In the second episode of Queen of Versailles Reigns Again, billionaire Jackie Siegel confronts a looming disaster: She may not be able to equip her home with a Benihana kitchen.
Her family loves the chain eatery’s signature style of restau-tainment, and then there’s the allure of the fact that, as she says in the show, it’s “something that no one else in the world has in their house.” This turns out to be for good reason—as a chef explains to her in the new Discovery+ series, without large and expensive ventilation equipment, an in-house Benihana would cause the entire home to smell like steak. “I’ve been losing sleep over this whole Benihana thing,” she later says in a confessional interview on the show.
The new reality series, which premiered Wednesday, follows Siegel’s ongoing efforts to build one of the largest homes in America, a 90,000 square foot mansion inspired by the palace of Versailles. (The house may be named after the one-time seat of the French crown, but in the series its size is most often compared to a more local American landmark—the Walmart superstore.) The series is by-the-book reality television—something along the lines of the Real Housewives by way of HGTV—but it also offers an engrossing look at billionaire-class hubris.
The Siegels’ first brush with national fame came in 2012, with the release of Lauren Greenfield’s documentary The Queen of Versailles. It painted a portrait of the family—Jackie, her timeshare mogul husband David, their eight kids, and numerous pets—and their efforts to make their Florida dream home a reality. The 2008 recession ground construction to a halt as the sprawling household was forced to tighten its belt. The previously 19-member strong domestic staff became a comparatively modest four; the private jet was sold and the family was forced to fly commercial. Jackie, a former engineer for IBM and Mrs. Florida winner, seemed warm and affable, if suffering from a case of wealth-induced obliviousness: In one memorable scene from the original documentary, she asked a perplexed Hertz employee whether their rental cars came with drivers. David, 30 years her senior, cuts a less endearing figure. He’s been sued for sexual harassment by a former employee and is a friend of Donald Trump’s. (Trump’s presidential victory, David told The Orlando Sentinel in 2016, was the “greatest thing that’s happened to me since I discovered sex.”)
Despite their willing participation, the family wasn’t too pleased with the results of their last sustained foray into the entertainment world. David unsuccessfully sued Greenfield for defamation, and was ultimately found liable for $750,000 in the filmmaker’s legal fees. But this hasn’t stopped them from returning to the limelight, this time via the Discovery+ series.
Their vision for Versailles contains many of the standard amenities of the ultra rich—a movie theater, bowling alley, 35 car garage—alongside more unusual design choices, like the interior of an old-fashioned British pub, imported from the UK. Rounding out the house will be a collection of exotic birds (Jackie would prefer flamingos) and a collection of old-world antiques, much of it currently crated and warehoused, that they spent $20 to $30 million acquiring. And despite already owning a Las Vegas hotel that contains a Benihana outpost, the family remains so determined not to lay their heads in a building that lacks a teppanyaki grill that they want to install one in Versailles, too.
In the first two episodes of Queen of Versailles Reigns Again, nothing goes exactly to plan. It turns out that it’s difficult to acquire a license to become a flamingo owner, and Jackie is forced to settle for toucans. The house, which has seen dozens of contractors and designers come and go in its nearly 20 years of construction, is a mess. In one scene, Jackie and her kids visit a room that stores a portion of their antique collection, only to find a $27,000 wooden carving sitting in a pool of wastewater. “Someone flushed a toilet when they weren’t supposed to,” a contractor later diagnoses.” If the symbolism there feels a tad on the nose, consider this: The gold leaf in the ballroom has a habit of flaking off from the ceiling, and falling to the floor. “It would be raining gold in here,” Jackie says in the series, “The cleaners loved it.”
The Siegels are once again living the lifestyle of the super rich, their fortunes mirroring the uneven post-Great Recession economic recovery. Gone are their days of commercial travel; when Jackie flies to Vegas for an event for Victoria’s Voice, the anti-addiction charity the family founded after their daughter died of an overdose, she does so in “the small jet.” After years of construction stagnation, Jackie is to finish the house in time to host a New Year’s Eve bash. The deadline feels like a producer’s creation, but Jackie’s desire to finish the home appears authentic. David, who’s now 86, is in the hospital for the show’s first two episodes, and the most urgent deadline for the completion of the long-dreamt-of family home is his advancing age. Through it all, they still appear blissfully unaware that the excesses of the real Versailles helped lead to a peasant uprising.
As the cameras scan the countless antiques they’ve acquired, helpful chyrons reveal the objects’ prices—a $184,000 chandelier curled up on the floor, a $30,000 dollar sculpture of a trio of goddesses, a $100,000 stained glass window. Many, like the pub and one awful fireplace, are imported from Europe, and much of the art is neoclassical kitsch. This desire on the part of the American wealthy to link themselves to European nobility by acquisition is nothing new. Joseph Duveen, who was born in 1869 and who would become the first superstar art dealer, once noted that, “Europe has plenty of art, while America has plenty of money and large empty mansions.”
The particular aesthetic that the Siegels covet—the suits of armor, the off-putting oil portraiture, the acres of marble—speaks to a desire to recreate a long-gone European ideal. In a meeting with designers and contractors, Jackie tells the group that she intends Versailles to stay in her family for generations, “So your future generations will have to help my kids to do all the updating and upkeep on the house.” Her vision of the future, where her descendants are still living in the same castle, with the offspring of her employees on hand to tend to their needs, sounds a lot like feudalism.
The Siegels are far from alone in longing for a return to old world aesthetics, and perhaps the old world that accompanied it. In 2020, Trump issued an executive order he’d framed as a mandate to “make federal buildings beautiful again.” The mandate decreed that future federal construction projects be designed in the classical style, while heaping scorn on Brutalist buildings of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Biden quickly overturned the order, but its message was echoed in the leaked policy platform of Marjorie Taylor Green’s ill-fated America First Caucus, which vowed to “work towards an infrastructure that reflects the architectural, engineering and aesthetic value that befits the progeny of European architecture, whereby public infrastructure must be utilitarian as well as stunningly, classically beautiful, befitting a world power and source of freedom.”
For these political actors, the need to link contemporary America to ancient Europe stems from a desire to assert white supremacy and reject subjectivity in favor of the belief that there is such a thing as objective beauty. In reality, there is nothing more weak and ultimately futile than the desire to embrace a long-gone, geographically distant, and impossible to recover past. In 2018, the American neo-Nazi group Identity Evropa, which was fond of using Renaissance and classical art in its promotional imagery, staged a protest in front of Nashville’s replica of the Parthenon. The real thing was presumably too far away.
The Siegels’ outsized terrestrial ambitions can appear quaintly old-fashioned when compared to those of their space-age counterparts, but their endless acquisitive ambition still feel like something out of a fable. The ultimate disaster of Queen of Versailles Reigns Again is that the family was ever able to horde such wealth to begin with. Their attempts to build this house, one that at times they could barely afford and will likely never be big enough to contain their ever-expanding desires, still has its own whiff of tragedy all these years after the original documentary’s debut. The couple bought a quarry in Italy so that all of the marble on the house’s exterior would be uniform, but in the new series, builders are forced to amputate much of the facade after it begins falling off of the building in large and potentially life-threatening blinding-white chunks. A contractor warns that the whole facade may have to be removed, adding another year to the building’s completion date.
Trump’s decree lambasted late modernist design for its “fragmentation, disorder, discontinuity, skewed geometry, and the appearance of instability,” but in trying to create a home based on an old European palace and fill it with old European tchotchkes, his friends have managed to craft something incredibly fragmented, disorderly, and unstable. It’s fascinating to watch people struggle to build the near-impossible, a structure buckling under the weight of its excesses. Maybe they’ll finally finish the house in time for that New Years Eve party. Until then, the Siegels’ Versailles has a lot in common with some of the most admired architecture of the old world: It’s a ruin.