Waiting for George

Zipping to Monte Carlo, dropping by diamond shows on yachts, gazing at the languid models: All in a day’s work during Grand Prix weekend. But please, asks Preston Johns, where are the real celebrities?

Monte Carlo spills down the steep hill at the very bottom of France in a jumble of underwhelming tower blocks. At its foot is the city’s harbor, crammed with a dazzling sea of yachts—small, medium, miniature, but mostly very, very large. It’s Grand Prix weekend in Monaco, the principality that has everything, except personal taxation.

To visit Monaco at this time of year is to dip a toe into two peculiarly European forms of madness: the culture of Formula One racing and the eternal sunshine of the Eurotrash lifestyle. Monaco hosted its first Grand Prix in 1929, when the steep, narrow streets overlooking the port echoed with the winning sound of a dark green Bugatti driven by William Grover-Williams. Over the next decade, the winner’s rostrum was graced by the kind of names that evoke handlebar mustaches, grease-spattered overalls, and steely courage: Tazio Nuvolari, Luigi Fagioli, Louis Chiron.

Formula One, the global motorsport series that started in 1950, still holds the Monaco Grand Prix in high esteem. It is, after all, the only place where the sport’s notoriously well-remunerated drivers can take a short stroll from their harbor-side penthouses to reach the paddock. Sponsors nudge their superyachts right up to the side of the track. Here, the billion-dollar circus that follows the racing teams around the globe feels right at home.

So: Why am I here? Looking back, the reasons seem a little misty. Something about a press trip, something about a car, something about hospitality. And lots of it.

Saturday afternoon, we stride into town like some latter-day rat pack, the cream of Britain’s male-orientated glossy magazine journalism. But sunglasses and swagger can’t hide the fact that we’re essentially clueless, adrift in a strange land and not a little embarrassed at being led around town by a couple of PR ‘girls,’ who are starting to relish their full-on mothering mode, distributing train tickets, party invites, spending money, and itineraries.

Our assignment for day one is a yacht party, an invitation conveyed on stiff tracing paper, its edges lacy with the sponsor’s logos. A yacht has apparently been hired out by a big diamond company, perhaps to signal its presence in a city that values ostentation above all else. The company has hired PR agents to throw a small party and draw in the A-list (or at the very least the ‘C’s), make a splash, and cause a stir. As media “representatives,” we are on the guest list, an arrangement that benefits everyone; we get schmoozed, the party gets guests, and clients get to see their fees generate a bit of media interest.

Thus justified, we board tiny tenders and thump out across the heavy swells in the busy harbor. The yachts loom large and fantastical, literally millions and millions of dollars of floating real estate.

The boat ride was simply a tease; we’ve just hopped harbors and now find that we have to walk along the maze of wooden jetties that snake between the boats to reach “our” yacht. Yet the foreplay worked, because we’re all dizzy with the attention and moist with anticipation. As requested, we are dressed smartly. With my best jacket slung casually over my shoulder, and an ironed, ventilation-friendly shirt (the one least prone to dark sweaty patches), I feel almost like I fit in. Down a gangplank. Remove shoes. Stash them with many pairs of considerably more expensive shoes. Along a corridor, up a stair. Into a stateroom. Out onto the rear deck. And we’ve arrived.

We’re welcomed by dazzling, false smiles. Everyone is promoting something—diamonds, boats, cars, themselves. A waiter offers us drinks from a sparkling forest of champagne flutes. Models mooch around sulkily, here to flaunt the client’s wares, not to seek out the company of dishevelled journalists. Even our PR chaperones, who can get us anywhere and bring us anything, seem slightly nervy and unbalanced by the hard-edged sheen of this new, higher level of public relations.

It’s a tough act, and we’re awful. Introductions and inquisitions are merged, one’s apparent use and value sized up, pondered, and dismissed within seconds. It’s the way all-powerful people walk and talk, the ability to sniff the difference between player and phoney in a matter of seconds. Thankfully my cheap shoes stay in the locker. I fervently hope my even cheaper (and mismatched) socks look better through dark glasses. To avoid further humiliation, I take a self-guided tour of the boat.

Boat. Yacht. Whatever. Step off dry land and new rules of etiquette apply, none of which I’ve had a chance to brush up on. What I do know is that all 49 meters of super-yacht is here for my perusal, a chance in a lifetime to sample the itinerant lifestyles of the rich and famous. I pad about in the toe-deep carpet, occasionally listening at doors to make sure no one’s inside discussing plans for world domination.

Below decks offers a fine lesson in bad interior design. Those responsible must get some serious kickbacks from marble quarries, the manufacturers of mirrors, and suppliers of gilded Buddhas. Superyachts seem to be milled from a slightly harder version of that white material used to make cheap garden furniture, shiny and futuristic. Inside, they’re stuck in shag pile hell.

I saunter past a series of anxious women. “I feel very unglamorous,” a beautiful tall blonde girl in sunglasses and a sheer pink dress confesses into her mobile phone. “Everyone else has dressed up.” I pretend not to listen and gaze into the distance, nautically. My shades add a welcome air of nonchalance, although they also feel cheap and hot on the bridge of my nose.

“Diamonds have a slightly dodgy image,” says a puzzled man. He doesn’t elaborate, but then he doesn’t need to. The assembled company is enough to send warning signs: When the only legitimate-looking people are in PR, you know you’re in trouble. Everyone else seems to be auditioning for a dodgy Brit flick, the kind where actors scuff up their accents and act as if violent crime is just a bit of a lark, all sharp tailoring and cheeky putdowns—the men with asymmetric haircuts and ironically chunky jewelry, the women in sprayed-on dresses and practiced disdain. Members of the moneyed Eurotrash class display a particular linguistic talent—they can sound vapid in whatever tongue they speak.

At some point the diamonds are brought up from the hold and three burly men extract them from velvet bags. The jewelry is then draped across the skinny forearms and giraffe necks of four winsome, bored models, who strike poses on the jetty for a photographer. Apparently, one of them is a name, associated with some product or another. But in the bony, intimidating flesh, it’s almost impossible to tell them apart.

But there’s a bigger buzz underfoot, signaled by mildly frantic communications flying between the various PR pros, company agents, security, and staff: The George Clooney brigade is in town and ready to party. Ocean’s Twelve is months from release—it’s currently being shot just over the border in Italy—but some bright spark has put two and two together and come up with a PR coup de théâtre, a masterstroke of publicity, a stunt unrivaled in the history of the profession. One of the low-slung Formula One cars powering around tomorrow’s track, we’re told, will carry a small cluster of real, genuine diamonds stashed in its nosecone. We nod along in feigned wonder.

And there’s more. “You can’t put a price on that,” someone says. “It’s just not possible, so we didn’t.”

What they really want is for Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Matt Damon to make an appearance, in person. And not just at the trackside but on this very boat, at a party thrown by diamond manufacturers, catapulting us all into the gossip pages. Should George or Brad show, I will have a cast-iron anecdote to make my wife insanely jealous. Brad will chat to me a bit about architecture, perhaps. Maybe they’ll look me up next time they’re in London and I’ll give them restaurant tips. I feel the kind of shivery delight that comes from proximity to real stardom. It’s all too much.

We wait. Increasingly frantic PR agents wield a combination of cell phones, walkie-talkies, and trying expressions while they try to locate the star guests. We join in, helpfully scanning the horizon for incursions by card-carrying A-listers, with their telltale dazzling teeth, glossy hair, and fawning entourages. There are none. The crowd on the jetty scans us back for evidence of our right to be on a yacht. There is none.

Apparently even mega-yachts have a capacity, and the expected 200 guests will never materialize—because we can only take 75. More hand-wringing. “It’s a PR disaster,” says another blonde girl passionately. By now, the jetty gathering is a veritable throng. Something, they feel, is definitely up. We sit at the blunt end of the boat and watch the people watching us, watching them. Someone raises a pair of binoculars and looks at me. I put on what I feel is a suitably enigmatic smile. “Look at me,” it says, “I don’t know what I’m doing here. Neither, it seems, do you.” They lower the lenses and look elsewhere. Reeling, I go to the bathroom and try to perfect my “Brad Pitt” face—confused, low-browed. A few glasses of champagne convince me it’ll pass at 100 yards.

As night falls, Monte Carlo becomes rather beautiful, a thousand squares of light blanking out the sand-colored concrete and sawtooth balconies, the glossy white boats bouncing reflections off the water and each other. The harbor is the unlocked door of Monaco’s gilded cage. Out there, past the new concrete harbor wall, are France, Italy, Spain, Africa, and more, yet the yachts choose to cling to the coast, intent on parties, not escape plans. On the next boat over I can see Shirley Bassey. Why isn’t she here, singing “Diamonds are Forever”? Now and again a Range Rover pulls up by the gangplank, the windows thrillingly blacked out. After an hour or so, a famous airline entrepreneur turns up and is briefly everyone’s best friend. He stays for 15 minutes, then yacht-hops to the next party.

The bad news breaks slowly: Brad and Jen, maybe George and Julia, maybe even Matt, and almost certainly all their celebrity friends, have decided to eschew the flashbulbs and harbor-side attention in favor of a quiet dinner down the coast in Portofino. The PR agents nod wisely; this, it seems, is the best outcome. If they were going to Portofino anyway, they’ll be nice and fresh for an unspecified “later” event. At least they didn’t attend someone else’s party—the relief is palpable. It’s not a victory, but at least it’s not a defeat.

The next day, we take another small boat to get back to the big one. This time we’re treated to a Riva, the Rolls-Royce of powerboats. This 1960s example mimics a Cadillac for the interior, all chrome and cream leather, fit for a prince. We lie back, no longer bashful at our childlike disappointment for missing the movie stars; now we’re going to see some racing cars.

Entering the bay is magical. Every balcony and penthouse terrace is alive with figures, the huge temporary grandstands on the seafront filled to capacity. The atmosphere is almost overwhelming. Americans don’t really get Formula One, preferring oval tracks where super high speeds, passing, and constant danger are commonplace. F1 is about tactics, technology, and PR. Monaco’s fiendishly tricky course is carved out of the principality’s streets, though today the roads are bent to accommodate the race, rather than the other way round—the speed and technology demand it.

This circuit is familiar to thousands of armchair drivers, thanks to its appearance in numerous video games. It’s also something of a holy grail for racing drivers, requiring a combination of ludicrous speed and total precision. Many drivers live here—the favorable tax regime looks kindly on their multi-million dollar salaries (although excuses like a “favorable climate for training” are trotted out in their defense).

Our vantage point, so prestigious yesterday, only affords us a few seconds of action as the cars fly through a corner just in front of the boat. What we get constantly is the noise, the ear-splitting roar (foam plugs are provided) of 20 high-revving engines filling the harbor with a constant wail. The sound is briefly muted when the pack screams through a tunnel at nearly 200 miles per hour, before the noise is spat out into the sunshine. Just a few seconds later the cars flash past us, then disappear again to climb up into the town.

The race flies by, far quicker than it does on the television. The winner crosses the line, followed less than a second later by no. 2, a rare close result in a race where passing is next to impossible and tight corners lead to high numbers of retirements. Less than half the field has finished. The diamond nosecone plowed into a wall after just a few laps, and the jewels briefly went missing (although this may just be a convenient fiction). As the checkered flag waves, the yachts sound their horns, deep, body-shaking tones. The crowds cheer, klaxons sound, and the highly tuned engines are quietened for another year.

I’m a little sunburnt. Those who really cared about the race watched from the banquettes in the yacht’s state room, where a giant plasma screen TV provided far better pictures. Someone changes the channel and a football game begins. Others drift out to the deckchairs.

A cast-iron PR woman politely expresses the desire that we leave. Show’s over, folks, and once again, there’s a chance of a celebrity showing, although no one musters up the courage to mention any names. They need our places. As we leave, I feel strangely sad that this, like so many of the strange experiences in my life, is little more than a thinly disguised bribe. I guess I’m playing the PR game just as much as the hapless experts. Mixing with the Eurotrash, waiting for George, the electric jolt of novelty and dislocation, of being in a place so unlike real life as to resemble a long, elaborate fantasy, these things are all fun for a while. Happily, real life is there to return to.