theresa Fang, was born in Taipei to a family of wealthy landowners who fled to Taiwan when the Commies took over. Stephanie’s father, Chamer Wei, was born on an army base in Xongxing. His family, too, made it safely to Taiwan. Mr. Wei earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry at the University of California at Irvine. Stephanie was born in Boston, where her father worked at a biotech firm. The family moved to Redmond, Wash., when she was 3; her parents separated two years later and lied to her about it. She discovered the divorce papers and didn’t take it well.
“I always had a rebellious quality, very persistent about it,” she said.
After the divorce her father moved back East, and eventually sold his company on the New York Stock Exchange and retired early. Mr. Wei now lives in southern China and Houston. Meanwhile her mother opened a mortgage company with her second husband, Hank Lo. In second grade Stephanie transferred to a school attended by sons and daughters of Microsoft employees, where students called teachers by their first names.
At first Stephanie wasn’t happy about her stepfather. But then he took her shopping, skiing, bought her a pony named Peter Pan, and when she was 11, he taught her how to play golf. At 7:30 on Saturday mornings he would drive her an hour away to see a golf instructor.
“I wanted to be a regular kid,” she said. “I joke that my training regimen was like a Nazi kind of training camp. My stepfather would pressure me, but it was good for me. Golf shaped me a lot in terms of discipline, trusting myself and my intuitions.”
During her freshman year in high school, she played on the boys’ golf team. For her 16th birthday, in exchange for promising to practice really hard, her stepfather bought her a BMW 323ci. Stephanie says her mother, who was opposed to spoiling her and herself drove a Jeep Cherokee, was “so pissed.”
By now Stephanie could hit a drive 240 yards but didn’t have the patience for putting. In one national tournament, when she was 18, she was playing against Paula Creamer, who was way ahead. On the 18th hole, Ms. Wei hit into the rough, 150 yards off the green. She grabbed her five iron and dropped the ball 10 feet from the hole, then two-putted for a par five. “I still remember that shot, it was exactly how I wanted to hit it,” she said. “Felt really good.”
Ms. Wei shot a 74 and finished in third place. Around this time she was ranked nationally in the 50’s (for her age group) and says she could have been better. “It was almost like a rebellion,” she said. “I didn’t always really want it; I never tried that hard.”
Although she missed school because of golf, she made straight A’s. She was no goody-goody, though.
“Asian kids don’t go out, you’re not allowed to go out when you’re an Asian kid,” she said. “I always dated guys. I was pretty forward for my age, actually. More experienced than some people. More like, experimental, like meeting random people I shouldn’t be meeting and hanging out with them.”
At 15, she’d sneak out to hook up with guys like Mike, who attended public school and drove a red Mustang. “One night he picked me up and we were hooking up, making out, whatever, but I didn’t have my shoes on or anything,” she remembered. “And my mom realized I was missing … and I remember running down the gravel back home, and sneaking back into the window, and getting berated by my mother, and the next day had bruises all over my feet.”
Other nights she’d end up in “like the ghetto of Seattle, where they probably had drugs and guns,” she recalled. “I was always curious about how the other world lives, hanging out with the less privileged kids I would meet and go to their trailer parks.”
At the same time, she was being recruited for college golf scholarships, courted over fancy dinners. At first, the Ivies were “like a backup,” she said, because they don’t offer athletic scholarships. She received scholarship offers from some schools, but wasn’t sure she wanted to sign away her life to golf. “You get a lot of perks, but they freaking own you.”
She chose Yale. Her roommate Katie Baker remembers meeting a Seattle girl with a Jennifer Aniston haircut who said things like “hella cool.” She had irregular sleeping patterns, passed out a lot and made a cameo in a student movie called Beer Pong. She was nicknamed “the Asian Dove” by the hockey team.
She joined the same sorority as Barbara Bush, Kappa Alpha Theta, and became VP of membership. She was made captain of the golf team her junior year, but after a while she wasn’t playing as well. She also decided the practice facilities at Yale weren’t up to par, and neither was the training program, nor the coach. Then there was the stress of school, plus she was tired of taking steroids for a back injury—so she quit. “It was really hard because I never ‘quit’ anything before.”
A lot of her Yale friends were moving to New York, so in the summer of 2005 she gave it a shot. First she worked at a law firm. “It’s funny, the amount of, like, sexual harassment suits I could have gotten at my first job,” she said, half-kidding. “I was really ambitious, all-nighters all the time. I didn’t go to bed for 30 hours once.”
Ms. Wei became the pet of a few older married men at the firm and dated one middle-aged guy who was separated from his wife. “We kept it a secret, so no one ever found out about it.” Other female employees complained that Ms. Wei received special treatment because she was pretty. After 14 months, she was hired as a private-equity analyst at an investment firm. Last April, after only six months, she quit.
In February, Ms. Wei got a gig working at a boutique PR consulting company She also told me that she is going to be chief operating officer of a fashion label that will debut this summer; all she would say about her partner is that he is the son of a legendary fashion designer
Despite all of her accomplishments, what most impressed me about Ms. Wei was one night when I tried to get her to leave the Bowery Hotel with me. She said no. “When I’m out with my friends, I’m out with them,” she explained. “I don’t ditch my friends.”
Another night Ms. Wei met me at Public on Elizabeth Street. She ordered a skim cappuccino. She’d been out the night before at a party at the Beatrice Inn for Tara Subkoff.
“I don’t wanna drink right now; I just need to like cleanse my body,” she said. She was wearing Jimmy Choo boots, Wolford tights, and a white sweater coat, which she kept on. Her Yves St. Laurent bag was in between us.
“I’m kind of an outsider, like the third New York,” she said. “I wasn’t born on the Upper East Side or even New Jersey. My family doesn’t own God-knows-what or whatever. I have friends who are big old New York people, whatever. I’m from a small suburb of Seattle.”
I asked about her detractors in young society.
“It’s just funny to me,” she said. “People throw out the word ‘social climbing’—I know that’s been going around about me, probably, I’m sure. But have you heard that from people? You can be honest. It’s okay.”
“I’m not worried, because I know the people that have been saying things,” she continued. “I don’t even know what social climbing is. What is social climbing? They don’t know me! I know people are talking. What I’ve been told is, ‘Oh, you’re getting attention and you’ve come out of nowhere.’ I’m very sarcastic, and I think a lot of people don’t get that, and so I’ll just like say whatever, and I’ll make some sort of comment, the Asian rice paddy joke. I mean, someone’s spreading a rumor that I want to be the Asian Paris Hilton.”
I got the check and we headed over to the Rose Bar. She social-kissed the female door person and we were whisked inside. Ms. Wei said that the next day she was meeting with a producer about appearing in a reality TV show. I wondered if this was another example of things just happening to her, as opposed to ruthless calculation.
“I don’t know, some may argue that I’ve climbed my way up there!” she replied. “I contrived it, it was my master plan. I was like, ‘I’m going to move to New York and I want to be the Asian Lauren Conrad.’ You know, that’s my aspiration in life, George. Maybe my next step is a nose job,” she said, laughing. “You know, I’d love to be famous on some reality TV show.”
It was midnight and she had to meet some friends at the Belmont Lounge. Winding around Gramercy Park, she said lately she’s noticed some of the people who used to be her best friends, the ones who brought her into fashionable society a year ago, haven’t been quite as friendly. When she told an “old New York” guy about it, he gave her some pointers.
“He said, ‘You are way too nice for your own good, and you need to become meaner. Because they’re not your friends. Don’t be so nice. Just be a bitch.’”