Hosted by Jake Millar and the multi-millionaire Mowbray siblings, New Zealand’s new, young entrepreneurial elite gathered at the famed Dotcom/Toy Mansion for a night of tuxedos, evening gowns, and abundant champagne. Jihee Junn reluctantly went along.
The first thing you see are the lights in the sky – two white beams dancing in the pitch black darkness, their ends anchored down somewhere along Coatesville’s long stretch of rural hills. Then you hear the helicopters, the mechanical whirring of their blades disturbing the otherwise peaceful scene, as they all head in the same direction. They’re going to where the lights are bright – they’re going to a party, and it just so happens that I’m going there too. Not by choice, but because my work is making me: they paid $315 for my ticket.
As I sat in my car on the side of Ridge Road (I’d arrived unfashionably early) I started to think of how this had all started as a bit of a joke. “Wouldn’t it be amazing to know what happened at that Unfiltered party?” I mentioned in passing to some colleagues a few weeks back. I thought this because the tickets were expensive, the theme was The Great Gatsby, and it was going to be hosted at the famed Chrisco Mansion (later known as the Dotcom Mansion, and now known as the Toy Mansion). I imagined a night of abundant champagne, designer tuxedos, and under-the-table business deals brokered by the country’s new tech elite. I imagined beauty, success, fame and wealth all rolled into one flashy display of excess and power. I imagined I would hate it.
Hosted by tech startup Unfiltered, the Gatsby party was part of its flagship live event, ‘How To Win In Business. Fast.’ and a sort of flashy coming-of-age for the country’s new business elite. Fittingly enough, it was being hosted by Unfiltered’s 22-year-old CEO Jake Millar, who’s established a multi-million dollar business off the back of interviewing other people with multi-million dollar businesses. He counts British business magnate Sir Richard Branson as one of his idols, and even has the title of one of Branson’s books, Screw It, Let’s Do It, tattooed on his arm.
But the venue, famed for being the site of the high-octane police raids to arrest Kim Dotcom in 2012, wasn’t Millar’s home, but that of Nick, Anna and Mat Mowbray, the sibling co-founders of global toy company Zuru. Together, the Mowbray siblings rank among the country’s richest elite thanks to the success of toys like RoboFish, X-Shot and Bunch O Balloons. And while the siblings spend most of their time in China where Zuru’s manufacturing is based, it didn’t stop them from buying one of the most lavish properties in New Zealand for massive $32 million in 2016.
Now, the infamous Toy Mansion was set to open its doors to the general public for the very first time with a party themed around a book about the ailments of modern capitalism. Everyone who was anyone in the local business community was slated to be there: Vaughan Rowsell of Vend, Lisa King of Eat My Lunch, Sharndre Kushor of Crimson Education, and Tim Norton of 90 Seconds, among others. Spy also speculated that there’d be other guests flying in from as far as Shenzhen, San Francisco, Vancouver, Manchester and Hong Kong.
“We have to be there. This sounds ridiculous!” were the approximate words of The Spinoff boss Duncan Greive on the morning of the party. I remained highly incredulous, but before you knew it, we were buying two tickets (one for myself, one for my colleague/partner-in-crime for the night José Barbosa) for a total of $650 (our requests for media passes were politely declined). This really was ridiculous.
When I finally met up with José around 8pm, the bulk of the guests (ie: the ones who didn’t fly in via helicopter) had started to arrive. We decided to take the manual route and walk ourselves down to the swanky premises. That is, until we were stopped by security who advised us that was a very bad idea: the driveway was long, winding, and probably dangerous on foot. So we jumped back into our luxury ride courtesy of The Spinoff cameraman Ra Pomare to get dropped off at the door like everyone else – his dusty 1996 Nissan Pulsar tottering along behind a sports car, a stretch hummer, and a very large SUV.
When we finally reached the pearly gates of the Toy Mansion, Leonardo di Caprio greeted us with a toast. Well, not literally: Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 film, The Great Gatsby – in which di Caprio plays the powerful, shady and glamorous titular character – was playing from a projector on one of the mansion’s facades. On the left-hand side was a vintage car (on loan, mind you) fit for Jay Gatsby himself, while the Mowbrays’ extensive selection of modern day automobiles – a Ferrari, Lamborghini, Rolls Royce and three BMWs – were tactfully positioned for display on the right. Three of them had license plates containing the words ‘ZURU’, in case you didn’t know where the Mowbrays made their fortune.
After taking a moment to get our bearings, José and I began our cautious descent of the red carpet. A man in striped baggy pants played an electric violin as a photographer furiously snapped photos of all the arriving guests. We must’ve been nervous and a bit dumbfounded because when the violinist stopped us to ask if we’d dropped something – a prop cigarette holder that looked a lot like a wand – we both froze and assumed he was about to pull a magic trick. He wasn’t: he was genuinely asking if we’d dropped our cigarette holder. After a brief and awkward pause, we said it wasn’t ours, but considering we were both criminally underdressed for the occasion, we took the prop anyway, assuming it would add to the illusion that we somehow fit in.
Once we passed the foyer’s winding stairwell – replete with French balustrades, baroque chandeliers and stained glass windows emblazoned with the letter ‘M’ – our first order of business was to get a drink. We inched our way towards the outdoor patio where the party’s single, solitary bar was set up to cater for 350 people. Its four or so bartenders seemed more than a little frazzled, rushing to pour Prosecco, Champagne and sauvignon blanc into outstretched hands holding gold Moët goblets. I waited 30 minutes in line to get a drink as several lovely gentlemen took the liberty of pushing ahead (“It’s good to know rich people are just as feral about getting free drinks as everyone else,” José remarked afterwards).
With our drinks in one hand and some hors d’oeuvres in the other (cold shrimp on spoons; tiny pieces of bruschetta) our second order of business was to go for a wander. First, the kitchen which had a built-in aquarium where colourful exotic fish swam silently about. Then the dancefloor to watch the few early drunkards stagger and sway limply to the music. We wandered to the far end of the patio where guests congregated to smoke super slim Vogues and sip on gin and tonics. And finally, we wandered down to the estate’s private lake where we stumbled upon a group of four tuxedoed men in deep conversation; something about the intersection of AI, VR and algorithms, I think.
“SEED CAPITAL!” someone randomly yelled in the middle of a busy room. No one responded. But I could only assume they were looking for some funding. After all, while everyone appeared to be letting their hair down, there were clearly deals to be made and business to be done. There were guests from the marketing, banking, real estate, media, IT, tech and luxury goods sectors who’d come armed with business cards to flick over to the right people. Even I managed to nab two by the end of the night.
Among the more high profile guests were the likes of real estate wunderkind Ricky Cave, who made headlines last year for saying an Aston Martin driving ban would cause him “extreme hardship”, and Iyia Liu, whose multi-million dollar business Waist Trainer reached a whole new level of fame back in 2016 when she paid Kylie Jenner nearly $300,000 to promote the corset-like garment that’s “great for appetite suppression”. Instagram influencers like Loic Quedec and Amelia Finlayson were there too: the former boasts more than 52,000 followers thanks to his fashion and style posts, while the latter is probably best known for once dating Max Key.
There were plenty of familiar faces from TV milling about as well, like Real Housewives of Auckland stars Gilda Kirkpatrick and Michelle Blanchard, and newly minted Heartbreak Island stars Kristian Barbarich and Harry Jowsey. News presenter Rawdon Christie was also there in a long white scarf Toni Street had given him, while TV host Dominic Bowden sported a faux moustache and about fifty shades of beige.
As the night wore on and the drinks kept flowing, the exhaustion of the working week started to come over me. My mind harked back to that record scratch/freeze frame meme and how this would be my “you’re probably wondering how I ended up in this situation” moment. In the distance, I watched as a man drunkenly climbed onto a life-size sculpture of a horse while another twirled a LED fluorescent cane, taking intermittent swigs from a bottle of Prosecco. Over on the dance floor, 50 or so people bounced along to remixes of George Michael, Ed Sheeran, Vanilla Ice, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. It was all terribly cringe – but also impossible to look away. This truly was white privilege at its finest.
At midnight, the party was over. The music stopped and so did the bottomless liquor, which was enough to get the masses staggering to the exits where bottles of 1Above (you know, those ‘travel recovery’ drinks they sell in vending machines at the airport) were being handed out. As I reclined on a plush red couch, staring blankly at the guests as I contemplated stopping for fries at a McDonald’s drive-thru, a man sat next to me holding a bottle of Moët in his hand.
“Do you think these are real?” he asked. It was one of the many that were being used as decoration around the house. I suggested he open it, so he started to peel back the foil, exposing a top with cork and wire. He unscrewed the wire, popped the cork, and tilted the bottle towards his glass.
Nothing. It was completely empty.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed, free daily curated digest of all the most important stories from around New Zealand delivered directly to your inbox each morning.