When she landed in LA, aged 19, the model, actor and writer was plunged into a world where wealthy men were desperate to be seen with women like her. At what cost?
Last modified on Wed 17 Nov 2021 16.43 GMT
To be paid $25,000 to show up to an event was the most ridiculous thing I’d ever heard. In 2014 my manager at the time, Evan, informed me that the billionaire financier behind The Wolf of Wall Street was offering to pay me that much to go to the Super Bowl with him. He explained that this person, Jho Low, “just liked to have famous men and women around” and there would be other celebrities going too. “He’s just one of those insanely rich guys from Asia.” Jho Low’s fortune came from family money, Evan said.
“I’m sure Leo will be there, and a bunch of other people you’ll know, or, er, recognize. You know their movie is up for five Academy Awards next month?”
“I don’t have to, like, do anything specific, right?” I asked. Was being at the Super Bowl my only task or was there some other more covert expectation? Evan told me he’d insisted that he accompany me, “Just to make sure you feel comfortable.” I knew Evan was coming along as a chaperone; but what he was protecting me from exactly, I wasn’t sure. The money, of which he got a 10% commission, would be wired ahead of time.
I’d never cared about football, but my father did. When I told him I was going, he yelped, “Ah, Emily! I’m so jealous!”
We’d been instructed to meet at the Plaza, where we were directed immediately on to a bus. Evan had been right about the other guests: there were two famous models, one known for her recent appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit edition and the other for her stint as a Victoria’s Secret Angel. There were a few male actors, accompanied by their posses. The rest of the group seemed to work for Jho Low. He boarded last. I was surprised by how young he looked in person, younger than 31. As his short, pudgy frame moved down the aisle, Evan jumped up to introduce me. Was it part of the job to act excited? I mustered some enthusiasm.
“Thanks so much for having me,” I offered, smiling up at him.
“Yeah, yeah, sure, sure.” He nodded and grinned distractedly before taking a seat in the back.
Several police cars and motorcycles appeared, surrounding the bus. Evan explained that we were being escorted to the stadium to avoid traffic. “The city shuts down an avenue so that people who can afford it get this treatment.” He chuckled, shaking his head. “Nuts, right?”
As an adolescent, wealth was an abstract concept to me. I was not yet able to grasp the difference between rich fathers from my hometown and billionaires like Jho Low. To me, rich was just rich.
I started making my own money at 14. I thought it important to never be indebted to anyone. In high school, I once paid for a date with a boy I wasn’t interested in, just to ensure that I wouldn’t have to go out with him again or, my worst fear, owe him something sexually. Paying made me feel that I was in control.
When I moved to LA and started working full-time, there was a girl who had a look similar to mine. Even though we were both 19, I felt older than Isabella. She was soft-spoken and timid. We’d see each other at castings, where we bonded over the loneliness of living in a new city. She told me she’d recently started going out to clubs with her housemate, Chloe, a blond model who was almost six feet tall. “You should come with us sometime,” she offered.
I’d only spent a handful of nights in clubs, but I knew that I didn’t particularly enjoy them. I didn’t like the music they played, or how drinks spilled on my bare legs, or how someone always seemed to be groping me. Still, it seemed stupid to turn down an opportunity to meet new people. We made plans for the following week.
We met at a Japanese restaurant that felt more like it belonged in Las Vegas than in Los Angeles. I told Chloe and Isabella that I was nervous because I’d lost my fake ID. Chloe laughed and reassured me: “You don’t have to worry about anything like that.”
A short man in his mid-30s, wearing a black button-down shirt, greeted us at the entrance to a private dining room, kissing Chloe and Isabella. I was surprised – I’d assumed we’d be going out with people closer to our age. He smiled widely and introduced himself to me as “Sacha, Chloe’s friend”, telling me to drink and eat whatever I wanted. Unfamiliar with extensive cocktail lists, I blanked when the waiter came for my order, and asked for a tequila sunrise, a drink I remembered my mother liking. The sweetness of the grenadine made me feel nauseous and my teeth ache. As dish after steaming dish theatrically appeared on a long table, underage models trickled in, smiling nervously as Sacha stood up to greet them.
“What do you need, ladies?” he asked every time, signalling to a waiter. He was animated and anxious, unable to sit still.
“What up, Sach!” a woman dressed in chunky heels and a leather jacket hollered as she strutted over to the private dining room. Sacha popped up. “Kim! Gorgeous as always.”
Kim was our age, but it was clear that she was different – confident and at ease, a veteran. She wrapped her arms loosely around Sacha, placing her chin in the crook of his neck, and surveyed the table of quiet young women, assessing us, her gaze jumping from one to the next.
“The guys are almost here,” she whispered, pulling away from him and taking a seat. Not long after, Sacha announced it was time to leave. The long table was still covered with full plates of food. When I stayed seated, waiting for a check to appear, Isabella whispered to me, “No, no, no. We just go.” Realizing that someone else was paying, I felt a twinge of uneasiness.
Outside Sacha directed us to several black SUVs and told us to “hop in”. As I climbed in, using one hand to hold down my short dress to keep it from riding up over my ass, I saw several men around the age of 40 already in the car. “Hello,” said a big, bald man who appeared too large for his seat. His massive hand sat heavily on the thigh of a petite, pale woman who seemed just a few years older than me. “This is my fiancee,” he said. She waved listlessly. From the back seat, an unshaven, chubby man with a greasy nose called out, “Hi girls, let’s party!”
At the club, the men kept offering us cocaine, which they snorted with their backs to the dancefloor. They ordered bottles of alcohol that arrived with sparkling flames, grabbed our bodies and fed us shots, sang along to the music and pumped their fists in the air. Mostly, though, Isabella and I stood around in a booth, not speaking much. Chloe was slouched in a corner. At some point the three of us must have managed to leave, because I woke up the next morning in Isabella’s room with a pounding headache to a text: “So much fun last night! It’s Sacha btw, save my number.”
After that, I made a habit of ignoring Sacha’s weekly texts, which were always versions of the same message: “Hiiii babe. Thursday. Big meal at Nobu tonight before we go out! Gonna be sick, roll through.” When I told another model about him, she said that Sacha was a party promoter.
“He got your number? He’s never going to stop texting you, girl. The rich dudes pay him to wrangle models. They always start the nights off with a big dinner, so that girls who aren’t making much cash come for a free meal.”
The whole situation gave me the creeps, but when Sacha texted me along with Chloe and Isabella about a free trip to Coachella, including tickets to the festival, a place to stay and a ride out to the desert in a limo bus, I was too excited to turn it down. The three of us pored over the lineup and circled the acts we wanted to see.
Coachella was expensive. Just the year before I’d driven there with my best friend and spent two nights sleeping in my Nissan with the seats laid flat, parked in a hotel lot. It had been fun, but now I could be in the VIP section and the front row at the concerts. The prospect made me feel grown up.
“I mean, if we’re there together it’ll be fine,” Isabella texted me. We figured we could ignore the men while taking advantage of their setup.
We hit gridlock traffic leaving Los Angeles. There were about 15 of us plus Sacha on the party bus, which was tricked out with purple neon lights and a bar filled with ice and bottles of alcohol. Sacha kept the music loud, walking the length of the aisle refilling drinks and smiling broadly. A tall model with thick black hair and a nasally voice came and sat next to me.
“So you know the big bald one is, like, a prince, right?” She melted into the seat, her long legs extending across the aisle. She was dressed straight out of the 70s: long skirt, crop top and stacked bracelets. “His mom is super-famous obviously. But yeah, I’ve heard him and his fiancee like to have threesomes.” Grinning, she retied a colourful silk scarf around her forehead. “So they’re, like, always looking for girls for those.”
When we finally arrived at the massive Spanish-style house in the desert where we’d be staying, we’d been in traffic for nearly six hours and were all exhausted and ready for bed. Sacha became frantic. “Girls! Look how dope this house is!” he squealed when we entered the foyer, grabbing at us and ordering us toward the pool in the backyard. “Go for a night swim!” Outside, we found the prince and his pale fiancee in the Jacuzzi, along with some broad-shouldered man I’d never met before. We stood uncomfortably around the edge. A few girls changed into their swimsuits and got in the water. When I stripped down to the bikini I’d been wearing under my denim shorts, I felt the prince’s eyes land on my body.
“OK,” he said, nudging his friend. “I’m always interested in something like this.” He pointed at me. “A girl like you, what do you want to change about your body? Like, what’s the thing you’re hung up on?” They both stared at me. I froze.
“I don’t know,” I responded, mentally running through the things I’d like to change about myself: a smaller nose, longer legs. He sipped his drink as his attention shifted elsewhere, bored when I didn’t play along. Despite being a little scared of him, I felt a strange sense of loss. Powerful men have always had that effect on me; they make me want to be noticed but also to disappear. I watched the prince as he laughed. The lights from the Jacuzzi lit his face from below, casting grotesque shadows.
I went back inside. The unshaven guy with the greasy nose I’d met in LA was blasting music in the kitchen and pouring drinks, wearing sunglasses and a pink hat with oversized bunny ears. I let out a small laugh at the sight of him. He looked up and shrugged. “Care to join?” He seemed goofy and self-deprecating in a way that endeared him to me, or at least made me less afraid. I threw on a hoodie and sat on a stool, bringing my knees up to my chin. “Have some chocolate,” he offered. “It’s mushrooms and maybe some MDMA, mostly just a body high.” He broke off a piece and popped it into his mouth. “It’s mellow. Trust me, you’ll feel great.”
I bit off a small chunk and opened a bag of chips while he did a line of coke off the counter. He told me his wife and kids thought he was on a weekend yoga retreat in the desert.
“They have no idea. They think I’m recharging,” he muttered, and bent over to snort another line. “Did you know I recently slept with a girl who woke up before me in the morning and blow-dried her hair and did her makeup, and then crawled back next to me to pretend she’d been asleep?” Spit flew out of his mouth. I thought about the girl and how much she wanted to impress him, to look naturally beautiful first thing in the morning.
I could barely keep my eyes open and my jaw was tight because I’d been grinding my teeth, from either nerves or the drugs, I wasn’t sure. Isabella came in from the pool and quietly said she’d found a room off the kitchen with a queen-size bed that we could share with Chloe. We tiptoed off, found our bags piled up in the comically grand foyer, and carried them into the bedroom. The music from the pool got louder before we shut the door. Chloe face-planted on to the bed. Isabella brushed her teeth and I put on sweatpants, hoping we’d escaped.
But Sacha found us almost immediately. He opened our door. “What is this? Chloe!” he whined. “Chloe, wake up!” Chloe was a party girl but she was not one to be bossed around. “Too tired,” she muttered into her pillow. He scowled at me and Isabella, knowing we were even less likely to rally.
Then Kim, the girl Sacha had greeted so warmly at the restaurant in LA, suddenly appeared behind him in nothing but a black string bikini. He turned to her, his tone shifting. “All right,” he said seriously. “Remember what we talked about? I need you to go and do your thing out there.” She nodded twice quickly and, without speaking a word, swivelled around and skipped out of sight.
“Jacuzzi time!” I heard her sing out. Silently, I shut the door, wondering what I’d just witnessed. Was Sacha Kim’s boss? Or were they cohorts? And what was she expected to go and do exactly?
I could not sleep that night, squished between Chloe and Isabella under a comforter that smelled stale and of someone else. I thought about the way the Jacuzzi’s pink and green lights lit up the prince’s face and how his body had appeared monstrous next to his tiny fiancee’s. I realized I’d felt safer last year sleeping in my car in a crummy hotel parking lot. Isabella and I had been wrong. This was no free ride.
At the Super Bowl, I was surprised to find that we weren’t in the stands but an indoor suite, complete with a full bar, several attendants, and a lavish spread of food. An Oscar-winning actor and his girlfriend stopped by. Jho Low beamed when the actor became loud and gregarious. The image of a king being entertained by a jester came to mind. I wondered how much Jho Low was paying him, and thought of our fees tallied in a ledger on some underling’s computer.
Hours passed. People looked at their phones and sank down in their seats. I hadn’t realized how long the game would be, and after a glass of wine and several trips to the buffet, I was bored and tired. Jho Low himself seemed unenthused, staring vacantly. I wondered whether he even liked football.
Toward the end of the game, Evan reported that we were headed to an afterparty. I was surprised and disappointed; I’d been looking forward to the end of this uncomfortable day. I asked Evan when he thought it would be OK for me to leave. He checked the time. “Probably a few more hours, let’s feel it out.” I’d been reminded: I was not free to come and go as I liked. I was on the clock.
The music was loud and the lights were low at the party space, a two-story lounge dripping with red velvet. After an hour or so, Evan finally indicated that I’d stayed long enough. I peered around. Who had released me?
As I walked toward the exit, I passed a group of people dancing. I saw that Jho Low’s face had grown red and sweaty. He was drunk. A tray of shots appeared in front of him, and he grabbed two, handing one to the Victoria’s Secret model. She had ignored me and the other guests, her attention focused on Jho Low. Now she kept her eyes locked on him as he took his shot, throwing her head back dramatically as he did, only to quickly toss the alcohol over her shoulder. When he faced her again, her eyes sparkled and the famous dimples appeared on her cheeks. Damn, I thought, what a manoeuvre.
I liked to think that I was different from women like her and Kim. But over time, it became harder to hold on to that distinction or even believe in its virtue. I watched models and actresses guarantee themselves financial success and careers by dating or marrying rich and famous men.
I couldn’t help but wonder whether those women were actually the smart ones, playing the game correctly. It was undeniable that there was no way to avoid the game completely: we all had to make money one way or another. So they were the hustlers, and I was – what, exactly? I posted paid Instagram ads. And I was no stranger to commodifying my physical presence, posing next to CEOs in their suits at their store openings and parties. Wasn’t I hustling just like they were?
A few years after the Super Bowl I learned, along with the rest of the world, that Jho Low didn’t come from a super-rich family after all. He had stolen billions of dollars by funnelling money from the Malaysian government into a fund that he managed.
Jho Low is now an international fugitive, wanted by the Malaysian, Singapore and US authorities. Federal prosecutors seized almost a billion dollars in assets that were purchased with his stolen money: properties, yachts, artworks and entertainment (more than $100m was put into The Wolf of Wall Street). The film’s star, Leonardo DiCaprio had been given a Picasso and Basquiat, both of which were returned to the feds.
A week after the Super Bowl, Jho Low threw the Victoria’s Secret model a birthday party and gave her a heart-shaped diamond necklace engraved with her initials. It had cost $1.3m. Eventually, she had to return an estimated $8m in jewelry. One of his gifts, a translucent baby grand piano, was not seized. It was so big that there was simply no way to take it out of her house.
This is an edited extract from My Body by Emily Ratajkowski, published by Quercus at £16.99. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.
Emily Ratajkowski will discuss My Body with Nesrine Malik in a Guardian Live online event on Wednesday 8 December. Book tickets here