Why was the Swiss gigolo so successful?
How did this man pull some of Europe's smartest women with the world's cheesiest pick-up lines? Sophie Morris explains what the case really reveals
Wednesday 11 March 2009
How on earth did he do it? Swindler extraordinaire Helg Sgarbi, the Swiss gigolo who was handed a six- year jail sentence this week for defrauding a string of love-struck women out of a total of £8.5m, is the least likely of Lotharios.
In court, making a full confession, the 44-year-old Sgarbi looked an odd object of lust. A thin man in an oversized three-piece suit, his angular, bespectacled features bore more resemblance to that geeky weakling in the Mr Muscle adverts than a master seducer capable of making a string of intelligent, attractive and rich women swoon at his charm and prostrate themselves on his crooked mercy.
His successes with the ladeez are incontrovertible. If there was some method to his madness, maybe he can teach us all a thing or two about the laws of attraction.
Sgarbi is known for boasting of his ability to "read women like a map". "Everything is signposted," he claims of the female character, "each turn in the road." If he could bottle and sell the mythical formula that allows men to decipher woman's myriad complexities with just a few brief probes, he wouldn't need to extort his millions from hapless females.
But the women shaken down by Sgarbi were no desperate airheads. Susanne Klatten, who suffered the most at Sgarbi's deceptive hands, is Germany's richest woman and the one who brought the case to court – and international attention – after he borrowed £6.3m from her and suggested that she leave her family and establish a £200m trust fund to fuel a lavish new life for the two of them.
Klatten's family made their fortune building bits for Hitler's U-boats, and the BMW car business. She is a married mother of three, a respected business executive and worth about £8.5bn, one thousand times the amount Sgarbi has squirrelled away to live off on his release from jail (his refusal to reveal the whereabouts of his ill-gotten booty means that he will have to serve the full six-year sentence).
Yet Klatten still fell for the cheap lines on which Sgarbi built his improbable story. After exchanging coy looks with the heiress across the breakfast room of a luxurious Austrian spa, Sgarbi sidled up to Klatten and remarked on the book she was reading, Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist, which he described as his "favourite book".
Let's be honest: anyone willing to eat Coelho's schlocky spiritual schmaltz must be ripe for a bit of bullying blackmail.
After a little ego-massaging small talk, Klatten asked Sgarbi what he did for a living, and he played his killer card. "I'm a special adviser to the Swiss government," he fibbed. "Ah," said Klatten, presumably leaning in, her interest piqued by this intriguing 007 figure. "In tricky conflict situations," he continued. "Isn't that dangerous?" she asked. "Sometimes," he said. "Crikey! A proper Andy McNab!" Klatten must have thought, as all her fantasies of swashbuckling spies raced madly across her romance-impaired mind.
After a hotel tryst, which was filmed by an accomplice of Sgarbi, he told Klatten he needed £9m to pay off a Miami Mafioso whose daughter he had accidentally killed in a car accident. She helped out, but became suspicious as his requests grew more audacious.
His other conquests include an elderly countess, Verena du Pasquier; he talked her out of £28m before her friends threatened to get the police involved and he repaid £25m.
Perhaps other would-be Casanovas could learn a thing or two from the Sgarbi approach. To be honest, I go weak at the knees as soon as any new interest mentions the work he does for charity, preferably with children, and possibly in a developing country. A puppy or two thrown in for good measure would probably clinch the deal. It's a good thing that I don't have a multimillion-pound fortune to squander.
But Sgarbi's preposterous claim that all women can be read like a map goes hand in hand with his despicable behaviour towards vulnerable human beings. "Watch and learn, folks," went his courtroom apology to all his "wronged ladies".
In reality, any would-be pick-up artists should give the Sgarbi approach a wide berth. If he was so adept at predicting his victims' next moves, why didn't he second-guess the countess before she divulged the details of her profligate gifts to her friends? Why didn't he skip Europe before Klatten shopped him? He might be able to read the odd signpost or two, but Sgarbi's moral compass has fallen prey to the Bermuda Triangle effect – something all women wise up to sooner or later.
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