The Making of a Mogul: Sam Nazarian's Improbable Rise

Early in his career, Nazarian was easily dismissed as a starlet-chasing caricature of the models-and-bottles era, a guy who launched clubs so he could be sure of getting in. But at 38, with his hospitality-and-real-estate empire exploding, Nazarian is going all in, wagering $1 billion on a new flagship hotel-casino in Las Vegas. If he wins, it will represent more than the ascension of a magnate for the middlebrow—it will be the revenge of the nightlife nerd.

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It's a sweltering mid-June morning, barely two months before the much-anticipated opening of the SLS Las Vegas, and the resort site is in a state of utter pandemonium. Hundreds of hard-hatted workers race in every direction, armed with drills and saws and hammers. Clouds of chalky white dust waft through the air, enveloping the giant acid-yellow chair that is the only piece of furniture in the lobby. The hotel's main tower is only half-painted. The pool is drained and only partially finished. And every few minutes, an errant fire alarm emits an ear-splitting shriek.

Standing on a debris-filled balcony 23 stories above the madness, Sam Nazarian surveys the scene with Zenlike calm. "We still have a few things left to do," he says with characteristic understatement. "But failure is not an option." Nazarian, the 38-year-old (he turns 39 in late July) founder, chairman, and CEO of the entertainment company SBE, is one of the most prolific nightlife entrepreneurs in the world. The SLS, built on the bones of the venerable Sahara hotel, is the biggest gamble of his risk-filled career—a nearly $1 billion bet on a city that is just emerging from the most bruising recession in its history. After Nazarian's amazingly rapid ascent, many people are eager to see him fall. But if he feels the pressure, he doesn't show it.

Instead, as we tour his unfinished new palace, Nazarian is as giddy as a college kid showing off his first apartment. A genial six-foot-four figure clad in a shiny white silk jacket and a black T-shirt and jeans, he looks more like the MC of a lounge act than the CEO of a global hospitality empire. At the entrance to his new casino, where the freshly paved parking lot bubbles under the midday sun, he directs my attention to the giant, new five-sided marquee. "We hired the finest telecom firm in South Korea to design this for us—they do these 3-D graphics that are so real you'll think you're tripping." Inside the cavernous space that will house the hotel's nightclub, Life, he points out the flimsy catwalks where acrobatic models will dive and pirouette to entertain the throng below. We pause in the lobby to admire the plush Turkish rugs and exotic acid colors selected by the designer Philippe Starck. We wend our way through the thicket of hip eateries that have sprouted up—the Nascar Cafe and its ilk are distant memories—and the hundreds of brand-new, gleaming slot machines, grouped like sentries in the center of the casino floor. We even make a pit stop in a musty storeroom, where a set of stainless-steel doors will open Star Trek–style to reveal Nazarian's secret office.

But the high point of the tour, as far as Nazarian is concerned, is the 23rd-floor penthouse, which once hosted some of the world's biggest stars. "You realize that you are in the exact spot where Elvis used to sit for six months?" he asks. "You're looking at the same view that Marilyn Monroe and the Beatles once did!" Sprawled out below us is Vegas in all its cheesy, fabulous glory: the famous Stratosphere, a check-cashing place, a new Walgreens, the skeleton of the half-built Fontainebleu—abandoned during the recent recession. In the distance you can see the pristine ring of red hills where Nazarian lives. Though he still keeps a penthouse apartment in Los Angeles, Nazarian spends most of his time here at an $8.5 million, 14,000-square-foot, triple-gated mansion with a 10-car garage, a home theater, and other amenities.

But Nazarian turns his gaze straight down, contentedly taking in the forklifts, the scaffolding, and the army of scurrying hard hats working overtime to realize his grand ambitions. "A few years ago, when it looked like I might lose this place," he says, "I used to come up here to the penthouse every day and hide out. I'd sit and think, How the hell do I get out of this mess? But these days I come up here and I can't believe we've made it happen." Owning the place where Elvis once sat, Sam Nazarian finds it hard not to feel like a king.

• • •

Every aspiring tycoon can recall his rocket-ship moment: that precise point in time when his career either soars into a rarefied stratosphere of success or fatally plummets back to earth. For Sam Nazarian, that moment will arrive at exactly midnight on August 23, when the SLS Vegas officially opens its doors.

Nazarian was just 31 when he bought the Sahara in 2007, at the height of the Vegas real-estate boom. To some, the move smacked of hubris. But to Nazarian, a casino was the logical extension of a hospitality empire that had exploded in less than a decade to include more than 40 nightclubs, restaurants, and development projects. Today SBE owns a sprawling archipelago of brands, from nightclubs like Hyde, Greystone Manor, and the Sayers Club to restaurants like the Bazaar by José Andrés, Katsuya, Cleo, Umami Burger, and 800 Degrees to venerable, money-minting watering holes like the iconic gay bar the Abbey.

But while Nazarian earned his stripes in nightclubs, what turns him on most is hotels. He launched his first new hostelry, the SLS Beverly Hills, in 2008, taking over the bankrupt Le Meridien. Then, as now, there was lots of skepticism. But after a rocky start, it has become one of the most successful hotels in the city. He opened his second SLS in South Beach in 2012, across the street from Ian Schrager's storied Delano, which had been designed by Starck nearly two decades earlier. (At the opening, Rumer Willis performed on a stage floating over the pool while videos of giant monkeys were projected on the walls.) He plans to open new SLS outposts in Boston, Seattle, Philadelphia, Austin, and Shanghai by the end of 2017. He owns a hipster hotel called the Redbury, with branches in Hollywood and South Beach. He's launching a chain of upscale gay hotels with the founder of the Abbey, reportedly the top-grossing gay bar in America. And at the end of this year he is opening an SLS at the massive Atlantis-like five-star resort in the Bahamas, called the Baha Mar.

"What he's done is truly spectacular," marvels the director Brett Ratner, a pal of Nazarian's who met him at one of his nightclubs. "When I was in Miami a few months ago, he took me on a tour of the SLS there and I was blown away. When we met, Sam was just a club guy, a small-businessman. But suddenly I turn around and the guy owns the whole entire world."

• • •

It is quite possible that Sam Nazarian owes his success to the fact that he was a loser in high school. Nazarian may quarrel with the language—"I would say loser is a very strong word"—but not the notion that his outsider status helped fuel his uncommon drive. As the youngest child of a wealthy family described as the "Persian Rothschilds," Nazarian certainly enjoyed a high level of privilege. But rich kids are a dime a dozen at Beverly Hills High, where an unspoken divide between the Persians and "the whites" persists to this day.

"When I was growing up, there was a definite sense that Persians were just invading L.A.," he says. "And the truth is, we were just not cool. We didn't know how to dress. We didn't know the culture. Every time we'd go to a club, they'd make us wait for two hours and then announce it was a private party. It was kind of sadistic." While exacting revenge was never his primary motivation, Nazarian is aware that many of the clubs he owns today would have turned him away if he weren't footing the bill. "I ended up hiring some of those doormen," he says with a satisfied grin. "Now they always let me in."

The Nazarians arrived as part of the flood of Iranian Jews that settled in Los Angeles after the Islamic revolution in 1979. The family moved into a run-down Santa Monica hotel when Sam was 3; his two sisters and brother were considerably older. His father, Younes, had grown up poor in Teheran's Jewish ghetto and went on to earn a fortune manufacturing construction equipment, only to have it confiscated by the Ayatollah Khomeini's regime. After arriving in L.A., using money they were owed by German companies, Younes and his brother started over, buying a factory that built machine parts and investing in real estate and technology. In the eighties, the brothers put some cash in an obscure communications company that went on to merge with Qualcomm. It went public in 1991, giving Younes and his family a massive windfall overnight (their share is valued today at more than $1 billion).

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*HOMEBODY: Once a nightclub fixture, Nazarian, photographed here and on page 1 in the living

room of his 14,000-square-foot mansion in the hills above Las Vegas, now prefers quiet time.*

According to Nazarian, the transition from rich to megarich was surprisingly uneventful: "It's not like we were suddenly flying private jets or anything. Maybe we moved into a slightly bigger house. But none of us was allowed to glide by. We were all expected to work for our money. Nobody got a free ride."

His entrepreneurial talents were in evidence from an early age. One of his childhood pastimes was ironing dollar bills. A high-school friend remembers him doing a brisk trade selling fake I.D.'s to classmates. After graduating, he briefly enrolled at NYU but transferred to the University of Denver after a few overly social semesters and finally ended up dropping out of USC. "I'm not too good with books," he admits. But his upbringing provided him with a unique perspective that no university could match.

"I've watched my father and uncle scouting out properties and making deals since I was a child," he says. In the nineties, Nazarian traveled with his dad to Ramallah for a business meeting with the Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat. (In 2005, he told a reporter, with typical moxie, that he hoped to use his perspective as a Persian Jew to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict: "It may seem over my head, but I think I have a way of bringing people together through humor and personality.")

Like most Persian boys, Nazarian was expected to join the family business, but he struck out on his own. He earned his first fortune at 20, parlaying a $20,000 investment in a company that licensed Nextel cell-phone software into a $1 million profit. Soon after, he took his place at Nazarian Enterprises, where he was charged with scouting out new properties. By age 28, he says, he had invested $100 million to $150 million in houses, apartment buildings, and hotels—including the Sheraton in Santa Monica, where his family had lived upon coming to America.

But these were not especially sexy pursuits for a man eager to leave his mark. So somewhat inevitably, Nazarian tried his hand at film production, setting up Element Films, which aspired to be L.A.'s answer to Miramax. Element eventually released nine movies, including Waiting, a modest hit starring Ryan Reynolds, and Mr. Brooks, which starred Kevin Costner and Demi Moore. But Element's other projects were less memorable, and the company closed down in 2009. "The movie business is very seductive," Nazarian says. "Celebrities are seductive too. But I just wasn't good at it. Movie-making is not a sincere business. I realized there were better things I could do with my life."

By then Nazarian was increasingly consumed by his nightclub portfolio. Against his father's wishes, he had opened his first club, Shelter, in 2003, transforming a sketchy Sunset Boulevard biker bar called Coconut Teaszer into a sleek postapocalyptic Thunderdome with mohawked servers clad entirely in leather. The downstairs VIP lounge, the Chrome Room, quickly became the favored nightly salon for A-listers like Leonardo DiCaprio and Paris Hilton. Other clubs followed, including Prey, Industry, and S Bar. Whenever one hot spot began to lose steam, Nazarian would redo the property entirely and reopen under a new name. Hyde, his most popular club, featured the usual Nazarian touches: lavish chandeliers, plush banquettes, and thousand-dollar bottles of champagne. TMZ, which launched the year before the club opened, used to keep a camera trained on the door each night simply to record which celebrities were turned away.

Nazarian quickly emerged as a boldface name in Los Angeles. But it was his role as Heidi Montag's boss on MTV's hit The Hills that exposed him to a national audience. In one memorable episode of the reality show, Nazarian dragged a befuddled-looking Montag to his newly purchased Sahara, where he and his then-partner Brent Bolthouse had installed her as a project manager. While the show helped promote both Nazarian and the brand, some friends and colleagues found his flagrant self-aggrandizement a bit trying. Years later, Nazarian helped his friend Ryan Seacrest cast and package Bravo's Shahs of Sunset, about L.A.'s over-the-top Persian elite. He briefly considered signing on as producer but was talked out of the idea by his staff. "In retrospect," he concedes, "that would not have been a good idea."

• • •

Prodigious success always breeds a certain resentment, and Nazarian presented an especially tempting target. During his twenties, he was, by his own admission, something of a club rat—a fixture in the VIP rooms of his own nightclubs and at trendy boîtes all over Los Angeles. For a time he lived on a Hollywood cul-de-sac in an 11,000-square-foot mansion next door to the home of Leonardo DiCaprio. "He wasn't interested in just playing around," says the former Lakers star Rick Fox, a close friend of Nazarian's who met him at a pickup-basketball game. "He was in it to win. Whether it's playing ball or starting a restaurant or having a party, he does everything intensely. Sam's parties were legendary. They were these huge, extravagant blowouts, and everyone was there. Sam took care of every detail. He had a gift." The festivities continued after Nazarian abandoned the Hollywood Hills for an $11 million house previously owned by Jennifer Lopez. He kept all the star's furniture in place and proudly showed off the loofah she left behind in the shower. At one point, Nazarian had 15 black sports cars parked in his garage, including a Porsche, a Ferrari, and a $1 million Bugatti. His chauffeur ferried him around in a bulletproof SUV built for a Middle Eastern dignitary. He even played himself on an episode of Entourage and traveled with an entourage of his own. But his detractors found him too flashy, too loud, too...Persian. Even the name he bestowed on his new company—Samy Boy Entertainment—was deemed a bit outré.

"There was a sense he was kind of a joke—a dilettante playing with Daddy's money," says one colleague from that era. He was photographed sweaty and draped over revelers and cozying up to Paris Hilton. His breakup with his Hills costar Kristen Cavallari led to a spate of damning tabloid headlines. The schadenfreude had been stirred up by a 2005 article in The New Yorker that painted him as a louche, loudmouthed parvenu lording over a paper empire.

Nazarian was devastated when the article appeared. "I remember coming to New York and meeting with a mentor of mine. I was just utterly distraught, and he goes, 'Sam, I'm 60 years old, I've been in banking my whole life, I've made billions of dollars, and my mom cried when New York magazine did a one-page profile on me. You got nine pages in The New Yorker and you're 30! You'll be fine.'"

Soft-spoken and modest, the new Nazarian is markedly different from his old media image. The flashy jewelry he used to sport is nowhere to be seen. He goes out rarely and avoids nightclubs, especially his own. ("I have people send me photos of my clubs instead.") His car collection has been downsized. The Bugatti he used to show off for reporters was quietly sold. And after a string of short-lived relationships with interchangeable starlets and models, he's been happily living with the same woman for four years, a striking 29-year-old Albanian-American named Emina Cunmulaj.

"Yes, she's a model," Nazarian admits. "But she's incredibly smart. She's a self-made person, she supports her family, she speaks six languages . . . I met her on a trip in the Caribbean for an hour and didn't see her again for the next two months. We just spoke every night on the phone like I was in high school again, which was not my rap at the time, but that's probably the reason we're together. We fell in love on the phone. She's a big part of why I was successful in the last four or five years."

As he approaches 40, he's circumspect about his earlier excesses. "Everyone does dumb things in their twenties," he says. "I just had the resources to do dumber things than everyone else. But I was never the party boy they made me out to be." He bristles at the suggestion that his success is solely attributable to his family's wealth. "I remember hearing that crap for the first 10 years of my career. 'If I had his money, I could have done SLS and SBE.' This is not the rich kid's sorrow, like, 'Oh, woe is me.' I don't feel disadvantaged in any way. But there's definitely been a tendency to dismiss the hard work I do."

• • •

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PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM: (Clockwise) At L.A.'s XIV restaurant in 2008 with his costars on The Hills, Spencer Pratt (left) and Heidi Montag (second from right); with his girlfriend, Emina Cunmulaj, former Laker Rick Fox, and actress Eliza Dushku at the 2011 opening of Hyde Bellagio in Las Vegas; Nazarian courtside at a 2008 Lakers game with David Beckham and David Arquette.

The SLS Vegas may be Nazarian's ultimate fuck-you, rising from the Strip like a middle finger aimed at all the haters. He says he's dreamed of casinos since he was a little kid. "The first time I went to Vegas, I was just dazzled. Everything was bigger, brighter, flashier. It was where I wanted to be."

He began scouting for a space in the city seven years ago and eventually settled on the Sahara, a faded palace that opened in 1952. In its heyday, the Moroccan-themed resort-casino was a favored haunt of Frank Sinatra, Marlene Dietrich, and Sonny and Cher, and it features prominently in the original Ocean's 11. The Beatles stayed there when they played Vegas. Elvis stayed there while filming Viva Las Vegas. But in the nineties, as much bigger, more lavish casinos sprang up on the Strip, the Sahara got left behind. Owners came and went. It lost its lone remaining claim to fame as the site of Jerry Lewis' Labor Day telethons. A giant roller coaster, erected at the hotel's entrance, did little to boost business. By the time Nazarian came knocking, the hotel was on its last legs.

Compared with the behemoths on the Strip, the Sahara is tiny—1,600 rooms to the Bellagio's 4,000. It's located on the depressed northern part of the Strip, where casinos see far less action than the big palaces down the street. But the hotel's modest scale appealed to Nazarian, who believed that he could offer a more intimate alternative to the impersonal monoliths that crowd the city. He lured away top executives from the Wynn and Caesars to head up his new venture. The transformation was supposed to start immediately. But the implosion of the real-estate market, which worsened through 2008, put the brakes on his plans. By January 2009, the Sahara was desperately trying to sell rooms for just $21 a night.

"Six years ago, we were the butt of jokes," Nazarian recalls. "There couldn't have been a worse time to buy a casino. I'd wake up every morning not knowing whether I'd get out alive. Everything was collapsing. Most people would have washed their hands of it, started over, you know, like a lot of the bankers did. They took a loss and just walked away—lots of people told me to do that. They said, 'You're a good food-and-beverage guy. You're no good at hotels. Let it go!' It was those moments where you had to—it's corny, I know—but you had to make lemonade out of lemons."

Nazarian found some of those lemons in the form of rich Chinese businessmen desperate to get green cards to the United States. He exploited an obscure law that provided foreign investors with residency if they invested at least $500,000 in businesses that created American jobs. The infusion of Asian capital helped the casino survive the crunch. Then, in May 2011, after struggling to keep the Sahara afloat for four years, Nazarian finally closed its doors. The bulldozers arrived the next day.

Instead of razing the Sahara, however, Nazarian decided to build on its bones. But apart from the outline of the three towers that once dominated the hotel, the structure is unrecognizable. One of the original towers has been transformed into a deluxe all-suite wing with a penthouse designed by Lenny Kravitz's design firm. A second high-rise, closer to the pool, has been designated the "party tower." The main pool area has been completely redone, and a new watering hole has been added to the roof. The new SLS will feature three nightlife arenas: Life, a state-of-the-art 30,000-square-foot dance club; the Sayers Club, which will host intimate live performances by the likes of Prince and Stevie Wonder; and Foxtail, the club-lounge by the main pool.

It's a shift for Starck, who spent close to a year working on the hotel's design with the design firm Gensler and says he's abandoned his ego for his id. Gone are the dramatic, monochromatic designs he introduced at the Mondrian and the Delano. His vision for SLS Vegas combines a cacophony of vivid pinks and yellows, clashing patterns, and patches of artful graffiti, supplied by a young artist from Paris. "I want this hotel to be a bottle opener for the brain," Starck says. "Our visitors will be like people in a movie, traveling in our imagination. I'm not really an architect, Sam is not really a businessman. We just want to make great movies together."

As Indian casinos and resorts in Macau have siphoned off die-hard gamblers, Nazarian believes his vision will resonate with a younger, more entertainment-oriented demographic that comes to Vegas for music, food, and fashion. At most hotels, the casino is the focus—at the SLS it's just an amenity. In fact, a separate entrance will allow guests to enter without ever stepping onto the casino floor. Nazarian believes this is in sync with changing realities. "We've designed this hotel with a new demographic in mind. We're the only casino in town that's built exclusively for them." But other hotels have pursued similar strategies with less-than-stellar results. The Cosmopolitan, in particular, is a cautionary tale. Despite having the hottest club on the Strip and several of Vegas' top restaurants, it has bled billions since its 2010 debut, largely because it's been unable to lure gamblers. A few months ago, tired of hemorrhaging money, the Cosmo's owners were about to pull the plug when a private-equity group rode in and took it off their hands.

Nazarian believes that his casino will enjoy distinct advantages over its hipster competitors. Unlike most casinos, which license out their lucrative food and nightlife divisions, the SLS will house nearly a dozen of Nazarian's high-profile properties under a single roof, including the Bazaar, Katsuya, Umami Burger, 800 Degrees, and the Sayers Club.

Moreover, at a time when most new casinos carry price tags of $8 billion or more, the SLS seems like a relative bargain. Nazarian admits that his hotel won't be as tony as the Bellagio or the Wynn. The fancy walnut finish in the lobby is actually wallpaper. Many of the name-brand restaurants will share the same kitchen. "We've had to be inventive to make this work," he says. "We can't afford the chicest rooms or the hottest DJs. But I don't think that kind of extravagance matters to modern consumers. They're coming for the restaurants, the clubs, the service—the entire experience. And when it comes to reaching the demographic we're seeking to serve, I don't think anyone can touch us."

• • •

A month before our Vegas tour, on the Friday of Memorial Day weekend, Nazarian invites me to meet him at New York City's Standard High Line, the meatpacking-district hotel conceived by André Balazs. It's an interesting choice. Thanks to his youthful, urban demographic, Nazarian is often compared to Balazs and Ian Schrager, socially attuned, design-savvy visionaries who transformed the hospitality industry over the past two decades.

But while the SLS may echo the boutique appeal of Balazs' Standards or Schrager's Mondrian, it hasn't managed to capture their cachet. Hotels in many ways personify their owners: Schrager's hotels are classic, inventive, and relentlessly social; Balazs' are impeccably styled, decadent, whimsical (the air conditioner at the Standard in Hollywood has two settings, blow hard and blow harder).

In contrast, Nazarian's hotels are more luxe, more friendly, more comfortable—with a decidedly more mainstream bent (SLS is short for Service, Luxury, Style). Nazarian professes admiration for both Balazs and Schrager, whom he dutifully describes as "legends." He even tried to buy the Standard from Balazs last year, but the deal fell through at the last minute. "We agreed on the price and everything," he says. "But André couldn't bring himself to sell." Ultimately, in February, Balazs did sell, not to Nazarian but to the company that manages the hotel chain. (Both Balazs and Schrager declined to comment for this article.)

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The 2011 swan song of the Sahara, the legendary Rat Pack–era casino that Nazarian remade into the SLS Las Vegas.

Nazarian knows his hotels might not win over the Monocle magazine set. But he argues that hipness is overrated—a means to an end rather than an end itself. "The very qualities that make their hotels so hot prevent them from becoming truly global brands," he says of Balazs and Schrager. "Their vision is so specific that it gets in their way. When you're creating a brand, you have to do courageous things so you can have a seat at the table—so you take a retirement hotel on Sunset, put the name upside down, put a naked girl behind the check-in, and suddenly it's the coolest place in the world. But you do all that work so you can one day own 500 hotels—not just five or six.

"Look around," he says, waving an arm across the Boom Boom Room, the exclusive lounge atop the Standard. "Really cool, right? But sooner or later 50 other hotels will knock it off. The W was created as a knockoff of Schrager—it may not be as cool as his places, but his old hotels aren't so cool anymore, either. No one's dying to go to the Delano. Timeless—that's the new cool. Because no one wants to pour $300 million into something that's just cool."

Unlike his higher-profile competitors, who serve as de facto mascots for their hotel brands, Nazarian prefers to operate behind the scenes. "I'm too fat to be the mascot," he jokes. Instead, he relies heavily on a small team of advisers and gives them a great deal of latitude. "Ian wanted to see 100 prototypes of a chair before he made a decision," Starck says. "Sam is not that kind of boss—95 percent of the time he says yes to what I want, 5 percent he says no. I think it's a good division."

"To build a truly global brand, this can't be about me," Nazarian says. "Things can't stop because I'm not here to approve the caps on the bellhops. I have people for that." Skeptics may snipe that some of the star players on his roster—from Starck to the architect David Rockwell to the photographer Matthew Rolston—are long past their prime, but Nazarian is a great believer in reinvention. "They're not here to do what they did before," he says. "We're building a whole new thing."

What sets Nazarian apart from the pack, however, is not his aesthetic vision but his technological savvy and foresight. Nazarian has hired a massive tech team of programmers to develop something called the Code, a database of over 2 million customers culled from various SBE properties that notes their seating preferences, the drinks they like, even the names of their pets and children. "It's a way I can make you feel special in a place you've never been to before," Nazarian says. "When you show up at Hyde and say, 'Hey, I'm at the front door and I can't get in' or 'I'm at Katsuya and can't get a table,' I want to sell you access to these things." Big spenders at SLS Vegas might get a guaranteed reservation at Katsuya in L.A. Residents at his condos in Miami might get preference over the peons waiting to get into Hyde. "They're all part of the same community. My community!"

"He really has a gut instinct for what people want, which is a kind of genius," says Brett Ratner. "It's the secret to his success. You can stay at one of his places and sleep and dance and eat and never go out. If you think of it in movie terms, André and Ian are indie artistes. Sam wants to turn out blockbusters."

• • •

Toward the end of our evening at the Standard, standing on the balcony of the Boom Boom Room as the sun sets over the Hudson, I ask Sam what he does when he's not working. "Very little," he says. "I love to hang out with my girlfriend. I'd like to have children, which is something I'd never thought about seriously before." He funds a charity, the SBE Foundation, that gives to causes like education and juvenile diabetes. He collects art, mostly photography. When he's feeling restless, he can retire to his mansion in Montana, which comes with a private ski slope, or to his beachfront villa in Los Cabos. But the truth is, Nazarian doesn't really do vacations. What he does is work. "Every day, when I'm in town, I'll get up around 6:30 and drive around the job site four or five times," he says. "It's still kind of unreal to me. It still gives me a thrill."

For inspiration, he studies up on the lives of an earlier generation of moguls. He's a huge fan of Conrad Hilton and Issy Sharp, the Jewish businessman from Toronto who built the Four Seasons. He recently had lunch with the Venetian's owner, Sheldon Adelson ("a really brilliant man, though, of course, I don't share all his politics"). He reels off statistics about hoteliers the way others reel off stats about baseball stars. "The other day I was watching this film about Conrad Hilton's first hotel in Cisco, Texas, in 1919. You know he didn't even want to be in the hotel business? And he had the Great Depression to deal with. Next thing you know, he was in 40 countries and then BOOM! You know Hilton has 4,000 hotels across the world? That's what I aspire to."

Nazarian says he has recently hired a life coach, to help him "realize that there's more to life than just business." In the meantime, he is busily snapping up properties like a housewife at a Loehmann's sale. There are currently 26 major SBE projects in the works globally. Nazarian is partnering on a $650 million Frank Gehry–designed development next to the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown L.A. In South Beach, David Rockwell is working on a New Age hotel-and-apartment complex, with 133 SLS hotel rooms and 450 condo residences.

It remains to be seen whether Nazarian's appetites will ultimately exceed his abilities. He seems remarkably aware of both his strengths and his limitations. He sees himself not as a visionary or an artist but as a businessman with an instinctive sense of what people want. "You know, I'm not a scholar," he says. "I'm not this brilliant guy. I didn't go to school for technology or design or any of that—I didn't even finish college. I can't build you a wall. I can't even make you an egg. But if you put yourself around enough people that trust you and you give them a shot, then great things happen. I want to be a nice man, which is not too common in my industry. Nice is free!"

As if on cue, a couple wearing matching i love new york T-shirts approach and ask us to take their photo. Nazarian gladly obliges. For the next five minutes, he plays art director, setting up his vision of the perfectly composed shot against the Manhattan skyline. "You want to get the Empire State Building, so move to the left," he says. "But not too far left. And it would be nice if you have a little piece of that tree." The final photo is pleasant but unremarkable, the kind of anodyne tourist portrait that comes with a picture frame at Walgreens. But the couple walk away exceedingly pleased with the result. "You see," Nazarian says, taking a drag on an American Spirit. "All I want is to make people happy."

• • •

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