Just down the street from the magnificent Palace of Versailles is a small women’s prison, la maison d’arrêt de Versailles. It began life as a holding house for prostitutes, but soon expanded to include “all types of offenders,” and now counts among its ranks the number-one reality star in France.
Charged this weekend with attempted murder, TV personality and model Nabilla Benattia has a cell in the maison d’arrêt all to herself, after the examining judge deemed the 22-year-old a “sensitive prisoner.”
Benattia reportedly received treatment for shock after the stabbing of her boyfriend, Thomas Vergara, at a hotel outside Paris last Thursday. But perhaps more importantly her beauty and high-flying lifestyle “could awaken jealousies within the establishment,” reported the French outlet RTL, which reminded readers that, “her fellow inmates do watch television.”
That’s because for almost two years now, Benattia has been an inescapable presence in France, where she is widely referred to as la Kim Kardashian française — the French Kim Kardashian. Like Kardashian, Benattia has long, dark hair, is curvaceous, and is utterly inescapable in the media.
She first shot to fame as a cast member on Les Anges de la téléréalité (The Reality-TV Angels) in early 2013. Then in its fifth season, the show put pretty French millennials into a Florida apartment and charged them with finding stardom in the U.S.A. In a house of aspiring singers, actors, and models, Benattia’s dreams were by far the most modern: “I want to become an ‘It’ girl in the U.S.A.,” she said. She idolizes Kardashian, and as a surprise for Benattia’s birthday, Kardashian dropped by the house briefly to offer some tips. There is filmed evidence of the meet-strange, Benattia towering over the petite and pregnant Kardashian in bright yellow platform heels, tears of joy drying upon her cheeks.
A few weeks later, events conspired to grant Benattia’s wish . . . in France. An episode of Les Anges aired in which Benattia entered into a bizarre monologue about two of her Miami housemates. She berated them for not bringing shampoo to the house while speaking into a pinky-finger telephone. “Non, mais allô quoi,” she said (Valley Girl French for “Um, hel-looo”). “Allô? Ah-llô? You’re a girl and you don’t have any shampoo? I don’t know, are you receiving me? It’s as if I were to tell you, I’m a girl, but I don’t have any hair!”
The segment went viral in France, sparking a meme, as well as trademarks of the phrase “Non, mais allô quoi!,” a move straight out of the smart reality-star’s playbook. IKEA used the phrase (“You’re a chair, and you don’t have any cushions?!”), and there was a parade of magazine covers and talk-show appearances, along with the qualifier la Kim Kardashian française. Benattia even walked the runway for celebrated French fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier.
Soon, she was given her own reality show, Allô Nabilla, which has filmed in glamorous locations like Los Angeles, Paris, and Tokyo.
The central storyline of Allô Nabilla is Benattia’s relationship with Vergara, a Les Anges cast member she courted during taping, a few months before viral fame hit. As an aspiring model in Miami, Les Anges showed Vergara struggling to make an impression at agency go-sees. But when Benattia’s star began to rise, so did his. Stylish as a Gallic David Beckham, he is constantly photographed at red-carpet events. He recently appeared in a campaign with Benattia for Blooshop, and he has his own line of clothing and accessories. The last season of Allô Nabilla ended with Vergara proposing to Benattia on a romantic evening in Marrakesh.
According to Le Monde, the perfect love story was thrown into chaos around 2:30 A.M. last Friday morning, with a distress call from Benattia’s apartment outside Paris. When firemen arrived, they found Vergara had been stabbed several times in the chest. He was taken to Georges-Pompidou Hospital in a serious condition, where he is still recovering. Some reports say staff said they heard shouting coming from Benattia and Vergara’s room.
Initially, Benattia told police that they had been attacked by three individuals outside the hotel. But video surveillance footage did not back up her story. There was no footage of an attack, and no blood on the pavement. Or in the lobby, for that matter. The couple were separated for questioning, and tested for drugs and alcohol.
Benattia claims Vergara had taken cocaine during the evening; she reportedly tested negative for drugs and alcohol. Separated from her lover, Benattia then told police that Vergara had actually stabbed himself in the scuffle, after a reaction to the drugs. But on Sunday November 9, the police department of Nanterre charged Benattia with second-degree attempted murder.
In front of the examining judge, Benattia presented a third version of events. She said that Vergara had hit her, several times, after taking drugs, and that she feared for her life. She is represented by a M Martin Desrues, a lawyer chosen reportedly for his lack of “bling bling,” according to Nabilla’s communications officer, who thought it better for her image. Le Parisien reports that the knife was found with Vergara’s fingerprints on it.
But an incident earlier in the summer complicates things. In August, Vergara presented at a hospital in the south of France with a knife wound to his back. According to Closer, he told staff he had “fallen on a kitchen knife.” Closer, the French gossip magazine best known in the English-speaking world for publishing invasive, nude photographs of the Duchess of Cambridge, obtained photographs of Vergara in the Aix-en-Provence hospital. In one, he can be seen relaxing outside on a balcony with Benattia. In another, he is wearing an open-back hospital gown that reveals a bandage across his lower back. An inquiry into that incident may be opened now.
In an interview with a Swiss newspaper last January, which has since come back to haunt her, Benattia explained the ups and downs of her relationship with Vergara. “When we fight, it’s explosive,” she said. “Me, I throw vases. There have been breakages in hotel rooms. But if he was violent with me, I would already have left to save myself.” She also answered questions about jealousy and relationships. “I am the worst at being jealous!” she said. “It’s unhealthy.”
“Up to checking his SMS?” asked the interviewer.
“No. But if I caught my dude cheating on me, I would stab him with a knife,” she said.
As l’affaire Nabilla dominates French tabloids, Vergara has still not pressed charges. This may shift in light of Benattia’s claims that she acted in self-defence. Either way, the couple’s coyness and shifting statements sufficiently annoyed the police department of Nanterre to release a public statement. They floated the possibility that “a confrontation between the two protagonists could have been organised,” and that Benattia and Vergara acted in ways to obstruct justice.
Benattia’s reality now includes up to 30 years in prison if she is convicted on the attempted murder charge.
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