Lapo Elkann, Fiat Heir, Goes from Playboy to Bad Boy Again

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Lapo Elkann, Fiat Heir, Goes from Playboy to Bad Boy Again

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It sounded like a 1970s Scorsese film channeling Fellini: a dapper, 39-year-old Italian industrial scion claimed he was being held captive in a third-floor apartment of a public housing building at 344 East 28th Street in Manhattan, and he had been contacting home to secure a $10,000 ransom.

Authorities, however, quickly ordered a rewrite on that script. The Italian visitor, the police said, was apparently at the apartment by choice. Moreover, he is suspected of having been there for two days bingeing on cocaine, marijuana and alcohol, news reports say, with his purported abductor — a 29-year-old transgender escort.

Things took a surreal turn when they reportedly ran out of money for drugs and alcohol, and the well-heeled man contacted family in Italy, according to news accounts, in order to arrange a cash drop.

“It was not a well-thought-out plan to get money,” said a law enforcement official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss the case. “It kind of fell apart.”

At 5:50 a.m. last Sunday, the Italian man, who was born in New York, was charged with filing a false report, a misdemeanor, the official said. The arrest report described him as 5-foot-10, 185 pounds, with green eyes, a “blotchy” complexion and short, curly gray hair.

That is, to be sure, the least glamorous portrait of Lapo Elkann ever painted. Mr. Elkann, a globe-trotting bon vivant and grandson of the Fiat chieftain Gianni Agnelli, is considered as much a prince in Italy as anyone claiming a royal birthright.

Leveraging an electric personality and a showman’s instinct for spectacle, he created a cult of celebrity, transforming himself into a fashion entrepreneur whose personal brand is rooted in rock-star excess: the camouflage-painted Ferraris, the Technicolor double-breasted suits, the film-starlet girlfriends.

That taste for excess, however, comes with a dark side. His arrest occurred a month after Vanity Fair published a splashy profile describing Mr. Elkann’s dramatic rebound after a widely publicized cocaine and heroin overdose in 2005 in the Turin apartment of a 53-year-old transsexual prostitute that rippled like a thunderclap through Italian society.

For good or bad, it seems Mr. Elkann has never been one for half-measures.

“He is, on one hand, a guy who had an extremely privileged background, and privileged means a family that is not just rich; it’s a family that had a lot to do with Italian history and heritage, like the Kennedys here,” said Francesco Carrozzini, a Los Angeles-based filmmaker, photographer and friend of Mr. Elkann’s who is the son of the longtime Italian Vogue editor Franca Sozzani.

“But on the other hand, Lapo has an extreme sense of style and creativity,” Mr. Carrozzini added. “If you put a turquoise suit on someone else, they would look like a clown. But on him, it’s doesn’t. It’s his personality. It’s also not caring about what other people say.”

In terms of cutting a figure, Mr. Elkann always had a lot to live up to. His maternal grandfather, Mr. Agnelli, who died in 2003, was midcentury Europe’s quintessential jet-setter and playboy. A cross between Henry Ford and Marcello Mastroianni, he dated the likes of Jacqueline Kennedy and the film star Anita Ekberg, and at one point was said to control 4.4 percent of Italy’s gross domestic product. His mother, Margherita Agnelli, is a painter, his father, the American-born writer Alain Elkann.

Even so, Lapo Elkann was never content to disappear into a life of happy indolence in Capri or Gstaad.

“People would laugh if I say I started from ground zero, but the reality is I started my companies from scratch,” Mr. Elkann told the journalist Mark Seal in the Vanity Fair profile. “My mind-set today and in those days was: ‘Think like a self-made man. Even though you come from a family who has a humongous heritage, has everything, you need to think like someone who is poor.’”

Lending his considerable marketing energies to the family brand, Mr. Elkann worked to modernize the public image of Fiat, and spoke grandly about reinventing the image of Italian manufacturing. “Italy is at a turning point where we have to prove ourselves internationally,” he told Newsweek in 2011, adding: “We need to hit ‘reset.’ There needs to be a generational change.”

Mr. Elkann’s klieg-light personality also proved a marketing boon to his budding business empire, which includes the eyewear brand Italia Independent as its centerpiece.

Certainly, any scene that Mr. Elkann drops in on transforms into an event.

At the Baselworld watch fair in Switzerland last March, Mr. Elkann bounced onstage before the flashing cameras with the triumphant air of Justin Bieber kicking into an encore, as he pumped his latest collaboration with the watch brand Hublot, the $29,400 Big Bang Unico Italia Independent, featuring a camouflage “bespoke” carbon fiber case. After one interview, he slung his arm around the reporter and insisted they take selfies.

Mr. Elkann never seemed to be big on boundaries.

Seated courtside at a Los Angeles Lakers game in 2010, Mr. Elkann stunned television announcers when he appeared to interfere with the Toronto Raptors’ Jose Calderon, who was reaching for a loose ball.

After winning a $196,000 auction prize at an amfAR gala in France last May, he took a page from Adrien Brody’s Oscars book and planted a passionate and unwelcome kiss on Uma Thurman, the auction host. (“She wasn’t complicit in it,” her spokeswoman said.)

But Mr. Elkann’s gestures seem just as grand when employed for good. Just months after the kissing episode, he took the stage in Milan to receive amfAR’s Award of Courage in recognition of his generous support of the AIDS charity.

“I see many of my Italian brothers in the room, many of you who love your planes and your cars, to go to fashion shows and buy dresses for your wives,” he said. “Dig deep, gentleman, and keep giving.”

As Mr. Elkann took his place among the celebrities and influencers that night, his 2005 overdose seemed like a distant memory. Even so, its details remain indelible.

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As Mr. Seal wrote in a Vanity Fair profile in 2006, paramedics rushed to a tiny apartment in Turin’s red light district around 9 a.m. one October morning and found a 28-year-old man unconscious on a bed. “He didn’t come to for three days,” Mr. Seal wrote, “and by the time he awoke and began responding in three of the five languages in which he is fluent, his family had sped in from their villas.”

The story, however, had taken a happier turn in recent years. When Mr. Seal revisited the topic a decade later for the magazine, the headline was: “How Lapo Elkann Rebounded From Rock Bottom to Build His Own Business Empire.” The article recounted how Mr. Elkann had emerged “creatively more alive” after a rehabilitation stint in Arizona.

The timing of that piece made the events of the past week seem even more stunning.

And, so far, the next steps are unknown. When Mr. Elkann was charged, he was fingerprinted, photographed and issued a desk appearance ticket that will require his presence in court Jan. 25, the law enforcement official said.

The New York Post’s Page Six column reported that Mr. Elkann’s family was refusing to support him financially in this latest imbroglio. A representative for Mr. Elkann declined to comment for the heir or his family. Mr. Elkann was a no show at an Art Basel Miami Beach party that he was supposed to help host Thursday.

For now, the only hint at how he may respond to his latest scandal is to look back on how he responded to the last one.

Interviewed by The New York Times in 2007, Mr. Elkann looked back on his brush with death and, fittingly, framed it in automotive terms.

“I am an obsessive personality,” he said. “And if you are an obsessive personality you need to be aware of it and be able to drive it with success. There are moments in your life when you are driving it well but you shift and you shift badly and you hurt yourself.

“It’s like a car accident; we all have crashes, and I was very lucky not to die in that crash.”

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