Sin City with snow: secrets of Toronto’s VIP club scene

Sin City with snow: secrets of Toronto’s VIP club scene

When hip-hop and NBA stars want a good time, they call party queen Mona Halem. Inside a decadent world of $700 champagne, secret guest lists and hordes of beautiful women

Toronto's Party Queen Mona Halem at Uniun nightclub in March

On a Monday night last August, half the hip-hop world showed up unannounced in Toronto: Lil Wayne, P. Diddy, Kanye West, Big Sean, French Montana, Mase, TLC. All had agreed to perform as surprise guests at Drake’s annual concert, OVO Fest, which, like all things Drake, has become wildly successful. The ability to produce a roster of acts that reads like a fantasy Grammy lineup speaks to Drake’s clout, but the secrecy involved presented a practical problem: with no advance notice, nobody had organized an after-party. For this group of career ballers, it was a rare case of all blinged out and nowhere to go. Even Drizzy, who lives in Toronto for at least part of the year, was at a loss. Then someone suggested the obvious: call Mona.

Mona Halem throws parties—the kind of parties that make regular people feel like they’re in a music video, perhaps because real music video stars always show up. The kind of parties where rich guys “lose” their wedding rings, pretty girls “forget” their wallets and everyone dances in a haze of champagne fizz and fake tan, strobe lights and hookah vapour. Halem runs a company called Lady Luck Entertainment. She is an event planner, a 24-hour concierge, a VIP hostess and a hustler. She has thousands of Facebook friends and Instagram followers who never miss her events. Notable among these regulars is a group of women—known in the city’s nightlife world as “Mona’s girls”—who are pretty and interested in meeting the high rollers who populate Halem’s parties. Over the last decade, she has amassed an enviable contact list of VIP clients—athletes and celebrities who call her up when they’re coming to town, which is why her big parties often ­coincide with visits from marquee players or teams.

The night of OVO Fest, Halem was already scheduled to throw a Caribana party on the rooftop patio of the Queen West nightclub Cube. Cube is one of nine clubs owned by Charles Khabouth, the city’s long-reigning nightlife king—its second-storey rooftop, decorated with potted palms and long, low-slung cabana-style sofas, is the site of many of the summer’s most exclusive events. Two hours after Halem found out that Drake wanted to make her party his after-party, he arrived with his entourage and immediately asked for 10 bottles of Armand de Brignac “Ace of Spades” champagne at $700 apiece. Not to be outdone, Diddy grabbed the menu, ripped it in half and ordered one of everything. Later, he literally swung from the rafters while a sea of women competed to catch his eye. Outside, a mob of 500 people tried to push past security, and cops on horseback redirected streetcars because 20 limos had turned Queen into a parking lot. Before the end of the night, the club ran out of champagne.

Toronto's Party Queen Last summer, Drake, Kanye, P. Diddy and other ­hip-hop royalty attended a Mona Halem party at the Queen West nightclub Cube

The party was instantly legendary—and proof that Toronto the Good had become Toronto the Good Time. American VIPs love to party here because it’s close to home but a world away.

What happens here actually stays here, since Toronto is largely free of the paparazzi and gossip media that make cavorting under the radar almost impossible in large U.S. cities.

American athletes mark visits to Toronto on their calendars because they know it’s going to be a wild time. In 2010, Jason Whitlock, a journalist with Fox Sports, dubbed Toronto “White Vegas”—Sin City with snow—and the nickname stuck. The same year, Michael Grange, a Globe and Mail writer, claimed Chris Bosh’s stats were effectively inflated because visiting teams were always hungover after attending Halem’s parties. Bosh has since moved to Miami, but the party scene that left his opponents cotton-mouthed and bleary-eyed has only escalated since his departure. The Raptors’ win-loss record continues to benefit from early Sunday games. A Saturday night in Toronto is too much to resist.

Toronto's Party Queen From left: Halem with Drake; with Snoop Dogg (top); with Miami Heat’s LeBron James (Photographs courtesy Lady Luck Entertainment)

When the Raptors played their first NBA games in 1995, visiting athletes hated coming here—border security checks were a hassle; our weather sucked and so did the nightlife. That changed with Vince Carter, who was a blessing both in terms of our playoff prospects and our reputation. American teams were keen to take on Toronto’s dunk savant, and Carter showed his love for the city in 2001 by investing in a Richmond Street nightclub called Inside, which quickly became the place to party with pro athletes. Mona Halem launched Lady Luck Entertainment the same year.

Halem grew up in Windsor in a large Egyptian-Canadian family and moved to Aurora as a teenager. She enrolled at York to study math and computer science, and aspired to be an orthodontist. At night, she partied. “I was always going out,” she told me. “People would always be asking me ‘What’s going on tonight? Where should we go?’ I figured I might as well try to make some money doing it.” She started small, collaborating with a promoter at a tiny nightclub at Richmond and John. She built up a guest list, making friends and collecting email addresses. At that point, much of the nightlife scene was stuck in the glow-stick clutches of rave culture, and few clubs played hip hop and R&B. She made urban music her specialty.

Toronto's Party Queen From left: Halem with the Brooklyn Nets’ Paul Pierce; with the New York Knicks’ J. R. Smith; with the Indiana Pacers’ Paul George (Photographs courtesy Lady Luck Entertainment)

Before she became a nightlife queen, Halem worked as a ticket seller at the ACC, which is where she made most of her important initial connections. Whenever she met a player, she’d promise to put him on her personal guest list. It wasn’t a tough sell: she was pretty and friendly, and young American players who didn’t know anything about the city wanted somewhere to go after games. She forged a relationship with the Raptor Jalen Rose, who offered to DJ one of her parties and bring his friends.

To keep the ball players happy, Halem made sure there were lots of good-looking, available women at her parties. “This was the height of the bling era,” says one NBA talent manager I spoke with. “Girls would walk into the room and meet guys covered in gold chains and holding four or five bottles. Mona was like the millionaire matchmaker.” As her parties became more popular, star players like Allen ­Iverson, Steve Nash and Shaq started showing up. It was mostly NBA players, but also baseball and football players, and some actors and musicians. The actor Stephen Dorff hosted a Lady Luck party in 2005. P. Diddy showed up at one the following year. Even people outside the city knew about Toronto’s exploding party scene and the woman who was making it happen.

Toronto's Party Queen Halem with Steve Nash, fifth from right (Photographs courtesy Lady Luck Entertainment)

Last February, Halem took me to a ­Raptors game. Our tickets were for seats that Raptors and visiting players give out to their friends. She long ago gave up her ACC job but is still a regular at the stadium. Everybody there knows her—not just the basketball players, but the sketchy ticket scalper out front, the security dudes, the ushers and the TFC star Dwayne De ­Rosario, who tells Halem he’s leaving for training camp the next day. He’ll be in touch, he says, when he’s back in town—to “see what’s coming up.” Like most people who understand the value of relationship building, Halem connects with everyone. She smiles and waves to some of the regulars sitting around us. The guy who sells snacks in the aisles stops to catch up and compliments her green faux fur vest. “Is that made from a leprechaun?” he asks. “Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha—a leprechaun,” says Halem, “that’s a good one.” Her laugh is loud and staccato—like a machine gun or an ebullient goat. The green vest is new—it came with a matching hat. On the whole, her fashion sense is fly girl ­fabulous—Jennifer Lopez before she got uppity. Her jeans are sparkly and tight, her wedge-heeled boots are Gucci. She has a big smile, bigger hair and a 34-year-old bubble-booty that would make 44-year-old J. Lo jealous.

Notwithstanding the fact that she has half the NBA in her iPhone, Halem isn’t a sports fan. She is far more interested in figuring out who’s sitting in Drake’s courtside seats than what’s happening on the court. It’s nice if the Raptors win, she says, but only because that means they’ll probably go out that night, which is good for business. Last year, Halem put on 18 parties at clubs all over the city—Cube, Muzik, Maison Mercer, Skybar, Dolce, Atelier. She hosted a Canada Day party, five Caribana parties, the launch of a new luxury tequila brand, a TIFF after-party for the movie 1982, a Gatsby-themed New Year’s Eve event, a party for LeBron James, and birthday parties for the Raptors’ dunk champ ­Terrence Ross and the Toronto rapper P. Reign, who is Drake’s best friend.

In some cases, celebrity appearances are official (meaning the famous person is part of the promotion and probably being paid). More often, though, press-weary stars like Justin Bieber and Drake come to party off the clock. Either way, the promised proximity to boldface names helps bring stargazing civilians into clubs. Depending on the size of the venue, Halem often works in ­co-ordination with an in-house events organizer or other freelance promoters. She will usually bring in her own DJ—nightclub celebrities with their own followings. It’s typical for Halem to keep the money from her ticket sales and for the venue to keep profits from the bar. Mike Henry, the events manager at Charles Khabouth’s company Ink Entertainment, says Halem has an intuitive sense of what makes parties work: “Mona will walk into a room and notice immediately that the lighting is too bright or that there aren’t enough servers on the floor. She pays attention to every detail.”

Toronto's Party Queen From left: Halem with Boardwalk Empire’s Michael K. Williams; with the L.A. Clippers Danny Granger (top); with the Detroit Pistons’ Brandon Jennings (Photographs courtesy Lady Luck Entertainment)

Halem and Henry collaborated on the P. Reign party at Cube back in January. The event coincided with the inaugural Drake Night at the ACC, a celebration of his new gig as global ­ambassador for the Raptors. The ambassador position has already brought renewed prestige to the team and will be an even bigger deal when MLSE opens its own nightclub in 2015. The club is rumoured to be slated for a space in the ACC currently used as a Raptors practice court, and the MLSE says Drake will be part of the operation. Halem, who has known Drake since his Degrassi days and still calls him Aubrey, hasn’t been approached yet, but her participation seems inevitable.

“A lot of promoters talk big,” says Khabouth. “But when Mona says Drake is going to be at her party, he shows up.” And he doesn’t show up alone. Drake has stayed tight with his Toronto posse—many of them tour with him or work for him or cling desperately to his coattails. In Toronto, these guys have become micro-­celebrities of the Mona Halem universe, with their own thousands-strong Instagram followings and female groupies. On Drake Night, many of them showed up at Cube, easy to spot in special-issue OVO-branded shirts, jackets and baseball hats. They were the guys ostentatiously swigging from golden champagne bottles. The more-is-more ­philosophy of hip-hop culture is part of what makes these parties so glamorous.

On the night of our ACC date, Halem wasn’t doing an event after the game. She was still working, though, conducting dozens of simultaneous back-and-forths on her iPhone. The parties are the bricks-and-mortar part of Halem’s business, but her work as a round-the-clock personal concierge is what keeps her celebrity clients loyal. They call her to book their beauty appointments, organize their travel, make restaurant reservations, recommend nightclubs and make sure their affairs stay off of the Internet. “People know that if Mona sends you somewhere, it’s going to be safe,” says Peter Palarchio, a marketing manager for Switch, a nightclub on Colborne Lane where Halem recently booked a VIP booth for members of a visiting NBA team. “If you’re a celebrity and you want to go out and not have your photo taken, Mona can take care of that. She’ll deal with the club, make sure there is the appropriate security.” Halem has a profit sharing arrangement with most of the businesses she works with. One industry insider I spoke with estimated that Halem makes 10 per cent of whatever her clients spend. Referrals are essential to her business. Early this year, she got a call from the actress Nia Long, who has appeared in Tyler Perry movies and was in Toronto shooting a pilot for AMC. The two women had never met before, but Long called Halem because she wanted someone to curate her Toronto experience. When the actor Terrence Howard was in Toronto this winter, Halem brought him to a party at Muzik.

She’s aggressively building the Lady Luck brand. Halem also owns a ­handful of income properties, which she rents out to visiting celebs. And she’s working with a designer to market Lady Luck jewellery. The day after our encounter, she was off to St. Maarten with a group of 45 Lady Luck party regulars. Halem organized the travel plans and itinerary, and brought along her go-to DJ (Wikked), whom she booked at a few Caribbean nightclubs. She plans to make the trip into an annual festival for her followers.

Toronto's Party Queen From left: Halem with Sacramento Kings’ Rudy Gay; with the Detroit Pistons’ Josh Smith (Photographs courtesy Lady Luck Entertainment)

At the turn of the millennium, Toronto had maybe a dozen nightclubs that could accommodate crowds of over 500 people. Today we have more than 70. Each room is a product of somebody’s “vision” (French bohemian, Miami chic, industrial gothic). In many ways they are the same—pulsating, shiny, conspicuously resplendent. Most are a little bit cheesy, but then, so is a crowd of 300 Beyoncé wannabes dancing to “Drunk in Love” at two o’clock in the morning. In the last few years, the scene has spilled south, west and east of Club Land. The buzziest venues are generally the new ones, which are often the old ones in new outfits (Cube, for example, is the old Ultra, which used to be Bamboo). Like all club owners, Charles Khabouth is constantly chasing the next big thing. Last summer, he opened the 2,500-capacity Cabana Pool Bar, a South Beach–inspired summer­time party lair where waitresses in white bikinis serve drinks beside an enormous octagonal pool. It’s a place that would have been hard to imagine in Toronto even a few years ago. Justin Bieber spent a day lounging in one of Cabana’s VIP bottle service booths, where the minimum charge is $5,000. The only larger venue in the city is Muzik, a 3,000-capacity nightclub on the CNE grounds. Last summer, Drake made a handful of impromptu DJ appearances at the club. “These guys are spending money like you wouldn’t believe,” says one waitress. “They’ll carry thousands of dollars in cash in their sock.”

Bottle service, which first arrived in Toronto in 2003 at ­Yorkville’s Lobby Bar, changed the way nightclubs operate. Before bottle service, some wannabe hotshot with a credit card might have shown off by buying a round of shots for a group of pretty girls, which would have cost him $60. Today that same guy can drop thousands. The price for a VIP table at most of the high-end Toronto nightclubs runs between $650 and $5,000. That will buy you some booze and a home base and, most of all, it’s a way to put your status on display. Tables are generally booked in advance, credit card info is acquired, and from there, everything that happens in a nightclub is about getting these guys to spend money. Khabouth estimates that 60 per cent of his liquor sales comes from bottle service. It’s the same at most clubs. It was bottle service that brought about the rise of party promoters: once people in the industry ­realized how much money could come from the new system, they opened more clubs, and then they needed people to help fill them.

Party promoters like Halem help keep the nightclub scene fresh by bringing in special guests and DJs, and making sure their high rollers are treated well. If they’re lucky, or good at what they do, they’ll be able to reserve certain nights at a specific venue. Right now, Mondays are dominated by the weekly Black List party in the basement bar at the Thompson Hotel. On Tuesdays, people go to the Everleigh on King West. Wednesdays are big at EFS (also on King). Halem wants to “own” Thursdays with a new weekly party called Citizen, held at Cube.

If bottle service is the financial backbone of the nightlife economy, pretty girls are the bait. They flirt and flatter and sip free ­cocktails, and if the right offer comes along, they’ll keep the party going after hours. The women at the door are hostesses. If they bring in enough customers, they graduate to VIP hostesses or bottle service girls, which means they wait on specific tables. Ostensibly these women are paid to sell and to serve, but really they are there to fulfill a fantasy—to dote and giggle and make every guy in the room feel like he’s Drake. Looking the part is a requirement of the job: a hostess who works at one of the city’s largest clubs says she was reprimanded by a manager because she wasn’t wearing enough makeup. “She told me that the customers aren’t looking for the girl next door,” she says. What they’re looking for is a blow-up sex doll fantasy, which is why these women run around in five-inch heels and corsets pulled so tight they leave bruises. VIP hostesses are encouraged to establish relationships with their regulars—their jobs depend on booking a certain number of tables per month. They’re expected to maintain the illusion that they’re interested in the customers by sending texts, feigning romantic interest, asking when they’ll be coming back. In return, hostesses are lavished with pricy gifts and big tips.

Inside the club, VIP hostesses will often help customers get things that aren’t on the menu. “If someone is looking for drugs, I’ll point them over to the right corner,” the hostess tells me. “There is always somebody there who can help them.” The pro athletes and hip-hop stars won’t ask for anything illicit—­someone in their entourage will do it for them.

Cocaine and MDMA are currently the most popular drugs among nightclubbers. It’s also trendy to consume “G” (GHB), a date-rape drug that has new life as something taken ­recreationally. Partiers mix a small amount into their cocktails or water bottles and sip it through the night. The police stepped up their undercover surveillance of nightclubs last year, in response to violent ­outbursts brought on by drug use and drunkenness. Seven nightclub servers were arrested, some of them charged with permitting controlled substances on the premises. Halem told me she doesn’t condone drugs or any other kind of illegal activity at her events, but concedes that when there are 500 people, you can’t monitor everyone.

Some nightclubs pay women to make sure guys get attention. The money isn’t great—around $125 for four hours—but the fringe benefits are substantial. There’s the free booze, plus the opportunity to mingle and maybe even get a phone number or go back to a hotel room (when Bieber invites girls back to his room, they have to sign a waiver and leave their cellphones in a bag). You can generally spot a paid-to-party girl because, unlike every other person in the club, she isn’t checking her phone (they’re not allowed to) and also because she will never say no to a drink (ditto). A rebuffed drink offer is a good way to kill a guy’s mojo, plus, the more booze that gets poured, the more that needs to be replaced. Above all, these women are forbidden from telling customers they’re ­working.

Many of the women on Halem’s guest list are off-duty paid-to-party girls or ex-­hostesses. Some are aspiring models, and quite a few have Instagram accounts that look like outtakes from a Maxim shoot. Halem collects women wherever she goes. “They latch on to her because they want to meet rich guys,” says a former NBA insider who used to text Halem to organize ladies before the plane had touched down in Toronto. “She would generally know the preferences of the players she had worked with before—some guys want black or white, others are just looking for a big booty.” One VIP hostess told me she frequently serves Halem along with groups of pro athletes and gorgeous women: “When you see that Mona has booked a booth, you know you’re going to have a good night.”

Halem sometimes gets called “the NBA madam” or “­Toronto’s Heidi Fleiss.” At a recent NBA rookie transition camp, recruits were warned by a veteran player that when they play Toronto, they should be wary of people they meet at Halem’s parties. There is a frequently repeated story about how one NBA player was robbed in his hotel room by two women he met at a Halem party. Halem has heard the story but says she has no reason to think it happened after one of her events. “If a basketball player goes back to a hotel with two strange girls, that’s on him, that’s on the two girls,” she says.

“What Mona does is she leads horses to water. End of story,” says one source who has worked with Halem over the years. “Most of these girls are just getting a great story that they slept with a pro basketball player or maybe they’re getting a gift, or the guy will fly them to Chicago.”

Halem is sick of having to defend herself against the accusation that she’s a madam. “It’s ridiculous,” she says. “Nobody accuses male party promoters who surround themselves with great-looking women of being pimps.”

My last encounter with Halem was at the end of March. She had just returned from a two-week tour of Europe—she attended Drake and Beyoncé concerts, and met a few DJs she plans to bring to Toronto—and she was hosting a party at Cube for the visiting Boston Celtics. Halem wore sparkly platform heels and a micro-mini dress with bejewelled epaulettes—the party general. I spent most of the night hanging out with an aesthetician named Ashley, a friend of Halem’s who has been coming to her parties since the early days. She told me ­Justin Bieber was probably going to come later and introduced me to her friend Barbie, a stripper who had long, bleach-blond hair and a dress that barely concealed her bum. Barbie didn’t really stand out—most of the women in the room had their goods on display.

There was lots of dancing, ceremonial champagne popping and a cannon that shot out neon confetti. The Celtics hung out in a booth where somebody was smoking pot, and nobody seemed to object. As at all of Halem’s events, there was an anything-goes vibe. I waited in vain for Bieber until 2:30, then finally gave up.

On my way out, I spotted Halem in the middle of a pack of women. She reached out and grabbed my arm, insisting that I come to her next event—a welcome home bash for Drake and 3,000 of his closest friends. “It’s going to be awesome,” she assured me, before disappearing into the pulsing throng.