The strikeclsock midnight
and the Eiffel Tower’s light show begins, illuminating the interior of the Palais de Chaillot. A waltz starts to play and Prince Charles-emmanuel de Bourbon-parme, a direct descendant of Louis XIV, steps forward to take the hand of his daughter, Princess Elisabeth, to open the dancing for the night. Welcome to Le Bal des Débutantes, the most prestigious and Parisian of events, an evening where actual royalty flirts with Hollywood royalty, where new money and old money rub shoulders and where everyone is the proud owner of a famous surname, a listed company or an ancient palace—or all three.
Inspired by British debutante balls of the past, where young women from aristocratic families were presented to the queen at Buckingham Palace, the Bal, as it’s commonly known, is in fact a modern concept and the brainchild of Ophélie Renouard, an extremely determined French PR with a deft touch for networking and a not-so-little black book.
Renouard has masterminded the Bal since 1992 when she was given a one-year contract to organise events for the Hôtel de Crillon and hit on an idea that would capture the world’s imagination. “Well, it has all the right ingredients for success,” says Renouard. “The girls are beautiful and look and feel like princesses for a night. And Paris is, well, Paris. Modern life is not so filled with glamour but at the Bal, glamour and romance are everything. I think that is why everybody loves it so much—it gives them an experience they cannot find elsewhere.”
Like the heroines of the Disney fantasies they grew up watching, these 24 well-born young women are transformed from typical teenagers into glossy, couture-clad goddesses for one night. The elaborate process begins the day before the Bal, on a cold Friday at the end of November. “Even though most of them come from privileged backgrounds, the Bal is usually their couture and media debut,” says Renouard. “They wear gowns and haute jewellery [by Bucherer] for the first time and it is a special moment for them.”
The Hôtel de Crillon has always been the venue for the event (in English it is usually