The first thing I saw when I walked into the lounge of the W Hotel two Saturdays ago was a turtlenecked man sitting in a booth clutching a cocktail with one hand and petting a very large, very fluffy white dog with the other. I was there for Refine the Paradigm, a benefit for tsunami victims hosted by the management company Icon Liquors and Xes Hollywood, a California nightclub.

“This one-time event will provoke all things conventional,” crowed the invite, “by combining the socially aware with subversive nightlife culture and unpredictable celebrity.”

I felt a little bad about attending a posh benefit for impoverished disaster victims–worse that I wasn’t even donating. (I got in free on a press pass; tickets cost a minimum of $150 per person.) But almost $15,000 was raised that night for the American Red Cross tsunami relief program and Kids With a Cause, so clearly they didn’t need my life savings.

Adam Goldstein, also known as DJ AM, better known as Nicole Richie’s fiance, was spinning, and the bar was serving Elm Street Liquors’ recipes for champagne-infused cocktails called Starfucker and Name Dropper (surprisingly, I didn’t care for either). Icon Liquors’ press release dropped a few names of its own: expected guests included Hilary and Haylie Duff, Keanu Reeves, Chris Rock, Eva Longoria, and Corey Feldman. What rich person wouldn’t want to mingle with such an assemblage, especially for a good cause?

The celebrity quotient turned out to be noticeably thin: Feldman and the Duffs were the only ones from the list who made it, but some unlisted folks showed up as well: Punk’d regular Ryan Pinkston, Matt Baker (who has a part in the forthcoming American Pie 4: Band Camp), and a guy who introduced himself as K.Led and claimed he was getting paid just to be in Chicago.

After posing on a smallish patch of red carpet, the celebs were whisked away to a roped-off area where we peons could look at but not actually hang out with them. I managed to weasel my way in there, and a handsome older gent immediately introduced himself to me: “Hi, I’m Brad. I play Ashlee’s dad on 7th Heaven,” he said, referring to some work he did with the younger Simpson sister between 2002 and 2004.

I noticed a couple of women dancing in front of him and asked who they were. “Oh, just some locals,” he said.

“Hey!” I said. “I’m just some local too.”

“No you’re not,” he replied. “You’re LA quality.”

Later I told the mysterious K.Led I had to pee, so he led me back through some kind of behind-the-scenes portion of the hotel, where models in lingerie were lined up, waiting to pose on elevated blocks around the room for a “casual fashion show.” When I got out of the bathroom he had a bottle of champagne waiting on a tray. I stopped caring who he was–if you’re audacious enough and vapid enough (and carrying a bottle of champagne), on a night like this you are whoever you say you are, or whatever other people think you are. He was K.Led, in-demand party attendee; Pinkston, Baker, and Maule were A-list stars; I was LA quality. He poured me a glass, we cheersed, and then we headed back down to the party.

Soon I was so drunk my friends told me I was talking gibberish, like vowels only. I went home while they all headed to Crobar with three young new local discoveries: Jared Hatch, an artist who works with stained glass; his “muse,” Raphael de Charles, who says he writes, designs, acts, models, and does makeup; and de Charles’s toy Chihuahua, Bianca de Charles, who wore

a black and silver cape.

When they got to Crobar, my friends told me, de Charles checked Bianca at the coat check. “She’s fine,” he said, handing her over to the bewildered woman behind the counter, repeating a line he’d used on me earlier in the evening: “She’s a socialite.”

He’d also told me he’s currently under consideration for a new WB show called Survival of the Richest, for which you really do have to be rich, and that he’s an heir to a candy company, though he won’t say which on the record. “I can do anything I want,” he said. “I swear.”

And lo and behold, two days after the party he was compared to Paris Hilton in the Tribune’s society pages.

Last Thursday I bumped into de Charles again. He strolled into the party for Lincoln Park’s new Barneys Co-op–a younger, less expensive version of the ritzy department store–with his chin and collar up, hair gelled into a perfect mess, carrying Bianca, who was wearing a pink hoodie, pink pearls, pink moon boots, and a glitter heart bindi.

He flashed amazingly white teeth in a sort of shy smile, and attendees rushed at him to coo over his dog. They paid him as much attention as they did the diminutive, debonair Simon Doonan, creative director of Barneys and former judge on America’s Next Top Model. (When I asked him if he’d be on again this season, he patted his hair and said, “I think Tyra lost my number.”)

De Charles, I learned, is a 19-year-old fashion-design student at Columbia College. He idolizes Oprah Winfrey because, he says, “she’s had to overcome so many challenges.” He has dreams of someday writing his own column called “Having It All by Raphael de Charles” and designing three of his own clothing lines. He has the names picked out: LA Trash, Celebrity, and Eurotrash, in that order. His fingernails are professionally manicured, and he claims he wears only designer underwear. “Always look your best,” he told me after the Co-op party. “Who says love is blind?” He said all this with a straight face, as he says everything.

The weird thing is, de Charles says he’s a writer, but he’s never actually been published. You can’t buy his clothes anywhere, and you can’t find any modeling pictures on his Web site. He gives you the feeling that he’s constantly juggling requests from the press (“I’m talking to a few different local newspapers and magazines today”), but besides the Tribune mention the only ink he’s gotten (till now) was for a RedEye story on “diva dogs” a month ago. He says he started calling himself a socialite two years ago, “when I first discovered couture.”

I don’t think he’s fooling anyone, but then, I don’t think he’s trying to. “If you feel in your head, ‘You know what? I deserve this,’ no matter who you are, that’s all that should matter,” de Charles told me. “Being fabulous is just another emotion.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Andrea Bauer.