Catapulted to Fame

Zahia Dehar has become a real celebrity in France. A remarkable story.

The daughter of an impoverished Algerian immigrant who lived off food hand-outs in order to survive, is the figurehead of a flourishing lingerie business at the young age of twenty-one.

Although officially she holds ninety per cent in the company which bears her name, she designs the collections and is currently behind the initiative of opening her Parisian boutique next month, which will sell cakes and culottes. The reality may be more complex than meets the eye for her company is apparently controlled by public relations specialists and Chinese financiers who all spotted Zahia’s marketing potential.

Her working day starts at 6pm, she does not seem to remember how many people she employs and is helped by couturiers who once worked with Christian Lacroix – which leads one to believe that her input is questionable.

Her celebrity status is enhanced by a luxurious lifestyle, with a baby-sitter for her Shih Tzus, a chauffeur-driven limousine and a hairdresser who accompanies her everywhere.

However, this week the latest star of French fashion will face an unwanted reminder of the scandal that set her on the path to fame and fortune as Karim Benzema, twenty-five, and Franck Ribéry, thirty, the French international footballers who play for Real Madrid and Bayern Munich respectively, go on trial in Paris for allegedly having sex with her when she was a child prostitute.

Both will plead not guilty. Mr Benzema denies that he slept with her while Mr Ribéry admits that he did, but claims that he never imagined she was under eighteen.

With the players facing up to three years in prison, the case shamed the French national team and embarrassed the country’s football authorities.

However, the rise of Zahia, as she is known, has generated a mixture of fascination and controversy over the values that hold sway in modern French society. The hypocrisy of the French administration where sex is concerned has become legendary in recent years when people are imprisoned merely for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. That’s a subject for another occasion.

Despite the scandal Paris Match magazine last week devoted six pages to a visit Zahia undertook to a factory in central France that makes her lingerie. ‘The ex-bimbo has become a business-woman,’ it said.

Asked about the trial, which starts on Tuesday, Zahia said: ‘I’m afraid that it will all start up again. I don’t want to go through the stress that I experienced.’

A tear rolled down her cheek, but was wiped away by her personal make-up artist who is in permanent tow, alongside the hairdresser who rushed up with some Kleenex and mascara.

Under French law, Zahia is a victim of the pimps and of the clients with whom she had sex. But she is unlikely to claim damages at the trial, which she is not attending.

On the contrary, she has done her very best to help the defendants, saying that when Mr Ribéry’s friends flew her to Munich as a birthday treat for him in 2009, she disguised the fact that she was sixteen. She has also withdrawn her initial claim that she slept with Mr Benzema.

Yet Zahia’s desire to bury the scandal that made her a celebrity is unlikely to be fulfilled according to Sabrina Phillipe, a psychologist. ‘She creates a buzz because she highlights things about which we don’t talk, but which nevertheless exist, and that makes people dream. But it sets a bad example because young people watching her will think I can become famous by showing my body, by prostituting myself.’

Well, how often have we seen notoriety bring success in its wake? Much too often, I say, especially when respectability is not far behind.

Power and money are the real culprits, for they can miraculously wipe your slate clean. They are to be condemned, not the victims.

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