One of the hardest life lessons I've learned is that, weddings aside, no event with an open bar is ever fun. If they were, the drinks wouldn't have to be free. A recent night out was no exception: I attended the launch party for – and I don't mean to brag – Dan Bilzerian's new range of CBD products, "Ignite".
It was, all things considered, one of the more harrowing evenings I've ever had: a disturbing glimpse into a parallel London – where everyone is tanned and glassy-eyed and works for the Mail Online – that exists alongside my own while never intersecting. I'd certainly never seen any of these people in a Sam Smiths pub or at a queer techno rave before.
All which is to say: I learned a lot about my own inadequacies, both personal and professional. I'll never be the same again.
Prior to going, I knew little about Bilzerian, other than the fact that everyone I mentioned his name to reacted with genuine horror. When I checked out his Wikipedia, I found it made for colourful reading. From humble beginnings as the son of a corporate takeover specialist, Dan managed to pull himself up by the bootstraps and make his fortune as a professional poker player.
He was once banned from a Miami nightclub for kicking a model in the face. A different, 18-year-old model also sued him after he threw her from the roof of his house into a swimming pool. She did consent to this, but still… maybe don't throw a teenager off a building? Just a thought! He's a man who posted a picture of himself eating a meal off a woman's back, in a jacuzzi, and captioned it "it's #internationalwomensday, be thankful".
It's antics like this which have made him a canvas onto which millions of lame straight guys project their fantasies of endless women and endless subservience. As well as running for president himself, he posed for a photo with Donald Trump and captioned it: "In an age of pussified political correctness, you have to respect someone who's so unfiltered." Counterpoint: no, you don't! Given that I'm a big fan of pussified PC, and hold a firm don't-kick-women-in-the-face stance, Bilzerian did not sound like someone I was going to get on well with.
This shouldn't have been a problem, because interviewing him was never part of the plan. But then his PR emailed me on the day of the event, to inform me that I'd been invited to Bilzerian's penthouse for an exclusive one-on-one. Lucky me!
Before my arrival, I was expecting more of an industry fair vibe, with information booths and earnest panel discussions about CBD's efficacy in treating gout – but the atmosphere was only a couple of notches fancier than a provincial nightclub.
Everyone there looked like a Love Island contestant – an impression I later learned wasn't entirely inaccurate (there were several reality TV stars present). In fact, several people I interviewed looked offended when I asked their names, as though I should already have known who they were. I'm sorry, but I simply do not care about reality television, which is frivolous nonsense – come back to me when you've published a book-length essay with Fitzcarraldo Editions.
Everyone there was expensively-dressed and attractive and, most infuriatingly of all, completely benign. Walking into a situation where you feel uncomfortable and saying "everyone here is a cunt" is a handy comfort blanket, but the people I spoke to were so friendly that I couldn't even do that.
My inferiority and superiority complexes were raging inside me: compared to everyone around me, I felt pasty, scrawny and under-dressed. The only consolation I could offer myself was that at least I was being paid to be there, unlike the rest of these outrageously attractive schmucks.
The queue at the bar was interminably long. I seethed with resentment at the harried and presumably underpaid hospitality worker who I perceived to be taking an unfairly long time to serve me (didn't he know that I'm a journaliste?).
I'd only been there an hour and already the experience had changed me, profoundly, for the worse. I ordered three cocktails to drink for myself, but getting drunk only bored me further. Someone ought to write a novel about experiencing ennui in a supposedly glamorous setting – it's a fascinating theme.
I also assumed the night would have more of a stoner vibe (Ignite is primarily a cannabis company, after all) but no one there corresponded with the stereotype I have of people who smoke weed – they'd all left the house for a start, and nobody had Tangfastic sugar all over their hands.
I don't know what I was expecting – people wearing harem pants or a UK hip-hop set or an open-air cinema playing Trailer Park Boys, perhaps – but it wasn't like that at all.
Maybe Instagram influencers as a demographic are too ambitious to enjoy getting high. Mind you, everyone I spoke to saw CBD as an entirely separate entity to weed – which is a fair analysis: although it's derived from the cannabis plant, it's not psychoactive and doesn't get you high.
Conceptualising it as something wholesome and clean, they told me it had made a real difference with their anxiety, or acne, or various injuries. It's been suggested that the quantities of CBD are so low in many available CBD products that "CBD", as the consumer experiences it, is effectively a placebo. But listening to these people rave about it – with what seemed like real sincerity – made me think it doesn't really matter if it is.
Bored of waiting for Bilzerian to arise from his slumber, my photographer and I headed down to the dance floor, where I stuffed my face with whatever canapés I could. Although everyone we asked was happy to have their photo taken, they were less keen when asked if I could jump in. Perhaps getting papped with a skinhead whose mouth is smeared with salmon soufflé isn't a great look if you're a wellness influencer.
By this stage I was quite pissed, and when the DJ dropped "Bitch Better Have My Money", I'm afraid to say I absolutely lost my mind. I'd wager I was having at least 50 percent more fun than anyone else there, but, unfortunately, I screamed the line "PAY ME WHAT YOU OWE ME!" so loudly that my tinnitus flared up and I had a ear-ache for the rest of the night.
After a while, it was time for the interview. But when my photographer and I arrived at the terrace, we found it eerily deserted; the lights dimmed and the bar closed down. We sat down and bickered about what to do next. Our predicament began to take on an existential edge. In a larger, and perhaps metaphorical sense, aren't we all waiting to be admitted entry to Dan Bilzerian's penthouse?
Twenty minutes later, the PR texted us to meet in the lobby, before heading up to Bilzerian's hotel room – which was as blandly luxurious as you'd expect, with the only distinguishing features being a cow skin throne and a machine that turned you into a GIF.
We made for a strange group: there was us, a couple of other journalists and photographers, and then seven glamorous young women who were being led around to be photographed. I wasn't sure what their deal was, but later learned that some of them are signed to Ignite's modelling wing and had been flown out from the States for the occasion.
I was intrigued by this arrangement. On the one hand they're employees attending a work event in a professional capacity, which isn't that deep. But Bilzerian's branding of himself as a 21st century Hugh Hefner did make me wonder: did any of them like him? Or did they simply see this as an opportunity for a paid holiday?
The latter is completely understandable. If a 39-year-old multimillionaire invited me on an all-expenses-paid trip to LA, to a party where a woman dressed as Mary, Queen of Scots vaped at you as you entered, I'd accept the offer faster than you could see it happening.
It has to be said, Bilzerian and the models had absolutely zero banter as they posed together – there was no warmth, no Benny Hill-style frolicking. But he was polite enough to the rest of us, if slightly gruff. I was in his room for all of ten minutes, mostly loitering in the background, and I don’t pretend to have gained any penetrating insight into his character. But before I arrived, I really did harbour fantasies of hitting Bilzerian with some hard-ball questions, ideally getting dragged from the penthouse and having a rib broken by one of his bodyguards in doing so.
I imagined I would confront him about the sexist marketing of Ignite's products in the States, or demand to know whether he thought there was something unfair in profiting from the cannabis industry when there are so many people, disproportionately black and latinx, incarcerated in the States for minor drug offences. Watch your back, Louis Theroux: there's a dogged young interviewer snapping at your heels – and he hasn't come to play!
In the event, I only had two minutes, and I'm ashamed to say that I absolutely shat it. I made some lame joke about posing for a photo sitting on his lap, then asked the most innocuous question imaginable: "What do you think are the health benefits of CBD?" In a bored tone, he reeled off a few of the classics: anxiety, insomnia, physical pain. I left the penthouse with my ribs intact but my sense of personal integrity irrevocably damaged. I'd been granted access to Eden, at long last, but I'd failed to find the answers I was searching for.
I had to get up early for work the next morning and, having stayed for two extra hours and drinking more than I'd intended, I was beginning to feel anxious. This was the perfect opportunity to try out CBD's supposedly relaxing qualities.
Rummaging through the gift bag I'd been handed earlier, I found a CBD vape and began to puff on it. Please CBD, I begged, chill me the fuck out. Did it work? Kind of. The mere act of doing it had the intended effect, to an extent. But the following Sunday, when I was feeling properly anxious after a heavy night, I tried the vape again and I can conclusively say that it did fuck all – placebo or otherwise.
The following day I spoke with Dr Maria di Forti, a psychiatrist at King's College London who specialises in the relationship between cannabis and psychosis. She expressed some hope that CBD could be a useful mental health treatment, while remaining sceptical about some of the grander claims being made on its behalf.
"My concern," she said, "is this over-optimistic view that CBD is side-effect free and totally safe. There is still a lot we need to understand about it and its pharmacology, along with a lot of pressure from commercial companies to convince us all that it can cure anything."
The testimony of everyone who claims that CBD works for them is valid and should be taken into account. But many of its purported benefits are yet to be proven, and we shouldn't imagine that the companies peddling it are motivated by altruism. I hate to be the one to tell you this, but Dan Bilzerian doesn't care about your mum's arthritis, bro.
As for attending a PR party for a product I don't care about, surrounded by people I both envy and despise, I'll chalk that up as an experience I will almost certainly do again the next time the opportunity arises.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.