Ophélie at work
On the last weekend of this month, 24 young women from the most luminous international backgrounds will gather at the Hôtel de Crillon in Paris to make their social debut in one of the year’s most glamorous events.
Daughters of aristocrats from Old Europe will waltz alongside daughters of rock and film stars, politicians and Asian and Russian billionaires. Bush, Berlusconi, Gorbachev, Hearst, Mellon, Mortimer and Mountbatten are just a few of the names that have graced this coming-of-age ball, which manages to be quintessentially Parisian while also modern and outward-looking. Just like its founder…Ophélie Renouard is an extremely determined French PR woman with a deft touch for networking and a bulging contacts book, who has masterminded the Crillon Ball since 1991, when she invented it as a fresh alternative to the dated debutante concept.
Ophélie, with the help of her loyal assistant Benedicte, lives and breathes the ball, from tapping her contacts to find her ‘new debs’, to persuading their mothers that they should take part, guiding them through dress fittings, managing the press and making arrangements for the charity gala itself.
‘My father, a 13th-generation Parisian, went to university in America and led a very international life. I went from Cambodia to boarding school and didn’t live in Paris until I was 18. Because of my background, friends and interests, I don’t feel Parisian.’ And her worldly outlook is reflected in the ball’s international embrace.In her 40s, at a guess – she refuses to reveal her age – Ophélie, who has never married or had children, divides her time between her Paris apartment and her long-term boyfriend’s home in London’s South Kensington, where our interview takes place.
With her immaculate blond bob, dainty figure and effortless dress sense, she appears every inch a Parisian. In fact, she was born in Vietnam to French parents and raised until the age of ten in Cambodia, where her father worked in the oil trade. ‘I had a Chinese nanny and an American godmother, with whom I spent summer holidays in California,’ she says.
Ophélie trained in child psychology at the Sorbonne university in Paris, before a friend who admired her talent for social organising persuaded her that by working in PR she’d get ‘paid to do what I already did for free’.
MORE DEBS AFTER THE JUMP
She convinced the Crillon hotel group to give her a one-year contract to organise their events, and the rest has been history.
‘I started with my own address book and from there I have created a network not only in Europe but also in places such as China and Russia. I always go through my friends when I look for girls and I refuse to join any internet networking site,’ she adds, wrinkling her nose with disgust.
The fairy-tale princess effect: ‘debs’ – from left, Lauren Bush in 2000; Ksenia Gorbachev in 2002; Lady Tatiana Mountbatten (left) and Marie Solène d’Harcourt last year – wear couture gowns by the world’s top designers
And who needs Facebook when your address book can lead you to people such as Slavica Ecclestone, wife of Formula 1 boss Bernie, whom Ophélie befriended when her elder daughter Tamara did the ball eight years ago, and Sharon Bush, ex-wife of George W’s brother Neil and mother of Lauren, who also took part in 2000.
Ophélie acknowledges that Lauren’s presence, just after her uncle was elected US president, marked the moment when the ball became a global phenomenon; it also landed Lauren a contract with Tommy Hilfiger, making her one of many girls whose modelling careers have been launched at the Crillon.
It’s not difficult to see how. The debs, mostly still in their teens, wear jewels by Adler and haute couture gowns worth tens of thousands of pounds on loan from the likes of Chanel, Dior, Lacroix and Vivienne Westwood.
The ball, a strictly invitation-only affair, is a fairy tale most girls could only dream of. Arriving at the hotel – where they and their families are guests for the weekend – on Thursday, they spend Friday practising their ballroom dancing, having their hair and make-up done, and posing for photos. Saturday is more of the same, with the formal activities kicking off in the evening.
Each girl is presented on the arm of a dashing escort – usually chosen by Ophélie – and then paraded in front of family, press and assorted grandees, before being whisked off to dance.
But Ophélie is adamant that the ball is not a traditional social event. ‘I am not interested in breeding,’ she insists. ‘The focus is more on achievement than ancestry. It’s primarily a fashion event.
'Débutante is a French word, but it means nothing in French,’ she shrugs. ‘It has a strong social connotation in English, but we just use it to mean a cute girl.’
After organising the first ball in 1991, Ophélie met with the late Peter Townend, the former social editor of Tatler, who for so many years orchestrated the London deb season. ‘He understood what I wanted to do, but I don’t think he liked it. I never saw him again,’ she says.
‘The purpose of traditional deb balls was marriage, but our girls are not concerned with that. The idea is to make new friends and wear haute couture for the first time’
And one can only imagine what the lineage-obsessed Townend would make of the Crillon Ball today, where the daughters of rock stars and self-made millionaires often take centre stage – Lily Collins, daughter of Phil, and Bernie Ecclestone’s two girls are recent examples.
‘Some people may not like Bernie,’ Ophélie concedes, ‘but he has built up a business that has provided many people with jobs, and he and Slavica are devoted parents.’
What is it that inspires people like the Ecclestones and Phil Collins to involve their daughters in something which has its roots in an old-fashioned courtship ritual?
‘Well, the purpose of traditional deb balls was marriage, but our girls are not concerned with that,’ she says. ‘There may be love affairs at the ball – they never tell me – but I don’t think anyone has met a husband there. The girls are far too young. The idea is to make new friends and wear haute couture for the first time.’
Ophélie’s main criterion in choosing debs is that ‘I have to be able to tell a story about them and they have to fit into the couture dresses that the houses lend. There’s a type that I like, and I don’t like spoilt.’
She is wary of dealing with Hollywood. ‘Even if they are the daughters of megastars, we treat them just like any other kids. They sleep two to a room at the hotel.
'Lauren Bush was already very famous when she came, but she was normal and polite and shared a room [with Italian princess Irina Strozzi]. Mariel Hemingway and Andie MacDowell both brought their daughters, and they were wonderful.
'When it comes to Hollywood, I only deal with the ones I like; and those tend to be the ones who like us.’
And what of high jinks at the Crillon, with two dozen gorgeous girls, their entourages and male escorts all under one opulent roof?
‘Well, I must say the ones who like a good party are always the English,’ Ophélie says, amused. ‘One year we had an English girl who was so nervous before her presentation that she drank from the mini bar and then showed up with no shoes on!
'And last year we had two English girls who went out on Thursday night and were exhausted on Friday – and you can tell from their pictures.’ (Though Ophélie is far too discreet to name them, a quick perusal of last year’s deb list confirms the errant two to be Lady Tatiana Mountbatten and Damian Aspinall’s daughter Tansy.)
‘Cavaliers’ and parents, from left: James Green and Tansy Aspinall at last year’s ball; Bernie and Petra Ecclestone in 2004; Lily Collins with her parents Phil Collins and Jill Tavelman at the 2007 event
When Ophélie finds her diplomacy skills really put to the test, it tends to be by mothers trying to get their daughters on to the list.
‘I’ve had some unpleasant experiences. I’ve even been offered bribes,’ she admits. Perhaps surprisingly, one person she did not find difficult was the notoriously formidable US Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, whose daughter, Bee, came to the ball four years ago.
‘Anna was a positive experience for me,’ she says. ‘I’m bad with people who are conniving, but I’m not bad with people who are upfront. I think that, beneath the surface, she’s very shy. I know she’s detested by many people, but she’s had the same team working for her in the magazine’s Paris bureau for 20 years – lovely people – and there must be a reason for that.
'She was very controlled and should have listened to me more, but I learned a lot from her. For instance, she pointed out that the girls and their escorts should be matched according to height. I hadn’t thought of that.’
One problem Ophélie encounters all too often is mothers trying to push their daughters into doing the ball when they’re not keen. ‘I’ve had to take girls aside and ask, “Do you really want to do it?” I say: “Don’t worry. I won’t tell your mother.”
'It does take a certain kind of girl. For instance, with Jonathan Aitken’s twin daughters, Alexandra wanted to do it and Victoria, the more serious one, didn’t.’
The issue of size has also reared its ugly head, because the event ultimately comes down to being able to fit into sample-size couture (UK size 6-8).
‘It’s one of the hardest things,’ says Ophélie. ‘I had one bad experience with a mother who said, “Oh, but my daughter can go on a diet.” It was awful.’
At the other end of the spectrum, she once had to turn away an anorexic. ‘It was hard to do because her family are lovely, but it would have sent out the wrong message to other girls.’
Ophélie's bulging contacts book
Ophélie’s psychology training has clearly stood her in good stead. ‘Yes, I think it helps me to understand. And I am an expert in detecting social climbers,’ she adds.
‘Often it is the mothers of prospective cavaliers [her word for escorts] who want their sons to find a rich girlfriend who are the worst.’
I can’t help but think these mothers must have no idea who they are dealing with. I have known Ophélie for six years, and observed her in action at the ball a few years ago.
And while she may have a highly developed radar for desirable people, she is self-confident enough not to be overawed and will not bend her standards to anyone’s will.
Her great skill in handling the sort of people she comes into contact with is in being respectful but
not sycophantic, persistent but not pushy.
‘I would love to start two more versions of the
ball,’ she tells me, ‘perhaps one in Russia and
one in China.
'But I never want us to become like the Cannes Film Festival, which used to be a wonderful event but has become a big commercial bash. We must keep it
small to give the girls and their families a memorable time and remember that we are there to raise money
And with that, she wafts off to meet another prospective deb, and I find myself wondering if Peter Townend really would have been so appalled after all.
- Le Bal des Débutantes (this year in support of a children’s diabetes charity) will take place on 29 November. For more information, visit lebal.fr