Choking on the velvet rope

Ian Schrager's Mondrian Hotel pays $1 million to settle a discrimination suit after replacing minority bellmen with "cool-looking" white guys.

By Carina Chocano

Published August 11, 2000 7:00AM (EDT)

Nothing can match the experience of being subtly terrorized by the staff of a trendy hotel on the Sunset Strip. It's a heady cocktail of humiliation, resentment and deep shame, served with a sneer, and its effects are lasting. I should know. I was once turned away from the Sky Bar at the Mondrian Hotel.

Was it our horrible mint-green pickup? Was it me? I will go to my grave without knowing. Was it me? And what about the time, in the Honda, when my friend and I were informed by the valets at the Standard Hotel that our fuel-efficient vehicle could not be parked in the subterranean garage because there was "no room." Was it the car? Was it my friend's Gap sweater? I told her not to wear that sweater. Was it me?

Former Studio 54 co-owner cum high-end hotelier Ian Schrager has been known to tell interviewers that a cute, stylish staff attracts like clients. And maybe it's true. Mostly, though, a cute, stylish staff scares me. When, a few months after the Sky Bar debacle, a friend came to visit and chose to lodge at the Mondrian, I retaliated at what seemed to me to be cruel staffing practices (cruel to me, anyway) by throwing french fries out the window at the valets and their like clients.

Now I'm so glad I did.

This week, the Mondrian agreed to pay $1 million to settle a discrimination suit brought by nine ousted bellmen and valets, eight of whom were minorities. The hotel has also hired a human resources manager to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future. Hotel management has described the settlement as a "win-win" situation and Mondrian general manager David Weidlich told the Los Angeles Times, "We feel badly that those former employees were lost in the chaos of the re-opening."

He's referring to the changes that occurred after Schrager bought the Mondrian in 1995 and entrusted the redesign of the dated Sunset Strip landmark to the ubiquitous Phillippe Starck. Of his decision to go with the palest of color schemes, Starck later told Interior Design magazine, "There is this idea of mystery in Los Angeles. Because of the climate and the fog, white stands out. One can therefore arrive at the idea that Los Angeles is a white mystery."

He wasn't kidding. The geometric red, black and white painted facade was chucked in favor of an ethereal white one; the monolithic elevator bank in the lobby was wrapped in translucent cotton and encased in an illuminated glass cube; and the bellmen were sacked in favor of a bunch of "cool-looking" white ones.

The jettisoned bellmen, who were perhaps not so much "cool-looking" as they were observant, took the matter to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Los Angeles when they realized they had been replaced by an all-white crew.

Were they misplaced among the sacks of concrete and translucent cubes? Not exactly.

According to ex-Mondrian bellman Richard Brand, 29, once the renovations (which began a year or so after Schrager purchased the hotel) were close to complete, "management started to hire a lot of new people. I noticed that there were some job applications with Polaroids attached to them, and I thought that was kind of strange. Then they put an ad in Dramalogue, the local acting paper, saying they were having 'auditions.' I heard stories that some of the managers had gone around to shopping malls looking for beautiful people to recruit. They were looking for 'cool, hip people.'"

Just days before the hotel reopened, Brand and his co-workers were handed their paychecks along with termination notices and told they would no longer be needed because a private valet company was being brought in.

"They didn't explain anything to us. The general manager didn't say anything. We had to request a meeting to find out what was going on."

"Nobody wants to stay in a hotel that's being renovated," Brand adds. "Our tips declined quite a bit. Toward the end, they had to move the lobby up to the first floor so they could redo the ground floor lobby. They built these huge steps, and we had to carry bags up these steps. Our office was put underneath what used to be planters. It was only about 4-feet high. We called it the 'doghouse' because you had to duck to get into it."

Brand says he and the other valets were told to stick it out during renovations, and that "although things were bad, if we stuck it out, the hotel was going to be very busy when it reopened and we were going to make a lot of money."

According to Kathleen Mulligan and Peter Laura, attorneys for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the bellmen were replaced because "they were highly visible." Among the commission's evidence was a note from Schrager to management saying that some employees were "too ethnic." Later, in a deposition, Schrager explained he was talking about their tattoos.

I guess problems are bound to crop up when a hotel's staff is part of the dicor. In fact, Jennifer Rubell, niece of Schrager's former partner and scion of a new boutique hotel dynasty, told Equity magazine that she also "designed" the staff of one of her family's hotels, the Albion, but looks instead for qualities like "innocence or kindness."

"At Studio 54, all the bartenders were these beautiful boys," Rubell told Equity. "And there was that velvet rope outside the door and you had to be beautiful to get in. Part of what I'm doing with the Albion is atonement. It's my way of setting that right."

In the end, the story may be less about race than about no-class. Schrager has always been a big believer in the importance of hiring a hot, hip, cool, stylish, trendy, pouty, leggy, lippy terrifying staff -- and if that means firing a 56-year-old bellman who's been with the hotel since the early '80s, so be it.

And don't think people don't notice the difference.

"I love how the uniforms at Schrager hotels match staff's skin color," minority jet setter and bon vivant Kenn Richards tells me over the phone from New York. "In L.A. they wear a lot of beige and white linen. In London, they have darker uniforms, so they can stick a bunch of Indians in them. And at the Royalton in New York, they wear purple, which looks good on a multi-ethnic staff, for that ersatz melting-pot kind of feel. I guess people only feel comfortable seeing white people in good neighborhoods in L.A."

He should know. He was once turned away from L.A.

Carina Chocano

Carina Chocano writes about TV for Salon. She is the author of "Do You Love Me or Am I Just Paranoid?" (Villard).

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