She met the Quebec billionaire in early 1992 when he wasn’t even a millionaire, just a wild-eyed goofball with thinning blond hair, strolling aimlessly in the sand. She was in her bikini, tanning on a Brazilian beach near her home when the stranger approached and asked her name. Though she didn’t have a clue what he was saying—she spoke Portuguese and he could just muster a few words in Spanish—it was evident enough that this shirtless stranger was enthralled with her. He hung around, and though she didn’t like him at first, she was charmed by his persistence. Plus, he was hilarious. One night when they were out, she was refused entry into a club because of her age. Other men might have been angry; this one made a funny face, dropped his pants and mooned the bouncer. “He was always making me laugh,” she told Maclean’s recently, reminiscing about the long-ago fairy tale that turned nightmarish as the years wore on. “He did things other people thought of doing but didn’t have the guts.”
At one point, his friend, the son of a minister in the government, came along. Fluent in Portuguese, he tried convincing her parents this stranger from Quebec was worthy of their daughter’s affections. She was 17; he was 32. Her father didn’t approve, but the man who was courting her told her not to worry. “I’ll take care of you,” he told her, according to her testimony.
So began the 10-year relationship between the billionaire, a pillar of Quebec’s business community, and the Brazilian 15 years his junior. It was a tumultuous affair that produced three children, but also suicide attempts, numerous affairs, and allegations of profligate drug use. Ultimately it has ended up in Quebec Superior Court as a constitutional challenge to Quebec’s laws governing unmarried couples. Should she win her case, “Lola,” as she’s been dubbed by the local press, could walk away with $50 million and a $56,000 monthly allowance. She will also have changed the meaning of marriage in this country, ensuring that unmarried couples in Canada have the same rights and obligations to one another as married ones.
A publication ban prohibits naming the couple, but their names are an open secret in Quebec. The identity of the billionaire, referred to as “Eric,” has been winked at in print and on radio, and divulged outright on several Internet sites. A reporter accidentally named the man’s well-known company on live television. “Lola,” meanwhile, has enlisted a pugnacious family lawyer named Anne-France Goldwater to compel the millions from his coffers. During the trial, Goldwater gave frequent interviews; during one on the radio, she suggested Quebec law reduces women to “cows” whose value amounts to no more than their wombs.
The trial, and ensuing media scrutiny, has devolved into a “disgraceful circus,” complained Pierre Bienvenu, one of the billionaire’s five lawyers, to the judge during the proceedings. If this much is true, then the money behind the show is Herbert Black, an art collector, philanthropist and businessman unofficially known as Montreal’s Scrap Metal King (he made his millions with a metal recycling business). A former acquaintance of Eric’s—the two dined together, and Eric flew in Black’s helicopter on occasion—Black has taken up Lola’s cause, to the tune of $1.2 million so far. And it isn’t because he dated Lola for two years, either. “Even if she got nothing and they changed the law, I would consider it a major victory for every lady in Quebec,” Black says. “Our law is obsolete and it has to be changed.”
In the picture shown in court she is all gangly limbs and knock knees, 17 years old but looking even younger. Eric was at once enthralled and worried; she dressed provocatively and, he thought, partied a lot. “I knew she was young, and I wanted to act as her guide,” he said in his testimony. “Maybe I was naive.” In the spring of 1992 he invited her to Montreal, all expenses paid, to see a show. “I’d seen the performance on Brazilian television. It was the most amazing and magnificent thing I’d ever seen,” she told the court. Trouble was, at 17 she needed her parents’ permission to leave Brazil. They agreed to sign for her passport, but not the authorization to leave the country. A sympathetic police officer, who took pity on her after hearing her story, signed that paper.
Her father wasn’t happy. “I have the obligation to feed and house you, but forget about all those nice things you love so much,” she recalled him saying. “Tell your father to go screw himself,” Eric said later, according to her testimony. From that point on, he picked up where her father left off, paying for everything—hotels, clothes, airline tickets around the world. Over the next two years, “Lola,” the self-described “simple girl from a village in Brazil,” saw not just Montreal, but Los Angeles, Spain, France and Japan. They celebrated her 18th birthday in Tahiti. She still lived with her parents, but she left Brazil 13 times during this period, barely finishing high school because of all the travel. She wanted to study architecture. “You could come to Canada to study,” Eric told her. “You could work anywhere in the world with a Canadian diploma.” She says she didn’t understand—where would she live? With me, he told her. “In Canada, it’s normal.” She testified that when asked about marriage, Eric said, “We’ll see if we’ll get to that point.”
Lola moved to Montreal in January 1995, the beginning of what she calls the “five-star years.” She remembers $20,000-a-night hotels in Dubai. She could measure Eric’s rising fortunes by which class they flew: from economy to business, and on to his company’s $25-million jet—and, later, $40-million jet. Then there were parties: the yearly bash at their house that went on all weekend, where she’d meet faces she’d seen in magazines. Sometimes she had to call her sister in Brazil to find out who they were. She’d been anti-drug most of her life, but she tried drugs a few times. Cocaine wasn’t the end of the world, she figured. It helped her stay awake.
Not long after, their troubles began. Eric’s work meant he travelled a lot, and she would tag along despite a fledgling modelling career and the language courses she was taking at McGill University. Eric wanted to have kids, but he didn’t want to get married. And there were the drugs, she testified. In her testimony Lola said the pair hadn’t become pregnant, despite not using contraceptives. He was also erratic, nice one day and horrible the next. Lola blamed drugs—it was primarily cocaine, she testified in court—for both problems. (In his testimony, Eric said he’d “never overdosed in his life.”) She would call his apartment in L.A., and girls would answer.