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How an Immigrant From Colombia Cha Cha Cha-ed His Way Into a Chic Set

July 22, 1988|NIKKI FINKE | Times Staff Writer

In 1985, he was just another Beverly Hills hairdresser.

But now--three years, two restaurants, one art gallery and a clothing store later--Mario Tamayo is amassing a mini-empire at the "wrong" end of Melrose and attracting all the "right" people to it.

He has become the new buddy of movie stars and studio honchos and the social moth of the club and charity circuit. And he has been discovered by such national publications as Women's Wear Daily, Harper's Bazaar, Elle and Esquire.

Never heard of him? Rest easy. Though Tamayo is the name to drop at too-trendy spots like the underground club Ground Zero, it's still far from a household word.

But what's most intriguing about the 30-year-old Colombian immigrant, San Gabriel High School graduate and college dropout is not just what he's done, but whom he knows and how he makes that work for him. In a city where contacts can be as crucial to a career as cash or clout, Tamayo is the consummate cultivator.

Over the years, he nurtured an eclectic network of self-consciously hip friends and clients culled from the music, film, art and fashion worlds. Today he finds himself at the center of a new social set that is on the cutting edge of the city's creative community.

His success, then, is more than the average immigrant-made-good story. It's a quintessential tale of making it in Los Angeles.

Tamayo's ability to mix and match friends and clients is perhaps most visible at his flagship restaurant, Cha Cha Cha, a 70-seat shoe box opened with a shoestring budget at the graffiti-splattered corner of Melrose and Virgil avenues.

Good Food, Not Spectacular

There, the food is good but not spectacular; the furnishings are cast-offs; the prices are surprisingly modest. But a look around the room shows it's filled with the famous and the far-out, the posh and the punk--everyone from Saudi Arabian tycoon Adnan Khashoggi to struggling musicians sporting Mohawks. Almost all are on a first-name basis with the owner.

"They all go to look at the others--that's what makes it fun," Tamayo explains. But others know the crowd doesn't just happen. It takes work, said social butterfly and California Arts Council member Joan Quinn, who describes Tamayo as a "savvy social animal who always knows what makes each social group tick."

Harry Segil, a La Brea Avenue furniture designer and habitue of the club scene, adds: "Mario likes to take distinctive cultural groups of people and introduce them to that element they would not normally know otherwise. He creates combinations that are new and strange. He gives us a theatrical experience."

And always, Tamayo is the director, casting agent and set coordinator. He does it so smoothly that even his longtime friends are sometimes surprised by his connections.

"One day," recalls artist Richard Duardo, a close friend, "I was sitting with Mario and just expressing out loud that I wanted to get to David Hockney and pitch him on a project we could do together. But David was too inaccessible. . . . Mario just picked up the phone and, an hour later, I was meeting with Hockney. Now that is the ultimate facilitator."

It doesn't hurt that Tamayo maintains cozy relations with the press, including associate publisher Dan Gershon of Details magazine--the New York-Los Angeles chronicle of what's hot--and Los Angeles Herald Examiner society columnist Richard Rouillard.

Anne Crawford's Companion

But his coziest media relationship is with Anne Crawford, the 31-year-old gossip columnist for LA Style magazine, who has been one of his biggest boosters in print and a constant companion for the last year. Through her, he has had entree to Establishment social events around Los Angeles. "It works really nicely for us, this combination of who I know and who she knows," Tamayo says. "This is a very convenient thing."

At first glance, Tamayo, with his boyish enthusiasm and goofy grin, appears to be a wet-behind-the-ears teen. He talks like one too, using words like groovy and yikes to excess.

But look closer: That drink he sips is sparkling water bottled under his own label. That cuff he's tugging is on an ultra-hip WilliWear shirt. And that constantly changing hairstyle he's smoothing is a much-watched fashion statement.

At parties, he goes to be seen. "When Mario makes an appearance, it's like a grand gala arrival," says Smoot Hull, guest services director for the downtown club Stock Exchange. "It's the Mario Tamayo show."

One of the best examples was his birthday party last February. Friends issued invitations with only five days' notice. Then they changed the location at the last minute to a deserted downtown warehouse, where they served the barest minimum of food and drink.

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