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Presidents Club: Leading businessmen caught 'groping' and 'exposing themselves' to female hostesses at men-only charity gala

Women hostesses were allegedly required to be 'tall, thin and pretty', and told  'It’s a Marmite job. Some girls love it, and for other girls it’s the worst job of their life'.

Adam Lusher
Wednesday 24 January 2018 11:21 GMT
'I was groped': Journalist Madison Marriage talks about hostessing at the Presidents Club Charity Dinner

Senior businessmen at an all-male charity dinner groped and propositioned women hostesses who were told to wear “black sexy shoes” and black underwear, it has been claimed.

Undercover Financial Times reporters said they witnessed the behaviour at the annual Presidents Club charity dinner in London’s Dorchester Hotel on Thursday night.

The black-tie event, attended by 360 leading figures from business, politics and finance, allegedly included auction lots involving a free lapdance at a Soho club and plastic surgery that could be used to “add spice to your wife”.

The FT reported that by midnight an unnamed “society figure” was telling a hostess “I want you to down that glass [of champagne], rip off your knickers and dance on that table.”

The FT alleged: “Groping and similar abuse was seen across many of the tables in the room.

“Hostesses reported men repeatedly putting hands up their skirts; one said an attendee had exposed his penis to her during the evening.”

A 19-year-old was reportedly asked by a man in his seventies whether she was a prostitute, which allegedly led to her admitting she found working at the dinner "f***ing scary".

The event was hosted by the comedian and children’s author David Walliams, who is not the subject of any allegations and is understood to have behaved correctly throughout the night.

It allegedly began with another male compere – not Walliams - telling the men “Welcome to the most un-PC event of the year”.

The event has now been condemned by MPs including the deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, Jo Swinson who reacted to the allegations by saying the FT’s report showed that “a rotten, sexist culture is still alive and kicking in parts of the business community.”

The dinner came under further fire from Labour MP Jess Phillips and other critics who were upset that it had excluded women guests in the first place.

The President’s Club charitable trust, which said the event raised millions of pounds for disadvantaged children, said it was “appalled by the allegations of bad behaviour” and pledged to investigate.

The fall-out from the dinner may also place pressure on the Conservative Party.

A co-chairman of the charitable trust was said on Wednesday afternoon to have "stepped down" from his position as a non-executive board member of the Department for Education, while the FT also reported that Conservative MP Nadhim Zahawi, the newly appointed undersecretary of state for children and families, had attended the dinner.

Mr Zahawi has, however, reportedly said he left early.

The Stratford-on-Avon MP told ITV news: "I didn't stay long enough to really comment on the occasion."

The FT said the 130 hostesses were hired by the agency Artista, which allegedly required that the women were “tall, thin and pretty”, and paid them £150 for the night, plus £25 for a taxi home.

The FT said that at their initial interviews, Caroline Dandridge, the founder of Artista, warned the women that the men at the dinner might be “annoying”.

Ms Dandridge was reported to have told one hostsess: “It’s a Marmite job. Some girls love it, and for other girls it’s the worst job of their life and they will never do it again. You just have to put up with the annoying men and if you can do that it’s fine.”

Two days before the dinner, Artista allegedly emailed the hostesses to say they should bring “black sexy shoes”, black underwear and do their hair and make-up in a style suitable for a “smart sexy place”.

At the event, Ms Dandridge is said to have briefed the women that if any of the men became “too annoying” they should tell her.

The FT reported that some men among the “mix of British and foreign businessmen, the odd lord, politicians, oligarchs, property tycoons, film producers, financiers, and chief executives” were holding hostesses’ hands as the starters arrived.

During the night a 28-year-old woman claimed to have been repeatedly fondled on the bottom, hips, stomach and legs, with one man inviting her upstairs to his hotel room.

The 19-year-old who was reportedly asked if she was a prostitute was quoted by the FT as later admitting “I’ve never done this before, and I’m never doing it again. It’s f***ing scary.”

The report of what happened at the dinner immediately prompted calls for David Meller, co-chairman of the Presidents Club charitable trust, to resign from his other position as a non-executive board member of the Department for Education.

Mr Meller, joint chairman of the luxury goods supplier the Meller Group, has held his Department for Education position since June 2013.

Calling for him to resign from his education role, the Labour MP Jess Phillips said: “Organise a group event where women are offered up as meat all you like but if you do you don’t get a say in my kids schools.”

Asked to comment on Mr Zahawi and Mr Meller’s involvement in the dinner, a Department for Education spokeswoman said: “This charity event was attended in a personal capacity. It was not official departmental business and as such we are unable to comment further.”

Hours later, however, it was reported that Mr Meller had "stepped down" from his position on the Department for Education board.

The charity auction at the dinner included a lot offering a lunch for six co-hosted by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.

It is not thought that Mr Johnson attended the Presidents Club dinner itself and it was not immediately clear what – if anything – he knew about the event.

The Foreign Office has been asked for comment.

The Presidents Club told the FT: “The Presidents Club recently hosted its annual dinner, raising several million pounds for disadvantaged children.

“The organisers are appalled by the allegations of bad behaviour at the event asserted by the Financial Times reporters.

“Such behaviour is totally unacceptable. The allegations will be investigated fully and promptly and appropriate action taken.”

Ms Dandridge, of Artista, was quoted by the FT as responding to the allegations by saying: “This is a really important charity fundraising event that has been running for 33 years and raises huge amounts of money for disadvantaged and underprivileged children’s charities.

“There is a code of conduct that we follow, I am not aware of any reports of sexual harassment and with the calibre of guest, I would be astonished.”

When contacted by The Independent, a spokesman for Artista provided the same statement as that provided by the Presidents Club.

The Dorchester Hotel told the FT it had a zero-tolerance policy regarding harassment of guests or employees.

In a statement, the hotel said: “We are unaware of any allegations and should we be contacted we will work with the relevant authorities as necessary.”

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