Label queen. Spendthrift. Show-off. Say what you will: She has moved to LA, rebooted and is about to launch a fashion line. Was the blogging, brazen Brazilian too flashy even for Dallas — or is she the latest in a long line of virtual sitting ducks?
by CHRISTOPHER WYNN
Ana Pettus knows the exact day her life in Dallas started to implode.
On Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2011, The Wall Street Journal published a voyeuristic tale about moneyed shoppers willing to “pay full price for designers’ latest runway looks.” Two Dallas women made the story: philanthropist Cindy Rachofsky, arms outstretched in a bell-sleeved $11,675 Alexander McQueen jacket, and “42-year-old mother” and owner of four stuffed closets, Ana Pettus. The details were tantalizing. The anecdote about Ana? She attended a Paris runway show for the French luxury house Balmain and bought a sparkly gold mini-dress — she eventually wore it over tights as a tunic — and three more pieces, for about $74,000. The accompanying photos included one of her vamping in a now-infamous, $50,000 Dolce & Gabbana gown, with images of Marilyn Monroe printed on its massive skirt. The sheer acquisition of it garnered a 474-word story in Modern Luxury Dallas magazine, before Pettus ever wore it on the town. (When she finally did, at the Two x Two art-auction gala in 2009, she ruffled some feathers: She urged guests not to step on the dress.) The day the Journal story published, D Magazine’s Frontburner blog posted a rather benign link to it that quickly devolved in the comments section into a gossipy takedown. Most of it anonymous.
“[She’s] nothing extraordinary in terms of substance,” wrote CAS.
“She lives only to spend [her husband’s]money.” wrote Soriah.
“[Her husband] stepped out of class and married the help from the jewlery [sic]store,” wrote Unpaid creditor.
Ana says the caustic comments stung deeply. “You know, in Dallas, bullying is disguised as gossip. And gossip is one thing, but when the gossip becomes so mean, it’s bullying …”
Things weren’t much rosier on the Journal’s site, though those comments predominantly are signed with first and last names.
“It is just a way to show how much money they have,” wrote Cordell Davidson. “Stupid, vacuous, silly little women.”
“I’m not saying you have to find a cure for cancer but make some kind of contribution to society already,” wrote Brent Mason.
How did Ana — yes, a former Cartier sales associate — afford these designer clothes? The WSJ article hinted only that she was “married to the owner of a construction business.” That man was bleacher king Sherrill Pettus, founder and owner of a stadium-seating company in Graham, Texas. Of the many comments to the Frontburner post, still online today, two years later, almost half mention the company and alleged financial turmoil within it, at the very time the shopping story came out. “I got so much hell from that article,” Ana says, her voice thick with the Portuguese accent of her native Brazil.
As she talks, Ana is sitting cross-legged on a black leather sofa in her apartment at a gleaming high-rise in Uptown Dallas. She is surrounded by a chaotic cluster of sleek furniture, and boxes that still need unpacking. Ana only uses the apartment for visits. Last April, the blowback following the WSJ story along with her nagging desire to “to get out and grow, to advance myself” led her to abandon Dallas for her own sanity. That spring, she sold her stylish 6,000-square-foot house in University Park — it got its own feature in PaperCity magazine, in September 2009 — made arrangements for the apartment and then moved with her 8-year-old son to a prime address in West Hollywood. (MTV reality star Lauren Conrad is a former neighbor.) Ana considered New York, but she wanted a creative hot spot that was more child-friendly. She also wanted a do-over. “I never bought clothes to be in magazines or to impress people,” Ana says, “I bought them for me.” She eventually gets up to pop open a bottle of Champagne to try and “kill” a cold she’s been fighting. Ana says the point of the WSJ article was supposed to be her love of quality and disdain for anything mass-produced; it wasn’t about the money. “People in this town have the tendency to twist things so they can stab you and make you look even worse.”
In fairness, Ana’s life is rich in source material.
Ana intended to become a veterinarian and studied for it in Brazil. Fate had other plans. She relocated with her parents to France and worked as a babysitter, saving enough money to splurge on a pair of Chanel ballet flats, which she still has today. (“I take extremely good care of my things.”) Her first significant job was at a Paris Hermès boutique. She was such a natural saleswoman, she says, that Cartier recruited her for its smallest Paris shop, where she became a top associate. Ana met and married a French computer wiz and eventually moved with him to the U.S. in the late ’90s. Despite her spotty English, she was hired at Dallas’ original Cartier boutique at Galleria Dallas. “For six months, I would not answer the phone,” she recalls with a laugh. “Instead of sunglasses, people would ask for ‘shades’ and I would be, like, ‘What?’”
She quickly adapted. Sherrill Pettus was among her regular clients. At this point, Ana was in the process of divorcing her husband of 10 years. Eventually, she says, Sherrill was going through his own divorce and the two began seeing each other. They had a son together in 2004 and got married the following year, after both of their divorces were finalized. Ana admits the whole thing fueled chatter. “I learned that the hard way, that until the judge signs the decree, you’re still married. You might be separated, filed, doesn’t matter. The law is
Sherrill’s business was based two-and-a-half hours away in quiet Graham, and Ana gave it a whirl there after quitting Cartier in 2005, but she never fit in. When their son was old enough, Ana enrolled him in the International School in Dallas, an English-French private school, and established a residence here. Ana’s strong interests in fashion and art led her to become a fixture on the Dallas party circuit. She especially connected with Kenny Goss, co-founder with former partner George Michael of the Goss-Michael art foundation, and his sister-in-law Joyce Goss, executive director of same.
“Ana has amazing presence,” Joyce says from the foundation’s Design District offices. “When she walks into a room, you gravitate to her.” Kenny, who has helped Ana amass an art and photography collection heavy on her idol, Marilyn Monroe, says, “Ana has great taste. She knows what she likes. I think she and Marilyn would have been great friends.” He describes Ana as having an almost childlike innocence and being very generous, almost to a fault.
Her friendship with the Gosses led Ana to Heidi Dillon, clothes collector and founder of the nonprofit group The Fashionistas. When it comes to a life lived online, Dillon has done it all, unfiltered — her Facebook “About” section leads off with the definition of the word contrarian — and leverages her insider status as a Dallas-based executive producer and partner in a Los Angeles television production company heavy on reality shows. She herself has been through the virtual mill: Reaction to a September 2010 feature in FD Luxe about her fashion charity and about her reality-show aspirations was polarizing. (“Dallas society prepared me a little bit for being brutalized and rejected,” she says now, “but nothing prepared me for the television business.”) Dillon says Ana didn’t aspire to become part of the top-charity crowd, but was drawn to Dallas’ “artsy” side. The women bonded. “The greatest thing about Ana is she is a loyal and true-blue friend.” Dillon says the women have something else in common besides a love of art and great clothes: “Our lives are not interesting, but our mouths are interesting. We say what we’re going to say.”
Ana was living a very well-dressed life in Dallas — she says she’s always been a power shopper — and it is easy to see why The Wall Street Journal lit up on her. It is also easy to see why, wearing five-figure garments and posting her press clippings on her own website, anapettusdiaries.com, she became a symbol of excess and a target for criticism.
In fact, Ana says no one knew at the time, including many of her close friends, that she and Sherrill had quietly divorced in late 2010 — three months before The Wall Street Journal article published. The couple had grown apart, she says, living separate lives in separate cities; she says they remain good friends. “People, they don’t know,” she says, about the facts of it all. “If I try to explain too much, it comes across like I’m justifying.”
What she is doing is urging tongue-waggers — especially those who hide online behind their anonymity — to change their discourse. “People think they can get away with it if it’s on the Internet, expressing their opinions and everything — and hey, thank goodness we’re in a free country. But there is a difference between expressing and attacking.” Ana says a prime example is socialite Angie Barrett, who served state-prison time for stealing merchandise while employed as a personal shopper by Neiman Marcus. “She made a mistake in life. She paid for that mistake — how long ago? Over two decades. But when people talk about Angie Barrett, the first thing they say is, ‘Oh, she did this.’ But nobody ever says how much she gives to charity, how funny she is. That is my point. It’s not because you have a [expletive]life that it gives you the right to attack someone else and try to make that person’s life as [expletive]as yours.”
Or, as Barrett says over the phone from her One Arts Plaza apartment: “Mistakes — they follow you for the rest of your life. It’s really important to make really good, clear, clean decisions.”
As proven over time, Dallas has a love-hate relationship with its societal black sheep — certain characters, often over the top, often self-promoting, who amuse if not shock, and are never truly accepted in the best clubs, the best charities, the best circles. “If you are not from Dallas,” says Brooke Hortenstine, the former 13-year society editor and co-editor of party-centric PaperCity, “it can be a very difficult social scene to infiltrate. They are a very reserved and a very quiet bunch.” As Terry Van Willson puts it, “The big girls are never going to let [them]in.” Van Willson is a 30-year publicist whose top accounts include Dallas’ crown-jewel society events: Cattle Baron’s Ball and the Crystal Charity Ball. He says, in general: “I think anybody can do anything they want in Dallas — we don’t have any blue bloods — so it’s pretty easy to become part of the community. But sometimes you see someone who you know is not going to get where they think they are going. It’s not because they aren’t philanthropic. It’s not because they didn’t go to Hockaday. It’s more like they’re trying too hard.” Social acceptance here, he says, is “more about getting involved than being seen. Being photographed a lot does not get you into the club.”
Ana never cared about topping the social pecking order, but she did run with a high-style crowd, and that brings its own pressures. Hortenstine has a seasoned perspective on the Pettuses. Hortenstine’s husband, Blake Hortenstine, of the Hortenstine Ranch Co., sold a property for Sherrill Pettus; Brooke, famously on the town as part of her job, would see Ana at all the best to-dos.
Some would say that any time you put yourself out there, you take your chances. Ana certainly didn’t shy away from the attention — agreeing to the stories, posing for the cameras, launching her own website. Yes, she was beat up on the Internet — trial by tapping — an ever-increasing phenomenon in the digital age, wherein people who know nothing about you are free to assail you. Anonymously. No consequences. But, says Dillon, “When this kind of Internet noise happens, people who know you dismiss it and are there to support you. The people saying the bad things are not people who know you anyway.”
Did Ana, though, create a puffed-up persona that began to take her over? “I look back, I can see how I start changing,” Ana says. “When you start believing your ego, it’s the beginning of the end.” She recalls that when she felt like she was losing herself, her friend Kenny Goss took her aside. “He asked me, ‘What is going on? You don’t have to become someone else to impress people. The people who love you are going to love you, regardless.’ That stuck with me.” Ana says that she and Goss are kindred spirits: “We both want to please people. But you can’t please everybody. The happier you are, the more the bitches are going to hate you.”
Ana is fierce about creating her own happiness now. Her reinvention in Los Angeles would make Madonna’s head spin. She has launched a new company aptly named 2013 with friend and former Dallasite Beth Redmond. The women are producing a line of handbags this year. Each one is named after a friend. (Ana’s bags include the “Joyce” and the “Heidi.”) They also have a jewelry line in the works. Mornings find her driving her son to his new school and ironing her own clothes, which she loves to do. Peace at last? (One recent tweet sent at 2:44 a.m. LA time on Dec 31: “The state of your life is nothing but a reflection of the state of your mind. — Dr. Wayne Dyer”) She doesn’t mind making Texas visits now, hence the Uptown apartment. “When I come to Dallas, I come because I want to see the people that matter to me. It’s not, ‘Oh [expletive], I live here and I have to see this or that person.’” Last summer, gal-pal Anna-Sophia van Zweden, daughter of Dallas Symphony Orchestra music director Jaap van Zweden, cheered Ana on as she got a tattoo at a parlor on Cedar Springs Road, famous for its gay bars and a 24,000-square-foot gay dance club. Ana holds out her wrist to show the word TRUST, to remind her to be trustworthy. She then twists around to lift her sweater and show the word FAITH on her left side, near her heart. She had gone back, alone, the next day, to get that one. “They work together,” she says. “They compliment one another. It takes a long time to build trust, and in the blink of an eye you can lose it, so protect it.”
Before the move to Los Angeles, before the formation of her new company, Ana got the chance to escape to Brazil. She saw a little something there that caught her eye. She bought it, and brought it back with her, all the way to the States. It was a T-shirt. Indeed, the woman who made the The Wall Street Journal for wearing $74,000 worth of Balmain and $50,000 worth of Marilyn bought a simple T-shirt. It was its three-word inscription that got her: LOVE THE HATERS.