Lance Ponton is at a private birthday party at Mangroves restaurant at midnight on Saturday, looking the way men wish to look when squeezed into a small space jammed by beautiful women in silk and stilettos. He looks neither goofy, nor struck by a bus. He looks cool and poised. He looks like he belongs.
It's his smile. Lance's smile suggests F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Gatsby had a smile that "concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor."
Every beautiful woman seems to know Lance.
It works out very well for Lance. It works out well for everybody, even those who sit home on Saturday nights and cry in their popcorn. For years, Lance has made the world a better place by surrounding himself with gorgeous women. He has parlayed his smile and his cell phone into thousands of dollars for charitable causes that aid the sick and needy.
Lance doesn't earn a dime from the parties, but there are other worthy compensations. After all, he is surrounded by women at Mangroves. St. Francis of Assisi never had it so good.
His buddy, Mark Wenzowski, watches him work the room. Lance has that smile going. A blond leans in, bestows a kiss on his cheek.
"He is not shy. Not in the least," Mark says, grinning.
"Not AT ALL."
• • •
Lance Ponton is president of Tampa's 13 Ugly Men Foundation. There are currently 24 13 Ugly Men. Since 2000, they've been throwing parties in Tampa for charities.
Their Halloween parties, New Year parties and spring White Parties are renowned for beautiful women.
They attract, of course, men and money — barrels of it. Since 2000, 13 Ugly Men has collected more than $450,000 for Tampa Bay area charities. After last year's White Party, attended by 1,000 people, they wrote a check for $13,000 to L. David Shear Children's Law Center of Bay Area Legal Services. A Voices for Children party honoring the Ugly Men last fall raised $75,000 for guardians ad litem.
Most of the Ugly Men are young and single with full tanks of testosterone. Their Ugly Men MySpace page boasts 3,007 friends, some of them posing in lingerie as they offer one lovely, lyrical name after another — Bianca, Amberlee, Stacy, Lindsay, Suzanne, Jacqueline, Angela, Michelle, Nicole, Diana. (Somehow, there's a Cornelius, too, but he's not wearing lingerie.)
Each of the Ugly Men has a nickname that usually suggests what he's good at.
There's Roof, Money, Stew, Dr. Bigg and Buzz.
• • •
Lance is a property appraiser, the son of a developer, third-generation Tampa. He remembers Gasparilla parades when the Rough Riders used to carry real pistols and kids collected spent shell casings instead of beads. When he graduated from the University of South Florida, he got a condo at Victory Lofts in Channelside. He chose it after imagining the parties he could throw on the rooftop. Even then, he intuitively knew the recipe for a good bash. Food was not part of it. Nor were floral centerpieces. The key ingredients were basic:
Fifty people showed up for his first blast. A hundred came to his second. Two hundred packed his third. At his last party, at the Towers of Channelside, he hosted 700. As soon as 13 Ugly Men found him, they put him in charge of the group's annual White Party.
• • •
Lance's friend, Greg Jasso, called him before Super Bowl week. Greg is publisher of Blu, the new magazine for the rich in Tampa. He hoped to launch his mag with a party at the Florida Aquarium during Super Bowl week. He was competing with a half-dozen other big parties, so he had to get it right. The proceeds would benefit America's Second Harvest of Tampa Bay food bank.
Greg wanted three kinds of people there: Creative, Influential and Beautiful.
He had Creative and Influential covered. He called Lance to lend a hand with Beautiful.
Over the next few days, Lance called between 50 and 75 women, including Allison Coney, whom he has known since middle school.
They've never dated, but she knows all his ex-girlfriends. "I have had the pleasure of hearing both ends."
Allison brought three girlfriends (preapproved by Lance) to the bash. When they got there, they had to check their names off the guest list. She found their names on a special sign-in sheet:
Lance's Hot Girls.
"I was very flattered."
• • •
His father, Lance Sr., who imagines his son's Little Black Book as "encyclopedic," happily suggests that Lance's way with women is genetic. "The apple has not fallen far from the tree."
But in reality, Lance Sr. is as married as they come.
"I'm lucky if I get to sneak out for a cigar."
Lance Jr. says his success is based on plain old respect. "I never burn a bridge," he says, "in any part of my life." If he has a date that doesn't work out, he calls back anyway. He stays in touch. He has been doing that since high school.
But he makes no secret that he is currently not marriage material. He reserves Friday and Saturday nights for the guys. He and a dozen buddies meet for dinner, then go clubbing. They'll hit Mangroves and Kennedy's.
When Lance Jr. was growing up, his dad gave him some advice. "I told him, 'Do something you really enjoy.'
"I didn't know he'd take it to the moon."
John Barry can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2258.