Jho Low -- seen here with "Top Chef" host Padma Lakshmi -- allegedly swiped more than $5 billion from a Malaysian sovereign wealth fund, using it to live the high life.
In April 2013, a socially awkward 30-year-old Asian financier named Low Taek Jho — aka Jho Low — recorded a ballad, “Void of a Legend,” at Jungle City Studios in Chelsea.
Friends including rapper/DJ Swizz Beatz were there to assist on the vanity project when Busta Rhymes and Pharrell Williams dropped by.
Low, inebriated, called out to Rhymes, “Yo! I own you! You’re my bitch!”
Rhymes was put out but said nothing as Williams made small talk to cover everyone’s embarrassment. Low had meant nothing negative. It was, to him, a clunky, playful reference to the $100 million he had just spent for a share of EMI Music Publishing, one of the top publishers in the music world and with clients including Rhymes.
It was also a rare misstep for Low among his celebrity friends, whom he usually treated with great reverence and unprecedented generosity, such as the time he gifted a $9.2 million Basquiat to his good buddy Leonardo DiCaprio.
According to the new book, “Billion Dollar Whale: The Man Who Fooled Wall Street, Hollywood, and the World,” by Wall Street Journal reporters Tom Wright and Bradley Hope (Hachette), out Tuesday, Low saved his greatest misdeeds for the world of finance — siphoning at least $5 billion from a Malaysian sovereign wealth fund he helped create called 1Malaysia Development Berhad, or 1MDB.
At the height of his recklessness, the authors estimate that Low may have had access to more cash at any one time than anyone in history.
Low was born to a moderately wealthy family in Malaysia in 1981. As a teen, having learned the importance of high-status friends from his jet-setting father, who would fly in Swedish models for parties, he befriended Riza Aziz, whose stepfather was Malaysian Defense Minister Najib Razak.
Low threw his first elaborate parties while a student at Wharton. For his 20th birthday, he rented out one of Philadelphia’s hottest clubs, Shampoo, for $40,000, much of which he later reneged on. He cold-called sororities to ensure he had the hottest women at his bash and became known as “the Asian Great Gatsby” when, at the shindig itself, he had little to say to guests beyond, “How do you like the champagne?”
For a gambling trip to Atlantic City’s Trump Plaza Hotel & Casino, Low sent a note inviting Ivanka Trump, then a student at Wharton. He told friends she declined because “she would never set foot in one of her father’s ‘skeevy’ casinos.”
He also developed a strong crush on Paris Hilton, becoming so enamored that he watched “House of Wax,” her debut film, “half a dozen times, spurring eye rolls from his roommates.”
After college, he returned to Malaysia with a plan to work the contacts that he’d met at Wharton and elsewhere, for investment deals. A few years and several failures later, he was able to connect Najib, by then Malaysia’s deputy prime minister, with an investment fund called Mubadala Development. This success gave him status with Malaysian banks, which began lending him millions of dollars.
Over the next few years, Najib became prime minister, and Low became a master at both international networking and offshore financing, learning how to set up shell companies with legitimate-sounding names in jurisdictions with little to no regulation — and moving tremendous sums of money undetected.
Low invested in music and film companies to help him get closer to celebrities including Ludacris and Leonardo DiCaprio.
As the prime minister sought new ways to fund the government, Low suggested the development of a sovereign wealth fund. The result was 1MDB, whose stated purpose was to “invest in green energy and tourism to create high-quality jobs for all Malaysians.”
Through a byzantine series of maneuvers involving multiple banks, the backing of Saudi royals, the possession of $1.4 billion in bonds absorbed from a regional fund and compliance departments with loose standards, Low wound up in control of the fund and, the authors write, siphoned $700 million off for himself.
This would be the first of several such maneuvers as, according to Wright and Hope, Low eventually transferred more than $5 billion from the fund into his personal accounts. Once he had virtually unlimited wealth, he could finally live the glamour he could only approximate at Wharton.
“He began to spend eye-popping amounts, running up a $160,000 bar bill at [Manhattan nightclub] Avenue . . . on a single night during fall Fashion Week in 2009,” the authors write. “On another occasion, Low sent 23 bottles of Cristal” to Lindsay Lohan’s table at 1Oak.
“Between October 2009 and June 2010 — a period of only eight months — Low and his entourage spent $85 million on alcohol, gambling in Vegas, private jets, renting super yachts and to pay Playmates and Hollywood celebrities to hang out with them.”
Flush with so much cash, Low could afford to make his dreams come true. Ever enamored of Hilton, he contacted her manager in 2009 about paying her to attend his parties.
“She told friends,” the authors write, “that Low paid around $100,000 per event.”
The authors describe a party in Saint-Tropez, France, in July 2010, for which Low had rented the 303-foot super yacht Tatoosh from Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen. In a literal competition of opulence, Low beat out a New York real estate scion named Winston Fisher by spending 2 million euros on champagne. Low and his entourage, including Hilton, began opening the bottles and pouring them on each other.
“A ruddy-faced and sweat-damped Low was photographed with his head laying on Hilton’s shoulder,” the authors write. Days later, at another club, Low repeated the champagne-fueled largess as a drunken Hilton “danced and embraced him from behind.” For her 29th birthday, at the Palazzo in Las Vegas, Low gifted Hilton a Cartier watch; he then “handed her $250,000 in gambling chips and asked her to join him at the baccarat table.”
Even Hilton laughed at the audaciousness of it all, as she and her monied entourage were no match for Low in sheer extravagance.
“He was putting down bigger and bigger bets, hundreds of thousands of dollars on single hands,” the authors write. “Then, in a cascade of bad luck, taking all of 10 minutes, he lost $2 million. The stunned entourage couldn’t compute the way he parted with money — seemingly without breaking a sweat — and some began to whisper about this guy and how he acted like the cash wasn’t his own.”
Low cultivated celebrities including Gigi Hadid, Swizz Beatz and Alicia Keys. He also dated Victoria’s Secret model Miranda Kerr.
“There was probably a sense of shadiness or mystery around him, but nobody knew the origin of the funds,” Hope tells The Post.
“I don’t think anyone knew they were spending stolen money,” adds Wright. “I think a lot of it was explained away by, ‘This is a weird Asian billionaire and none of us understand Asia.’ But I think there was a willful ignorance. If you’re being handed $400 million to make films, maybe you don’t ask too many questions.”
The only person who recognized the true shadiness of it all was one who’d been there.
Low eventually financed Red Granite, a film company run by two associates, Aziz and a talent booker he’d met through Hilton named Joey McFarland; it provided the money for “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
The company threw a bash at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival to introduce itself to the film community, and it was Low’s usual blowout. Kanye West, Jamie Foxx and Pharrell performed for guests including DiCaprio and Bradley Cooper. Also there was Jordan Belfort, the subject of “The Wolf of Wall Street,” who had spent 22 months in prison for crimes related to a stock fraud scheme.
“Himself no stranger to fraud, Jordan Belfort thought something wasn’t right about this setup,” the authors write. “The event must have cost at least $3 million, Belfort calculated, as he nibbled on canapés and watched the A-list entertainment. And the movie hadn’t even gone into production!”
“‘This is a f–king scam — anybody who does this has stolen money,’ Belfort told his girlfriend, as the music thumped. ‘You wouldn’t spend money you worked for like that.’ ”
Low’s extravagance, at the expense of the Malaysian people, continued for years. Low bought “multimillion-dollar luxury homes in London, Los Angeles and New York,” a $35 million Bombardier Global 5000 private plane, and in 2013 spent an astounding $330 million on art, including $48.8 million for Jean-Michel Basquiat’s “Dustheads,” the highest price ever paid for a Basquiat.
He also, between April 2013 and September 2014, purchased $200 million worth of jewelry. Eight million of that money was for gifts for supermodel Miranda Kerr, whom Low dated in 2014.
In September of that year, Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s former prime minister, received information with evidence of Low’s role in 1MDB. He began a discreet campaign to force Prime Minister Najib to resign over the coming scandal.
In July 2016, US Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced that the US government would seek to recover “more than $1 billion in assets bought with proceeds stolen from 1MDB — the largest corruption case on record.” The mansions, the jet and Low’s EMI stake were all seized. Red Granite had to pay a $60 million settlement.
Low’s friends surrendered their gifts from him to the government, including DiCaprio’s $13 million in art and Kerr’s $8 million worth of jewelry.
Najib lost his bid for re-election in May of this year. He was arrested for abuse of power and criminal breach of trust in July and remains out on bail with a trial set to begin in February 2019.
As of this writing, Low — who, the authors note, has “denied committing crimes and maintained the transactions were legal,” as has Najib — remains a free man, with perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars still hidden. The authors believe he is living in China, which “saw him as a strategic asset.”
They think that Low is planning for a long life of luxury and freedom, including attempting back-channel negotiations with governments to surrender portions of his riches in exchange for the chance to live without fear of arrest.
“He was reading a book about Marc Rich,” says Hope, referring to the late financier charged with tax evasion, who lived out his life in Swiss exile. “We believe Low has this idea of being like Marc Rich, eventually finding a way to travel again and make it all go away.”