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A few minutes later, she snaps at the waitress removing our bread basket, then pauses, looks at me sheepishly, and asks if that was "awkward." Generally, though, "she's got no sense of awkwardness," says Crafton. "That's the reason why she was able to meet this many strangers and start these parties. It basically translates to fearlessness."
Touby grew up in Miami, raised, along with a younger brother, by her single mother, constantly moving, always the new kid in school. Her father left for reasons that are not clear, but her paternal grandfather, the construction tycoon Harry Touby, also took care of her, leading to a dual existence that had Laurel fluctuating between a financially unstable home and a lavish and luxurious oneshe even had a horse. "When we would stay at his house, it was wonderful," she says. "It was like Disneyland. When we were with my mom, it was scary a lot of times."
She majored in economics at Smith College and briefly worked in advertising before petitioning Working Woman magazine, even though she had no experience. The person who hired her, Basia Hellwig, remembers that Touby mailed in a hand-written card listing "Seven Reasons You Should Hire Me."
A stint at Business Week followed, then freelance gigs for Glamour and other publications. Touby gave me a few old clips: One is a well-written, if fawning, New York profile of Perfect Storm author Sebastian Junger. But her business articles are particularly prescient, with headlines like "Nail Your Next Job Interview!" and "Be Your Own Boss and Earn Up to $200,000." In the latter, she writes, "Stop dreaming and get going!"
Exactly a week after the Michael's bash, Touby hosts a party at Jules Bistro for her early supporters, including Salkin and Baker, who's launching an investigative news site called the Real News Project. It's an outgoing bunchit's hard to believe they were ever desperate or lonely. Evan Schwartz, a former Business Week colleague, gleefully recalls those early parties as involving more dating than networking. (Touby despises the N-word.) "At one of her early parties, I swear to God, she came up to me as I was talking to some woman, and Laurel said, 'Sex, sex, sex, sex, sex, sex, sex!' and walked away."
I ask if there's anything Touby wants to say to her detractors. "It's weirdthe biggest critics are the ones who understand the least about who I am," she says, whipping out liquid eyeliner to get fixed up before the crowd arrives. "I would just say . . . " She drifts off for so long that I think she's forgotten the question. "I'm so misundastood," she finally finishes, in a Southern hip-hop drawl. She throws her head back and cacklesthat awkward, loud, brash laugh. "You know that song by Pink? I feel like they just don't get it. They've never been around me or the parties or the sitethey've been looking from the outside in."
She scrambles to finish her makeup. Tonight, she has her hair tied up in a bouncy ponytail and is wearing a black-and-white polka-dot dress. No Pucci. Totally cash. The boa is M.I.A. "No. Nooooooo boa," she says. "These people know me; they are gonna find me in this room. This is the first party I've had that I don't have to wear a boa."