Princess for a day
A debutante ball might seem 'very 18th century'. But a few girls from around the world live this fantasy every year at le bal paris. Meet the woman making many a fairytale come true
A young woman in a gorgeous haute couture gown walks hand-in-hand with a man. All eyes are on her, the drapes of her dress, movements, smile, every spoken word. It is her initiation into a world that's high on glitter and glamour. This may sound like an 18th century fantasy, but every year, a handful of girls from around the world get to live it at Le Bal Paris, a modern take on the traditional debutante ball where young girls from aristocratic families would be formally introduced to society. In the traditional version of the ball, the ultimate goal - not often spelt out - would be to find a suitor of same social standing. In its 21st century avatar, Le Bal has rebranded itself as a ball with a cause, with the proceeds from the event being donated to charities that work towards upliftment of young women. "If you talk to these girls, you will know that they want to succeed in their studies. Marriage is not on their agenda," assures Ophelie Renouard, founder and CEO of Le Bal.
Renouard has been organising the ball ever since its inception in 1992, as part of one of the many mega events hosted by Hôtel de Crillon. In 2010, however, Crillon was sold, following which Ophelie took over the reins of the event. Every year, photographs from the grand event populate the Internet. The picture-perfect setting may have you believe it is a cakewalk, but Ophelie is happy to burst that bubble. "Anything that deals with people is not perfect, and that's fine," she jokes.
We have scheduled a telephone conversation for Sunday. A part of me is still reeling under the Sunday blues (it's my version of Monday blues), but Ophelie, it seems, is under a spell. If the ball, which is slated to take place on November 30, has consumed her, she has no regrets. She tells me she loves working on weekends, and spends a couple of hours in her office. "I don't like to take a break," she says, while recalling that the longest break she did take was for a couple of months in Dubai right after her mother passed away in the '80s.
Ophelie has a degree in psychology from Sorbonne, which, in retrospect, doesn't quite add up to the work she does now for Le Bal. My best guess is that perhaps that education might've come in handy while dealing with families and young women who participate in the ball. "I am very interested in what's beyond the surface," she says. This doesn't come as a surprise, given how she chooses her debutantes. "My nightmare is a rich girl who has nothing to say."
The traditional debutante ball might have its origins in the UK, but a modern spin means there is greater diversity ("Everyone is invited at my ball. There is cultural diversity - I have English, Spanish, Italian, Chinese, Filipina, Indian girls") and a cause at the heart of it. For the women, on the other hand, the ball is alluring for several reasons. "They want to wear a beautiful dress. They want to take part in charity. They want to meet girls from other parts of the world; they never mention the boys, though," she jokes. The young men, who play cavaliers, are often keen because, as someone joked with Ophelie, "In Paris, we don't meet any foreign girls."
What began as a couture show in 1992 took the form of a ball owing to the difficulties that often come up whilst organising fashion shows with young women who are not professionals. "This is why I began to plan it as a ball. One dress for one designer, with a cavalier for each girl." Ever since, the USP of the ball has been young girls from distinguished families from all over the world making an appearance. In 2000, all eyes were on Lauren Bush, whose uncle - former American president George W. Bush - was all set to be elected. Two years later, former Soviet Union president Mikhail Gorbachev's granddaughter Xenia came to the ball. In 2006, Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour's daughter Bee was the 'Belle of the Ball'. "I gave an interview right before I met Anna where I said she was a control freak, and she was fine with it. She had actually made a mistake at the ball because she didn't listen to me. I knew a very good-looking Italian prince. Anna wanted him to escort her daughter. I told her it would be a mistake because he was 30 then and would look much older than her. She didn't listen, and I had to ask him to come. In pictures, she looked too young for him."
This year, Ophelie has partnered with Harakh Jewellery, Renault and Shangri La Paris for the big do. This has become a signature statement of the event - limited sponsors to keep the event as exclusive as possible. In popular imagination then, Le Bal has come to stand for all things grand and larger than life. Laaleen Sukhera, founder of Jane Austen Society of Pakistan, says that Le Bal holds an irresistible appeal for many, blending multiple social worlds across centuries. "Deb balls tap into our fairytale fantasies while promoting very pragmatic social and marital alliances and inevitable social climbing marathons, albeit on a global scale. Very few would turn down the Instagrammable opportunity to waltz with personable gentlemen in opulent ballrooms swathed in pouffy couture and tiaras." She goes on to add that stakes are no longer sky-high for debutantes in modernised versions of their social debuts. "Today's debutante balls are more of a novelty that recreate the original aristocratic, white, gilded past into a more eclectic, multiethnic, blingy version that includes rather than alienates the daughters of Hollywood starlets and Chinese billionaires alongside titled and minor royals."
Is the finest accessory in a debutante's kitty family wealth? Ophelie dismisses this notion as a misconception. "Sometimes, people reach out to me, saying they will buy many tables. I am not selling tables here. I have to have a girl who should be able to tell a story. Once, we had a Chinese dancer, who had won almost all dancing competitions in her country. Another girl who came for the ball had an exceptional IQ; her father was a taxi driver. We have a certain profile, which is basically they ought to be good in studies. Also, you have to want to do it."
Who wouldn't? This is when Ophelie opens up about the flipside of the fairytale she offers to the young women - "pushy moms". Often, there are girls who are not interested in participating, but are forced to do so by their mothers. "I could write a book on pushy mothers. I never have problems with the girls. I always have problems with their mothers. Once, a mother kept insisting that I take her 25-year-old daughter in the ball instead of her younger daughter, when it is clearly meant for young women. She kept money in my hand, but I gave it back to her saying, 'Thank you'."
This is also where the psychology degree and experience help. She says she can look at a girl and tell if she is interested in the ball. Ophelie remembers spotting a reluctant debutante many years ago, who, when left alone with her, confessed she was doing it at her mother's behest. "I didn't take her. We have few slots and want those to be given to girls who really want to do it."
While there is no denying its old-world charm, Le Bal's focus on a certain kind of a girl has often drawn criticism at a time when body positivity and inclusivity are talking points globally. Will we ever see a plus-size girl at the ball? The only reason it will be difficult, says Ophelie, is because all the debutantes need to fit into dresses that have already been made, hence, they have to be a certain size. "Also, I do not quite agree with the American argument that it's okay to be plus-size. Forget anything else, it's terrible for your health," she says, adding that neither is size-zero glorified at the ball. "Once, I had an anorexic girl wanting to participate in the ball. We didn't take her because we didn't want to project that image either. It's very important to present the image of a healthy girl."
She is also not oblivious to the charge often levelled at the ball - of highlighting beautiful, young women who have done little to earn the spotlight at a time when the world is talking women's empowerment. "Last year, one of the girls was interviewed by a Chinese journalist, who asked her what the ball meant to her. She said it's about empowerment of young girls. I disagree with people who say it's just about looks. It's stupid. It's not because you're pretty that you are dumb."
The Middle East hasn't had much representation at the ball. Senior fashion journalist Sujata Assomull finds it strange "because Gulf is such a big buyer of high couture". "Today, the Middle East is so important for the old-fashioned glamour industry. But I think the region gets represented through its couturiers. It's a great place to show the couture as it receives a lot of attention. The media is always looking for new faces and it's interesting to see who's going."
Ophelie recognises the loose ends. "It's difficult because I don't know too many people there. If I don't know, I prefer to say no. However, if someone recommends a girl, of course, I will consider it." And what a fairytale would that be!
Le Bal 2019 will take place at Shangri La Hotel Paris tomorrow