Malaysian-born Wharton grad Jho Low was perhaps best known for his love of partying with celebrities. He was said to drop hundreds of thousands on the regular and even millions if he was out and determined to impress a starlet like Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, or Miranda Kerr. In the parlance of casino and nightclub operators, where big spenders are often referred to as “whales,” Low was the biggest whale Las Vegas, Saint Tropez, and New York had ever encountered. A mastermind behind a state-owned Malaysian investment fund known as 1MDB, the US Department of Justice has claimed in a civil-forfeiture action that Low helped siphon off billions from the fund through fraudulent deals and complex money laundering. (Low, who has been criminally indicted in Malaysia, has denied all allegations of wrongdoing, and even set up a website to defend himself.)
What we do know is that he and those close to him bought things like a $35 million private jet, equity in music labels like EMI, masterpieces by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Monet and van Gogh, a $250 million super-yacht, a penthouse in New York’s Time Warner Center, and the Beverly Hills hotel Viceroy L’Ermitage. He even appears to have helped arrange financing for Leonardo DiCaprio's The Wolf of Wall Street through Red Granite Pictures. With the kind of money Low was throwing around, he was well past living the lifestyle of the rich and famous. At the moment when everything began falling apart, he was in talks to do some pretty big deals—including buying a big stake in the fashion label Tom Ford. He was also getting closer to the halls of political power in the US and becoming interested in that kind of influence globally. It's hard to imagine where he'd be now had the whole thing not come crashing down.
In their new book Billion Dollar Whale: The Man Who Fooled Wall Street, Hollywood, and the World, Wall Street Journal reporters Tom Wright and Bradley Hope paint a picture of Low's lifestyle and what it portends for the global financial system, Hollywood, and corporate America. It's a world where big banks like Goldman Sachs and heads of state get wrapped up in shady deals even they probably do not fully comprehend—until they come back to bite them. VICE talked to the authors to find out how Low cultivated an image as a billionaire and got in with the one percent, what his story says about the elite and high society of the world, and why law enforcement can't catch the alleged swindler.
VICE: Low’s upbringing is interesting, because it's not like this is a rag-to-riches story. How important do you think his background socioeconomically was to his alleged scheming?
Tom Wright: He comes from a wealthy family—definitely millionaires—but much poorer than the billionaire class he aspired to enter. His father, Larry, took a stake in a garment company, but was known in Malaysia as a petty fraudster. Low grew up in a mansion and saw his father’s partying ways, which involved flying in Swedish models for one celebration on a yacht. He also learned about offshore shell companies from his father. He had two older siblings, a brother and a sister, and Larry had high aspirations for his clan. He sent Low to [the elite] Harrow [School in London], where he mingled with Asian and Middle Eastern royalty and got to know the stepson of Malaysia’s future prime minister, Najib Razak. He longed to become a true member of that class, and he succeeded.
When they saw Kate Upton on a boat, they were hooked by Low.—Tom Wright
That success was largely just about cultivating an image as a billionaire rather than being one, right?
Bradley Hope: Giving the impression that he was rich and could make you rich and that he had a lot of rich friends was a critical component of Jho's whole way of doing business. Even as a kid, he would take steps to make himself appear richer than he was. In one great example, he borrowed a big yacht from a friend of his father's and changed some of the pictures to his own family to give the impression to friends at Harrow visiting during the summer that it was the Low family yacht. At Penn, he threw a splashy party at a club, but unbeknownst to attendees he stiffed the owner on the bill for months and only paid a fraction of the total in the end. We see him as the ultimate stage manager: He would think everything out down to the types of flowers on the tables and which drinks' glasses would be available.
What does Low’s story really tell us about high society and the elite of the post-financial-crisis world?
Wright: Everything is for sale! Even actors, models, bankers and businessmen worth tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars need (or want) more money. For example, Miranda Kerr made $7 million the year before she began dating Low. But that’s not enough to live on a $250 million super yacht and throw champagne-drenched parties on the French Riviera. DiCaprio was wealthy beyond measure but was enticed by Low’s promises of $400 million in film financing, including to make The Wolf of Wall Street, at a time when Warner Brothers didn't want to finance the film. That’s not the kind of money the actor could command. The world of the 0.1 percent is also extremely small—once Low was in it, he was able to move from one person to the next. In fact, he was one of the most skillful networkers the world has ever seen. He would size up someone’s use to him and leverage it. He used his friendships with Hollywood stars to entice Arab businessmen into deals. When they saw Kate Upton on a boat, they were hooked by Low.
Right, but what made him so able to glide through this world without detection while presenting such an outsized image?
Hope: For celebrities and musicians, it was about money. He had friends in the nightclub world and elsewhere who could "arrange" for celebrities to hang out with him or attend his parties for a fee. Some of them grew into friends or even business associates. For example, Swizz Beatz saw him as more than someone who paid fees—he saw Jho as a buiness opportunity and helped inspire Jho to try and buy Reebok from Adidas. That deal was pretty far along, but ultimately was scuppered by the explosion of the scandal in 2015. The bankers were also interested in Jho for money, primarily earning fees from transactions and deals. Many of his friends in the Middle East were excited to be involved in deals, too, but they also loved the lifestyle of being around Jho, especially the celebrities and supermodels.
In the book, you compare Low to The Great Gatsby. That's a bit much, no?
Wright: Both The Great Gatsby and Billion Dollar Whale are set in times of extreme wealth inequality. In the Roaring Twenties, the stock market made a chosen few extremely wealthy. Today, you could argue, it is access to trillions of dollars in investment funds, whether hedge funds, private equity funds, or, in Low’s case, sovereign wealth funds. Those who master this universe have access to boundless wealth, and can recreate their identities. Jay Gatsby was poor, and Low was from a fairly wealthy family. But like Gatsby, he saw wealth and glamorous parties as a way to vault himself into a more rarified world.
Where Jay Gatsby was looking to earn Daisy Buchanan's affections, Low yearned to be close to celebrities like Paris Hilton. In the 20s, Old Money still held a sway over Gatsby, but Low cared more about celebrity. There’s another similarity: Nick Carraway describes Jay Gatsby as “the single most hopeful person I have ever met,” and that’s exactly the defining characteristic of Low. To carry out such an amazing fraud, you have to believe in yourself. Even now, Low is sending messages from his hiding spot in China, offering to help out the Malaysian government in negotiations to recover the money. And he’s used lawyers in London and New York to attempt to stop the publication of Billion Dollar Whale. It hasn’t worked.
Why can’t law enforcement catch him?
Hope: Law enforcement in multiple countries have built and are building cases against him and many others, but we don't know exactly what they're planning. [If] he's in China, it's not easy to extradite him unless the Chinese government decides its a good idea. That might be more tricky because Jho has told associates he's been "working with Chinese intelligence" and has a measure of protection from the Beijing government. We believe Jho Low is in China, possibly Hong Kong, Shenzhen or Macau.
As the scandal came tumbling down starting in 2015, many of his contacts started talking to each other for the first time and they realized everyone was told a different story. And it turns out from some of the court documents, that Jho may have been pretending to be people in e-mail exchanges at times, too. We're not saying he has no genuine side to him, but it's clear that Jho is a man of many plans and he's always working on them. Even at nightclubs at the peak of his partying, he'd be off in the corner taking calls. Today, he travels around with seven or eight phones and sends messages from them like he's playing the piano. It's hard to get his sole attention.
When was Low last seen?
Wright: There was a rumor last week he was drinking wine in Hong Kong. Malaysia’s government says it knows for sure that he is in China, and they are negotiating to get him sent back. We last had a firm idea of his location in July, when he was moving between Macau, Hong Kong and Shenzhen, staying at apartments and Marriott hotels. He was trying to buy a boat and moor it at the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club, which his wife joined. He lost his $250 million superyacht Equanimity when it was seized by Indonesian authorities, but he’s been trying to buy a new, smaller yacht, possibly as a last-ditch escape route.
He appears to be protected by China. Low helped negotiate a number of dodgy infrastructure deals last year between China and Malaysia, from which money was allegedly stolen. The idea seems to have been to use the cash to fill holes in Low’s scheme and to pay off unknown enablers in China. Then his patron, former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, lost power in May elections and was subsequently arrested. The new government wants to cancel the infrastructure projects and has charged Low in absentia for money laundering. But Beijing could be worried that Low knows too much about some senior Chinese officials, and that’s why he’s been able to remain there incognito.