Armed with a seemingly bottomless supply of cash, an unassuming Malaysian named Jho Low staged the ultimate extravaganza
Las Vegas, Nov. 3-4, 2012
Around 6 p.m. on a warm, cloudless November night, Pras Michél, a former member of the ‘90s hip-hop trio the Fugees, approached one of the Chairman Suites on the fifth floor of the Palazzo hotel. He knocked and the door opened, revealing a rotund man, dressed in a black tuxedo, who flashed a warm smile. The man, glowing slightly with perspiration, was known to his friends as Jho Low, and he spoke in the soft-voiced lilt common to Malaysians. “Here’s my boy,” Mr. Low said, embracing the rapper.
The Chairman Suites, at $25,000 per night, were the most opulent the Palazzo had to offer, with a pool terrace overlooking the Strip. But the host didn’t plan to spend much time in the room that night; Mr. Low had a much grander celebration in store for his 31st birthday. This was just the preparty for his inner circle, who had jetted in from across the globe. Guzzling champagne, the guests, an eclectic mix of celebrities and hangers-on, buzzed around Mr. Low as more people arrived. Swizz Beatz, the hip-hop producer and husband of Alicia Keys, conversed animatedly with Mr. Low. At one point, Leonardo DiCaprio arrived alongside Benicio Del Toro to talk to Mr. Low about some film ideas.
Adapted from “Billion Dollar Whale: The Man Who Fooled Wall Street, Hollywood and the World” by Wall Street Journal reporters Tom Wright and Bradley Hope, to be published Tuesday in the U.S. by Hachette Books.What did the guests make of their host? To many at the gathering, Mr. Low cut a mysterious figure. Hailing from Malaysia, a small Southeast Asian country, Mr. Low had a round face that was still boyish, with glasses, red cheeks, and barely a hint of facial hair. His unremarkable appearance was matched by an awkwardness and lack of ease in conversation, which the beautiful women around Mr. Low took to be shyness. Polite and courteous, he never seemed fully in the moment, often cutting short a conversation to take a call on one of his half a dozen cellphones.
But despite Mr. Low’s unassuming appearance, word was that he was loaded—maybe a billionaire. Guests murmured to each other that he was the money behind Mr. DiCaprio’s latest movie, “The Wolf of Wall Street,” which was still filming. Mr. Low’s bashful manners belied a hard core of ambition the like of which the world rarely sees. Look more closely, and Mr. Low wasn’t so much timid as quietly calculating, as if computing every human interaction, sizing up what he could provide for someone and what they, in turn, could do for him. Despite his age, Mr. Low had a weird gravitas, allowing him to hold his own in a room of grizzled Wall Street bankers or pampered Hollywood types. For years, he had methodically cultivated the wealthiest and most powerful people on the planet. The bold strategy had placed him in their orbit and landed him a seat here in the Palazzo. Now, he was the one doling out favors.
The night at the Palazzo marked the apex of Mr. Low’s ascendancy. The guest list for his birthday included Hollywood stars, top bankers from
Goldman Sachs , and powerful figures from the Middle East. In the aftermath of the U.S. financial crisis, they all wanted a piece of Mr. Low. Pras Michél had lost his place in the limelight since the Fugees disbanded, but was hoping to reinvent himself as a private-equity investor, and Mr. Low held out the promise of funding. Some celebrities had received hundreds of thousands of dollars in appearance fees from Mr. Low just to turn up at his events, and they were keen to keep him happy.
But even those stars couldn’t really claim to know Mr. Low’s story. If you entered “Jho Low” into Google, very little came up. Some people said he was an Asian arms dealer. Others claimed he was close to the prime minister of Malaysia. Or maybe he inherited billions from his Chinese grandfather. Casino operators and nightclubs refer to their highest rollers as “whales,” and one thing was certain about Mr. Low: He was the most extravagant whale that Vegas, New York, and St. Tropez had seen in a long time—maybe ever.
A few hours later, just after 9 p.m., Mr. Low’s guests began the journey to the evening’s main event. As the limousines drove up the Strip, it was clear they weren’t heading to the desert, as some guests thought, instead pulling up at what looked like a giant aircraft hangar, specially constructed on a vacant parcel of land. Among those present was Robin Leach, who for decades, as host of the TV show “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” had chronicled the spending of rappers, Hollywood stars, and old-money dynasties. But that was the 1980s and 1990s, and nothing had prepared him for the intemperance of the night. A gossip columnist for the Las Vegas Sun, Mr. Leach was among the few guests who had gleaned some details of what was coming. “Wicked whispers EXCLUSIVE: Britney Spears flying into Vegas tomorrow for secret concert, biggest big bucks private party ever thrown,” he tweeted.
Briney Spear burst out of a cake to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to Jho Low at the 2012 Las Vegas party.
One puzzling requirement of Mr. Leach’s invitation was that he could write about the party, but not name the host. He had made his career from the desire of rich people to brag about their affluence; what made this guy want to spend so much cash in secret? he wondered. A nightlife veteran, Mr. Leach was stunned by the audacity of the construction on the site. As he surveyed the arch of the party venue, which was ample enough to house a Ferris wheel, carousel, circus trampoline, cigar lounge, and plush white couches scattered throughout, he did some calculations. One side was circus themed, with the other half transformed into an ultrachic nightclub.
It must have cost millions, Mr. Leach estimated. Here were new lovers Kanye West and Kim Kardashian canoodling under a canopy; Paris Hilton and heartthrob River Viiperi whispering by a bar; actors Bradley Cooper and Zach Galifianakis, on a break from filming “The Hangover Part III,” laughed as they took in the scene. “We’re used to extravagant parties in Las Vegas, but this was the ultimate party,” Mr. Leach said. “I’ve never been to one like it.”
Mr. Low was careful not to overlook his less well-known friends and key business contacts. Among the guests were Tim Leissner, a German-born banker who was a star deal maker for Goldman Sachs in Asia. There were whispers among Wall Street bankers about the huge profits Goldman had been making in Malaysia, hundreds of millions of dollars arranging bonds for a state investment fund, but they hadn’t reached insular Hollywood.
The crowd was already lively when Jamie Foxx started off the show with a video projected on huge screens. It featured friends of Mr. Low from around the world, each dancing a bit of the hit song “Gangnam Style.” As the video ended, Psy, the South Korean singer who had shot to stardom that year for “Gangnam Style,” played the song live as the crowd erupted. Over the following hour and a half, there were performances from Redfoo and the Party Rock Crew, Busta Rhymes, Q-Tip, Pharrell, and Swizz Beatz, with Ludacris and Chris Brown, who debuted the song “Everyday Birthday.” During Q-Tip’s session, a drunk Mr. DiCaprio got on stage and rapped alongside him. Then, a giant faux wedding cake was wheeled on stage. After a few moments, Britney Spears, wearing a skimpy, gold-colored outfit, burst out and, joined by dancers, serenaded Mr. Low with “Happy Birthday.” Each of the performers earned a fat check, with Ms. Spears reportedly taking a six-figure sum for her brief cameo.
Then the gifts. The nightlife impresarios who helped set up the party, Noah Tepperberg and Jason Strauss, stopped the music and took a microphone. Mr. Low had spent tens of millions of dollars in their clubs Marquee, TAO, and LAVO over the past few years, just as the financial crisis hit and Wall Street high rollers were feeling the pinch. He was their No. 1 client, and they did everything to ensure other nightclub owners didn’t steal him away. As Messrs. Tepperberg and Strauss motioned to staff, a bright red Lamborghini was driven out into the middle of the marquee. Someone gave not one but three high-end Ducati motorcycles. Finally, a ribbon-wrapped $2.5 million Bugatti Veyron was presented by Szen Low to his brother.
Just after 12:20 a.m., the sky lit up with fireworks....