Mardi Gras traditions meet online interactive culture in fantasy league that rates the debutantes

Brendan McCarthy, The Times-Picayune By Brendan McCarthy, The Times-Picayune
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on March 07, 2011 at 8:00 AM, updated March 07, 2011 at 12:24 PM

The dining room table is covered with Mardi Gras boas in purple, green and gold, a handful of embossed envelopes and a teeming binder stamped "Commissioner," all belonging to the organizer of the New Orleans Fantasy Debutante League.

trisha-lockhart-wells.jpgTrisha Lockhart Wells, shown here in her home last week, created a fantasy debutante league several years ago. She and her husband, Mike, have been keeping score with purple, green, and gold colors on two mirrors on front of an armoire in their living room.

Trisha Lockhart Wells clicks furiously on a beat-up Dell laptop, her eyes bulging with excitement as reams of data fly by.

Spreadsheet after spreadsheet, she points out the names of some of the city's up-and-coming socialites, each one followed by 26 columns filled with biographical information and personal tidbits that would make any insecure woman blush.

These boxes of data culminate in a ranking, which is merged with a separate spreadsheet containing the names of the young women's fathers -- most from prominent families. This document is considered "privileged information," the commissioner says.

It's important, she notes, not to reveal all of the league's secrets.

Scoring the debs

For the past six years, Wells has been running a semi-exclusive fantasy league that centers on a small and exclusive segment of New Orleans society.

The premise is the same as that of a fantasy sports league, in which participants draft players who earn them points through athletic feats, such as home runs or stolen bases, touchdowns or interceptions. There are trades and releases, as well as free agent pickups.

In the Fantasy Debutante League, the top "athletes" are young women of the city's Carnival society. That means many are wealthy, most are white, and most have parents who are, in some way, movers and shakers.

Each team drafts 10 debutantes. Points are awarded for inclusion in a Carnival or debutante presentation, which are broken down into five tiers. A debutante who makes maid status in a tier-one presentation, one of the most exclusive clubs, gets 60 points, whereas a queen would garner 200 points. Lesser tiers get lower scores, Wells says.

Extra points are awarded for media attention, "over-the-top debut parties," as well as bribes to the commissioner.

The debutante who recently held a "Snow White"-themed party -- complete with dancing dwarfs, artificial snow, champagne, and burgers and fries under a 8,000-square-foot tent -- scored big.

Penalties are also meted out for anything Wells sees as a faux pas: inappropriate clothes, faux-leather gloves, toe rings.

"There was this one year which everyone was doing side ponytails," the commissioner says. "It was a hot mess. I had to give some penalties."

One way to score big in the league is through the trifecta bet. To collect, participants must pick a young woman who wins (becomes queen), places (is named a maid) or shows (is presented) at three of the big four Mardi Gras celebrations: Comus, Momus, Proteus and Rex. It's akin to the trifecta at the Fair Grounds, but here the smart money is on jeunes filles instead of fillies.

Debutante wannabe

The commissioner always wanted to be queen of Carnival. She wanted to be inside the snow globe, the chosen one waving her bejeweled scepter.

But there was one major roadblock: the 41-year-old Wells was born in a humble section of Old Metairie, sharing a 700-square-foot home on the "wrong side of the tracks" with three siblings.

If she had been listed on one of her own debutante spreadsheets, Wells would have been worth only one point -- awarded because her mother was born in New Orleans.

She went to Archbishop Chapelle High School and then to the University of New Orleans for a degree in engineering.

"People will think I'm trash," she says, "but I was a bartender."

Now, Wells spends her time raising the two boys she has with her husband, an engineer. Wells doesn't work, but rejects the term "housewife" because that implies she cleans. Instead, she refers to herself as a "woman of leisure."

Her house in Mid-City is clean, well-appointed, with a piano and curio cabinet filled with china. The house sits between blocks with a bar and a laundromat.

"It's the 'hood," she says with a laugh.

Royal watching

For years, she followed the ins and outs of Carnival, tracking New Orleans royalty.

She and her husband, along with several couples in their social circle, started their own pretend Carnival club. They gave each other regal titles at boozy annual Mardi Gras parties.

Then in 2005, with the men enmeshed in their own fantasy football league, Wells, the woman who wanted to be queen, had a eureka moment: Fantasy Debs.

"I like to think I'm bringing debutantes to the masses," Wells says.

Her league has grown to about 50 players, with 30 teams split among four divisions. A man from Indiana plays. A woman from France played last year, according to Wells.

The lowest division, the "e-Division" is open to any player who asks.

Full names aren't always used in this division, but Wells says she knows some debutantes play, as well as high-ranking members of Carnival clubs. The e-mail addresses make it pretty obvious, she says.

A good player will have contacts throughout the city. Several teams keep databases. Some rely on tips from cake-makers and dress shops. Some use Google, check public records and take note of who buys which house and who drives which luxury vehicle. Some drive around Uptown looking for white tents being set up for key soirees.

"There is stalking going on," Wells says. "I've been known to follow people."

She became so good, and won so handily, that players in her own league complained. Now, Wells is just the commissioner, not a player.

She offers no prizes for the winners, though many of the participants make wagers, with champions sometimes netting several hundred dollars. She and others say the league is a way to celebrate -- and gently mock -- the trappings of Carnival in a competitive manner.

In that way, it fits neatly into Carnival's rich history of satire.

"Everyone doesn't actually buy into this," says Penny Curran, 41, captain of the "Neptunes" team. "But it's something brand new, and because it's different, people automatically hate it until they understand it. We love it."

Other players have said it is no different than "royal watching," the intense scrutiny many Anglophiles give to England's monarchs.

Fans and foes

The league has elicited reactions from all corners, some positive, some very negative. Once, at a reception, a former Rex sent over a representative to Wells' table, who advised Wells the king would like to meet her. He said he was a fan.

trisha-lockhart-wells-home.jpgSign above the doorway in Trisha Lockhart Wells' home shows her 'official' status as Commissioner of the New Orleans Fantasy Debutante League.

"It was an honor," Wells recalls.

But not everyone is a fan. An angry middle-age woman once screamed at Wells at a debutante soiree. A day later, the woman followed up with an e-mail, signed by "A Concerned Mother of Teenage Girls."

"These girls are someone's children. ... I am NOT bitter nor do I think it is entertaining to make fun of people in the fashion that you and your group have done. As bad publicity as our city gets on a regular basis, I am shocked that a bunch of women have nothing better to do with their time then to make fun of young women," it reads.

That e-mail is framed and now hangs on the wall in one of the bathrooms in Wells' home.

Player's perspective

It's one thing to wear a ball gown, curtsy and reign as the queen of a mythical land of merriment. But what does a young woman think of being drafted and traded, ranked against her peers and given a point score for her physical attributes?

It's hard to know.

More than 20 of the debutantes who are game pieces in the fantasy league were contacted through Facebook.

One debutante said to call back in late March; another declined to talk; and at least one of them reported the inquiry as "abuse" to the social network.

A lone debutante agreed to talk. Caroline McEnery Robertson of Mandeville said she was surprised to learn of the league.

With 65 points, Robertson, an attractive equestrian enthusiast and dean's list student at Southeastern Louisiana University, ranks in the lower section of the pack.

"I'm a pretty competitive person," she said, "so I'm kind of bummed I'm not higher up."

She said it's weird that people follow her like this, weird that men are in the fantasy league, and weird that she is assigned a point total.

"I wonder who gets on there and swaps us around, recruits us. I have a feeling it's a little social club. It's something for people to do in New Orleans," she said.

Mardi Gras fantasy

As the league grew in popularity, Wells got to wear more ball gowns. The invitations started rolling in, as did kudos from would-be kings and queens. Gifts, too, ranging from single-malt Scotch to towels embroidered with a crown and the word "Commissioner."

This year, a queen of some ball -- Wells "can't say who" --- sent an elaborate brooch that Wells wears proudly. The big gift came three years ago: invitations from Comus and Rex that resembled colorful children's pop-up books.

"Those two are the s - - t," Wells says.

And she attributes the attention to her position as commissioner of the league.

At the balls, Wells derives a certain amount of satisfaction when she puts on her gown and curtsies at royalty. But she knows her place.

"I'm very aware that I'm a guest," she says.

And on the morning of Mardi Gras -- her self-proclaimed Super Bowl -- Wells plans to follow a tradition she started shortly after creating the fantasy game.

She plans to stand along storied St. Charles Avenue with a poster board that announces her league. The limos of the young and beautiful will pass by. She'll scream and wave and let them know she supports them.

Her dream is that one year, one of those limos will stop at the sight of her sign. The door will open. The queen will step out. She'll turn to Wells and shake her hand.

That would be "it," Wells says.

Brendan McCarthy can be reached at or 504.826.3301.