THE Crillon Hotel in Paris is one of the oldest luxury hotels in the world. It was commissioned by King Louis XV and has seen royalty, presidents, dignitaries, personalities and celebrities pass through its doors.
Once a year in November, the hotel plays host to 23 debutantes from all over the world, dubbed the ?Crillon Debutante Ball? or ?Bal Haute Couture.? Others simply call it the Crillon Ball.
Originating in the late 1700s in England, it has evolved over the years. In the 1990s, the very elegant PR extraordinaire Ophelie Renouard took the reins and gave a Fren ch touch to the ball. Past debutantes have included the niece of President George W Bush (Lauren) and the daughter of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (Barbara).
This year?s roster had Bruce Willis and Demi Moore?s daughter Scout, James and Sarah Mellon?s daughter Sarah, and Count Serge von der Pahlen and Margherita Agnelli?s daughter Countess Tatiana. There were also debutantes from Japan, Korea and China. For the first time in the ball?s history, a Filipina made her debut.
Last February, I met with Renouard in Paris who asked me to help her choose a debutante from the Philippines. There were many ladies to choose from. I suggested different names to Renouard, who then chose the lucky young woman?Paloma Urquijo Zobel.
The ball was held last Nov. 29, spread over three days.
After months of coordinating, e-mails, fittings and secrecy, we arrived in Paris, with thermals and bundles of coats in tow. Paloma was lucky enough to have around her her mother Bea Jr, siblings Jaime and Monica and grandparents Don Jaime and Doña Bea Zobel. Bea was fortunate to have her excellent stylist Danny Katalbas from Emphasis in the same city (he was attending a L?Oreal workshop). He made her and her mom look radiant. Bea Jr wore a turquoise Inno Sotto gown and a Bea Valdes neckpiece, and simply was a standout.
Paloma?s escort was Rose Ann Cu-Unjieng de Pampelonne?s son Dominic; her older brother Jaime was the escort of her friend from Egypt.
The first night we had dinner at the Crillon Grand Ballroom. It made me recall the book ?My Last Supper: 50 Great Chefs and Their Final Meals.? Although I am no chef, I could rate this meal as one of the best I ever had. Of course, the company made it even more special.
The second day was a series of shoots in the hotel and around the city with Paloma and her family. In the evening, the chairman and CEO of Starwood Capital Group worldwide, the company that owns the umbrella group of Hotel de Crillon, Westin, W and Sheraton St Regis, hosted cocktails at Le Cristal Baccarat Room, where the debutantes, escorts and families got to meet each other and practice dancing the waltz.
The day of the event saw a flurry of activities. The debutantes were to do group photos and check out the jewelry they had to wear (courtesy of Adler). Paloma and family also had to be photographed for the Philippine Tatler?and had to tour the city.
The ball was set for 6:30 p.m. but I went early to shoot the grand set-up. I got along well with the UK-based photographer Tim Griffiths, a veteran of the ball who gave me the lowdown on what to expect that night. He was accommodating and kind enough to let me pull him aside whenever I wanted someone photographed.
Casper Van Dien
Once guests trickled in, I made my way to Bea Jr and Rose Ann de Pampelonne. We met the very pretty and gracious royalty/actress Catherine Oxenberg (Amanda on the TV show ?Dynasty?) and her husband, actor Casper Van Dien (?Starship Troopers?). Van Dien recalled the time he spent in Pagsanjan filming a movie and how his crew kept asking him to try the ?egg with a duck in it,? while Catherine talked of how much she appreciated her ?yaya? and that she knew two Filipino, not-so-pleasing-to-the-ear words.
We got to meet the shoe king Christian Louboutin, a friend of Rose Ann, who asked about former First Lady Imelda Marcos. I guess it?s the shoe thing. We also got to meet and have photos with Hollywood royalty?Bruce Willis (with girlfriend, model Emma Hemming), Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher. And, yes, Demi was as beautiful as she is in the movies, and Ashton very tall and handsome. While I found Bruce quite smug, to Bea Jr he was debonair and the ultimate hunk. ?When I met him my knees turned to jelly!? she said.
I had the biggest laugh of the evening when Rose Ann introduced me to a gentleman, then whispered to me, ?He is the Maurice Arcache of Paris!? I told her that Maurice would just love that!
After we sat at our tables for a sumptuous dinner of foie gras and lobster, the debutantes were presented one by one to the guests and the press. All the debutantes (in couture dresses, from Lanvin, Givenchy and Oscar de la Renta, etc.) and cavaliers were beautiful and handsome. Of course, some were visibly nervous but then, considering they were between 18 and 22 years old, they looked and moved like pros.
Beaming with pride
Our eyes were glued to the Filipino contingent. Paloma looked beautiful in her burgundy Carolina Herrera gown, while Jaime and Dominic looked very handsome. Their mothers and grandparents were beaming with pride.
Dancing followed, then the debutantes and their cavaliers went to paint the town red. Most of them had to catch an early flight the next day to head back to school.
It was truly a memorable time for me as I took pride in the fact that I helped choose the debutante from our country and felt even prouder to have a representative from the Philippines. Other Asian countries have yet to be asked; I?m sure they will be soon. I am also very sure that these young women will remember this part of their lives and treasure it forever. As Don Jaime said, ?I am sure Paloma will be sharing this event even with her grandchildren.?
And while it may seem that the Crillon Ball is all pomp and pageantry, it is also a fundraiser. This year?s recipient was the Melita Bern Schlanger Foundation for diabetes research.