Is that Stella McCartney you’re wearing? Well. One has to start somewhere when Jackie Siegel, the billionaire extraordinaire star of The Queen of Versailles arrives out of the blue at the documentary’s Zurich Film Festival gala premiere at Arena Multiplex Cinema, taking her seat in row 8.
Oh you know, she says in a voice that sounds like perfectly matured bourbon poured slowly over ice cubes, the handbag is Chanel and the shoes are Versace. I love Versace. But I like to mix expensive and cheap. I like to drop into Wal-Mart for jeans.
This is, in a nutshell, the fascinatingly contradictory personality that is Jackie Siegel. To describe her life as stranger than fiction steering towards the surreal would be an understatement.
Jacqueline Solomon was born into a working class family in the upstate New York town of Binghampton. She got a degree in engineering but swapped a career at IBM for a more lucrative one in modelling. When things went less lucrative, she washed bodies for $ 3.25 an hour and worked at a cocktail bar. In 1993, the leggy blonde became Mrs. Florida. She met and wed David ‘king of timeshare’ Siegel, a man 31 years her senior. It was her second marriage and his third.
On their honeymoon, they happened to stop over in Zurich. We didn’t get to see much of the city, Jackie confides, while I’m taking her pictures, because we spent most of the time in the hotel room. Such candour! Hardly two minutes into smalltalk! Wow, this is rare. Especially with a celebrity. Especially with one from the U.S., where every minor starlet comes armed with a mini-armada of publicists, agents and lawyers, whose job it is to shield you off their client’s private lives and personal thoughts at all costs. All 43-years-old Jackie is armed with tonight is her mink coat, a bottle of water, and an extremely good sense of humour. I begin to like her. Real big.
Anyway. Jackie loves cameras. And the cameras love her. Flirty, dishy, candid, ultra-rich yet super-accessible – Jackie Siegel is pure reality TV gold. Luckily, her potential wasn’t spotted by the production team of Keeping up with the Kardashians, but by renowned photographer and filmmaker Lauren Greenfield at a Donatella Versace party in 2007 (Jackie was reportedly one of the best costumers). The two of them got on and the Siegels opened their doors to Greenfield, giving her intimate access to their American dream fantasy world over the stretch of two years.
Picture a 26’0000 sq ft mansion near Orlando, Florida, 7 kids (plus an adopted teenage niece of Jackie’s), house staff of 19 and numerous white, fluffy lapdogs. Interiors stuffed with pastiched vanity portraits of themselves, often in historical costumes, museum-sized cabinets of antiques, often still wrapped-up and boxed, exercise machines, not so often used, and leftover fast food. Such is the display of garish opulence and nouveau-riche excess, the Siegel home easily outblings the wildest kitsch-fantasies the artist Jeff Koons could ever come up with. It is not enough. David decides to build the country’s largest private home because I could. The 90,000 sq ft palace, a Vegas version of Versailles, is to boast 30 bathrooms, 10 kitchens, two tennis courts, a baseball diamond, an ice-skating rink, a bowling alley, as well as an entire wing for the kids.
Thankfully, financial crisis hits early in the film. The Siegel vanity portrait cracks to the point it hurts. David is forced to sell a substantial stake of his business empire, lay-off staff and put Versailles on sale. We’re spared no details. The white fluffy dogs relieve themselves and no-one picks up the turds. David holes himself up in his home office – a tiny room with a couch in front of a flat screen surrounded by papers and scraps of food. The kids fly commercial for the first time in their lives and are told they might one day actually go to university to earn a living. All the while, Jackie teeters around in signature high-heels and predatory print bodycons, trying to keep the family from going completely dysfunctional. Although she manages to restrict her compulsive shopping habits to the occasional bulk-buying spree at Wal-Mart, or a trip to Mc Donalds in the stretch-limo, there’s no hiding from the fact, basic domestic skills are not Jackie’s strong point. I’ve got to see the movie to see what’s going on in my life… I live in this fantasy world, you know Jackie confesses in one of the film’s closing scenes.
Despite its strong Realsatire moment, the documentary doesn’t point the finger at its protagonists. Jackie and David Siegel amaze, overwhelm, horrify, captivate, all at once and in equal measure. As we follow the billionaire-couple’s descent from American dream into the wilderness of reality, it’s hard not to feel sympathetic. The way they battle it out against all odds, their candour and courage to expose themselves to the potential knives of the public, deserve respect. Getting rich and bling it is, after all, a vital part of American culture. Everybody wants to be rich, David Siegel at one point reflects on why people want to buy timeshares, If they can’t be rich, the next best thing is to feel rich. If they don’t want to feel rich, then they are probably dead. In that sense, the Siegels only hold up a mirror to their contemporaries in the U.S., and elsewhere.
Back at the Zurich multiplex, Jackie is an instant hit with the audience. They urge her to join Lauren Greenfield on stage, which is a first (Jackie regularly supports the director at festival screenings). Afterwards, teenage kids and their parents come up for a chat. Jackie happily talks kids and family stuff with them. People just can’t get enough of Mrs. Siegel. This is pretty amazing, considering this is a country whose inhabitants are from birth conditioned into conspicuous modesty and understatement.
I think what makes Jackie Siegel so appealing, is the fact she’s one of those very rare breed of people who are completely free of pretense and whose characters are not corrupted by wealth and fame. There’s absolutely no difference between onscreen and offscreen Jackie. Yes, she might be an excessive materialist whose life is more than a billion bucks apart from most people, but her genuine down-to-earth quality and openness are equally excessive.
One final question: What makes you happy?
Making other people happy
At the exit, everyone is handed out a chocolate box. Except for Jackie, who claims three.