From the Pasadena Magazine 2017 Issue: Power Players
When I moved to Pasadena 24 years ago, a new bride, I knew no one but my husband. I wasn’t a Power Player. I wasn’t even Power Play Adjacent. I toiled away in our back bedroom as a freelance writer with zero co-workers. I referred to the women in my aerobics class as “my friends” even though I knew none of their last names. I got a dog so it wouldn’t be so obvious I was talking to myself most of the day.
To learn about the true Hoi Polloi of Pasadena, I read Patt Diroll’s society column, On The Town, in the Pasadena Star News, studying the pictures and memorizing the bold-faced names in case someday I’d get out of my red sweat pants and attend a swanky party. Patt, still practicing her craft, is a wonderful writer who brought the elite to life with professionalism and a touch of tart: the old guard, the new money, the arts patrons, the pols, the TV people, a genuine celeb here and there and, of course, the glittering line-up of caterers and floral designers that made the parties pop. As someone who grew up reading the wedding announcements of people I didn’t know in the New York Times, I was grateful to have the same sort of guide here in Pasadena.
For more than a decade, I lead a relatively underground life, writing and hosting an award-winning, syndicated radio show called Satellite Sisters that almost no one in Pasadena listened to, but a million other people around the country did. The great thing about radio is that there is no facial recognition at Target. And the humbling thing about radio is that there is no facial recognition at Target. I acquired friends through my sons’ schools and sports teams, but spent most of my time on the sidelines, literally and figuratively. Often, these acquaintances would introduce me to others with a vague description that I was in radio and then say, “Lian is very famous. Tell them why you’re famous…”
Let me be clear, if you have to explain to total strangers why you are famous, you are not famous. I didn’t mind not being famous; I minded having to explain my non-fame to strangers.
On the flip side, I found myself constantly on the outs during conversations with women who had grown up here, long-time residents with deep social histories. They often started stories with sentences like, “Oh, you must know her. We graduated together from Very Fine Girls’ School. She’s married to That Guy Who Is On The Board at USC. Her Aunt Always Dressed by Lulu Brandt chaired that Prestigious Charity Event. Now they live on Crazy Fancy Street next to Another Alumna of the Very Fine Girls’ School.”
I would be forced to answer, “I don’t know any of those people you just mentioned.”
But then I wrote a book about Pasadena, a social satire called Helen of Pasadena, culled from my many years of observing, but not really knowing, the locals in their natural habitat. (My publisher, Colleen Dunn Bates, a Pasadena Power Player from way back, told me I was brilliant to include ‘Pasadena’ in the title because people in Pasadena are so enamored of their city, they will buy anything with ‘Pasadena’ in the title.) The book was a hit and suddenly, I got a total Power upgrade. I was famous in four zip codes.
The faces who populated the On The Town column were introducing themselves to me. There were dinners at clubs I could never get into, lunches with Ladies Who Usually Lunched Without Me, credentials for conferences that featured tech gurus, savvy designers and angel investors with fantastic suits and cutting edge socks. I met writers, directors and producers who eschewed the Westside and felt like I was finally part of the club, even though I’d been in media for 15 years.
I discovered that power is rather egalitarian in Southern California. Anyone can jump into the pool; they just have to be good at one thing. One darn thing. My fictional world opened up to me in real life: judges shortlisted for the Supreme Court; Saviors of Building that were Old and Worthwhile; all those people whose names sit above galleries at the Norton Simon or Huntington. I dined with college presidents, Nobel Prize winners and newscasters galore. I sweated with celebrity trainers and yogis. I had my picture taken with people that donated handsomely to wonderful non-profits and the talented executives of those non-profits. Along the way, I was introduced to foodies, chefs and restauranteurs. And of course, I kept a list of the derms, the gynos and the real estate agents.
Best of all, I met the real power elite here in town: the hairdressers. Our Chers. The one-name wonders—Joseph, Stephen and my own Trina – who pull everyone together on Friday afternoon for a long weekend.
Now I can follow along with conversations, walk into a room and see one friendly face or wave to a few fellow walkers on my Rose Bowl loop. Is that power? Not really. Maybe it’s simply attrition. I’ve been around town long enough to know a quite a few fine folks. And that’s a powerful feeling.