All photos of Gatecrasher Ball parties by the author
Three decades ago, you couldn't go anywhere in West London without hearing the name Eddie Davenport. The cool-kid millionaire who wore Armani suits and drove the latest BMW, Davenport wasn't like the other rich kids in town. Though he came from a respectable, upper-middle class background, he wasn't a chinless sloan with a trust fund. Davenport was a self-made success in the new economy, a Thatcherite enigma, and social icon who epitomized the entrepreneurial spirit of the 1980s. What's not to like about that?
He started very young. Educated at Frensham Heights, a boarding school in the English countryside, Davenport failed his exams and crammed for his retakes at Mander Portman Woodward (MPW) in South Kensington, a tutorial college for wealthy students cramming for retakes. It was here that he spotted an exclusive gap in the market: rich kids looking to party.
At 20 years old, Davenport started a company, Gatecrasher Ltd, with friend Jeremy Taylor and began to organize lavish black tie functions for wealthy teenagers called the Gatecrasher Balls.
I first heard about them in 1986. Davenport was staging an event at one of London's most beautiful venues, the Kensington Roof Gardens, and lots of would-be rich kids from my school, Holland Park Comprehensive, had bought tickets. They turned up in black ties and ball gowns, only to be turned away. The venue was full to capacity. Davenport had sold too many tickets. The cops busted the event and shut it down. Lots of drunken teens were left crying in taffeta and tuxes on the cold paving stones of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.
I finally met him in 1987 when I was working as a teenage correspondent for Punch magazine (where, full disclosure, my dad was the arts editor). I saw him walking along Kings Road one sunny day. He was thin, very thin. Light gray double-breasted suit, gelled back hair, smile like a Halloween skull. I knew the guy he was with and homed in for an introduction. He gave me a part-time job, taking photos at the Gatecrasher Balls. At age 17, I thought the gig would be one big, long, Gatsby mansion romance where simplicity of heart would be its own ticket of admission. Boy, was I wrong.
The Terror Ball. The Pimm's Ball. The Country Ball. The Maniac Ball. The Pumpkin Ball. The Titanic Ball. The Snowman Ball. The Valentine's Ball. Gatecrasher functions were classy affairs, chock-full of bodies boozing, making out, fucking, snorting, puking. Being a paparazzo at these events was tough; while snapping photos of the bright young things, you were always at risk of being tackled at any point by Jono and the rest of the Eton rugby team.
Pop music and chart toppers came via "Alexander's Discotheque"—a fat, posh DJ shouting down the mic, "Step those toes and clap those hands!" Not exactly Studio 54. Meanwhile, the Ruperts and Georginas, the Tamsins and Rorys were murdering the dance floor with two left feet on a purple carpet of snakebite puke and Marlboro cigarette butts. Wealthy English people are said to be repressed; not at a Gatecrasher Ball.
I'd been tasked to shoot Tatler-style party portraits: round-faced girls and their barbered partners showing dimples to the lens. Some hope. Even if I could find a couple sober enough to smile for the camera I would have to step over hundreds of teenagers dry humping and making out on the carpeted floors. What photographer could resist that underfoot temptation?
Pretty soon the Gatecrasher Balls became a £250,000 ($375,000) per annum money train. But Eddie, always the center of attention, presumably had a motive for staging them other than profit. The girls from the most notable families in the land were at every party, and despite all those 1980s fears about AIDS and dying of ignorance in a cesspit of your own making, people weren't anywhere near as restrained as they were told they should be.
Of course, all good things come to an end. For me, it was the Country Ball held at Littlecote House one week after the Hungerford Massacre—one of the worst shooting atrocities in English history, when Michael Ryan went on a rampage and shot dead 16 people—in 1987. The turnout there was the lowest of the season.
Every season, however, brought a fresh crop of venturesome, hormonally-raging boarding school kids, and the Gatecrasher parties limped along for another couple of years. Then the taxman came to talk to Davenport about not paying VAT on ticket sales. Davenport said it was just a misunderstanding and he was a kid who didn't know what he was doing. The jury didn't buy it. The judge sent him down for nine months in November of 1990, before an appeal led to a suspended sentence. At 24, this was Eddie's first custodial sentence for fraud. The second would come 21 years later, in 2011, after he was found guilty of advance fee fraud and sentenced to seven years and eight months in prison, before being released in May of 2014 on grounds of ill health.
That's the rise and fall of the Gatecrasher Balls. Fantastic. Fun. Unprecedented. Still remembered with affectionate shock and awe. Will Eddie Davenport make another comeback? In the years between the Gatecrasher heyday and now, he has been a property magnate and sex party host, but he hasn't lost that eagle eye for an opportunity. As for the people in these pictures, they are probably all parents by now. If Davenport were to reboot the Gatecrasher Balls, they would be advised to lock up their daughters. And their sons, too.
See more photos from the Gatecrasher Balls below: