An underage prostitute to the stars
Zahia Dehar's wealth and fame illustrates France's laissez-faire attitude to sex as a commodity, writes Aoife Drew
Who is Zahia Dehar, this young woman who is dominating the headlines in France? She's one of France's best-known celebrities, a business woman with a lingerie company and a muse of Karl Lagerfeld. She's only 21, and is also an ex-prostitute who became famous as Bayern Munich footballer Franck Ribery's "birthday present", at the age of 17.
She has come a long way from the seedy side of life in the underprivileged suburbs of Paris where she first started out as a prostitute, moving on to having a base at a late-night club near the Champs-Elysees, the "Zaman Cafe" which has now been shut down following allegations that pimping rings operated out of it.
This week Zahia was photographed with Lady Gaga and Donatella Versace at the latter's Paris fashion show and mingled with the rich and famous. Meanwhile in Paris, two of her rich and famous ex-clients were charged with having sex with Zahia when she was an underage prostitute, facing a maximum sentence of three years in jail and a fine of €45,000 if convicted.
The scandal stems from 2009, when Zahia was reportedly paid to fly from Paris to Munich, to sleep with Ribery as a 26th "birthday treat". Ribery, who has been married to wife Wahiba since 2004 and has two young daughters, admits to having slept with her but says that the money he paid (€700) was for food, travel and a hotel for Zahia. He claims he did not realise that she was underage. She is also alleged to have slept with striker Karim Benzema of Real Madrid, 26, a charge he vehemently denies.
But it seems Zahia wants to move away from her difficult past. This week, her lawyer Daniel Vaconsin, confirmed she had withdrawn as a civil plaintiff in the case, so will not be seeking damages. "She is not asking for anything," he said. The prosecutor later asked that the charges against the two footballers be relaxed.
From her stance in the case, it appears she wants to move on with her life and focus on the positive. This week she invited Paris Match into her offices and lingerie design studios to promote her plans for a new underwear range and a teashop. But the magazine said she cried at the thought of the trial. "I'm afraid of it all starting again. I don't want to go back to the stress I went through at that time" (meaning the time that the prostitution scandal went public, back in April 2010.)
It seems that people in high places want to help her. "She is ravishing, like a luxury item," Karl Lagerfeld said in a French TV interview in 2012. "There's a French tradition of courtesans as luxury items... For me, she's a girl who didn't really have any other choice than to do that profession, who had an exceptional physique and did what thousands of women did before her. I find her fascinating."
Could such a transformation, from courtesan to celebrity, only happen in France? France prides itself on being less puritan than the US or the UK and more "adult" in its attitude towards sex, and there is a certain fascination with the profession.
Indeed, there's a long history of official women trained from childhood to be official mistresses of the French kings, the most famous of these being Madame de Pompadour, who was the official chief mistress of Louis XV (he had numerous other chief mistresses as well).
There is certainly less shame in France attached to the area of prostitution. In more recent times, internet king and France's answer to Steve Jobs, Xavier Niel, was a shareholder in sex shops and peep shows, until a prostitution scandal was revealed and he ended up in jail for a month. This episode did not harm his career; with a net worth currently estimated at $6.6bn (€4.8bn), he's not terribly worried about whether his past is deemed appropriate or not by the public.
This laissez-faire attitude extends to all matters of the boudoir.
This week, a photo of a Parisian billboard did the rounds on Facebook and Twitter, which read: "In honour of St Valentine's Day, the florists of Paris offer you 50 per cent reduction on your second bouquet of flowers. Think of your mistress too!" The same message would be unthinkable anywhere else in the world.
A similar scandal in the "Anglo-Saxon" countries could have been career-ending for young women. And yet, although Zahia continues to try to move away from the more sordid details of her past, in France there is a certain cachet and charm that surrounds her because of this very background. Vive la difference.