'Who can waltz in heels?': backstage at the Debutantes Ball

26th November 2011, Comments 1 comment

Hair in rollers and wrapped in puffy white dressing gowns, pretty teenagers pick at a fruit buffet between fittings and photoshoots, lending themselves pliantly to the media merry-go-round that is the Debutante Ball, 21st-century style.

The Crillon Hotel in Paris was a hive of activity on Friday with 24 hours to go before the ball, a high-society highlight that updates a custom stretching back to the royal courts of France and England.

Like a luxury pyjama party, half a dozen girls -- daughters of a global elite of actors, business leaders and aristocrats, the youngest still in high school -- clustered at the breakfast table, some chatty and outgoing, others shy and looking every bit their tender age.

Theresa Horne, a vivacious brunette from London attending with her identical twin Misha, was worried her dress, a provocative black number with sheer skirts and corset by House of Worth, might not fit.

"The last time I tried the dress was September -- and since then I can't stop eating cookies," she joked with her tablemates.

"Have you seen the dancer?" one whispered admiringly, referring to Andie MacDowell's dark, graceful daughter, Margaret Qualley.

Qualley, just 17, was among the youngest of the 23 girls stepping out into the public eye. So was Tallulah Willis, the daughter of Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, heading for 18.

The celebrity pair were firmly in the spotlight as they were shepherded through back-to-back photoshoots from Teen Vogue to Vanity Fair.

"I'm used to exposure to the press -- but I'm never usually in the middle of it," Tallulah told AFP. "It's a bit nerve-wracking. But you get to feel like a princess, even just for a day."

The Hollywood princess wore a black silk Lanvin gown, its bustier adorned with crystal and rhinestones, created specially by designer Alber Elbaz, "a very dear friend."

Despite her mother's film career, Margaret grew up in small town North Carolina.

"I've had a regular childhood, this is really exceptional for me," she said, stunning in a gem-encrusted, chocolate brown Elie Saab gown. "But for the waltz, I think I'll be OK with my dancer background."

-- Seventeen is the ideal age --

Downstairs, the tableful of girls in their bathrobes were not so sure.

"How are your waltzing skills? Can you waltz in heels?" the young Countess Olimpia Emo-Capodilista asked her neighbour.

A worried debate ensued about the challenge ahead, despite the two dance classes planned into their last-minute schedule.

Charlotte Dawney -- niece of London mayor Boris Johnson -- was confident her fuschia stilettos, custom made by Jimmy Choo, would see her through.

Fortunately for the less sure-footed, skilled cavaliers were on hand.

"Hello! We are your playboys -- or escorts if you prefer," Octavian Donnelly, a Cambridge graduate and ideal son-in-law type returning for the third year running, quipped as he and a fellow cavalier stepped into the room.

And when the dancing is done, the girls trade gowns for a pair of jeans and head out clubbing, with the cavaliers as de facto chaperones.

In centuries past, the daughters of Europe's aristocracy were presented to the Queen after leaving the convent on their 18th birthday.

"They used to call it the season -- and the aim was to get married," explained organiser Ophelie Renouard.

France's modern ball was launched in 1957, held up until the student uprising of May 1968.

Renouard revived the event 20 years ago as a charity fundraiser, with proceeds this year going to the Feed Foundation of Lauren Bush -- who made her debut there in 2000.

Debutante balls have a modern following in the United States but what sets the Crillon event apart is haute couture, with top names lending out fairytale creations for the night.

Part of the ball's raison d'etre today is to introduce the young women, no longer to potential husbands, but to the press, who are granted close-up access to feed glossy spreads.

Renouard travels the globe for much of the year, scouting for the next crop.

Seventeen is the ideal age for a debutante, she explained, on the cusp of womanhood. "At 16 they are still too child-like. But by the time they hit 18, they are already too well known."

Past debutantes include the daughters of actors Forest Whittaker, Clint Eastwood, the blockbuster author Daniele Steel or car tycoon Carlos Ghosn.

And when Vogue editor Anna Wintour brought her daughter Bee Schaffer in 2004, the organisers stepped politely aside.

"It was a straightforward affair. She had the final say on everything," said Renouard. "And she chose Chanel."

On her wish-list for the future? Renouard has her sights on Barack Obama's eldest, Malia, who would come of age just after her father steps down from office if he wins a second term.

© 2011 AFP

1 Comment To This Article

  • eliza posted:

    on 26th November 2011, 15:28:50 - Reply


    I was really disappointed to see in your wires section that you decided to run an AFP piece about the Crillon Ball de Debutante happening tonight November 26, 2011.

    I thought you were a sincere website. By just running that AFP piece without checking the background, you are re-posting and perpetuating lies about hype for an event that is a bit of a farce. AFP is being lied to, and by extension so are you. But you are independent. Don't you do your own fact checking?

    You need only see two major articles... to understand the guest list (though this is just the chip of the iceberg).

    The guests a very much repeat users. Silas Chou's family is there for the second time, he is mentioned by name in the following article:
    Journal of Contemporary Asia, Vol. 35 No. 3, 2005, pp. 319-340.

    Lauren Bush's family is long involved. But do note, Lauren is the daughter of Neal Bush.
    You can read more about him in this article:
    Influence Peddling, Bush Style. The Nation. published this story on October 23, 2000.

    Interesting enough, the article also relates to the Thai guest...Dhanin Chearavanont...another corrupt person.

    Lauren Bush also previously worked for Silas Chou (Tommy Hilfiger)

    Once you wash the wealth aside, you see a rather sinister collection of people who already know each other, and are perpetuating a lie to improve their reputations, as well as associate their products with French Quality.

    The last issue you need to know is how this event has infringed upon the protected status of 'Haute Couture' for decades. There are some dresses that are Haute Couture. But the organizer deliberately misleads the public to believe that ALL gowns are Haute Couture when they are not. She writes the AFP pieces too!
    She has gotten into trouble for this too. The President of the Chambre Syndicale de le Haute Couture has had to demand that she cease and desist from illegally using the term without his permission. The status of this protected French artisanship has been protected for nearly 100 years. The form is very much threatened by cheap Asian production of substandard goods by exactly producers like Silas Chou and others attending the event. They do this, obviously to increase the brand recognition of their substandard products. All of which further threatens the endangered status of Haute Couture. They do so while saying they are trying to celebrate it. Ironically, as the first article indicates, it is also the poor production ethics of exploitation and sweatshops in Asia that is also causing abject poverty in Asia. Isn't it ironic, and hypocritical to be supposedly holding a charity for poverty persons to feed them? Isn't it even worse to do so over some lavish event?

    And meanwhile France24 and others like yourselves are treating it like real news, with real fame. All it that it is, is infamous. Go ahead and look deeper at some of the other amazing names that have been celebrated. There is worse. What I dealt with is just tonight's guest list. Really just a chip of the iceberg.

    Who am I? A field worker, writing you from Thailand... where I really try to help poor and exploited children, women, and men of Mae Sot.

    If you have any self respect left as a news agency, and if you do not somehow owe it to this big money to help them perpetuate this lie, I strongly urge you remove the story, and if you print anything in the future, make sure its based on the facts... That the event is a fake, that they illegally infringe on a protected French institution for personal gain, that there is a constellation of powerful and corrupt persons trying to socially launder their names into society.
    Every attendee knows about this. The Conde Nast publications blatantly support and run it, Bernard Arnault is tied up into it. Demi Moore found out about this, and my sources tell me she is not going to attend because it is in conflict with her anti Human trafficking charity. Clint Eastwood did similar 2 years ago when he chose to boycott due to the presence of certain other guests. The same issues of 2009 resulted in the cancellation of this event in 2010.

    I sincerely hope you explore this, do your own fact checking, and inform your viewers honestly and ethically about the truth.

    Sincerely Eliza