Everything you need to know about why the starry yachting season on the Mediterranean seems so dead this summer happened on Aug. 7, the same day I boarded one of the world’s most fabled mega-yachts, the Christina O, for a cruise off the Monaco coast.
Sailing in the newly refurbished Christina O, once the glamorous plaything of one of the 20th century’s most powerful men, Aristotle Onassis, and now a ship packaged for tourists, is a bittersweet experience, like boarding a ghost ship from a heady era of larger-than-life movers and shakers.
Gallery: Celebrities on Yachts
It’s not just gazing at the photos of Jackie Kennedy in her white Hermès silk headscarf on the upper deck, or sitting on the barstools made of whale foreskin (Ari reportedly told Greta Garbo she was sitting on “the largest penis in the world”), or eyeballing Onassis' four-bedroom suite where he began an explosive affair with opera superstar Maria Callas—while their spouses were on board.
It’s remembering that last summer, the biggest star on a yacht in the south of France was Jon Gosselin. Many of the rich and powerful aboard yachts here these days are tycoons from Russia and the Middle East who prize anonymity.
The Christina (Winston Churchill, Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, Princess Grace, and Prince Rainier were some of Onassis’ favored guests) reeks of sex, scandal, style, privilege, and real power, of living large on the world stage in a way almost nobody except Angelina Jolie does today.
“Being on a yacht is not what she wants in terms of image. Discreet is the new fame.”
Though I didn’t know it at the time, the same night I was aboard the Christina on August 7, one of Europe’s top paparazzo, a man I’ve known for five years, was in St. Tropez helping two Pakistani billionaire brothers, Javed and Alshair Fiyaz, stage a photo op involving Lady Gaga on board their yacht in the harbor.
Only problem: Lady Gaga was in the U.S. at the time, fresh from Lollapalooza 2010 in Chicago and on her way to her next concert in Los Angeles.
No matter. The Fiyaz brothers and the photographer, both of whom are close to Jean-Roch, the owner of St. Tropez’ hottest nightclub, the VIP Room, had planted a rumor that Lady Gaga was on the Fiyaz yacht. While hundreds of excited fans gathered at a dock, a blond woman made up to resemble Gaga, hidden by a scarf, was escorted off the boat by two bodyguards.
“We did it because everyone was bored with this place being so dead and everyone believed it was really her,” said my photographer friend, who spoke on the condition I not use his name. “There are no big American stars here anymore. The big celebrities only come now when they’re paid—and they still don't always use that many of our pictures anymore."
Paris Hilton was reportedly paid $100,000 per day to spend a week in July in St. Tropez being photographed in clubs with the baby-faced Malaysian multimillionaire Taek Jho Low, 28, a source at one nightclub said.
The same source originally called me to report that Low, a pudgy Wharton graduate with extensive business contacts in the Middle East who is sometimes dubbed a “man of mystery,” was throwing around massive amounts of cash on Hilton and their respective entourages. It was suggested that the markedly unphotogenic Low's splashy sojourn with Hilton in St. Tropez might interest key magazine editors in the U.S. It didn’t.
"Hilton's over and nobody wants a picture of this guy," said one editor in New York.
And while Naomi Campbell got a lot of coverage when she sunned herself on a yacht off Sardinia's Costa Smeralda last week with her Russian multimillionaire boyfriend Vladimir Doronin and Leonardo DiCaprio, it was not so much that she’s still a big name. She was just newsworthy given that she had just come from testifying about “blood diamonds” in the Charles Taylor trial.
“It’s getting worse and worse,” said Rachid Bellak, a local photographer who covers celebrities. “Diddy was in Cannes last week for a party for one night. We heard he was paid $250,000 to show up. He left the next day.”
Though relatively big names like Diddy, Jack Nicholson, Bruce Willis, Sharon Stone, Liam Neeson, Pamela Anderson, Tony Parker, and Eva Longoria have been paparazzi staples in St. Tropez in recent years, inevitably snapped while posing on board a yacht or diving off one, the only major American “celebrity” in St. Tropez last summer to grab the attention of New York magazine editors was Gosselin.
Gosselin was flown there with his new girlfriend by the French-born fashion designer Christian Audigier in a canny PR move that ultimately landed Gosselin on the covers of some of the biggest celebrity magazines in the U.S.
Most of the images showed Gosselin and Hailey Glassman frolicking on Audigier’s rented yacht in Pampelonne Bay off St. Tropez.
“The Riviera has gone down the tubes as far as being a place for American and European stars,” said Joel Stratte-McClure, author of The Idiot and the Odyssey who covered the French Riviera for People magazine in the heyday of Monaco’s playboy princesses, Caroline and Stephanie, in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Princess Caroline, whose apparent split from her bad-boy husband Prince Ernst, caused barely a ripple in the American press last year, occasionally sails her yacht, the Pacha III, in the Mediterranean. But you won't see many, if any, pictures of her on it.
"She's too past her prime for Americans to care anymore," said Stratte-McClure. “The people with the big money there now are all Russians and Arabs. We don’t have big stars anymore anyway. These sleazy reality-TV stars have taken over and they're disposable after they get their 15 minutes."
But despite reports that the high cost of yachting has made it passé, people in the industry defend the validity of their business.
“Yachts are still in style, it’s just the people buying them or chartering them are the opposite of the way they were in the old days,” said Nick Jeffery, a Monaco-based yacht consultant. “The big spenders on yachts are Middle Eastern and Russian and they keep a very low profile. Many of them make the captain and the crew sign confidentiality statements.”
John R. Lassiter III, president of Heritage Yachts in Monaco, said 15 new boats of more than 200 feet in length were delivered this year but "ownership of them is kept pretty quiet."
"The days of using a yacht for PR the way presidents and queens and movie stars used to do is over," said Lassiter. "But it's too bad because those big personalities are why a yacht like the Christina is so special."
The Ari Onassis of the Mediterranean today is Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, who owns four of the biggest yachts in the world, including the brand-new, $500 million, 557-foot Eclipse that sounds more fearsome than fun: The ultra high-tech security features include bulletproof glass and an anti-paparazzi electronic "shield."
Two captains of yachts chartered by extremely wealthy and prominent people contacted for this article declined comment. “That’s typical,” said Jeffery. “It’s all about keeping a low profile and discretion nowadays."
One of the wealthiest new aficionados of sailing the Mediterranean seas is said to be Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister of Ukraine and so-called Gas Princess who was listed as the third most powerful woman in the world in 2005.
“You’ll be very hard-pressed to get a photo of her on a yacht and there’s no way any captain will say a word,” said one source in the yachting industry. “Being on a yacht is not what she wants in terms of image. Discreet is the new fame."
Pity that no one is likely to discover the very married Tymoshenko in the salon of a yacht in flagrante delicto with a man who is not her husband, as Maria Callas and Ari Onassis were reportedly discovered by Onassis' then-wife Tina Niarchos. "The Christina O, in a large sense, is a boat that's all about a marital train wreck," says Christina historian Kate Braithwaite.
A glass case containing the gold wedding rings of Callas' cuckolded husband, Battista Meneghini, is on display on the Christina, along with telegrams to Callas from a confidante, onetime American gossip queen Elsa Maxwell. In one of the more quaint exhibits on the Christina, Maxwell's one-page typed letter to Callas apologizes to the diva for publishing a piece in the Journal-American about her scandalous new romance with Onassis and explains that her editor made her do it.
"I had to," Maxwell wrote to Callas.
Dana Kennedy, a former correspondent for ABC News, Fox News and MSNBC, who also writes for the The New York Times, the Financial Times, the International Herald Tribune, Time magazine and People, among others, is based in Europe.