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Young philanthropist draws celebrities, the Dalai Lama -- and questions

Sean Lourdes had a meeting, and why not here, at one of the most lavish estates in Los Angeles — a 48,000-square-foot palace on the slopes of Bel-Air?

When his guest arrived in the mansion's circular driveway, the young philanthropist retreated inside and let a butler open the massive front door. Sitting at the keyboard of a grand piano, Lourdes played his visitor into an ornate drawing room with a number from the musical "Cats."

In Saint Laurent shoes and linen jacket, with a voice seldom raised above a library hush, the self-described "third-generation heir" appeared every inch the lord of the manor.

He explained, however, that he was just using the mansion, a friend's, for a few hours: He had a photo shoot with two high-end Realtors who had once sold the place. His own home was several miles east — a rental in Runyon Canyon.

Raised in Europe and New Zealand, Lourdes had returned in 2009 to Los Angeles, his birthplace. Over the course of five years, he had worked tenaciously to make himself something more, he said, than "just another Joe."

He told new acquaintances about his family's international publishing company, Auge (pronounced "Ow-hay") Media, and about his new Lourdes Foundation and its plan to provide mentors to the young and needy. He won an endorsement from then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, charmed top philanthropists and made the party scene with a pretty sitcom star on his arm.

A crowning moment arrived late last winter, when Lourdes and his foundation hosted two events for the Dalai Lama. The Tibetan spiritual leader spoke to more than 10,000 people at the Forum and mingled with Lupita Nyong'o, Jim Carrey and a bevy of other stars in the shadow of the California Science Center's space shuttle Endeavour.

Lourdes appeared to be the 21st century embodiment of that L.A. archetype, the outsider reinvented.

"I've come to believe that who you surround yourself with is who you become," he said.

But as bills went unpaid and a key project fell behind schedule, a question arose: Who had he become?

Was Lourdes a wealthy young humanitarian, rightfully earning his place of prominence? Or an arriviste, parlaying flash, big promises and a vaguely European charm to gain access to Los Angeles' headiest circles?

Was he, perhaps, a bit of both?

::

Lourdes, 32, depicts himself as a man raised in comfort but who struck out on his own to help others, particularly children, who have less.

"That is my whole focus," he said.

That mission did not conflict, he said, with his determined cultivation of the rich and famous. Photos from his Instagram and Facebook feeds show him posing alongside Mayor Eric Garcetti, billionaire David Geffen, singer Steven Tyler and actors Mark Wahlberg and Gwyneth Paltrow, among many others.

Lourdes said his family had become accustomed to the company of presidents and prime ministers during 60 years of publishing 240 "special edition" books that featured the upper crust and landmarks of cities and nations around the globe.

His father, Emilio, who retired from the publishing business in the late 1990s, said in an interview that he now had other investments — most notably four car-detailing outlets in Miami and a hotel in Mexico City.

Despite his family's wealth, Sean Lourdes explained, his father pushed him to make his own way. After a few years at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, he traded stocks and cast around for the right opportunity. He felt drawn to the town where he had been born.

Initially moving to the Eastside, he covered the circuit of L.A. galas, charity dinners and red carpets. A key break came in the fall of 2012, when a couple he met at a fundraiser asked him to join the board of the Getty House Foundation, the nonprofit that supports the official residence of the mayor of Los Angeles.

The Getty House post gave Lourdes access to Villaraigosa, who wrote a laudatory introductory letter for the Lourdes Foundation. The new charity, the mayor wrote, would foster "youth empowerment and leadership development."

Lourdes also began planning a book celebrating the finer side of L.A. in housing, culture and commerce. He sought out merchants and professionals, asking them to pay to advertise in its pages.

About the same time, a friend introduced Lourdes to Lama Tenzin Dhonden, sometimes described as the Dalai Lama's "personal peace emissary." The young Angeleno said he became inspired by the spiritual leader's message of empathy and compassion. In May 2013, Lourdes said, he talked his way into a backstage meeting with the Dalai Lama in Louisville, Ky.

"I felt the power," Lourdes recalled, "the force of light." He resolved that night to bring the spiritual leader to Los Angeles.

Tenzin and a representative of the Office of Tibet in Washington, Kaydor Aukatsang, said Lourdes presented a workable plan for two appearances in L.A. To seal the arrangement, Lourdes flew last January to Dharamsala, India, where the Dalai Lama lives in exile.

The lama blessed him, draping a ceremonial kata, a white silk scarf, around his neck. On Facebook, Lourdes posted a photo and wrote: "Feeling wonderful."

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Even as Lourdes made his way to India, though, plans for a mass public audience for the Dalai Lama at Staples Center began to unravel.

AEG, the arena operator, advised Lourdes' foundation in an email that the charity's check to reserve the 20,000-seat arena had bounced. Days later, AEG canceled the reservation.

Staples Center General Manager Lee Zeidman said Lourdes did not live up to his grand plans. "He came across as someone who had the money to pull this kind of event off," he said.

Lourdes said he never intended for the events to make money; instead, the Dalai Lama's teachings would be his gift to the city. But he acknowledged that the foundation had insufficient funds. He said his father had initially promised to back the event financially, but then decided not to.

"I thought it was better he did it himself," Emilio Lourdes said. "There were bumps along the way, but he managed to get up and keep on going."

Others said Lourdes failed to follow through on some of his charitable endeavors.

After the young philanthropist visited the CalArts campus in Valencia, the vice president for development said Lourdes suggested that his foundation was interested in making a donation and collaborating with the arts college.

The Lourdes Foundation website reported that the organization was "currently teaming" with the arts college, as well as L.A. Unified School District campuses, "to connect students with mentors in various artistic fields."

But Lourdes later acknowledged that he never donated to CalArts. Nor did he contribute to the Getty House Foundation, where board members were expected to donate $10,000, according to two past officials of the organization, who asked not to be named to preserve relationships with Lourdes.

The arts college and L.A. Unified officials said the mentorship program also never materialized, which Lourdes conceded. He said he plans, instead, to launch a self-esteem program in schools as soon as he can.

Although Lourdes has operated largely on his own, his public profile could appear outsized. The Beverly Hills address listed as the "U.S. Headquarters" of his foundation is a rented post office box on Santa Monica Boulevard.

A letter of recommendation Lourdes showed prospective advertisers for his book lauds his "remarkable visionary prowess" and purportedly was written by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, on U.N. letterhead. But Annan's office said the letter was "clearly fake."

Lourdes said he was shocked by that news. He said the Annan recommendation had been hand-delivered to him by a friend, who claimed to be close to the diplomat.

Lourdes said he never intended to mislead or disappoint anyone. He said he didn't give to Getty House because he believed his money could help more elsewhere. (He is no longer on the board.) He postponed donations to CalArts until he is more flush. And the charity mentorships hadn't gotten off the ground because planning the Dalai Lama events took all his time. (He did make donations totaling $7,000 to a group of underperforming L.A. schools.)

Lourdes attributed most of the problems to his inexperience.

"We were just getting started," he said.

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With the Dalai Lama appearances on the horizon last February, a PR agent sent out a press release saying that President Clinton and Lady Gaga would be among those featured. But by the time the events rolled around in late February, neither headliner was on the bill.

A hurriedly installed sound system at the Forum worked so poorly that some in the audience shouted at the soft-spoken spiritual leader to speak up. Still, many seemed enamored with the Dalai Lama's impish smile and disarming humor. At the Science Center luncheon, a phalanx of Hollywood luminaries appeared equally smitten. A reality TV starlet called Lourdes her "inspiration."

But, nine months later, Lourdes said he was still trying to pay vendors and those who lent him money for the two events. He said he ended up losing $400,000 — expenses far exceeding gate receipts and contributions from philanthropist Aileen Getty, a pair of banks and another donor.

In late September, Lourdes assured The Times he had paid back a loan from Getty that helped cover some of the event expenses. But a Getty aide said that wasn't true. More than a month after that, Lourdes explained that he ran short of funds and that the $40,000 repayment would be made in a matter of days.

Lourdes said he had dipped into his savings and sold his beloved "Lambo," a black Lamborghini, months earlier. Still looking to close the gap this month, he said he was putting his new car, a racy BMW, up for auction. He said he hoped to make $100,000 or more and would settle all his debts.

He also tried to quell concerns among those who had paid to be in his book on Los Angeles. Proposed publication dates had come and gone. Lourdes pledged it would surely be out by Christmas. A few weeks later, he moved the release for "Los Angeles: City of Angels" to the first quarter of 2015.

"My word is very, very important to me," he said.

Lourdes said he has learned a lot and is ready to host another event. An announcement is on its way, he vowed.

"It's big," he said. "I mean, it's right, right up there."

james.rainey@latimes.com

Twitter: LATimesrainey

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