The Art of Storytelling
I was intrigued by this post I came across via PSFK on how to open a nightclub. They missed one point which is key to opening a great club, but also to creating any kind of brand; you need to have a good back-story. Nobody understood this more completely than Regine Zylberberg, one of the world’s first DJs, and a pioneer of what would become the modern nightclub.
Born in Belgium in 1929, as a teenager Regine had spent part of the war hiding in a French convent before reuniting with her family in Paris, where she began working as a hostess at her fatherâ€™s bistro. â€œThat was where my ambition began,â€ she recalls. â€œIt was a working-class Jewish cafe with all sorts of people passing through. I said to myself: I want a place where I get to choose who comes in. I wanted counts and dukes – people with titles.â€
After a spell selling bras on street corners and working as a scullery maid, 23 year old Regine began working at one of Parisâ€™ first discotheques, Whiskey Ã¡ Go-Go, in 1953. She quickly earned a reputation as a â€œfast-living, fun-loving girl about town. She could dance and sing, and she had great legsâ€ the BBCâ€™s roving eye later observed. Her enchanting presence attracted Parisian playboys, princes and members of the Rothschilds banking family, and she quickly became the clubâ€™s main attraction.
But she wasnâ€™t just a pretty face. She had some ideas for the club, and began to experiment. â€œI laid down a linoleum dance-floor, put in colored lights and removed the juke-box. The trouble with a juke-box was that when the music stopped you could hear the people snogging in the corners. Instead I installed two turntables so there was no gap in the musicâ€ she recounted to AFP years later.
Regine became so well known that when Whiskey Ã¡ Go-Go opened a second venue in Parisâ€™ Latin Quarter, locals referred to it simply as â€˜Chez Regine.â€™ She intrinsically understood how to make a club feel special. Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton highlight one example of her flair for innovation in Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: â€œWhen a new Whiskey club in Cannes began to slump, Pacini sent his bright young hostess to save it. Regine knew the value of hype. For a month she would dutifully open the doors at 10.30pm and promptly put up a â€˜DISCO FULLâ€™ sign. People were regularly turned away as the empty cacophony of the club echoed outside. The day she opened for real, the place was mobbed.â€
Regine struck out on her own in 1958, when her pals the Rothchilds financed her first official Chez Regine venue. Princesses, socialites and those who wanted to rub shoulders with them flocked to the place. Bottles of liquor were sold at a premium rather than just single cocktails. The cast of West Side Story breezed in one evening, and taught France the twist. â€œOne night, I got a call at home from the Duke of Windsor,” she told New York magazine. “He wanted me to come to his house, to teach him the twist. I told him, ‘No. You come to my club – I teach you there.â€
Regine knew her reputation and exotic stories were her brand, so when the stories spread across the world, she soon followed. In 1975 she packed a reported 200 pounds of Louis Vuitton luggage and 800 pairs of shoes onto a steamboat, and headed for New York. She opened a Chez Regine on the ground floor of the Delmonico hotel, now known as Trump Park Avenue, and lived luxuriously in a suite eleven stories above. Before the club was anywhere near open, she had sold more than 2,000 membership cards (which were gold, and came in Cartier cases) for $600 each.
At Chez Regine in New York, even more extreme elitism was enforced. So tough was the door policy, the State Liquor Authority thought about suing her for social discrimination. People were thrown out ruthlessly – the wife of a former Indonesian president tried to sue Regine for $4m after being kicked to the curb for knocking over some wine glasses. She eventually won one French franc.
But the tough policy worked wonders, and Regine was a hit. Her decadent reputation had preceded her and Regine capitalized on it, befriending the jet-set and networking faster than a speeding Concorde. Michael Douglas, Ivana Trump, Julio Iglesias, Bridgette Bardot, Rod Stewart, Joan Collins and Salvador Dali were just a page worthâ€™s of the VIPs in Regineâ€™s little black book. The Jaggers and Onassisâ€™s pow-wowed with the Kennedyâ€™s, while Jack Nicholson and John Gotti partied with Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia. Andy Warhol was showing up every night to tape everything, and he later painted Regineâ€™s portrait. Federico Fellini gave her with a twelve-foot boa constrictor, which she kept as a pet.
Chez Regine became a spiritual home to 1980s greed and hedonism as celebrities and hangers-on flocked to her opulent theme nights. At her famous white party, a spotless carpet as pure as the driven cocaine was rolled out, blanketing the sidewalk in luxury. Stories of Chez Regine spread beyond the velvet rope, and this was no accident – it was a branding exercise. Its exclusive walls and the mysterious French glamour-puss who held court within were perfect tabloid fodder. â€œOrder a drink and be prepared to close out your bank accountâ€ a 1982 guidebook advised. â€œOnce, I flew with her to Paris on the Concorde, and she was the only person I ever saw who didn’t have to show her passport at Customs,â€ Diane Von Furstenberg told New York magazine. “It was just, Bonjour, Madame Regine.â€ The New York Post crowned Regine â€˜the queen of the night.â€™ The title stuck.
But Paris and New York were not enough. Regine wanted the world. She expanded her empire until she had 25 franchises on three continents. By the early 1980s there were branches in Rio de Janeiro, Saint-Tropez, Santiago, Cairo, Kuala Lumpur, Monte Carlo and London, not to mention cafes, a clothing label, three fragrance lines, a magazine, dancercise classes and Regine-sponsored cruises on the QE2. At her peak, the queen of the night was grossing $500m a year. Regine became a celebrity in her own right, landing acting roles in Hollywood and recording a version of Gloria Gaynor’s â€˜I Will Survive,â€™ which was a smash hit in France.
But as the eighties wore on, Regineâ€™s star began to fade, and the empireâ€™s shoulder pads began to sag. Studio 54 and its topless waiters promised even further extremes of sex, drugs and rock and roll, and the crowds at Regine began to dwindle. By the time Gordon Gecko had been arrested and the early-nineties recession hit, Regine had closed its doors altogether. Her sparkle eclipsed by a changing world, the queen of the night returned to France.
Of course, she survived just like she said she would. The empire was chopped up and sold off long ago, but Regine is still releasing albums, appearing on French TV and writing memoirs. She still operates Jimmyâ€™z in Monaco, where celebrities and Eurotrash to this day clamor to enjoy cocktails starting at $40 a pop.
The queen of the night has an important lesson for us. If sharing is going to take over the world, and everything is to have a free substitute, the only way to compete is on the strength of your story. When Regine took over Whiskey Ã¡ Go-Go, it was one of several boozy Parisian jazz bars. Because she created a story behind the name, the name lives on today. Using the same formula, countless businesses trade in luxury and illusions of grandeur.
Regine sold exclusivity. She made it perfectly clear her brand was the best of the best, strictly for the elite, but she sold this story to everyone. She understood the cult of celebrity a long time before the rest of us, and used it to build an empire. But the celebrity game changed. She can today be seen mucking in on Celebrity Farm, Franceâ€™s most popular reality television show.
Celebrities arenâ€™t quite as glamorous as they once were, because itâ€™s easier to become one. They no longer seem a world apart like rock stars did to punk bands. It is clear the power is with us, the consumers. We buy ideas from people like Regine who become brands, to tell a story about who we are as people.
Brands have become central to our lives, but what we buy is the stories that come with them. Nightclubs sell experiences, but these days, so does everyone else. In a world of free substitutes, meaning is the only way to differentiate. We need door policies. We need good stories. We need people like Regine.