THIS PAST SPRING, I asked the Dallas socialite Angela Barrett if I could follow her around for a few weeks. A striking fifty-year-old brunette with the obligatory blond highlights, along with bluish-green eyes, a dandelion-slim body, and perfectly exercised arms and legs, Angie, as she likes to be called, is famous among Dallas’s moneyed class for her devotion to the social life. Most days of the week she makes an appearance at a charity luncheon, a cocktail party, a fashionable restaurant, or a seated dinner, and when the social season is in full swing, she hits as many as four events in an evening, racing around the city in a snazzy Porsche.
Wherever she goes, just about everyone stops what they are doing to stare at her. She is always dressed in some staggeringly expensive outfit— Women’s Wear Daily , the fashion bible, has called her “possibly Dallas’ biggest fashion fiend”—and she seems to be having the time of her life, smiling cheerfully at everyone she sees, chatting with her friends, and invariably pausing long enough to pose for the society photographers.
The photographers especially love taking her picture at Dallas’ society balls. One year she arrived at the Crystal Charity Ball, the preeminent social event in the city, in a Roberto Cavalli crystal-beaded bodysuit that fit so tightly around the bottom that many people were convinced that it was completely see-through. Another year, she came to the same ball dressed in a $70,000 black leather Versace gown with a six-foot-long train that knocked over chairs and tripped waiters as it trailed behind her. A few partygoers applauded as she walked past them. Alan Peppard, the Dallas Morning News society columnist, was so impressed with her gown that he spent a paragraph trying to describe it to his readers. The train, he wrote, was long enough “to house a family of Oompa Loompas.”
Even Dallas-area residents who know nothing about high society know about Angie, in large part because she is now starring in her own self-produced and self-funded weekly television show, Grin & Barrett , which premiered in early April on the local ABC affiliate, WFAA-TV. Grin & Barrett is essentially a reality show about the way Angie lives her life as a socialite: going to parties, donating money to charities, meeting celebrities, interviewing fashion designers, and trying on expensive new clothes and jewelry. For one episode, she flew to New York to interview Karl Lagerfeld. In another show, she visited one of the new stores at Dallas’s Galleria mall, where she became infatuated with a $12,000 handbag. For comic relief, she has also included segments in which she tries not to act like a socialite. She worked as a waitress on roller skates at Keller’s, a drive-in and hamburger restaurant in East Dallas frequented by the working class; she pretended to be a maid at the Hotel St. Germain, one of Dallas’s boutique hotels; and she showed up in a limousine at the mansions of Dallas barons Ross Perot, Jerry Jones, and Tom Hicks and tried to talk her way past the security guards, telling them that she was there to deliver pizzas.
Dallas, of course, is not unaccustomed to flamboyant society dames. Nancy Hamon, the 87-year-old grande dame of Dallas society who has a wing of the Dallas Museum of Art named in her honor, was once a Los Angeles “hoofer” who danced in a flesh-colored bathing suit in the Mae West movie-musical The Heat’s On . When she came to Dallas in the late forties to become the trophy wife of the great oilman Jake Hamon, the city’s old-money families could not stop talking about her.
But Nancy herself admits that Angie might be the most flamboyant of them all. “That girl is one of a kind,” she told me. “To be where she is today, considering where she used to be, is pretty damned hard to believe, don’t you think?”
Indeed it is. The story of Angie Barrett’s ascension to the top of Dallas’ social heap is a story so unusual, and at times so utterly comical, that many people who have heard it told around the tables at the city’s best restaurants still have trouble believing it is true. Exactly twenty years ago, Angie was not a famous socialite. She was not even remotely on her way up the social ladder. Her name was then Angie King, and she was on her way to the state penitentiary, charged with stealing more than $500,000 worth of designer clothes from the downtown Neiman Marcus.
WE HAD OUR FIRST meeting in a corner of the bar of one of the city’s best see-and-be-seen restaurants, Café Pacific, in the Highland Park Village. Angie was wearing a light-blue Gucci jacket, a floral Rochas camisole, embroidered jeans, and a pair of Jimmy Choos, the heels as high as football goalposts. She had come from a workout with a personal trainer, followed by a session with her hairstylist, whose name is Twan but whom she calls the Twanster. Angie looked at least a decade younger than her fifty years, which was perhaps the reason a couple middle-aged men at the bar kept turning to look at her. Or maybe they were looking at her because they realized who she was. A couple of tables away, other women were also doing double takes. Then, after a few moments, they leaned forward and began whispering to one another.
For the first minutes of our conversation, we discussed her cram-packed schedule: a fund-raising luncheon for a homeless program; a cocktail party for Regis Philbin, who was coming to Dallas; a Tom Jones benefit concert for a United Way agency; another party to celebrate the opening of new luxury suites at Hotel ZaZa; and an interview for her television show with a very important florist whom I had never heard of. “Oh, for heaven’s sake,” she said, playfully punching me on the arm. “Would you like for me to spell his name for you?”