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This story first appeared in the May 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Like Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and Sharon Stone, Lebanese businessman Elie Nahas was once a regular at the Cannes Film Festival.
But since his bust in 2007 for his part in the most explosive prostitution scandal in the history of the festival, Nahas, 48, can’t leave his native Lebanon. He hopes that his eight-year prison sentence, slapped on him in absentia by a French judge after a trial in Marseilles in October, will be overturned on appeal this year, but he’s not overly optimistic. In fact, he also is fearful that if he leaves Lebanon, he’ll be picked up by Interpol.
Nahas, who owns a Beirut-based modeling agency, used to work as a right-hand man for Moatessem Gadhafi, the playboy son of Libyan strongman Muammar Gadhafi, Nahas’ longtime pal. It was during this time that Nahas was arrested on charges of running a prostitution ring that supplied more than 50 women “of various nationalities” to the younger Gadhafi and other rich Middle Eastern clients during the festival. Moatessem was killed with his father in Libya in 2011.
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The women ran the gamut, from full-time escorts to models to beauty queens, and they serviced men in hotels, on yachts and in the palatial villas in the hills above Cannes, police said. Philippe Camps, a lawyer for a Paris-based anti-prostitution organization that was a civil plaintiff in the trial, tells THR that some of the women were brought to Cannes under false pretenses and coerced into prostitution.
Police broke into Nahas’ room at the city’s famed Carlton hotel in August 2007 and arrested him after a lengthy investigation involving wiretaps, which helped them identify Nahas and seven others as key members of the vice ring. (Prostitution is legal in France, but soliciting, whether with advertising or on a street corner, is not.)
Nahas remains bitter about his arrest and subsequent conviction and denies he was running a prostitution ring. He says he was unfairly singled out in a sea of rich players who move in and around the Cannes Film Festival’s second-biggest business after movies: sex.
“Why me?” asks Nahas during a phone interview with THR from Beirut. “The police know what goes on during the film festival, and they turn a blind eye. But they went after me. Why? Because I worked for Gadhafi.”
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‘They Can Make up to $40,000 a Night’
Every year, women ranging from what the French call putes de luxes (high-priced call girls), who charge an average of $4,000 a night, to local streetwalkers, who normally get little more than $50 or $75 an hour turning tricks in nearby Nice, converge on Cannes for what one Parisian hooker calls “the biggest payday of the year.” The influx is hard not to notice. “Hookers stand out in Cannes. They’re the ones who are well-dressed and not smoking,” tweeted Roger Ebert in 2010.
“We all look forward to it,” says a local prostitute in Cannes who goes by the name of Daisy on her website but declined to give her surname. Daisy is one of many independent escorts who have their own websites and usually avoid going to hotels and bars — except during the festival. “There’s a lot of competition because there are so many girls, but the local ones have an advantage. We know the hotel concierges.”
The local prostitutes, says Daisy, routinely drop cash off with concierges at the town’s top hotels. In return, if they are lucky, concierges sometimes steer clients their way. During the 10-day festival, an estimated 100 to 200 hookers stroll in and out of the big hotels every day, according to hotel sources.
Nahas says the money can be bigger than most people realize. The most beautiful call girls, he says, know to target the high-end hotels “where all the Arabs stay.”
“They can make up to $40,000 a night,” says Nahas. “Arabs are the most generous people in the world. If they like you, they will give you a lot of money. At Cannes, they carry money around in wads of 10,000 euros. To them, it’s just like paper. They don’t even like to count it. They’ll just hand it to the girls without thinking. I know the system.”
The serious action starts after 10 p.m., he says. Call girls sit in the lobby, and prospective clients check them out.
“It’s all done with hand signals,” he says. “The guys signal their room numbers with their hands and the girls follow them.”
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The Organized Rings
Some of the “luxury prostitutes” come as part of an organized ring, the type of operation that police said Nahas ran, and others fly in small groups on their own, mainly from Paris, London, Venezuela, Brazil, Morocco and Russia. Still others take advantage of the other big event taking place on the Cote d’Azur, the Monaco Grand Prix, and rent hotel rooms in the town of Beausoleil, just behind Monaco, and commute between there and Cannes, a 40-minute drive.
Nahas denies he was running a prostitution ring but admits he arranged for women to come to Cannes during the festival. His job, he says, was to pick them up at Nice International Airport, bring them to the port at Cannes and place them on small boats that took them out to Gadhafi’s yacht, the Che Guevara, and other luxury vessels.
“I was not party to anything else,” insists Nahas. “I don’t know what took place between any of them. I had no part of it. They may have just been there to talk and have fun.”
Until his 2007 arrest, Nahas was best known for throwing a $1 million birthday party for Moatessem Gadhafi in Marrakesh in 2004. He paid Enrique Iglesias $500,000 to attend and flew in Carmen Electra for $50,000, he says. Kevin Costner also attended.
“Gadhafi never touched Carmen,” says Nahas. “In fact, she was a little angry because she felt he didn’t pay enough attention to her. But Gadhafi was shy, believe it or not. Women had to make the first move.” (A spokesperson for Electra could not be reached for comment.)
Nahas — who was jailed for 11 months after his arrest in France then released for lack of proof — says the younger Gadhafi sent him $25,000 a month to live on after his reputation was ruined in Lebanon and he no longer could work. Since Gadhafi’s death, the money has dried up. “I cry blood for him every day,” says Nahas.
When Nahas was arrested, police confiscated an address book that contained dozens of names and contact information for some of the richest princes and potentates in the Middle East. Nahas admits that he knew them all but denies that he procured hookers for them.
But even if he did, says Nahas, there are plenty more like him all over Cannes during the festival.
“Please,” says Nahas. “Every year during the festival there are 30 or 40 luxury yachts in the bay at Cannes, and every boat belongs to a very rich person. Every boat has about 10 girls on it; they are usually models, and they are usually nude or half nude. It’s drugs and drink and beautiful women. Go out on one and you’ll see. The girls are all waiting for their envelopes at the end of the night. It’s been going on there for 60 years.”
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The Envelope, Please
A “gift” contained in an envelope, according to Nahas and a number of veteran Cannes escort women interviewed by THR, is how prostitutes get paid at the festival.
“It’s always a gift,” says a Russian woman who oversees a Paris-based escort agency with branches in London and Dubai. “Clients are told to put the money in an envelope and write ‘gift’ on the outside of it.”
Women installed on yachts in Cannes during the film festival are called “yacht girls,” and the line between professional prostitutes and B- or C-list Hollywood actresses and models who accept payment for sex with rich older men is sometimes very blurred, explains one film industry veteran.
“You’d definitely recognize more than a few names from Hollywood,” he says. “These are actresses who made bad career choices and fell off the radar. They tell themselves what they’re doing at Cannes is OK, that they’re just on dates with rich men, when the reality is they’re doing what prostitutes do. But they like the money.”
Carole Raphaelle Davis — a longtime French-American film and TV actress (2 Broke Girls, Angel) who grew up in international circles in Paris, London and Thailand — says few people realize that some prominent and moneyed society women spent many years as high-priced prostitutes.
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Davis, who is married to TV comedy writer Kevin Rooney and divides her time between France and Beverly Hills, says she has two acquaintances who used to work the Cannes Film Festival as well as other exotic locales around the world. “I could never understand how they could do what they did,” says Davis.
Davis says she has been propositioned by some of the richest men in the world but could never imagine sleeping with them for money.
She says the women she knew “traveled the world like jet-setters,” and one of them eventually ended up marrying one of the richest men in France.
“This woman didn’t even enjoy sex, she told me,” says Davis. “But she didn’t mind it, either. She didn’t mind sleeping with men who were repulsive. She said it never lasted more than five minutes, so it wasn’t that bad.”
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