This past June, an invitation was sent by e-mail, beckoning a select group of desirable New Yorkers to frolic by the glass-bottomed swimming pool—a basin flanked by 4,800 square feet of imported sand and private cabanas—at Dream Downtown, a sceney hotel that’s perhaps better known as a nightlife destination than a place to book a room. The invite came from the hotel’s owner, the model-dating, movie-producing international party fixture Vikram Chatwal, the 42-year-old socialite Sikh whose love life and legal woes have made New York tabloid headlines for years. But this time the bash he was throwing wasn’t a raucous all-nighter or bacchanal for boldface names: It was a birthday party for a seven year old.
That’s quite a departure for the guy known for his insatiable appetite for nightlife, torrid romances with catwalk icons—Kate Moss and Gisele Bündchen haven’t been immune to his charms—and, more recently, an arrest at a Florida airport when he was reportedly discovered carrying heroin, cocaine and prescription pills hidden, in part, down his pants. But according to Chatwal, after a recent year of rehabilitation his focus is on his family and his business and making it known that these days he’s anything but a playboy.
“A turning point for me was when I had my daughter,” Chatwal, clear-eyed, collected and clutching a venti Starbucks cup, explains from across a table at a private Manhattan club. “I was a raging individual for a long while, but that love I have for my daughter made me prioritize my life in certain ways.”
Despite his colorful past, plenty of which occurred after the birth of his child, Chatwal does indeed seem to have turned a corner. He’s the founder of the lifestyle division at the family-run Hampshire Hotels, and his stable of hotels—including branches of Dream in New York, Miami, India and Thailand, as well as a stake in Manhattan’s iconic Plaza Hotel—are popular and, Chatwal says, profitable. In the coming months, he’ll be renovating the Dream hotel on West 55th Street, and, in addition to his work in the hospitality industry, he’s moonlighting as a film producer and collaborating on projects with big names, including Spring Breakers director Harmony Korine and literary lion Martin Amis.
“For the past 16 years I’ve been in the hotel industry, but how do I venture into the next phase,” asks Chatwal, who cites Ian Schrager’s career as one he admires. “When my business started off, we had only two hotels and I grew Dream to be a billion dollar company. Now, I’m just trying to evolve my brand.”
Of course, hotels aren’t just Chatwal’s brand, they’re in his blood. Born in Ethiopia to Indian parents, Chatwal moved in 1982 to New York City, where his father, Sant Singh Chatwal, would go on to own the series of restaurants (including high-end Indian chain Bombay Palace and Beefsteak Charlie’s) and hotels that allowed him to provide the best for Vikram and his brother, Vivek. The family lived on the Upper East Side—“comfortable and luxurious,” is how he has described his childhood—and Vikram attended the United Nations International School before heading to the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
“When I grew up, we were very much just a restaurant family, and I grew up in them in the summers: I was a bartender, a waiter, so I always had that knack for service and being a good host,” Vikram recalls. “When I went to Wharton all they talked about was working on Wall Street and investment banking, so after school I went to Morgan Stanley and worked at a private equity shop. I did not want to get into the family business.”
The family didn’t feel quite the same. In the 1990s, Chatwal père had acquired a pair of distressed hotels on Manhattan’s west side and offered his son the chance to work with him without giving up his independence. “When I got there I just wanted to do things a bit differently,” says Chatwal, who finally joined the family business in 1996. And he did: Upon opening, his Night Hotel was described by the New York Times as having “a fresh coat of black paint, an orgy of black leather and erotic black-and-white photographs that vaguely recall Madonna’s Sex book”; Dream’s design team included boundary-pushing photographer David LaChapelle. Working at such glamorous properties also bolstered the young hotelier’s social standing.
“People always like associating themselves with the owner,” Chatwal says. “That started happening in the late ’90s, I was just the man about town. I was very much into the party scene—you’re throwing parties in the hotel and going to parties all over New York, how could you ignore that?”
As a social acquaintance of Chatwal’s recently said to DuJour, “If I ever left my house, I would run into him. He was always out. I would see him at Double Seven, Bungalow 8 and Rose Bar back in the day. He was always super fucked up. It was scary. He was that guy you were nervous wouldn’t survive.”
Indeed, it’s during that time that Chatwal got a tattoo to commemorate his romance with Bündchen, tooled around town in an Aston Martin with a cadre of international partygoers and paid a reported $26,000 for a John Galliano–designed dress at a fundraiser only to later quip, “I bought it and I was going to give it to the right girl, and I really haven’t found the right girl yet.”
Still, as his career blossomed and he found himself making inroads into Hollywood—Chatwal has appeared in nine films, including Zoolander—he found himself the target of unwanted attention, even from those closest to him. “The problem right now is he’s only spending 30 percent of his time towards business,” his father said in 2002. “The day he starts spending 70 percent of his time, within two or three years he’ll make it.”
No matter how he divided his time, however, Chatwal says those days in the social swirl were exhausting. “It’s hard to keep up with it sometimes,” Chatwal says of his lifestyle. “When you get that attention you appreciate it, but also there is certain negativity that comes along with it. People are very quick to identify with you as a partier or an attention seeker, whatever it is. You can be labeled 100 things that are not true.”
Some people around Chatwal don’t remember all the negative energy coming from the outside.
“I don’t know that he was ever drunk, but he was always hazy and glassy-eyed,” a former associate says. “His dad was at his wit’s end and felt like he had to clean up his messes.”
Despite his issues with substances, friends remember the young Chatwal as an exciting, magnetic presence who seemed to be in all the right places.
“We met years ago on the New York scene, sometime in the ’90s, when Vikram was going out all the time and dating models and we would run into each other in restaurants or at parties or events,” says fashion photographer Antoine Verglas. “For me, he was a good-looking guy always surrounded by beautiful women.”
Chatwal never hesitated to give the wags or gossip columnists what they were looking for. His 2006 wedding to model Priya Sachdev lasted 10 days, spanned three cities and cost a rumored $20 million, and, thanks to its ostentatious scope and guests including Bill Clinton, garnered breathless coverage in outlets around the world. And while almost every story about the marriage (which would produce daughter Safira but end in a separation followed by divorce) mentioned Chatwal’s past—“I was just enjoying life and friends and, well, being a bit of a hedonist,” he told the Times—his subsequent behavior gave no indication that he had truly changed his ways.
There he was in the tabloids, reportedly getting stitches after a night out with Greek shipping heir Stavros Niarchos III, hitting the town with Sean Combs, dating Padma Lakshmi or skulking outside Manhattan hot spots in the wee hours alongside Lindsay Lohan—a friendship that brought Chatwal to the TMZ-reading masses. Earlier this year, Chatwal reportedly sued his former fiancée, model Esther Cañadas, for failing to return a $300,000 engagement ring after their split. As someone who formerly worked for Chatwal now says, “The hotel company had a lot going for it, but its namesake was impeding everything.”
The disconnect between being a businessman and a party animal wasn’t lost on Chatwal. “There are two different tracks, the partying track and the getting serious,” he has said. “And it’s hard to balance those two things. You have to do one thing or the other. And my life has been a tricky balance.”
Like plenty of other well-heeled night owls, there was one more place Chatwal was no stranger to: rehab. In 2007, he did a stint in the celebrity-friendly Minnesota treatment center Hazelden; in 2011, he admitted himself to Malibu’s Promises to deal with an alcohol addiction; and after his Florida arrest, he completed a court-mandated one-year program in New York City.
Vikram’s not the only member of his family with problems. In April of this year, Sant Singh Chatwal—a major fundraiser for Hillary Clinton—pled guilty to witness tampering and violating federal campaign contribution laws by funneling almost $200,000 in illegal contributions to political candidates. Despite this trying period for his family, Vikram Chatwal says this time his rehabilitation will stick—if not just for himself, he says, for his daughter.
“I got married because I wanted to have children, and I think it’s a very respectable way to live,” he says. “But I had my child and still I partied too much and I had to go to rehab. You can see it as a pinnacle of my being reckless, but it was actually a turning point in my life. It turned out to be a blessing.”
To hear Chatwal tell it, the whole of his colorful past has lead up to his current state of mind. “You have to learn to cleanse yourself physically and mentally,” he says. “You will attract the goodness or the support that you need in life when you’re true and genuine to yourself—that’s one thing I’ve learned.”
Holding on to that Panglossian outlook, especially in the sometimes-seedy world of nightclubs, restaurants and hotels, isn’t always easy, and despite his sobriety, Chatwal’s had to learn to work around ever-present enticements.
“When you’re around it, it’s tempting—it’s like [negotiating] with the devil, but you have to live and learn,” he says of the drugs and alcohol around him. “When I was opening these hotels and I was the popular guy because of what I was doing or who I was dating, it was great. I just thought I could go on forever. But your body catches up with you—your mind and your karmic duty catch up to you. I’ve been sober for a while, so I’m seeing life in a different way.”
It’s a change colleagues say they’ve spotted as well. “Vikram always owned hotels, but these days he’s positioned himself as more of a lifestyle hotelier. He’s definitely serious about work, but he also has a lot more projects now,” says Noah Tepperberg, the nightlife titan whose Tao Group runs the dining and nightlife programs at Dream Downtown. “When I see Vikram these days, our conversations are always about the next three cities he’s expanding into. He’s become a formidable developer of hotels.”
Just look at Chatwal’s current slate of projects: The renovated Midtown Dream is set to re-open early next year, and Chatwal’s developing another Manhattan Dream property, this one near Times Square, slated for 2017. Additionally his 15-year-old Time Hotel is undergoing an extensive renovation, to be completed in spring 2015, meant to refresh the property for a new generation of luxury-minded travelers.
“There are plenty of examples of people in the hotel industry taking missteps, people who’ve failed and gotten up and back in the game,” says Jeff Weinstein, editor-in-chief of the hospitality trade magazine Hotels. “The hotel industry tends to be understanding; when you’re involved in hospitality, late nights and what comes along with them are something of an occupational hazard. But of course there are second acts—if he’s able to get past his troubles, be on top of his game and focus on the job at hand, he can rebound.”
Verglas, the fashion photographer, says, “In the past two years I’ve seen a tremendous change in Vikram’s personality. It’s nice to see a friend get out of trouble and make new decisions. That’s why he has been so successful: When he decides to do something, he can stick with it. There’s always a chance to go out and party, but he’s decided to change.”
Still, there’s part of Chatwal that enjoys a night on the town—even if that means something different now than it once did.
“My vice now is definitely coffee, and I still like going out late,” he admits. “I like to go to my own venues, like the Electric Room on Monday nights. It’s so cool, but then again it’s a Monday night, and come Tuesday, my whole week is kind of shot.”