LONDON – Wanted: attractive young women wearing sexy underpants to serve as hostesses for British business bigwigs at drunken old-boys-only charity affair.
When tabloid-style news of this event broke in the usually decorous Financial Times on Wednesday, the recoil was immediate.
The story of well-heeled men acting badly was not exactly Britain's #MeToo moment. London has been the scene of alleged acts of sexual harassment by both Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey, while the government has been roiled by its own "sex pest" scandals, including the resignation late last year of Defense Secretary Michael Fallon, accused of repeatedly putting his hand on a well-known radio journalist's knee at a dinner in 2002.
But the newspaper investigation into the harassment doled out at a London charity event last Thursday has delivered a fresh jolt. The report alleged that women who served as hostesses, some of them college students, were groped, harassed and propositioned. One elderly attendee asked one of the hostesses if she were a prostitute.
The undercover reporter who wrote the piece told the Washington Post that she, too, was pawed and subjected to lewd comments.
The House of Commons announced investigations and the prime minister her extreme discomfort, as the evening's attendees ran for the exits. The charity itself announced late Wednesday that it will shut down immediately.
Each year, for 33 years, the Presidents Club Charitable Trust has organized a fundraising dinner at London's exclusive Dorchester Hotel to benefit "worthy children's causes."
The attendees last week, as in the past, hailed from Britain's business, finance, fashion, entertainment and political establishment – an "esteemed" group, according to the club's website, and highly exclusive. Among the excluded: women as either guests or patrons.
But 130 "hostesses" were hired to cater to the needs of the roughly 360 male guests. The women were encouraged to drink with the guests, both at the main event and at more discreet – and reportedly creepy – "afterparties."
One thing was different this year. Among the hostesses were two infiltrators, a female journalist from the Financial Times named Madison Marriage and a woman working with her, who secured hostess jobs and went undercover to report on the event.
The FT scoop quickly became the lead story in Britain on Wednesday, dominating the afternoon front pages, news websites and social media spheres.
The two children's hospitals that received donations from the event announced they were "shocked" and "sorry" and were returning the money.
By midmorning, the first high-profile head had rolled – that of David Meller, the event's chairman. He stepped down within hours as nonexecutive director of Britain's Department for Education, even as other donors and recipients scurried to distance themselves.
By early evening, the Presidents Club charity had announced it would also close down and distribute any funds left in its accounts to needy causes – if it could find any takers.
The first giveaway of the seedy behavior that would unfold at the secretive dinner came while the reporters and other hostesses were being prepped.
The job requirements included being "tall, thin and pretty," the FT's Marriage reported.
While the dinner was black-tie only, for the hostesses it was "BLACK sexy shoes, black underwear" and "short tight black dresses," along with a "thick black belt resembling a corset."
The agency hiring them did not say anything about groping. They were told that the men might be "annoying," the FT reported. "You just have to put up with the annoying men and if you can do that it's fine," they were told.
Their brief was simple, Marriage wrote: "Keep this mix of British and foreign businessmen, the odd lord, politicians, oligarchs, property tycoons, film producers, financiers and chief executives happy – and fetch drinks when required."
"A number of men stood with the hostesses while waiting for smoked salmon starters to arrive," the report of the night began. "Others remained seated and yet insisted on holding the hands of their hostesses . . . a prelude to pulling the women into their laps."
As burlesque dancers performed on a stage, a 19-year-old hostess was asked by a "guest nearing his seventies" whether "she was a prostitute," which she was not, according to the report, which the FT made available for free viewing behind its traditional paywall.
One hostess recounted to the FT a scene of "braying men" fondling her bottom, stomach and legs. Another guest "lunged at her to kiss her."
"According to the accounts of multiple women working that night, groping and similar abuse was seen across many of the tables in the room," the FT reported.
Hostesses said men "repeatedly" put their hands up their skirts, with one exposing himself to a woman during the festivities.
Hostesses who seemed unenthusiastic were prodded by "an enforcement team" to interact with the guests.
"Outside the women's toilets," the FT said, "a monitoring system was in place: women who spent too long were called out and led back to the ballroom."
One unnamed "society figure" grabbed a hostess "by the waist, pulled her in against his stomach and declared: 'I want you to down that glass, rip off your knickers and dance on that table.'"
Marriage told the Washington Post in a phone interview that she, too, was harassed but did not include that detail in her story because she wanted to focus on the young women who were abused. "I was propositioned and groped and received some very lewd comments," she said.
She said that after the event, "I genuinely felt incredibly sad and upset by what I had seen, the fact that the upper echelons of our society are operating this way in 2018."
Marriage said she managed to stay in "professional mode" for the rest of the workweek. But then, on the Saturday after the event, "I went to see my parents and I burst out crying."
The other hostesses, who were paid about $211, were between the ages of 19 and 23, many of them students, some actors, dancers and models looking for a little extra money because their work is unstable, "especially in January when everyone is kind of broke."
Marriage said that while many of the women were "disturbed and alarmed by what they experienced," others "enjoyed" working the event, especially if "they were doing it with a group of friends, which makes it a lot easier than doing it on your own."
She said she had been tipped off about the dinner. "We had reports from former hostesses that women weren't treated very well," she said. That prompted her to pitch the story to editors at the FT, she said.
"The investigation isn't over yet," she said. More stories are likely.
The Financial Times, a global paper based in London, is among the most respected news organizations in the world. But it is known more for its precise reporting of global finance and business and its clever columnists than for undercover reporting.
After Wednesday's story broke, including some undercover video, the outrage was immediate.
Members of the House of Commons raised questions about the presence at the dinner of Conservative Party lawmaker Nadhim Zahawi, the undersecretary of state for children and families. He claimed to have left the event early. "It is safe to say that Mr. Zahawi will not be attending the event in the future," a spokesman for Prime Minister Theresa May said.
A spokesman for May told the Post that the prime minister was "uncomfortable" with the FT allegations and noted that "clearly this is an event to which she would not be invited."
The deputy leader of Britain's Liberal Democratic Party, Jo Swinson, called the story "simply stomach-churning."
"More than 300 rich businessmen were perfectly happy to attend such an event, which shows the rotten, sexist culture still alive and kicking in parts of the business community. Time's up on this crap," she said.
"I should imagine" that the charities benefiting from the event "will be appalled that their good name has been sullied in this way," Conservative Party lawmaker Anna Soubry told the Guardian.
On Twitter, people turned their wrath on the charities as well as on some of the attendees, particularly Meller, a businessman who was just honored by the queen as a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.
In a statement to the FT, the Presidents Club, noting that it had raised "several million pounds for disadvantaged children" at the event, said organizers were "appalled" by the allegations. Investigations would be conducted, it said, and appropriate action taken.
Soon afterward, it announced its disbandment.