Twenty years ago, when Graydon [Carter] first assigned me to cover le Bal des Débutantes for Vanity Fair, I wondered exactly why, but didn’t ask. A week at the Hôtel de Crillon was reason enough. There were beloved pals in Paris to visit—Jean-Paul Goude and the widow Brassaï. As it turned out, the event itself had addictive qualities. I’ve been covering it each and every year since.
A Mistress of Ceremonies
This year marks le Bal’s 25th anniversary. Le Bal belongs to Ophélie Renouard, a well-born Parisian and, earlier in her career, a producer of fancy events. With singular devotion, Ophélie spends her entire year, every year, ensuring that this particular late-November evening is perfect. With grace and charm, she travels the world, socializes, and networks in search of more grace and charm, breeding, accomplishment, bright eyes, and elegant carriage. She has her own criteria for both debutantes and their escorts, known as “cavaliers.” Traditionally, many debutantes have brought their own brothers, gussied up in white tie and tails, but more often of late, the girls let Ophélie do the pairing, and it gets interesting. In 2017, the young Maharaja Sawai Padmanabh Singh of Jaipur escorted Ava Phillippe, the daughter of Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Phillippe.
There are parents who return whenever each of their daughters comes of age. Some wish they had more daughters. Even after his three stunning girls debuted in ’03, ’06, and ’08, Jay Mellon was compelled to return. He once attended alongside his bosom buddy Peter Beard and Peter’s daughter, Zara, and he turned up again this year with his grandniece Minty and her mother, Tamara. The 2019 crop also included a Rockefeller; the twin daughters of Julio Iglesias and Miranda Rijnsburger; a contingent of titled European girls (H.R.H. Princesse Maria Carolina de Bourbon des Deux Siciles, escorted by H.R.H. Prince Léopold de Nassau, and H.R.H. Princesse Louise d’Orléans, escorted by H.S.H. Prince Philippe-Emmanuel de Croÿ-Solre); Phoebe Fraser of London (not the first Fraser to debut here); Jean-Paul Belmondo’s daughter, Stella; and Jet Li’s daughter, Jane.
Traditionally, many debutantes have brought their own brothers, gussied up in white tie and tails, but more often of late, the girls let Ophélie do the pairing, and it gets interesting.
The dresses are a big draw for the girls, and sometimes a bone of contention as to who gets to wear what. Fashion houses provide the garb sur mesure. Herrera, Chanel, Dior, McQueen, de la Renta, Valentino … the works. Each year, only one jewelry house underwrites the event and earns the right to drape the fancy young necks, ears, and wrists with their wares. As for who attends? The ball is by invitation only. Renouard’s invitation, in particular. There is no participation fee, but families are encouraged to contribute to Renouard’s favorite charities.
What started at the Crillon became a movable Bal in 2013, when the Crillon closed for remodeling. Le Bal now calls the Shangri-La home, once the grand palace of Prince Roland Bonaparte, Napoleon’s grandnephew.
“When we spoke after this year’s Bal, Ophélie was already in China, prospecting for a possible ball there next year,” says Jean Rafferty, an American expat journalist and longtime friend of Renouard. Her efficiency is as impressive as that of her mentor, the late, great Eleanor Lambert, who founded the International Best-Dressed List.
Traditionally, debutante balls have always been marriage-minded, but today’s Bal is more about making an announcement to the fashion and media worlds. French journalist Stéphane Bern, O.B.E., has the formidable task of proclaiming choice tidbits of information about each young woman as she parades past the tables. “Le Bal is all about empowering young women,” he says. “They are the stars.”
And what stars! Lauren Bush Lauren was just 16 when she came out as a le Bal deb, in 2000. It was a very propitious moment; her uncle was on his way to the presidency. She caused such a sensation that the Bal’s reputation positively zoomed. “No one is looking to get married,” says Bush Lauren of le Bal debs past and present. “It’s all about having fun.” Yes, the debut experience is empowering for the girls as they grow into full-blown women. And it’s about leaving something behind. As Bush Lauren reminisces wistfully, “Often, in Paris, I make a point of walking by the Crillon.” On balance, it’s a stunningly surreal work of performance art that Ophélie puts together, and it’s pure joy.
Jonathan Becker is a photographer based in New York