Jyoti and Kiran Matharoo were self-made Instagram stars with a taste for private jets, luxury yachts and designer bags. For a time, a succession of plutocrat boyfriends bankrolled their lavish lifestyle—until they found themselves in jail .
Jyoti and Kiran Matharoo have never cared what people think of them. Their parents, who emigrated from India and settled in North York, always instilled a strong sense of self in their daughters. By the time the sisters were attending Emery Collegiate Institute in the late 1990s, they were wearing halter tops, coloured contacts and high heels. Their classmates rolled their eyes, but the sisters didn’t care: they liked to dress up. Jyoti was always the romantic one, drawn to literature and history. Kiran, two years younger, was rational and level-headed, a chess aficionado who excelled in math and science. These were minor differences: to everyone around them, the Matharoo sisters were a package deal.
After high school, Jyoti and Kiran both enrolled in a two-year fashion arts and business program at Humber College, working part-time retail jobs to save up for clothes and a shared car. They lived at home together, attended classes together and spent much of their time planning a fashion line that they wanted to launch together. At night, they were fixtures in the club scene, nestling in booths at Entertainment District night spots like Oxygen and Fluid. Even when they were out at the clubs, they usually talked only to each other. They called themselves the anti-social socialites.
Their style was provocative, inspired by Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie, whose antics they followed in the tabloids and on TV. They wore giant sunglasses and chunky jewellery, tiny skirts paired with slouchy hobo bags. Their boyfriends were local guys, many of them broke college students, and Jyoti and Kiran often paid for their own dates. They didn’t know what would come after college, but they had some ideas. Kiran, an avid cook, had vague aspirations to work in the restaurant industry, while Jyoti wanted to be a bartender. Eventually, she figured, she’d have a big Indian wedding and settle down in Toronto.
When Kiran was 21, a Nigerian businessman approached her while she was working a shift at Marciano in Sherway Gardens. They began dating, and after a few months, he set Jyoti up with another Nigerian guy, who told her he worked as an executive. In 2008, the men invited Jyoti and Kiran on a trip to France, Greece, Nigeria, Singapore and the Maldives. The sisters had travelled to the States and visited family in India, but they’d never been on a trip like this one. They were surprised when they arrived at the airport and were ushered not to a commercial airline but to a private jet. Jyoti figured it must belong to her boyfriend’s company.
The extent of his lavish wealth became clear over the course of the trip. He gave the sisters money to go shopping and took them for dinners at Michelin-starred restaurants. “We were so used to being independent,” says Kiran, “that the gifts felt like an insult at first.” Jyoti tried to enjoy being pampered, but she also found it difficult. “I was so shy the first time he took me shopping,” she says. “Everything I touched, I was like, ‘Is it too much?’ ”
When they visited her boyfriend’s home in Abuja, Nigeria, the sisters were greeted by a private security detail, who escorted them to his palatial estate. The place was paved in marble, and had its own chef and polo field. Her boyfriend confessed the truth: he was one of the richest men in Africa, an heir to an oil and gas fortune that his grandfather had amassed during the post–civil war commodities boom.
She told him she was planning to become a bartender, but he wouldn’t allow it. “I’ll take care of you,” he said. He bought her a condo in Toronto and set her up with a monthly allowance. “He wanted me to be free to travel,” she recalls. And travel they did—to Paris, Indonesia and London, often with Kiran in tow. Once, the sisters even met one of his friends, a Malaysian prince, at a polo match. As the Matharoos grew more comfortable accepting gifts, their standard of living transformed—and with it, their look. The cheap Marciano jewellery was replaced by a Rolex watch. The wardrobe from Zara was swapped out for Gucci and Versace. And when Jyoti’s old Acura broke down, her boyfriend bought her a Mercedes.
Jyoti became a regular fixture in Lagos, and Kiran soon joined her, working as a consultant for Bazaar, a fancy fusion restaurant in the trendy Victoria Island neighbourhood. Jyoti and her billionaire boyfriend broke up in 2009, but he was just the first in a series of wealthy suitors who funded the sisters’ lifestyle in Nigeria. Over the past decade, Lagos had become the economic and cultural nerve centre of west Africa, drawing tens of thousands of fortune seekers from across the continent—corporate big shots, aspiring entrepreneurs, musicians and artists. The Matharoos fit right in.
Lagos’s new creative class loved to party. They danced late into the night at the famously decadent music halls and nightclubs that populated the mainland and Victoria Island. Laws were lax, with late or non-existent last calls (respectable Lagosans don’t appear at parties until after 11 p.m.). You could smoke cigars inside nightclubs and walk out of restaurants with full bottles of champagne. Liquor-soaked pool parties were a standard at many upscale hotels, where crowds of ajebotas—Yoruba for “butter eaters,” or “rich kids”—sipped $800 bottles of Cristal in plush cabanas and rubbed shoulders with Nollywood actors and Afropop stars.
As Jyoti and Kiran spent more time in Lagos, they ramped up their Instagram presence and launched a personal website, Matropolitan, where they documented their fashions and travels. Their posts were unabashedly luxurious: shot after shot of beds piled with boxes from Hermès and Gucci, hotel balcony seascapes, pouty-lipped selfies taken on private jets and yachts in places like Dubai, Malaysia and Miami. The photos were also teasingly sexual, featuring close-ups of the sisters’ lavish cleavage and backsides, often clad in tiny designer bikinis or skin-hugging jumpsuits. In some of the most sensational pictures, money and sex collided: Jyoti lounging face-down in bed, with a diamond headpiece in her waist-length hair extensions; a stiletto sandal stomping, dominatrix-style, on a pile of cash. Every surface was hyper-saturated and shimmering, like a cartoon mirage.
They were an immediate hit. Thousands of people followed them, and brands approached them to promote luxury products. Many of their fans were young women, who expressed gleeful envy over the sisters’ wardrobe, makeup and glamorous travel pics. They often asked the women for style tips.
Along with the admiration came hundreds of haters, many of them Nigerian women. Abiola Aloba, a journalist turned blogger, met the sisters when he covered the opening of Bazaar. He liked them immediately. “They were charming, glamorous, beautiful girls. And so I wrote that,” Aloba recalls. “But after I published it on my blog, an avalanche of comments came in.” Aloba’s commenters accused him of doing paid promotion for the sisters and called them prostitutes: “Their high point is they do only orgies and anal sex, things Naija women don’t usually do,” one person wrote.
In Nigeria, gossip blogs are a major social phenomenon. In the mid-aughts, a massive cottage industry of independent bloggers sprang up, trading gossip—called “gist”—about the country’s power brokers: politicians, businessmen, musicians, Nollywood actors. The print tabloids were left behind as established journalists abandoned their salaried jobs to blog. The gist mill produced toxic speculation and broke high-stakes stories—an executive nabbed in a scam, a politician caught mid-tryst—before the mainstream media caught on. Everyone read them: at work, at home, on their phones in the streets. Comments on posts ran thousands long, overflowing with schadenfreude for the comeuppance of the rich and famous. And the Matharoos, with their conspicuous wealth and bold sexuality, were perfect targets.
As bloggers throughout Lagos began posting about the sisters, comments appeared on their Instagram posts calling them hookers and telling them to leave Nigeria. Lipstick Alley, a popular forum for African women, devoted a thread to the sisters that eventually clocked nearly 1,000 posts, far more than many Hollywood celebrities. The title of the thread was “High-Paid Escorts/Prostitutes.” Other posts alleged that the sisters were running a prostitution ring in Lagos, that they had sex with each other for money, that they organized orgies on yachts. The sisters found the accusations funny. They admit that their boyfriends supported their lifestyle, but they deny that they were prostitutes.
Many locals were offended that the glamorous Canadians had swept in to show off their newfound wealth, gained from Nigerian boyfriends. In their minds, the Matharoos were accessing the country’s most eligible men, and thus, the country’s money. The Matharoos were flaunting their lifestyle of yachts and parties in a city where most people are struggling for food and shelter. “The road to hell is paved with Birkin bags, promiscuity, sloth, Instagram photos and vanity,” wrote one poster on Lipstick Alley.
By documenting their consumption, Kiran and Jyoti manufactured their own celebrity. They were always clear and unapologetic about who they were and how they got there. “We were proudly saying, ‘Yeah, we come to Nigeria and we talk to your men, and they take care of us,’ ” Kiran explains. “And the women didn’t like that.” The Matharoos embodied the peculiar quality of fame and privilege in the digital age, where notoriety is as lucrative as popularity.
In 2011, Kiran met the oil tycoon Femi Otedola. He’s an imposing-looking man in his 50s: balding and portly, with thick-framed glasses, and usually dressed in the traditional Yoruba outfit of a loose-fitting shirt and slim-cut pants. Born in Ibadan in 1962 to a well-known Yoruba political family, Otedola got his start at his family’s printing business. In 2003, he founded Zenon, a petroleum and gas company that went on to control a major share of the national market. It provided fuel for the majority of foreign companies in Nigeria, including Coca-Cola, Nestlé, Cadbury and Guinness. In 2007, he became the chairman of the publicly traded African Petroleum and was the second Nigerian to appear on Forbes’ list of billionaires, with an estimated net worth of $1.2 billion (U.S.).
In interviews, Otedola appears calm and thoughtful, almost cerebral. He is a proud father—his daughter is a well-known DJ who goes by the name DJ Cuppy—and a generous philanthropist. His lifestyle, however, is flashy. Among his possessions: several estates in Nigeria, a house in England, a fleet of Mercedes and Rolls Royces, a private jet, and a $12-million yacht, where he hosts extravagant parties. When his daughter graduated from the University of London in 2014, Otedola threw her a French Revolution–themed bash in the ballroom of the five-star Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Knightsbridge; she dressed as Marie Antoinette, and guests were served by footmen in 18th-century attire.
Otedola is no stranger to scandal. In 2012, a video surfaced of him paying a Nigerian House of Representatives member, Farouk Lawan, $620,000 (U.S.) to have Otedola’s company removed from a corruption watchdog’s list of businesses. Otedola claimed that Lawan had approached him about the deal, and that he’d made the video to prove Lawan’s guilt. Lawan was later charged and Otedola was not; the case is still before the courts. But the scrutiny made Otedola uncomfortable. He didn’t respond to interview requests for this story, but Kiran says that when they started hanging out in 2011, he believed he was being constantly surveilled by government officials and law enforcement.
When Kiran started spending time with Otedola, she was pleasantly surprised that the scholarly looking billionaire was also a bon vivant. They travelled, sailed on his yacht, attended parties—she even dragged him out to a club once. In 2013, Kiran started dating someone and told Otedola she couldn’t spend time with him anymore. He wasn’t pleased, but the parting was mostly amicable.
At the time, a new and especially viperous gist website was dominating the Nigerian blogosphere. NaijaGistLive.com had started as an anonymous Instagram gossip feed, but it got so popular that it moved to its own domain. The founders posted direct and scandalous allegations about members of the Lagos elite: who was neglecting her children, who was embezzling his shareholders, who had HIV. Unlike similar blogs, the founders were anonymous. All over Nigeria, people wondered who owned the site.
Over the years, NaijaGistLive ran several items about Kiran and Jyoti, accusing them of prostitution and speculating about their boyfriends. Some commenters accused them of starting the blog themselves, an allegation they vehemently denied. “The blog was in Nigerian pidgin,” Jyoti says, rolling her eyes. “We can’t write pidgin!” It also posted items about hundreds of people from all over Nigeria, far more than the sisters ever met in their social sphere. “We would have to be so smart—but also so stupid—to pull that off.”
In October 2016, the sisters read that police investigators had traced NaijaGistLive to a web designer and aspiring rapper named Babatunde Oyebode. He was arrested on charges of extortion and making threats—and Femi Otedola was named as one of the victims. NaijaGistLive had published an item earlier in the year claiming, among other things, that he was running a brothel on his private yacht. They were explosive, unverified claims, and Kiran suspected that Otedola might have led the charge on Oyebode; he had always been sensitive to gossip. They figured Oyebode was guilty and thought the panic over the blog was over.
At 6 p.m. on December 14, Kiran and Jyoti were unwinding in their suite at the Eko Signature Hotel when they heard a pounding on their door. When Kiran opened it, six plainclothes police officers clomped in. “You need to come in for questioning,” one said. The women asked to see their badges. The men refused. The sisters asked to see paperwork authorizing them to take them away. Again, the men refused.
Confused and panicked, Jyoti googled the number for the Canadian high commission in Lagos. But when she started dialling the number, one of the officers grabbed the phone from her hand. Another officer gripped Kiran by the wrist. “If you don’t get dressed, we’re going to take you like this, in your bathrobe,” he said. Crying, the sisters went into the bedroom to get dressed.
The police loaded Kiran and Jyoti into a white van and transported them to the police station in nearby Bar Beach. In a dim room furnished with broken chairs, they met another plainclothes officer, who began rattling off questions about their knowledge of computers and the Internet: “Do you have a blog? Are you good at making websites? How did you learn how to do it?”
When the officers revealed that they were questioning the Matharoos about NaijaGistLive, the sisters were relieved. They assumed that they were being questioned as witnesses, or even as victims. After the officer finished his interview, Kiran and Jyoti were led back to the white van. They looked forward to getting back to their hotel room.
But the van drove past their hotel, toward the Lagos airport. Finally, it stopped in a dirt driveway leading to another police station: the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, or SARS, an arm of the Nigeria Police Force devoted to serious crimes. The police led the women up a flight of stairs to another dingy office, where a police officer was sitting at a desk. “Which popular men do you know in Nigeria, and what is their contact information?” he asked. When they refused to answer, he separated them and asked them to write statements describing what they knew about NaijaGistLive. Kiran wrote a long, pleading appeal about how she was only in Nigeria to visit friends. Jyoti simply wrote that they had no involvement in the site.
The police told them that they would have to spend the night in prison. Jyoti begged to be let go, explaining that she was menstruating and didn’t have any tampons, but the officers just pushed them in, past a cell full of male prisoners who leered as they passed. “Get in the cell,” one officer screamed. He raised his hand as if to hit them. “Don’t make me use force on you.”
SARS is one of the most notorious human rights violators in Nigeria. According to a 2016 Amnesty International report, detainees are regularly subjected to torture, including severe beatings, starvation, shootings, mock executions and threats of execution. The women’s cell looked like an agricultural pen, with a concrete floor and pieces of foam along the walls for beds. There were buckets of water strewn about for bathing and, behind a curtain, a hole in the floor that served as a toilet. Eleven other women were sitting and lying around on the makeshift mattresses, in various states of anger and distress. They saw one woman beat another, berating her for stealing a cellphone. The Matharoos didn’t know what their cellmates had done, or how long they’d been locked up.
Eventually, a fellow prisoner allowed them to share a piece of foam with her and some other women. They tried to sleep, but the sound of skittering rats kept them up, as did their aching -bladders—no matter what, they decided, they wouldn’t pee into that hole.
At 8 a.m., an officer came to escort them out. “How did these two oyinbo women get in here?” he asked a colleague. (Oyinbo means white in Nigerian pidgin; to some in Nigeria, the light-skinned Indian-Canadian sisters appeared to be white.) He brought the Matharoos back to the upstairs office, where they were informed that they were being taken back to their hotel for a room and property search. The men believed that the Matharoos owned NaijaGistLive, and they wanted to prove it.
Back at Eko, Kiran and Jyoti watched while the officers rifled through their suitcases and drawers, stuffing their passports and a shared laptop into a plastic bag. “It says ‘blog’ here,” one officer said while searching the notebook that Kiran used to brainstorm ideas for her website. The police were taking information about their social media accounts and personal website, Matropolitan, as evidence that they ran the site.
After a few hours, the sisters found a Nigerian friend who agreed to act as surety. When they called the Canadian Embassy on their friend’s phone, they were told that the embassy’s general policy is not to interfere when Canadian citizens are going through another country’s legal system. All they could do was email the sisters a list of lawyers who might be able to help.
By this point, Kiran suspected that Otedola might have been responsible for the charge against them. She believed he’d led the petition that led to Oyebode’s arrest, and figured he had recognized the Matharoos’ names in the online speculation of who owned the site and focused on them as the culprits. If he was paying the officers to detain them and hold their passports, they’d remain captive as long as he kept giving them money.
On December 18, the officers knocked on their door again. They led the sisters into a car and drove them to Otedola’s estate in Iyoki, the most affluent neighbourhood in Lagos. Kiran and Jyoti had been to Otedola’s home for parties many times, but when they entered the all-white living room, the house was dark and the mood was sombre. They sat on a long L-shaped couch facing Otedola as he explained to them that he was speaking to them as an interested third party—all he wanted to do was help. If investigators identified them as owners of NaijaGistLive, they would have to co-operate. The sooner the website’s owner was identified, the sooner they’d be set free. “We don’t know who the owner is. We’ve given all the information we have,” pleaded Kiran. “You know,” he answered, “Marilyn was killed because she knew too much about a Kennedy.”
Before they left, Otedola promised he’d call the police commissioner and have their passports released. They believed him. But the call never came. The Matharoos weren’t going anywhere.
For the next nine days, the sisters were detained at the R&A City Hotel near the airport. The Nigerian media had reported that they’d been charged with owning the site, and many prominent citizens were seeking revenge. Guards stood outside their door, 24 hours a day, vigilant, aware that if anything happened to two Canadians, they’d be held accountable. The sisters were entirely shut off from the outside world—they had no phones or laptop, and the hotel phone had been removed from the room. Even the windows were sealed shut, making the air stale and oppressive.
The days took on a stifling monotony. Their guards brought them regular meals from the hotel kitchen. Every day, it was the same menu: omelettes and noodles for breakfast, noodles and chicken or jollof rice and chicken for dinner. Sometimes, they paid the guards to bring them Domino’s pizza. Three movies looped on the hotel TV: The Martian, Bird on a Wire and Doom. They watched each several times. The only breaks in the routine came from the officers, who would randomly barge into the room to interrogate them about NaijaGistLive. When they refused to confess, the officers would threaten to put them in separate rooms or take them back to the prison at SARS. At one point, a new officer came into their room and pulled Kiran by her arm over to a desk. He put a pen in her hand and, holding his hand over hers, forced her to write, “I own the website.” The police now had a written confession, but still: no passports, no release.
On December 22, an officer took the women to the bank. He told them they were going to court the next day and they’d need money. After they’d withdrawn cash, he took them to meet a court official and instructed them to pay him $2,500 (U.S.). In exchange, they would be granted bail. The next morning, at the Yaba chief magistrates’ court, they met with four bondsmen and paid each of them $700 (U.S.), plus $1,700 each in bail.
At the courthouse, they ran into Babatunde Oyebode—his case was being heard at the same time—and the trio had a chance to talk. Desperately, he told them he was innocent: he didn’t own the site, but he’d been hired over PayPal by an anonymous person to design it. The police had taken him from his house in the middle of the night. Believing him, the sisters paid part of his bail.
After they’d posted their bail, Kiran and Jyoti expected that their passports would be returned immediately. Instead, they were escorted back to the R&A hotel. A glint of hope still remained. Christmas was approaching, and many of the Matharoos’ guards had left Lagos for the holidays. On December 26, after the guards allowed them access to the web on their phones, Jyoti saw that she had an email from the Canadian Consulate, asking for an update on their situation. The sisters convinced their surety to drive them to the High Commission of Canada in Victoria Island, where they applied for emergency passports.
On December 28, a new visitor arrived at their door: it was another well-known oil and gas baron from Nigeria. A post on NaijaGistLive had alleged that he had HIV; believing the sisters to be the authors of the post, he held them responsible. They had never met him before. He told the Matharoos that if they made an apology video, he’d be able to get them out. They still hadn’t received their emergency passports, so they saw the video as an opportunity: perhaps it would satisfy their petitioners enough that they would call off the investigation and allow the police to return their passports. They agreed, and the man’s assistant filmed them on his phone as they read a scripted confession.