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Standing next to Leon is Mirta Ardao, a Cuban woman in her sixties who is a longtime friend of Lavandeira's mother, Teresita. Ardao has short blond hair and sports a gold necklace with several pendants, including a cross and a blue seer's eye. "He is not Mario anymore," Ardao informs. "He goes by another name."
"What's his name now?" Leon inquires.
"His first name is Perez," Ardao replies.
"Hilton," New Times chimes in.
"That's it!" Ardao exclaims. "Perez Hilton. And he has become a very famous personality."
"He is a paparazzi," Leon says.
Ardao corrects her. "No, he is the guy who reports the news about other famous people," she explains. "Suppose Madonna gets pregnant. He is the first one who would put it out there."
Lavandeira's parents, Ardao continues, had him under tight control while he was growing up. "They were on him like this," she says, slapping her palms together. "But he never caused them any problems. He wasn't a kid who was into gangs or anything like that."
His father arrived from Cuba in the late Sixties and met Teresita shortly after she defected from the island. Mario Jr. was born March 23, 1978, in Miami. His sister, Barbara, was born two years later. The Lavandeira clan resided in Little Havana until 1983, when Mario Sr. and Teresita purchased a single-story four-bedroom residence on the corner of SW 21st Street and 84th Avenue. The house, which is now beige with white iron bars on the windows, was Lavandeira Jr.'s refuge during his childhood and teenage years. "He didn't have a lot of friends," Ardao recollects. "But he was very close to his father."
Lavandeira spent most of his free time in bed, watching television. As a child of the Eighties, his pop culture diet included He-Man, G.I. Joe, Snorks, Transformers, and reruns of The Facts of Life and Diff'rent Strokes. "I was really into the Smurfs," Lavandeira says. "So for my sixth birthday party, my parents hired a guy to dress up as a Smurf." As a teenager, he graduated to Friends, Melrose Place, and the purveyor of ultimate slackitude, MTV. He would vegetate in front of the boob tube for hours on end.
His parents indulged him. Mario Sr., who owned a now-defunct wallpaper company, regularly served his son dinner on a tray so as not to interrupt his television binges. Lavandeira left the house only to go to school or participate in family outings such as attending the Dade County Youth Fair or renting a beach cabana at the Fontainebleau Hotel. "My dad enjoyed driving around a lot too," he says. "He and I would take road trips to Lake Okeechobee."
When Lavandeira was 15, his paternal grandfather passed away. One week later, his father died suddenly from a brain aneurysm. Lavandeira declined to talk about the impact of his dad's death, except to say the loss "made me acutely aware of how short life is and to make the most of every moment."
Frankie Ruiz, who graduated with Lavandeira from Belen in 1996, remembers attending the funeral. "I felt a lot of empathy for him," Ruiz says. "We never became close friends, but it is definitely cool to see him making it in the entertainment industry."
In 2007, nearly 11 years after Lavandeira moved out of Westchester, his mother and sister joined him in Los Angeles. Ardao says she talks with Teresita on the phone on a weekly basis. According to Ardao, the Lavandeira matriarch is having a ball managing her son's affairs. "Since Mario was a kid, he always had show business aspirations," Ardao explains. "But she didn't want him to. She used to tell him that it was a difficult career to succeed in."
Leon interrupts her pal. "Isn't he being sued by the paparazzi?" she asks.
"No, people steal from him," Ardao responds. "They take stuff from his mailbox. That's why Teresita and Barbara are in Los Angeles. They are his administrators."
A woman who has stopped by to pick up a dress from Leon asks if Lavandeira is married. "No," Ardao says. "He is gay." The lady is silent. Ardao adds, "But a well-educated, attractive young gay man."
Unlike most of his peers at Belen, a private prep school that has been molding young Cuban-American men for nearly half a century, Lavandeira came from a middle-class family. "When my dad was still alive, he struggled to pay my tuition," he says. "I had a partial scholarship to Belen and a full one for NYU. Nothing in life was ever handed to me."
While most Belen students aspire to become lawyers, businessmen, doctors, and, in some cases, political leaders, Lavandeira had other ideas. "I went to the school to become an actor," he says. "I think that is pretty gutsy. I don't think my mom was too thrilled that I wanted to study acting at NYU. She would have preferred that I had gone to Harvard and be a lawyer."
One of the few people to bond with Lavandeira was Cristina Ramirez, Belen's 11th-grade British literature instructor. While sipping champagne from a fluted glass and occasionally flashing a broad smile, Ramirez reminisced about Lavandeira during a conversation at Town Kitchen & Bar in South Miami on a recent Saturday night.