By Julie K.L. Dam
Updated March 08, 1999 12:00 PM

With just three hours to go before the opening night Super Bowl eve bash at Miami Beach’s Bar Room-nightclub, mastermind Ingrid Casares leans against the second-floor railing, surveying her domain. Soon, limos will stretch down both sides of the street outside for blocks, delivering such celebrities as Cameron Diaz, Calista Flockhart, Jennifer Lopez, Greg Kinnear and Chris Rock to the hottest ticket in town—other than to a certain football game—and the pixieish brunette will be dancing the night away along with her famous friends. But right now it’s time to deal with such unglamorous details as chandelier dimmers. “Welcome to my world,” Casares says, her voice barely audible over the buzz of an electric saw. “My lack-of-sleep world.”

Not since Studio 54 founder Steve Rubell has a nightclub owner attracted the stars like Casares, 34. Indeed, she is best known as Madonna‘s best friend, a fact that annoys her because it implies that she’s a hanger-on who doesn’t work for what she achieves. A look at Casares’s schedule over the previous 24 hours gives the lie to that notion: She oversaw a sold-out concert by Cher at Liquid, a nightspot she co-owns with business partner Chris Paciello that’s still packing ’em in after three years—an eternity by club standards. She hosted a dinner for Ben Stiller, Chris Rock and Anthony Kiedis at Joia, the year-old Casares-Paciello eatery in South Beach. She attended to the finishing touches at Bar Room. Oh, and she managed to squeeze in three hours of sleep and two hours of yoga.

But it’s not exhaustion she’s feeling; it’s pressure. “The more successful you get,” she says, “the more people expect from you.” And then there’s what Casares calls “the Madonna thing.” “Okay,” she sighs, “I have a friendship with someone who’s ultra-famous. But it’s a normal friendship. We talk about makeup, we talk about boys, we talk about shopping.”

What they probably don’t talk about is Sandra Bernhard. Pop lore has it that Casares, who has said she’s bisexual, dated the comedian until Bernhard introduced her to Madonna, with whom she immediately clicked, causing a rift between the two stars and barbs for Casares. Friends say the sniping has made her wary. “But once you gain her trust, she’s very loyal,” says Paciello. “That’s why her friends are who they are.” Adds singer k.d. lang: “She wants people to realize she’s her own person and she has her own life, and I think in the long run, people will respect her for that.”

Casares’s independence comes from growing up in a close-knit family; she is the second of three daughters of home-maker Nancy, 60, and Raul, 65, a businessman who fled communist Cuba in 1960 and settled in the Miami area. (Sister Nancy, 37, works for Raul, and Lourdes, 30, is a psychologist.) At Our Lady of Lourdes Academy, a Catholic girls’ school, Casares ran with an older crowd. She began using cocaine at 15 or 16 and didn’t kick the habit for good until a stint in rehab in 1995. “I partied hard in my 20s,” she admits, during which time she held a variety of jobs, including model-booking agent. But after turning 30, she realized that “it wasn’t a party anymore. It was more like a monkey on my back.”

The determination that allowed her to quit drugs also helped her succeed in business. “When she puts her mind to something, it gets done,” says Paciello. “She knows how to network better than anyone I know.” Her friend Donald Trump, who calls her a “visionary thinker,” says that her planned second Liquid club, on Clematis Street in West Palm Beach, is on “the hottest street in Florida, and she saw that before a lot of other people.” According to Madonna, Casares’s nightspots are popular for a simple reason: “Ingrid is a relentless party animal and always makes sure people are having a good time.”

Casares had planned to open a Liquid in New York City last year—but the idea was opposed by local residents who feared the crowds it would likely attract. Still, “Chris and I have been lucky,” the currently unattached Casares says of their club empire in South Beach, where she lives alone in a two-bedroom apartment. “South Beach is a place where celebrities can be mischievous and play. They can be who they are: people, and not just celebrities.” And that’s the way Casares likes it.

Julie K.L. Dam

Fannie Weinstein and Lydia Martin in Miami Beach