Kiran and Jyoti Matharoo in the Consort Bar at Toronto’s Omni King Edward Hotel.CreditCreditTara Walton for The New York Times
After years of romances with a series of fabulously wealthy Nigerian boyfriends, the flamboyant Canadian sisters Jyoti and Kiran Matharoo needed somewhere to store the pricey spoils of their dating careers. So they converted a bedroom in their Toronto home into a large walk-in closet that resembles a luxury boutique.
An entire wall is lined with more than 70 pairs of designer high-heeled shoes. Glass wardrobes display dozens of handbags and purses from brands like Hermès, Celine, Gucci and Saint Laurent. Equally pricey clothing drapes tightly from hangers and fills trunks stacked up to the ceiling.
There are separate drawers for belts, rings, earrings, bracelets, silver necklaces and gold ones. They own a collection of rose gold and diamond-encrusted watches easily worth several cars. And the white Mercedes-Benz sedan parked outside? It’s their third paid for by a wealthy paramour, they said.
Did they even pay for any of this stuff? “Not really, no,” said Jyoti, 34. Her sister responded similarly. “The only time I go shopping is when someone gives me their credit card,” said Kiran, 32.
Armed with this luxury haul, the Matharoos have tried to copy the modern art of idle glamour pioneered by Paris Hilton and perfected by Kim Kardashian West. They followed the playbook so effectively that they are sometimes called the “Canadian Kardashians” for their devotion to spandex bodysuits, private jet travel, Christian Louboutin and social media.
But if their reality-television muses are famous for being shamelessly rich, the Matharoos became notorious after their unapologetic pursuit of material excess backfired, exploding into a messy international scandal involving one of the world’s richest men, a salacious gossip website, stints in Nigerian and Italian custody, and a battle to clear their names with Interpol, the global police organization.
The Matharoo sisters never intended to become a cautionary tale about the perils of social media influence. They were born and raised in Toronto, by middle-class parents who had immigrated from India. The sisters’ lives changed abruptly 10 years ago, when Jyoti, fresh out of college, met a Nigerian petroleum magnate.
“He’s not a rapper with expensive watches,” said Jyoti. “It’s generations and generations of money.”
He flew both sisters on private jets to France and Greece and eventually to Nigeria, a destination they did not disclose to their strict parents. Upon landing, a convoy of Mercedes-Benz G-Class S.U.V.s drove them to his home, a heavily marbled mansion with a pool and a litany of servants. Kiran lazed away poolside while Jyoti accompanied her lover to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to play polo with a prince.
“It all happened so fast,” Jyoti said. “There wasn’t even a moment for us to be like, ‘Is this really happening?’”
Within a few months, she said, he bought her a condominium in Toronto and began giving her a monthly $10,000 stipend so she would not have to work.
This affair was not to be a forever love, though. Over the years, the sisters globe-trotted with a succession of paramours. In particular, both sisters traveled frequently to Nigeria and said that dating wealthy men there was easy. “Once they find out you have a sister, it’s over,” Kiran said. “We don’t find them. They find us.”
Neither would say exactly how many billionaires they had dated. “If you say more than one, you’re automatically considered a gold digger,” said Jyoti, though she admitted that the number is higher than one. “I’m attracted by the power of who they are, what they do and what position they are on the Forbes billionaire list.”
Kiran described herself as an old-fashioned girl who simply likes to be courted. “If you want to date me, you have to spoil me,” she said.
In brandishing this high-end brand of pampered independence, the sisters seemed to delight in rejecting society’s expectations of women’s roles. “Marriage and alimony are acceptable, but being single and letting a guy give you things is not,” Jyoti said. “You have to own it. I don’t feel like I’m a piece of property.”
The Matharoos’ growing notoriety, fueled largely by Instagram, made them particular favorites of Nigeria’s gossip blogs, which tracked their rumored relationships with the sort of savage coverage normally reserved for troubled royals. “Indian twin-menace: Nigeria’s most promiscuous sisters,” one headline declared in 2016: “Why billionaire housewives dread them.”
The sisters received more scorn from social media commenters.
“The road to Hell is paved with Birkin bags, promiscuity, sloth, Instagram photos, and vanity,” a commenter posted on a gossip blog thread entitled “High Paid Escorts/Prostitutes: Jyoti & Kiran Matharoo.” This thread runs for 220 pages — “more than some celebrities,” Kiran said, with pride.
When the dark side of the fantasy arrived — this was in Lagos, in December 2016 — it was as sudden as it was severe.
A few days after the Matharoos had returned to Nigeria, they were awakened by a loud knocking at their hotel room door. A group of men burst in and told the women they had to come to the police station. Some of the men, who turned out to be plainclothes police officers, took photos of the sisters in their bathrobes. These soon appeared online. The sisters asked to see a warrant and a badge but got no response.
“I told them I’m going to call my embassy, but when I started dialing, one guy grabbed the phone out of my hand,” Jyoti said. “They said if we don’t get dressed, they were going to carry us out just like that.”
“We thought we were being kidnapped,” Kiran said.
At the police station, the officers kept asking if the sisters owned a gossip website that had been spreading scandalous rumors about Nigerian elites — and about the sisters themselves. This site was among the blogs that had described them as prostitutes. “We couldn’t help but laugh, because the whole thing was so ridiculous,” Jyoti said.
From there, the sisters said they were driven in a van to another police station, this one belonging to Nigeria’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad, a branch of the police notorious for corruption and using torture to extract confessions, according to a 2016 report by Amnesty International. They were taken to a dimly lit office where an officer, seated behind a wooden desk, demanded they write statements admitting that they owned the gossip website.
“The site was in Nigerian Pidgin,” Jyoti said. “We can’t speak Pidgin, so of course we refused.”
After hours of arguing, officers pushed the tearful sisters into what they described as a rat-infested jail cell filled with a dozen women, a few pieces of foam for beds and a hole in the floor for a toilet. The next day, they said, officers brought them back to their hotel room, and took their passports, electronics and Nigerian currency worth more than $11,000 from the safe.
The women were then driven to a hotel by the airport and locked in a room with bars on the windows and guards outside the door. They said some of the men demanded bribes. “It was like we were held hostage,” Kiran said.
All told, the sisters were detained for 18 days.
They were accused of cyberstalking and threatening to kidnap wealthy Nigerians, including one of Kiran’s ex-boyfriends, Femi Otedola, a politically powerful oil tycoon whose net worth was $1.8 billion in 2016, according to Forbes magazine.
While they were in detention, the sisters said the police brought them to the home of Mr. Otedola, who warned that he could have them imprisoned for 10 years — or worse — if they refused to cooperate.
Desperate to leave Nigeria, and getting no help from the Canadian Embassy, the Matharoos feared they were running out of options. Then, they said, an associate of Mr. Otedola’s arrived at their makeshift jail cell with an offer: If they apologized to Mr. Otedola on video, they could get their passports back and fly home to Canada.
“I felt this was our only chance,” Jyoti said. Standing against a wall in their room as the man’s assistant filmed, Jyoti read a confession off her phone, admitting that the pair ran the website and apologizing to Mr. Otedola and his family. The man never returned with their passports.
“We got everything we wanted by asking nicely,” Kiran said, dismissing the confession video. “Why would we ruin that?”
Kiran said Mr. Otedola was furious that she had spurned his entreaties to rekindle their relationship, and used them as scapegoats to deflect attention from the website’s embarrassing rumors. Mr. Otedola did not respond to interview requests.
About a week after they posted bail, the sisters flew to Toronto with emergency travel documents that Canadian officials issued after they determined the women faced no travel restrictions and that “there was a significant risk to their physical safety,” an immigration official said in an email. The sisters said Canadian diplomats walked them to the plane.
Going public had devastating consequences. A few months later, in September 2017, American customs officials based at Toronto Pearson International Airport told Jyoti she could not travel to the United States because there was an outstanding warrant for her arrest.
A week later, Kiran flew to Venice, Italy, to go furniture shopping. She was waiting for her luggage at the airport when Italian customs officers locked her in a room with no food, water or explanation. “I was crying and crying,” she said. Eight hours later, officials told her that she was under provisional arrest. “They said, ‘There’s a flag on your passport from Interpol,’” she said.
She spent the next 40 days in jail, awaiting extradition to Nigeria, according to Italian court documents. European Union laws prohibit extradition to countries with poor human-rights records, so it’s likely she shouldn’t have been held at all.
But Nigeria never filed the extradition paperwork, and Kiran was allowed to fly home to Canada. (Italy’s interior ministry did not respond to requests for comment.)
Philip Adebowale, the Nigerian police official who detained the sisters in Lagos and issued the warrant that resulted in Kiran’s arrest, said that he had not colluded with Mr. Otedola and had not demanded bribes. Asked why Nigeria failed to request Kiran’s extradition, he first said the Italian police “allowed these girls to dupe them,” and then blamed bureaucratic errors. “If I sent them my boys, we would have cleared everything up,” Mr. Adebowale said.
Once Kiran returned to Canada, the sisters began pleading with Interpol to purge their names from its database of red notices (alerts akin to international arrest warrants) issued at the request of its 190 member countries.
In 2017, the agency said it issued more than 13,000 red notices, up from 1,277 in 2002. Only a small fraction of the notices are made public.
Normally, Interpol goes after murderers and drug traffickers, not women fond of posting cleavage shots on Instagram. “You can’t trust countries like Nigeria or Belarus not to misuse the criminal justice system and Interpol to advance corruption,” said Jago Russell, the head of Fair Trials International, a rights group based in London that has pushed Interpol to implement stronger safeguards.
While they waited for Interpol to review their cases, the Matharoos tried to keep out of the spotlight. “We mostly just moped around lonely and depressed,” Jyoti said. “I couldn’t get myself to focus on anything until they dropped it.”
Even then, the sisters sought to capitalize on their notoriety. On some days, they would grab a camera and drive to a deserted warehouse with just enough industrial grit to be edgy. Its walls were their makeshift studio, where they would photograph each other in designer clothing to post online.
Their work paid off. In June, an American man living in Dubai who followed Jyoti on Instagram contacted her about starting a fashion line. He planned to visit them in Canada, but then, in August, the sisters received a package from Interpol’s independent appeals commission.
Inside was a letter informing them that Interpol had deleted their names from its database. The Matharoos had won.
Jyoti had him book her a plane ticket to Dubai in September. “I was like, ‘Screw Toronto, I need to get out of here’,” she said.
Her flight to Dubai was sleepless, even though she had packed all her Interpol paperwork. But she landed, and no one was there to arrest her. “It’s like the notice never existed,” she said.
What began as a business trip swiftly grew into a romance, with a stay on a private island and fashion brainstorming sessions over candlelight dinners. One evening, Jyoti wore a tight orange dress she had asked Kiran — a talented seamstress — to make for the trip. Impressed, the man, who the sisters declined to identify to protect his privacy, sent the sisters to immediately find manufacturers in Los Angeles. There, the Matharoos rekindled their love affairs with private jets and pools in Beverly Hills.Jyoti modeled on her Instagram in a neon bikini and other outfits her sister made. Direct messages started pouring into her Instagram with requests for the clothes. “I told Kiran, ‘You need to sit your ass down and start sewing,’” Jyoti said. They are now in the midst of setting up their fashion line, SPCTRMstudio.
“I’m so relieved we can get back to our normal life,” Jyoti said. But they haven’t, quite. Recently Jyoti arrived at the Toronto airport with a plane ticket to Houston, only to find herself interrogated by United States customs officials.
“They were grilling me, like, ‘So, are you a prostitute? When was the last time you had a boyfriend,’” she said. “I said, ‘I didn’t know being single was a crime.’ I was so mad. Then I started crying.”
The Matharoos also said they have been inundated with messages from women asking for guidance on finding a billionaire sugar daddy. “Surely you can shed some tips on how to become a kept woman who is still doing her thing,” read a typical message sent to Kiran’s SnapchaFor those wondering, they have some advice.
Don’t be greedy. “When he asks what kind of car you want, don’t ask for a Rolls-Royce,” Jyoti said.
Second, observe proper “jetiquette” by dressing conservatively on his Cessna. “You don’t want to look like some guy hired a hooker for a weekend,” Kiran said.
And, obviously, when he hands you thousands of dollars for a luxury shopping spree, bring him back some change.
But if their brushes with incarceration have taught the sisters any new lessons, it’s that they shouldn’t bother. Men and their money are not worth the trouble. “There’s always going to be a guy saying, ‘Let me spoil you,’ who wants to fly us somewhere,” Jyoti said. “For once we want to just focus on ourselves.”
Emmanuel Akinwotu contributed reporting from Abuja, Nigeria, and Elisabetta Povoledo from Rome.