ATHENS — “Lohan” — the word is splayed in glowing white letters against a deep red background on a tall, rectangular building in central Athens. Steel pipes puff out tendrils of smoke. It seems somehow incongruous: more Hell’s Kitchen than Hellenic.
The club is the brainchild of Dennis Papageorgiou, the scion of a wealthy Greek family with interests ranging from shipping to property to restaurants.
Named for the Hollywood celebrity, actress Lindsay Lohan, it is the latest nightclub to open up in crisis-ridden Greece. The hotspot euphemistically calls itself a “pro-refugee” nightclub. I’m here to find out what exactly this means.
* * *
The grime and dirt of the street seem to stop, almost miraculously, at the club’s borders. A set of steps leads up to its entrance, guarded by four bouncers manning a set of gold barriers strung together with red velvet ropes. To their left is a stretch of manicured grass, divided with stone borders into square sections, each containing an almost identical bush: a small archipelago of green amid a sea of concrete. The artificiality is stark, the chaos of the city fastidiously scrubbed away.
A huge bouncer, his head seemingly welded to his shoulders in a solid unit, parts the cord and I enter to meet Tonia Koumpa, the club’s media liaison. Every inch the club promoter, Koumpa sports short, dyed blond hair and an all-white outfit topped with a sleeveless fur jacket. Bright blue sunglasses dangle from her neck.
The refugee crisis has overwhelmed Greece. At its height, between July and December 2015, around 750,000 refugees arrived in Greece; just under half came from Syria. By August of this year, another 160,000 had arrived. Greece has a population of just 11 million.
In Athens, the scale of the crisis is plain to see anywhere you go. Refugees squat and sit by the side of the road in the bohemian neighborhood of Erarchia, and beg for money in the central Omonia and Syntagma Squares. In Pedion Areos, one of Athens’s biggest parks, an entire refugee tent city dominates what was once an expanse of well-kept lawns and paths.
Greek NGOs, often backed by EU money, have done their best to cope with the humanitarian crisis, setting up food banks and youth clubs and connecting refugees with lawyers who offer their services pro bono to handle complicated residency and work permits.
A nightclub, well, that’s a new approach.
And one Koumpa is all too keen to tell me about. She speaks with dizzying speed, words tumbling from her mouth like parachutists from a plane. Lindsay Lohan had recently made an appearance to personally open the club and Koumpa is clearly excited at the prospect of what the club can achieve.
“Lindsay feels very strongly that there is a global refugee crisis going on and her country, the U.S., has taken in hardly any refugees,” she says, sitting in the club’s roped-off VIP section.
She’s right. Since meeting Papageorgiou, the club’s owner, on the Greek island of Mykonos over the summer, Lohan has developed a new — and, to many, bemusing — “international” accent and an interest in the refugee crisis. She even visited Syrian refugees in Turkey.
“The club will make money and a portion of it will be invested in helping the needs of refugees,” Koumpa tells me. “Lindsay said she will take all the profits from her share of the business to use for refugee causes.”
I look around the club. It’s clearly going for an eclectic “industrial” vibe. Pipes run along walls of exposed brick, and chandeliers surrounded by metal chains dangling around them hang from the ceiling. A stage with a DJ booth sits above a small dance floor dotted with high tables. It’s midnight, and the place is filling up. Guests take to the dance floor while several scantily clad dancers take up their positions above the gathering crowd.
Koumpa continues: “The principle is that in Greece, despite the crisis, there are people with money, so we want them to think: ‘Oh, god, I’m spending so much money on a night out, then why not spend it here where it will also go to a good cause?’”
And will refugees be catered for in the club itself? I ask. “We’re looking into that,” she says.
* * *
The club’s owner is a far cry from a traditional Greek oligarch. Dressed in black with long, dark hair streaked with blonde highlights tied up in a man bun, Papageorgiou is charming and down to earth.
He was already looking for a club when he met Lohan over the summer in Mykonos, he says. The club’s name was purely a marketing decision. In the exchange for the use of her name she receives a percentage of the profits, which will be invested in refugee causes. “It was her idea to get involved,” he explains.
“Look,” he says. “I already have good connections in shipping, in industry, people who already spend big time so we have catered to them with an excellent VIP section and things like that. With Lindsay’s help we are going to get celebrities and great DJs to come from abroad. This will be the best club in Athens.”
Given the difficulties most Greeks are facing in the midst of the financial crisis, is it really the right time to open a nightclub in Athens?
Papageorgiou admits many Greeks have suffered from increased taxes as a result of the austerity measures insisted upon by the EU for the numerous bailouts Greece has received.
“It’s very hard to make a profit in Greece now,” he says. “But we think people also want to go out and enjoy themselves, but now they are extra careful with how they spend their money, so we need to make sure the club is a great one; throw Lindsay Lohan into the mix, and it can be interesting.”
And what exactly are the refugee initiatives that the club will fund? I ask. “We are looking to get celebrities involved in events with refugees,” he replies, declining to elaborate.
Our interview ends and once more I look around the club. At the table next to me a group of tattooed, muscular men have ordered a bottle of champagne the size of a howitzer.
The club’s customers, dancing and spending away, have fled Greece’s financial crisis to seek refuge of their own — in single malt and Chardonnay, beneath the club’s rotating purple lights.
David Patrikarakos is a contributing writer at POLITICO.