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5 Things You Didn't Know About Mikhail Prokhorov

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It looks like Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov has reached a deal to buy the floundering New Jersey Nets. What's Prokhorov's story, though? We did some digging, and here are five things you probably don't know about the man who could become the NBA's next owner.

1. He Got His Start in the Jeans Business

Buying an 80% stake in the Nets for an alleged $200 million would put a crunch in most peoples' budgets, but earlier this year Forbes reported that Prokhorov's cash holdings alone might be worth upwards of $5 billion. Unlike many fabulously wealthy men, though, he didn't get any financial help from his family. In fact, he got his start in the jeans business.


Although Prokhorov's parents weren't particularly rich, they were sharp. His mother was the head of a polymer research department at the Moscow Chemicals Institute, and his father also ran a lab. Their son excelled in his studies and attended Moscow State Institute of Finance. After he graduated from college, he got a job at the International Bank for Economic Cooperation in 1989. Prokhorov put his money in an investment vehicle that would only have thrived in the late 80's: an acid-washed jeans company. With the profits from his denim venture, Prokhorov continued to rise up the financial ladder.

2. He Knows His Metals

Although Prokhorov first grew to prominence in the financial sector, he made his serious loot in the mining industry. In 1993 he purchased Norilsk Nickel during the wave of post-Communism privatization and built the Siberian mining company into a natural resources titan. One of his major coups involved investing in specialized Finnish freighters that could move metals around the Arctic without needing icebreakers.

Just how big did Norilsk Nickel get under Prokhorov? In 2005 he spun off all of the company's gold mining assets into a separate company, Polyus Gold. Polyus Gold alone is now worth around $8 billion, and Prokhorov is still chairman of the company's board. He resigned as CEO of Norilsk Nickel in early 2007 and sold his shares in the company for $7.5 billion.

3. He Knows How to Throw a Party

Prokhorov ran afoul of French authorities in 2007 when he hosted a two-week Christmas party for his fellow Russian plutocrats at his chalet in the ski resort Courchevel. This wasn't the normal sort of "Turn down your loud music!" complaint for the cops, though. Police arrested Prokhorov on suspicion of flying prostitutes in from Moscow to service his guests.

A raid on the hotel where many guests were staying resulted in 26 arrests, including Prokhorov and seven beautiful 20-something Russian women. Prokhorov contended that his companions were just friends he had met at Moscow nightclubs. According to Prokhorov, he flew them in for the party and covered all of their expenses, but he didn't expect anything in return other than their company. The billionaire told the police he liked the company of intelligent women and that "to stay young, you have to be surrounded with youth and beauty." When the cops ascertained that none of the women were actually professional call girls or prostitutes, they released everyone without filing charges.

Perhaps the best quote on the whole debacle came from Nicolas Sarkozy, who was a presidential candidate at the time. When told of the charges, Sarkozy quipped, "There's a man who wants to please."

4. He Likes to Win a Bet

A good-looking 44-year-old with a net worth estimated at $9 billion? How could this guy not be Russia's most eligible bachelor? The Russian press hangs on each of Prokhorov's adventures with the young ladies, and he's apparently had quite a few, including reportedly dating supermodel Naomi Campbell.

russiaphA truly bizarre story about Prokhorov's love life broke in the spring of 2007. The oligarch was supposedly planning a $10-million wedding on Maldives in which he would marry an unknown woman. This wasn't going to be a storybook wedding, though; Prokhorov was allegedly marrying the woman only to divorce her one week later. Why would he act so erratically? To win a childhood bet. According to the Russian press, Prokhorov had made a bet with a childhood friend—both the stakes of the wager and the friend were unknown—that he would be married before his 42nd birthday. Russian reality TV host and socialite Ksenia Sobchak (pictured), also known as "Russia's Paris Hilton," even claimed that she would be the mysterious bride.


Despite all the fuss in the European press, Prokhorov's birthday passed without a wedding, and the real secret behind Prokhorov's love life remains a mystery.

5. He's a Sports Nut

cskaProkhorov may see the Nets as a good investment, but he's also the sort of sports fanatic who might be Russia's equivalent of Mark Cuban. Prokhorov is extremely tall—estimates range from 6'6" to 6'9"—and played basketball in his youth. He already owns a piece of CSKA Moscow, one of the top hoops teams in Europe.


He's not just a basketball fan, though. Earlier this summer there were rumors that Prokhorov might try to buy the Italian soccer team AS Roma, and although the team has denied any sale, there are still whispers that Prokhorov may end up in the soccer business as well. Forbes also notes that the oligarch "loves kickboxing."

'5 Things You Didn't Know About...' usually appears on Friday, but we moved it up this week. Read the previous installments here.

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The Secret to the World's Most Comfortable Bed Might Be Yak Hair
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Tengi

Savoir Beds laughs at your unspooling mail-order mattresses and their promises of ultimate comfort. The UK-based company has teamed with London's Savoy Hotel to offer what they’ve declared is one of the most luxurious nights of sleep you’ll ever experience. 

What do they have that everyone else lacks? About eight pounds of Mongolian yak hair.

The elegantly-named Savoir No. 1 Khangai Limited Edition is part of the hotel’s elite Royal Suite accommodations. For $1845 a night, guests can sink into the mattress with a topper stuffed full of yak hair from Khangai, Mongolia. Hand-combed and with heat-dispensing properties, it takes 40 yaks to make one topper. In a press release, collaborator and yarn specialist Tengri claims it “transcends all levels of comfort currently available.”

Visitors opting for such deluxe amenities also have access to a hair stylist, butler, chef, and a Rolls-Royce with a driver.

Savoir Beds has entered into a fair-share partnership with the farmers, who receive an equitable wage in exchange for the fibers, which are said to be softer than cashmere. If you’d prefer to luxuriate like that every night, the purchase price for the bed is $93,000. Purchased separately, the topper is $17,400. Act soon, as only 50 of the beds will be made available each year. 

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

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Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
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Fart Gallery: A Novel History of Spencer Gifts
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Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

When U.S. Army Corps bombardier Max Spencer Adler was shot down over Europe and imprisoned by the Nazis during World War II, it’s not likely he dreamed of one day becoming the czar of penis-shaped lollipops and lava lamps. But when Adler became a free man, he decided to capitalize on a booming post-war economy by doing exactly that—pursuing a career as the head of a gag gift mail-order empire that would eventually stretch across 600 retail locations and become a rite of passage for mall-trekking teens in the 1980s and 1990s.

To sneak into a Spencer Gifts store against your parents' wishes and revel in its array of tacky novelties and adult toys felt a little like getting away with something. Glowing with lasers and stuffed with Halloween masks, the layout always had something interesting within arm’s reach. But stocking the stores with such provocations sometimes carried consequences.

A row of lava lamps on display at Spencer Gifts
Dean Hochman, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Returning from the war, Adler sensed a wave of relief running through the general population. Goods no longer had to be rationed, and toy factories could return to making nonessential items. The guilt of spending time or money on frivolous items was disappearing.

With his brother Harry, Adler started Spencer Gifts as a mail-order business in 1947. Their catalog, which became an immediate success, was populated with items like do-it-yourself backyard skating rinks and cotton candy makers [PDF]—items no one really needed but were inexpensive enough to indulge in. In some ways, the Spencer catalogs resembled the mail-order comic ads promising X-ray glasses and undersea fish kingdoms. Instead of kids, Adler was targeting the deeper pockets of adults.

Bolstered by that early success, Adler moved into a curious category: live animals. He had small donkeys transported from Mexico and marketed them as the new trend in domestic pets. LIFE magazine took note of the fad in 1954, observing the $85 burros, being sold at a clip of 40 a day, “except for stubbornness, are very placid.”

Burro fever foreshadowed the direction of Spencer’s in the years to come. The Adlers opened their first physical location—minus livestock—in Cherry Hill, New Jersey in 1963, expanding on their notion to peddle unique gift items like the Reduce-Eze girdle, which promised to shave inches off the wearer’s stomach. That claim caught the attention of the Federal Trade Commission, which chastised the company for advertising the device could reduce body weight without exercise [PDF]. The FTC also took them to task for implying their jewelry contained precious metals [PDF] when the items did not.

Offending the FTC aside, Spencer’s did a brisk enough business to garner the attention of California-based entertainment company Music Corporation of America, Inc. (MCA), which purchased the brand and proceeded to expand it in the rapidly growing number of malls across the country in the 1970s and 1980s. (The mail order business closed in 1990.)

Brick and mortar retail was ideal for their inventory, which encouraged perusal, store demonstrations, and roving bands of giggling teenagers. The company wanted its stores to capture foot traffic by stuffing its aisles with items that had a look-at-this factor—a novelty that invited someone to pick it up and show it to a friend. When executives saw specific categories taking off, they “Spencerized,” or amalgamated them. When there was a resurgence of interest in Rubik’s Cubes and merchandise from the 1983 Al Pacino film Scarface, visitors were soon greeted in stores by stacks of Scarface-themed Rubik’s Cubes.

Mike Mozart via Flickr

Apart from its busy aesthetic—“like the stage from an old Poison video,” as one journalist put it—Spencer's was also known for its inventory of risqué adult novelty items. Pole-dancing kits and sex-themed card games occupied a portion of the store’s layout. The toys captured a demographic that might have been too embarrassed to visit a dedicated adult store but felt that browsing in a mall was harmless.

Sometimes, the store’s blasé attitude toward stocking such items drew critical attention. In 2010, police in Rapid City, South Dakota seized hundreds of items because Spencer's had failed to register as an “adult-oriented business,” something the city ordinance required. As far back as the 1980s, parents in various locales had complained that suggestive material was viewable by minors. In 2008, ABC news affiliate WTVD in Durham, North Carolina dispatched two teenage girls with hidden cameras to see what they would be allowed to buy. While they were shooed away from a back-of-store display, they were able to purchase “two toy rabbits that vibrate, moan, and simulate sex” as well as a penis-shaped necklace.

As a possible consequence of the internet, there are fewer incidences of parental outrage directed at Spencer’s these days. And despite the general downturn of both malls and retail shopping, the company bolsters its bottom line with the seasonal arrival of Spirit Halloween, a pop-up store specializing in costumes. Despite only being open two months out of the year, their Spirit locations contribute to roughly half of Spencer's $250 million in annual revenue.

Today, the chain’s 650 stores remain a source for impulse shopping. They still occasionally court controversy over items that appear to stereotype the Irish as drunken oafs or other inflammatory merchandise. With traditional mall locations expected to shrink by as much as 25 percent over the next five years, it’s not quite clear whether their assortment of novelties will continue to have a large retail footprint. But so long as demand exists for fake poop, fart sprays, and penis ring toss kits, Spencer’s will probably have a home.

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