Prince Toan Nyugen walked into the Houston Motor Club in early December looking quite regal. With a silk scarf sitting just-so on top of a pinstriped suit, the slight-statured Nguyen appeared at ease in front of a dozen or so friends and club members for a five-course tasting of Synopsis Winery, Nguyen's own wine produced at his winery in Chile.
Nguyen, who affixes the title of His Imperial Highness to his name, claims a legacy that dates to the last emperor of Vietnam and likes to tell stories of his upbringing in France, where the royal family has lived in exile since 1954.
"I was born and raised in France so I pretty much grew up in the wine country," he told CultureMap at the Houston Motor Club dinner. "I came here in 1996 to work for NASA as a flight controller, but I have my residence in France so I go back and forth."
While he hobnobs with bold-faced types, Nguyen's dubious business ventures have led some to say that the would-be prince is nothing more than a con artist in emperor's clothing.
While he hobnobs with bold-faced types and is honored at parties thrown by his rich influential friends, Nguyen's peerage has been questioned, a lawsuit against him is ongoing and dubious business ventures have led some to say that the would-be prince is nothing more than a con artist in emperor's clothing.
A regular on the social circuit since he edited society mag Les Avenue from 2001 to 2004, Nguyen is often found in society write-ups, where his name appears alongside that of Carolyn Farb, Alicia Smith, Tami Ernst and other notables. A wine dinner he held at The Capital Grille in October had a guest list that included Farb, successful businessman Ed Bosarge and his philanthropic wife Marie, Joanne King Herring and Bill Fields, former executive vice president of Walmart.
"The first time I met him we were at the St. Regis and I thought I was in an episode of Entourage, because he was going from one table to another and had his whole entourage with him, really living the life of a man of leisure," says Philippe Schmit, whose restaurant, Philippe, is a fixture on the society circuit.
But it was quite literally a very different Toan Nguyen who stood in a Harris County Civil Court on Dec. 7, just two days after his latest wine dinner. He looked less European with his hair parted on the side rather than his familiar part down the center, and while his brown blazer could hardly be called shabby, it was a far cry from the moneyed look on display at the Houston Motor Club dinner.
And for good reason.
Nguyen, whose legal name is Joseph Toan Casimir, was in court as part of a three-year legal battle in which former professional golfer Doug Sanders is attempting to retrieve a quarter of a million dollars that he claims Nguyen swindled him out of.
A long and colorful history
Like most people, Doug Sanders says he met Nguyen at a party.
In 2008 Sanders gave him $250,000 and in return received a lien on unspecified property, and a promise that it would be paid back at 12 percent interest. According to Sanders, Nguyen made payments for a few months, but by March of 2009 court documents show that at least one payment check for $3,000 had not arrived on schedule, with Nguyen's assistant Alex Moore pledging to investigate the matter.
"I am completely out of patience," said Judge Brent Gamble during the hearing. "[Mr. Nguyen] has a long and colorful history [in this case]. He's either going to have to start towing the line or he's going to suffer the consequences."
In November of 2009 Sanders filed suit against Nguyen, and though the court issued a default judgment for $250,000 in his favor by April 2010, the case is still tied up in the legal system as Sanders' attorneys struggle to recoup the debt.
"I am completely out of patience," said Judge Brent Gamble during the hearing on Dec. 7. "[Mr. Nguyen] has a long and colorful history [in this case]. He's either going to have to start towing the line or he's going to suffer the consequences."
Asked about this case and his other legal issues, Nguyen declined to comment for this story.
According to Riecke Baumann, the court-appointed master and receiver in the case, that history includes delaying hearings for travel and numerous medical excuses (or just not showing up), failing to produce the documents required by the court and making it very hard to locate him to serve him with legal notice.
One process server found him at the Domain in Austin, where he appears to have an apartment; another served Nguyen with a lawsuit while he ate lunch at Tony's.
Sanders isn't Nguyen's only disgruntled investor in Houston, although others prefer to take their losses quietly rather than taking him to court.
In 2009 Nguyen gathered a group of investors to create Sideline Productions, a partnership that existed solely to throw a party at the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles in September 2010, taking investments in increments of $20,000 and promising a return of up to 30 percent in ticket sales in addition to assorted perks, including free VIP tickets, an invitation to a private reception "with playmates and celebrity guests" and promotional opportunities.
Mina Mann, the owner of GrantHarrison advertising firm, was hired to advertise and market the party, and tells CultureMap she was shocked when she recently learned that the corporate documents filed with the Texas Secretary of State listed her as one of the limited liability company's directors and that a document describing the partnership for investors listed Sideline Productions as fully owned by GrantHarrison.
"I had a client that introduced me to him. … He seemed to know everyone. I just thought he was a good guy because, you know, Carolyn Farb's hanging out with him," says Mann.
"He told me about this Playboy project he wanted to do … I said, OK, sure, I'll do the marketing for it and make the website and the promotional materials. Then they found out his brother had cancer, so he's going to have emergency brain surgery.
After allegedly making an initial payment to Playboy for $200,000, Nguyen told investors that there wasn't enough money to make the second and final payment, and that ticket sales had been disappointing, so they should reschedule or change the venue.
"That's when he started asking me, 'Hey, can you do this on behalf of the company?' or 'Can you talk to this guy?' That's not really my job, but it blurred the line between business and friendship, because at that point I really did consider him a friend. And who am I? His brother has cancer and I'm not going to forward an e-mail for him?"
One investor, who asked to remain anonymous, estimated that Nguyen took in $400,000 for Sideline from about a dozen investors at promotional parties in New Orleans, Cabo San Lucas and in Houston at a suite at Hotel ZaZa.
But after allegedly making an initial payment to Playboy for $200,000, Nguyen told investors that there wasn't enough money to make the second and final payment, and that ticket sales had been disappointing, so they should reschedule or change the venue.
In the end, a party was held at a different venue on a different date, with investors losing not only their stake but also the cost of plane tickets and hotel deposits they'd made for the event.
When one investor threatened to sue, he says Nguyen paid him off with stock in Pura Vida Tequila. The stock turned out to be fake.
"HIH Toan Nguyen is the grandson of His Imperial Highness Nguyen Phuc Vinh Thuy, the last Emperor of Vietnam (known as Bao Dai)," reads an August 2012 e-mail sent by Nguyen's assistant, Pamela Mouton, to a restaurant hosting a Synopsis wine dinner.
"The imperial family went into exile in 1954 in France where Toan Nguyen was born. As a Crown Prince Toan Nyugen also has the title His Imperial Highness, so his name is preceded by the abbreviation HIH. Although HIH maintains a residence in Houston, Texas, he is French born and bred."
However, when asked about his imperial background at the Motor Club event, Nguyen declined to offer specifics, despite most in the room referring to him as a prince.
"This chap is not a member of the Imperial Family nor a grandson of the late Emperor Bao Dai. … The current Prince Regent lives in the USA and he has never heard of this so-called prince."
"That's not something I would want to discuss, because I have certain security issues. My friends know about my background, but because we live in exile we don't have the kind of lifestyle to get us the kind of protection that we need, so we're more vulnerable to violence, to kidnapping, even to gossip," Nguyen said.
His passport, however, lists the 40-year-old as having been born in Vietnam. According to a representative of the actual Vietnamese imperial family, that's not the only problem with his name or story.
"First of all, he is referring to himself incorrectly," Kevin Couling, the British Lord of Little Neston-cum-Hargrave and an employee of the Imperial Nguyen Dynasty, tells CultureMap via e-mail. "Any genuine member of the Imperial Nguyen-Phuc Dynasty knows how to use their Imperial Title. This chap is not a member of the Imperial Family nor a grandson of the late Emperor Bao Dai. … The current Prince Regent lives in the USA and he has never heard of this so-called prince."
According to a deposition Nguyen gave to receiver Baumann on April 17, 2012, when he's not in Vietnam, he actually lives with his parents and with one of his four brothers in a well-to-do neighborhood in Spring.
It's a pretty normal, middle-class story: The mother and father are retired from owning a nail salon, one brother is a doctor, another has his own business ventures, including a real estate business that's also been taken to court more than once.
CultureMap wasn't able to verify Nguyen's employment at NASA, but he has been known to brandish a NASA I.D. card.
That hasn't stopped Nguyen from creating a princely identity at every turn. His wine locker at The Capitol Grille is reserved with a gold "HIH Toan Nguyen" nameplate, and in 2005 Nyugen bought the domain "himperialh.com" to use for his email address.
In 2007 he registered the HIH Foundation as a non-profit with the State of Texas, with a charter that was forfeited earlier this year.
In a December deposition, Nguyen claimed that he never fully realized the organization, but at at least one society party — held at the home of Melanie Johnson in 2009 and dubbed "An Unforgettable Experience with [singer] Dyana Dafova" — was listed as "saluting the HIH Poetry Foundation."
Passion for wine
"My passion for wine started when I was born," Nguyen said at his Houston Motor Club event. "It's a family tradition when you have a new baby you have to open the most exquisite bottle of wine you have in your cellar to celebrate for your friends as soon as the baby is home and all the friends come to visit. But at the same time, they also give the baby a little spoon of the same wine to inaugurate him into the good life."
According to Nguyen, he purchased the Synopsis vineyard in Chile after a friend in the business suggested it over dinner in Paris one Christmas.
The 453-acre winery south of Santiago he describes may actually exist, but it isn't owned by Nguyen.
"[She] asked me what I was doing and jokingly I said, 'Well, I'm unemployed.' So she said 'I'm going to find a vineyard for you to acquire because Chile is going to be the next hot spot on the wine map.' … I came down there, I looked around and I found it to be a very good proposition and a few months later we acquired it."
The 453-acre winery south of Santiago he describes may actually exist, but it isn't owned by Nguyen. According to Nguyen's April 17 deposition, Synopsis is merely a broker with a private label for another large Chilean winery, although not even representatives for Republic National, Synopsis' importer and distributor, seem to be aware of that fact.
Smoke and mirrors
When it comes to Nguyen, it's hard to tell what's real and what is smoke and mirrors. The Harris County Clerk lists at least a dozen businesses registered under both his names since 2000, including Synopsis Winery and Les Avenue, in addition to creating the non-profit.
Some of the luxury cars he's been known to drive around town are loaners from dealerships — like the Bentley he drove to the Houston Motor Club on Dec. 5 — but there are a handful of Mercedes and a Maserati registered to his father and brother.
So while the stories of his fabulous royal trust fund are hard to believe, his legal claims that he has no assets and no income are also suspect. Nguyen filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in August, citing only $2,500 in assets, mostly from owning a non-functional 1987 Jaguar.
However, his bankruptcy filing was rejected by U.S. trustee Hector Duran because Nguyen "concealed various assets and businesses," including unimproved property in Liberty County and Polk County as well as his interest in Synopsis Winery, with the pleading accusing Nguyen of "knowingly and fraudulently [making] false oaths in the bankruptcy case."
It was the second time in a decade that Nguyen was denied in an attempt to file for bankruptcy, with the same court dismissing a previous attempt to file for Chapter 13 bankruptcy in 2003.
"In my practice I've probably seen about 4,000 or 5,000 bankruptcy filings. I've only seen maybe three or four that weren't discharged," says Baumann. "Normally speaking, it's not hard. So that tells you something."
Still, Nguyen shows no sign of slowing down on the society circuit. In late December he was partying with artists, socialites and politicos at a birthday bash at Roots Bistro. It wasn't Nguyen's birthday though.
That falls on April 1 — April Fool's Day.