Vikram Chatwal is not your usual rich Manhattan playboy. For starters, he has never cut his hair and he wears a turban, in keeping with his Sikh heritage. And while he does all that other playboy stuff-dating fashion models, tooling around town in an Aston Martin, running up an $11,500 bar tab in a nightclub, hanging out with Bill Clinton-he strikes many Manhattan night-crawlers as having something extra, something “spiritual”, if you will. Or maybe it’s just that he has a calming effect on the people around him. When he himself wants to calm down, he says, he plays Sony PlayStation games and watches The Simpsons.
Mr. Chatwal will tell you he plans to be the first Sikh billionaire. His father says: “Why not? This is New York City; he’s just 31 years old; he’s got a base to start with. The problem right now is, he’s only spending 30 percent of his time towards business. The day he starts spending 70 percent of his time, within two or three years he’ll make it.”
His father, Sant Singh Chatwal, has a lot to do with Vikram’s success: He owns the international chain of Bombay Palace restaurants, as well as 11 hotels in Manhattan. With his father’s backing, Mr. Chatwal opened the trendy Time hotel on West 49th Street in 1999 and, last month, the equally hip Majestic hotel on West 55th Street. He says he’s working with author and wellness guru Deepak Chopra to open another hotel, the Lambs Club on West 44th Street, with rates starting at $500, which will include an Ayurvedic spa and an upscale Indian restaurant.
He lives high above Central Park West in an Indian and African art-filled apartment in the Trump International. His parents, live in an Upper East Side penthouse where they’ve hosted fund-raisers attended by Bill and Hillary Clinton. During Mrs. Clinton’s Senate campaign, The Daily News reported that Sant Chatwal was one of her top soft-money donors, contributing $210,000. (Chatwal pere claimed he made no personal contributions, saying the donation came from a chain he created, Hampshire Hotels.)
Things between the Chatwals and the Clintons could have gotten sticky in 2000, when the U.S. government fined Sant Chatwal $125,000 to settle charges that he owed governments, banks and creditors tens of millions of dollars. But that soon blew over, and last June the Clintons both attended the arranged marriage of Vikram’s younger brother, Vivek, at Tavern on the Green. Mr. Clinton even gave a toast and joked, “We’re actually celebrating two events today: the couple’s marriage and Vikram giving up drinking.”
Mr. Chatwal gets some good-natured ribbing from his family about his penchant for nightlife. Earlier this month, he attended Puff Daddy’s birthday party in Morocco, flying with the birthday boy on a 767 lent by the King of Morocco.
“He’s always cracking jokes, always up for partying,” Mr. Chatwal said of Puff Daddy. “We both like to go out and party a lot. We’re both Scorpios. Every Scorpio I’ve met, I’ve connected with. We talk about music, women and the next party, how we’re going to be organizing the next big event. I think players are often confused with playboys, which is part of it, but it’s mainly Renaissance men-people who are doing a lot of different things and are successful. Someone like Puff.”
I was sitting with Mr. Chatwal at La Goulue on Madison Avenue. He was wearing a Brioni jacket, an Hermès tie and Diesel jeans, but no turban-he said he’d been swimming and was running late, so his hair was up in a bun. He calls himself more of a “cultural Sikh,” but goes to temple, prays every day and has five Sikh tattoos on his arms. He also has a “G” tattooed on his arm, for the Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bündchen, with whom he’s gone on a few dates.
I told him he didn’t seem like the usual nightclub type-not a hell-raiser at all.
“I think that’s the Scorpio side of me,” he said, sipping a beer. “Scorpios are either religious or sexual. You know, Mother Teresa and Gandhi were Scorpios, but so was Charles Manson. So it’s a real sort of balance. That’s where the passion comes in. So sometimes I have that subdued, religious feel, but sometimes I’ll let it out and go completely sexual. Or nuts. Like when I’m with Puff.”
(Later, I looked it up and found that Mother Teresa was actually a Virgo and Gandhi was a Libra.)
I asked what his social life had been like recently, and he mentioned a dinner party at the Manhattan townhouse of Lady Ghislaine Maxwell, the daughter of the late British media baron Robert Maxwell. The guest of honor, said Mr. Chatwal, was Prince Andrew, who told a “quite humorous” joke involving Pepto-Bismol and his brother Prince Charles’ girlfriend, Camilla Parker Bowles. Then Ms. Maxwell told a story about how she flew a Blackhawk helicopter in Colombia and fired a rocket into a supposed terrorist camp.
“Ghislaine is just the most rocking babe I’ve ever met,” said Mr. Chatwal. “She blew up a tank . That is amazing . After that, my perception of her completely changed. I said, ‘You have to be the coolest person alive.’”
Mr. Chatwal said he had recently split up with his girlfriend, a Victoria’s Secret model from the Caribbean named Teresa Lourenco.
“I think we may get back together, but who knows?” he said.
I knew he’d dated lots of women; I asked what his favorite nationality was.
“Brazilian,” he said. “It’s not just the fact that they’re beautiful, it’s the whole vibe-the language itself drips sexuality. It’s Italian squared.”
Since I had an international playboy sitting right in front of me, I decided to take advantage of the fact and started rattling off nationalities.
“Russian women are sort of deal-makers; they are the smartest business people I’ve met,” he said. “Indian women talk about marriage and kids before they’ve had the first date. British women … I’ve never met women who act so civilized but are so crazy-the craziest bunch of women I’ve ever met. Just nuts. Real mental.
“I’ve been around the world,” he said. “The best thing about French women is the way they speak English. That accent is awesome. But they’re slightly pretentious, snobs. But when you get to know them, they become quite cute and cuddly.”
“Very calculating,” he said. “They’ll do their homework before, and everything is about what’s in it for them. You can rarely relax.”
Always unsatisfied, right? I asked.
“Completely,” he said. “Whether it’s sexually or socially, they’re just driven. When you talk to them, they never look at you in the eye; they’re kind of looking over the shoulder-who else is in the room? Like you’re the stepping stone to the next bigger and better thing.”
He said he sees himself settling down with a Caribbean woman or someone from the Far East, where, he said, “they have sort of a traditional sense of understanding what a woman’s duty is, and what a man’s duty is, to be in a relationship together. If you date a woman from Manhattan, you feel like the woman in the relationship.”
Last year, he bought a John Galliano dress for $26,000 at an AIDS benefit auction; Mr. Galliano had been commissioned by Vogue editor Anna Wintour to design the dress with a Moulin Rouge theme.
“I bought it and I was going to give it to the right girl, and I really haven’t found the right girl yet,” said Mr. Chatwal. “Probably my wife, I guess. But if things keep going this way, I’ll send it back and tell them to give it to Nicole, she deserves it for her performance. It’s fitted for her, so it’s probably best that she had it.”
He told me he thinks Gisele, the Brazilian supermodel whose initial he has tattooed on his arm, is the most beautiful woman in the world. I accompanied him recently to a party being thrown for Gisele by Vogue magazine at the Hôtel Plaza Athénée.
He sat a few feet away from Gisele, leaning forward and facing her. She was wearing a backless sequined mini-dress, soaking up the attention with Helena Christensen and two other models.
“We’re just friends, that’s all,” said Gisele. “Vikram’s just a very sweet guy. I’ve known him since I was 17. I’m 22 now. Vikram! I’m talking about you! He’s just Vikram; he’s a funny guy. Look at him! Vikram, I’m explaining you to the world! He’s just a goofy guy-you know Vikram, he’s just … out there, you know what I mean? You never know what he’s thinking. In the clouds. A cool man.”
Soon, Vikram left the party with his good buddy Robbie Kravis, the son of billionaire Henry Kravis. They were headed for the Chelsea nightclub Bungalow 8.
Going out at night isn’t always a party for Mr. Chatwal. After Sept. 11, some hooligans threw eggs at him; others have yelled “Osama!” or “Terrorist!” After one Sikh was murdered in the U.S, he had to hire a bodyguard, and his father bought $100,000 worth of newspaper ads supporting the Sikhs and making clear that they weren’t Muslim and had nothing in common with the Taliban.
Vikram Chatwal was born in Ethiopia. His father, a former Indian Navy fighter pilot, started a restaurant there, became close with Emperor Haile Selassie, but lost a $5 million fortune when the emperor was overthrown in 1974. Vikram remembers bombs going off. The family ended up in Montreal, where his father opened his first Bombay Palace. Vikram said his childhood was “comfortable and luxurious.” His mother, a former actress, is a “typical Indian yenta” who smothered him with love and food.
“So I was really fat as a kid,” he said. “My indulgence was food. I was a plump kid. Used to go surf and turf every day.”
In kindergarten, he fell in love with his next-door neighbor, a cute French girl. He kissed her, then told his parents. “They slapped me and said, ‘Are you crazy? You can’t be doing that!’”
His comfortable surroundings did little to ease the pain of social harassment. Kids called the brothers “diaperhead” and knocked off their turbans.
“I could take it, I was a bit of a fighter,” Mr. Chatwal said. “My brother was really timid and shy and couldn’t take it, so emotionally he has still been scarred by it. My father was very authoritative: ‘You have to pray, you have to wear the turban, you have to do this.’ We couldn’t understand him, because we were being raised in this sort of Western world. And we couldn’t understand our peers, because we seemed like those aliens from Mars Attacks .”
Sant Chatwal also taught Vikram about work, making him a busboy at a Beefsteak Charlie’s he owned.
Things got less stressful for Vikram when the family moved to Manhattan in 1982 and the boys attended the private United Nations International School. Still, he said, “we were the only Sikhs in New York for a while.”
He made good grades but skipped classes.
“It was right when hip-hop started-I became like a Sikh homeboy,” he said. “Wearing thick laces, Run-D.M.C.-style chains. I got busted a couple times for shoplifting, because that was the cool thing to do.”
His parents made him go to a Sikh camp upstate.
“I’m glad I went,” he said. “One thing I’m happy about that my parents instilled is that I stayed a Sikh. I have never cut my hair, and I’m happy I didn’t.”
He was accepted into the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. He got a job at Morgan Stanley but quit after eight months because, he said, “I couldn’t deal with the authority.” He became a model, appearing in Vogue . “It was a lot of fun,” Vikram said. “High-pulse fun. The downside is that it’s so arbitrary, subjective.”
After eight months of modeling, his father gave him an ultimatum: Either he could have an arranged marriage or work in the family business. His parents had a few girls in mind, and Vikram had met them. He joined the family business.
Business has been good to him. Not only did he visit Bill Clinton in the White House, the two also spent time together on a trip Mr. Clinton made to India last year.
“We had a dinner, and every Indian woman was basically in love with him, and they were trying to sit next to him,” Mr. Chatwal said. “These girls kept saying, ‘We want to go back to Clinton’s suite.’”
“I know him very well,” he said of the former President. He added that the two men have sat down and talked often about books and Gandhi, as well as, he said, “women and models I’ve dated. He, like any man in the world, appreciates beauty.”
What Mr. Chatwal really wants to be is an actor. He had a few seconds onscreen in the fashion spoof Zoolander , as a member of Owen Wilson’s posse, playing a prince in a drug scene.
“Owen’s a friend of mine,” he said. “He’s a really good guy. We go jogging together a lot in the park.”
He’s landed a starring role in a small independent movie that starts filming in February, called One Dollar Curry . He’ll play a Sikh cabdriver who falls for a Parisian woman, even though he’s supposed to have an arranged marriage. The movie will be shot in France.
In the meantime, he’s enjoying New York. On Halloween night, he celebrated his birthday with a party under a heated tent on the roof of his hotel, the Majestic. A Clockwork Orange was looping on the big TV screen, heavy-metal music was blasting, guests drank Cristal and Dom Perignon champagne. Many of the women wore skimpy outfits. I asked some of the guests about their friend Vikram.
“He’s very, very spiritual,” said magician David Blaine. “He’s very, very, very giving. He’s very, very charming.”
“I’ve known Vikram for a long time-long enough to know he’s a beautiful person,” said a Siberian model named Irina.
Fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg-whom Mr. Chatwal calls “the most amazing woman I’ve ever met in my life, up there with Hillary Clinton”-said he had “a big heart” and was “extremely attractive.”
Puff Daddy arrived, dressed as a king with a crown and a long, flowing red robe. “He’s a real cool, down-to-earth guy,” said the rapper of Mr. Chatwal.
How were they alike?
“We’re not. Nobody’s like me. Nobody’s like him,” said Puff Daddy.
The next day, the two would be on the 767 headed for Morocco.
I asked Mr. Chatwal how he felt.
“I’m feeling as high as I’ve ever felt, naturally,” he said. “All my friends are here, and it’s just the best feeling in the world. I couldn’t be happier. Rock star, movie star-whatever it is, it just feels great.