Anna Chapman is the Russian redhead that launched a thousand Bond girl fantasies. That she might have come within a vodka-cranberry of Britain’s dashing, young heirs at Boujis, the princes’ favorite nightclub in South Kensington, London, is not surprising. You would have to be an agent of Austin Powers' stupidity, not to know that, back in the day, this slightly tatty subterranean nightspot would be the most likely spot for pulling a prince. Or indeed spying on one.
For a few years, Boujis was one of the hottest clubs in the capital and a place where the cool young set partied regularly. Owned by a young London entrepreneur, Matt Hermer, and until recently fronted by Jake Parkinson-Smith, grandson of the fashion photographer Norman Parkinson, the club acquired an almost mythical status when it opened in the mid-2000s, with a VIP room and its legions of schoolgirls. Though clearly no Studio 54, it was rarely out of the papers—the den of mild iniquity of choice for starlets, Eurotrash, wealthy girls on a gap year before university, and, of course, the princes. For my sins, as a young(er) reporter, such was the regularity of appearances by William and Harry or Britney or Misha, that I was once dispatched to report on “A Week in the Life of Boujis.” It never recovered its fun factor for me after that.
In his younger years William is alleged to have liked to jokingly use the line “wanna pull a Prince.”
With her killer figure, minute dresses, and monster heels, Chapman, then in her early twenties, would hardly have been out of place. “It was the height of that period of people spending a lot of money and of there being a big influx of Russians and Italians into the London social scene,” says nightclub promoter Roger Michael, who knew her well. Around this time. he started a now-famous Boujis' Tuesday night, called “I am rockstar,” specializing in mid-week larks, which Chapman attended almost religiously. Almost you might say.... as if she had an agenda.
• Lady Diana’s Royal AuctionAccording to Michael, who also works with other popular royal spots like Raffles on the King's Road, she was often with a group that hung around with controversial property billionaire Robert Tchenguiz, who, with his brother Vincent, is still a high-rolling fixture on the nightclub circuit at places like Cipriani and Annabel’s (a club popular with a slightly older set).
“She was there almost every Tuesday night until about two years ago,” recalls Michael. “She’d come to the dinners that we used do before at Carpaccio or Cipriani—it was right after Cipriani opened in London.” He recalls her as “quite a striking girl, but she wasn’t that tall and she could slip into a crowd.” While she might have exuded the air of a generic Russian party girl, presumably she was never off duty. “She was always very in control and never really drank.” As a rich Russian in London—at this time nicknamed Londongrad—she was hardly conspicuous. She would also, he says, turn up “at the right parties in Cannes and St. Tropez.”
While over the past week the British media has fallen in love with the 007-style fantasy of the stunning redhead under the bed, the reality was more brittle. Chapman, he says, could be “quite bossy and at times quite rude” when arranging the details of a night out on the town. When she got a job at a financial company, she said that she didn’t want any more invitations and Michael gladly broke off all contact, deleting her from his party database.
Katie Nicholl, author of the forthcoming biography of the princes, William and Harry, says that the club would have been first on the list of places to try to get close to royalty. “If Anna Chapman wanted to hunt down the princes, her best bet would have been Boujis. I've seen the boys there countless times, and there were always a gaggle of stunning long-limbed beauties on prince watch.”
As creatures of habit, they wouldn’t have been easy to miss either, says Nicholl: “William and Harry would have tables reserved at the back of the club next to the VIP area and at one time they even had their own barman called Gordon. They were always relaxed at Boujis, they knew the owner Jake Parkinson-Smith, but they still had to abide by the rules. Like everyone else, they had to take their baseball caps off, which made them instantly recognizable. Women would always be approaching them and asking them to dance."
It's easy to see how protecting them in this kind of circumstance presented a major headache—you might say a near impossibility. "While the princes always had protection officers close at hand, they had been told to give William and Harry plenty of space,” says Nicholl. After a spate of tacky headlines—like the time Prince Harry drunkenly threw a punch at a paparazzo—ended this very public partying, you wonder if behind-the-scenes security might have been the issue more than the inevitable playboy perception.
While clubs like Boujis pride themselves on an air of exclusivity (they are technically a members' club, but the right sort can always get in), different rules tend to apply for girls. As Michael points out, “if a beautiful girl turns up, people don’t tend to ask too many questions.” From polo matches to parties and nightclubs, its easy to see why the security of two young guys brought up to enjoy at least a pretense of “normality” may have become a problem.
While the royal girlfriends have remained constant, the princes are also unstintingly loyal to their favorite nightspots. It’s Boujis that is most famous; but there is also Mahiki and, until recently, any barfly venture involving their close friend and party fixer Guy Pelly, 29, who most recently set up the Birdcage, a kind of royal enclosure for the younger generation at Ascot. Perhaps a friend who knows his way around the innately dodgy world of nightclubs, and knows the crowd that hang out there (and knows who is to be trusted), is more of an asset than the volley of headlines about the princes' party animal pal suggested.
The job of nightclub fixers and promoters is to fill these kind of places with beautiful young women: the kind that they are likely to know on Facebook but not to actually “know” in any real sense of a word. The question, perhaps, shouldn’t be, did Anna Chapman get to meet a prince, but if she had, other than their taste for vast quantities of alcohol and cheesy tunes, what information could she possibly have gleaned? On the other hand, there’s always I suppose a chance that she could have found herself speeding in a blacked-out car back to the palace. In his younger years, William is alleged to have liked to jokingly use the line “wanna pull a prince.” Presumably at that point, there might have been some security checks.
Olivia Cole writes for the Spectator and the London Evening Standard. An award-winning poet, her first collection, Restricted View, was published this fall.