Fabian Basabe wears a watch, but don't ask him for the time because he has no idea. He never does.
"It says it's 4 o'clock on the 14th," he says, grinning at his silver Rolex, which at the moment is off by 13 days and 1 hour. "If I take it off for too long it stops and I don't have the patience to keep resetting it. But after a while you get used to wearing one."
Though useless as a timekeeper, Basabe's watch functions amazingly well as a metaphor for its owner, a thoroughly polished 27-year-old known in gossip columns and New York's upper-tier social scrum as Manhattan's "It" boy. Like everything else in Basabe's world, the Rolex costs a bundle and was a gift from his father, a businessman from Ecuador who bankrolls his son's enchanted life. And like Basabe, the watch doesn't work -- although it certainly is in working condition. Basabe has tried his hand at a job or two, but he's over the idea that he needs to punch a clock in some office to feel fulfilled.
"For a while I was intimidated by these people who said they worked for some investment bank," he says, sipping a cappuccino at his favorite Upper East Side restaurant, Mediterraneo. "It sounds great and really prestigious, but those jobs work you to death and they aren't very glamorous."
Full time and low glamour is not Basabe's style. For the past five years he's been a smiling and faddishly coiffed perennial on Manhattan's good-life circuit, popping up at one charity event after another, high-fiving doormen in the city's exclusive nightspots, hanging out with a pack of young trust-funders and Wall Street millionaires. At some point during all this revelry -- through some combination of charisma, ubiquity and, on one memorable evening with young Barbara Bush, uproar -- Basabe graduated to It-dom.
"He's popular for being popular," says Sam Doerfler, his agent at the Ford modeling agency, which is starting to shop Basabe to fashion companies for something called "spokesmodel" gigs. "He walks into a room and he gets the energy level up. When people go to a club or a show they want to have a good time, and when he shows up, they start having a good time."
Think Paris Hilton, but the male version and with his clothes on. Basabe is trying to parlay our fascination with the rich and the idle into nationwide fame and, like Ms. Hilton, a paycheck. It's unclear if getting photographed on red carpets is enough to launch a career, but Basabe is going to give it a shot, trying to turn himself into a one-man brand using nothing more than his looks, status and likability. He's just returned from Los Angeles, where he and his new West Coast agent met with television executives for a round of meet-and-greets. The subject: possible reality TV projects, or maybe a correspondent job on one of those "Access Hollywood"-type shows.
That's the dream, anyway. For now, he's just the highest-profile young socialite in the city, and snicker all you like, plenty of people in Manhattan depend on Basabe and other members of his Platinum Card tribe. Putting Basabe's name on an invitation to a charity event or a club opening is a splendid way to create buzz.
"He makes people feel that they're in the right place," says Johanna Piazza, a reporter for the Daily News gossip column Rush & Malloy. "Which is important for business. You get a steady flow of socialites like Fabian in the bar during the week, and by the weekend, the goombahs are lining up around the block."
Living Without Issue
You might be inclined to dislike Fabian Basabe from afar because he's rich and pampered and good-looking and because he's kind of a layabout and doesn't care what you think about that. Or you might envy his recent marriage to the gorgeous Martina Borgomanero, the Italian heiress to the La Perla line of high-priced lingerie. Across a room, arm in arm with his bride, Basabe looks a little too fabulous for his own good.
Up close, though, it's different. Basabe is disarmingly candid and in a way that isn't calculating. Instead of arrogance, there's a soft-spoken gentility and almost goofy enthusiasm, like a kid on the way to the circus. Dressed a bit preppy in a casual dark sweater, he's the picture of Upper East Side suave, but -- there's no other way to put this -- he's a sweetheart.
"He's an incredibly warm guy," says Dylan Lauren, Ralph's daughter and an entrepreneur who owns a candy store on the Upper East Side. "And he's always planning something."
For his wife, it was Basabe's calm, untroubled nature that drew her in. "When I met him, what made me stay with him is the one thing that attracts everybody to him, even if they don't realize it," says Borgomanero, who speaks with a thrillingly exotic accent and has joined us at Mediterraneo.
"He is the only man on the planet I have ever met who absolutely, truly has not one issue. I am a girl and live with being worried and you go to him with a problem and say, 'Oh my God, my life is over,' he fix it. Phone calls, whatever it takes. He fix it. To him, there is nothing that can't be solved. It's an amazing quality."
Basabe's apparent lack of issues is surely a matter of natural temperament, but it also has something to do with the seemingly limitless flow of cash he receives from his father. The elder Fabian Basabe is said to have come from a wealthy family in the capital of Ecuador and made money both here and in his native country through telecom, restaurants and real estate, according to his son. He also owns the Boulevard Hotel in Miami's South Beach. More particulars about the source of Basabe Sr.'s income are hard to come by, though the New York Post reported yesterday that over the past 15 years no fewer than seven companies have filed suit against him for failing to pay his bills, not to mention the IRS, which placed a $19,496 lien against him for taxes in August of last year. He seems to avoid publicity just as assiduously as his son seeks it out. Asked for an interview, he instead sends an e-mail, typed in all caps.
"As an Ecuadorean citizen, I have a home in Ecuador and do business there as I do in the U.S. and other parts of the world," he writes. "I am sure that you can understand that my life should not be part of the limelight."
Wherever his money comes from, Basabe I seems to enjoy sharing his wealth with Basabe II.
"My wife and I find comfort in knowing that we have exposed Fabian to many great aspects of life and living," he writes in another e-mail. "Fabian has always remained true to himself and although he continues to attract attention, I do not believe it will affect his personality. Fabian knows how to carry himself well and knows who his friends are. I like what he is doing. He is living 'his' life his way."
At the moment, the way young Basabe is living includes a major renovation to his apartment -- which is weird because it's an apartment he is renting. His mother is appalled.
"I know she's right but the thing is I just love the apartment," Basabe says. "There's nowhere else I'd rather live."
Until the work is complete, Basabe and his wife reside in an Upper East Side place that his parents keep. In a typical day, he rises at 11 a.m. or so, reads some e-mails, sets up dinner and a series of outings for the night. Often he's calling reporters to set the record straight about something he's read about himself. There's been a fair number of wink-wink items about Basabe's sexuality, mostly in blogs like Gawker.com and Jossip.com, which rarely let a week pass without alleging that Basabe is gay and everybody knows it.
"I would never respond," he says of those rumors. But on other subjects, he'll phone reporters if they write about him without asking for his side of the story.
"I may give that reporter a call and say, 'Listen, I realize you make a living writing about people you don't even know. But next time, here's my contact information. I'm pretty much available all day every afternoon. Come say hello, introduce yourself to me, and if you still don't like me, tear me apart in the press.' "
How do you become the "It" boy of Manhattan? For Basabe, it was a process. He arrived in New York in 2000, not long after he was "dismissed" from Pepperdine University in Malibu during his senior year. (He says, a little sheepishly, that he was busted for submitting a paper he'd purchased on the Internet.) He reconnected with some friends, and instead of working or job hunting, he caroused nearly every night, often until dawn. A hot bachelor with money and fashionable friends and no visible means of income -- Basabe was bound to get noticed, if only as a source of fascination. Who is this guy? And doesn't he have, you know, a job?
He did, though very briefly. Basabe in late 2000 was tired of the quizzical looks his lack of employment inspired, so one day he dialed 411 and asked for the nearest Morgan Stanley branch. Then he walked in, introduced himself to the branch manager and didn't stop talking until he was hired. It was a job they created for him, he says, and the salary barely covered the cost of his lunch and his cab rides to and from work. His role was to bring in the money of his wealthy friends, hobnob with clients and, occasionally, run errands.
"I was looking for somebody to help me in a marketing capacity," says David Drucker, formerly of Morgan Stanley, who hired Basabe. "He brought me a $10 million account for a publicly traded company and he handed the account to me on a silver platter. He's very street-smart, this kid, and knows a lot more about what he's doing than people give him credit for. I'll never say a bad word about him."
The errand part, it turned out, was the deal-breaker. His bosses wanted important documents hand-delivered by an employee, but heading downtown in heavy traffic didn't appeal. "So basically, I'd have my personal messenger just take it and it would create this chaos in the office," he recalls, shaking his head a little. "But I'm not going to sit in traffic for two hours in a taxi back and forth when I can just send a messenger to do it on a bike or a scooter because he's going to probably get there sooner." His tone of voice suggests that this is obvious.
"And because I would save myself those two hours, I would basically leave and go to lunch. That didn't go over too well."
Eventually, he says, his job was eliminated in a downsizing, and instead of accepting a position offered in another department, he quit. That left him plenty of time for night-crawling, which he did at least five times a week. He turned up in an E! channel documentary called "Young, Rich & Famous," along with Nicole Richie and others. The Learning Channel came calling, asking him to squire around a Nebraska farm girl and educate her in the ways of Manhattan society for a show called "Faking It," which aired in March of last year. The premise was to see if, after a couple weeks of training, a hayseed could blend in with the swells.
"There were a series of tests at the end that she ultimately failed," Basabe says of his Nebraskan ward. "I told her the best way to make it through one of these lunches is to stay quiet and cute. But she brought up religion and politics and went on for a solid seven minutes in a way that didn't make sense."
Then came The Photograph. Basabe went national after one night in February 2004, when he and Barbara Bush were snapped dancing at a Fashion Week bash. The president's daughter is seen straddling Basabe's leg as she tilts back a little in his arms. Everything about the image says "margaritas!" and when it ran the next day in the Daily News, it caused a good three-day ruckus.
The media sifted through Basabe's past, and suddenly some mildly embarrassing details were printed all over -- that Basabe had been bounced from a few prep schools, that his driving license was suspended because of an assortment of speeding tickets. It was nasty enough for him to leave town. He sort of hid out in Malibu for a while.
"I don't like speaking about it," he says. "The press was tearing me down to get to them," the Bush family. "It upset my family, it upset my friends. It was totally unnecessary."
A Never-Ending Party?
Tag along with Basabe on a night on the town and you realize that It-dom is kind of tiring. First stop is a benefit in a spacious West Side converted warehouse for Operation Smile, which raises money to operate on children with cleft palates. Dinner costs $1,000 per plate, and a ticket to the bar is $200. The place is crammed with tall and stunning women and immaculately dressed men. With the exception of Basabe and his wife, nearly everyone appears to be on the make.
Which is the point. Events like this are a New York institution -- how many other places are there with enough young rich people to fill charity events that double as meat markets. A couple dozen are thrown every week. To stand out from the pack you need bait in the form of socialites such as Basabe and Donald Trump's daughter Ivanka and Amanda Hearst, who all happen to be on the executive committee of Operation Smile. They assure the masses that a good-looking, well-heeled crowd will be on hand.
When it gets too crowded, at about 10 o'clock, Basabe heads out the door with his wife and a gallery owner named Carlo von Zeitschel, who, it is later learned, is Kaiser Wilhelm's great-grandson and one of the stars of a documentary called "Born Rich."
A bash hosted by Wilmer Valderrama of "That '70s Show" is next. Basabe and the missus pass through a phalanx of paparazzi to get into the event, pausing and smiling for a long minute in front of a huge drape emblazoned with "Heineken," which has sponsored the festivities.
"I make a point of learning their names and being friendly," says Basabe of the photographers. "I don't understand why some people have a problem with them."
The relationship between luminaries and media that cover them, which appears adversarial in print, looks different in close quarters. The gossip reporters are so cozy with the people they cover that they could easily be confused for close friends.
"It gets a little snarky in the paper because we know him so well and we know he can take it," says the Daily News's Piazza, who is at the Heineken party, sitting next to Basabe. "He can take a gentle ribbing, and the readers wouldn't be as interested if we didn't create some kind of controversy. He gets that."
About 2 a.m. the Basabes jump into another cab and head to Bungalow 8, a members-only club where an immense man guards the velvet rope. Fabian is here nearly every night, he says: "It's like where the after-party is," he shouts above the music. He orders a round of drinks, but his wife is giving him that "I'm pooped" look and with a hand gesture he begs for just five more minutes.
"I'm sorry we're ending this so early," he says, heading for the door at 2:30 a.m. He hugs a bunch of people on the way out the door, then leaves.
Exactly how long Basabe can remain the "It" boy around here is anyone's guess, but watch him in action and you realize that someone will have to swipe the title from him because he is never going to hand it over. Time means nothing to the man, of course. And though he might never hold a job, a long time ago he found his calling.