Event planner talks about the hard work behind organising glamorous galas

Olga Iserlis' coffee table book takes readers behind the scenes of the high society event planner's most memorable events

High society event planner Olga Iserlis always carries two pairs of stiletto heels in her purse when she is holding one of her parties.

If you are mingling with guests one moment and sprinting to the loading bay the next, you never know when you might need a spare pair.

Behind the glitz and glamour of every gala is tons of hard work, which Iserlis, 53, opens up about in her new book, Save The Date.

The coffee-table book, which was launched last month, is available in a limited edition of 1,500 copies.

Half-autobiography, half-party planning guide, it takes readers behind the scenes of her most memorable events.

Save The Date (above) by Olga Iserlis is half-autobiography, half-party planning guide.

In the past 17 years since she set up her events company Twise, she has planned chi-chi fund-raisers, fin de siecle balls and burlesque performances. She organises more than 30 events a year.

She has held a gala dinner on stage at the Marina Bay Sands Theatre, flown more than 10 mixologists and 50 celebrity performers in for her parties and put on fashion shows on Cavenagh Bridge and in a former prison.

The ideas for her monumental events can come from the tiniest things - a Venetian carnival mask she glimpses in a book, a line from Stendhal's 19th-century French novel Le Rouge Et Le Noir, the feeling she gets when eating strawberries and cream.

"I insist on imagining my events to be miles and miles of lace from (couture embroidery house) Maison Lesage, waiting to be shaped into a one-of-a-kind dress," she says.

Iserlis was born in Soviet Russia to Jewish parents, but emigrated to New York when she was 14 after her father's death from a heart attack. Her mother, a scientist, did not want to raise her only child in an anti- Semitic society that ostracised intellectuals.

At the Russian airport, she watched a customs officer take her 18th-century violin - a gift from her late father, himself a musician - out of its case and push it off the table onto the floor so that it broke. "It affected me so badly, I could not play the violin for many years," she recalls. "I did not have an easy, frivolous childhood. From that moment, I became an adult immediately."

Iserlis, who is an American citizen and married with two children, came to Singapore in 1990 with her family.

Before she entered event planning, she started a business selling New York-style bagels to Singaporeans who, by and large, had never heard of them. Dubbed the Bagel Lady, she would spend up to 10 hours a day trudging from office to office to score orders or standing on Orchard Road handing out free bagels to passers-by. After the business took off, she sold it to a local food and beverage company.

She found her true calling when the American Association of Singapore invited her to join the planning committee of its charity ball.

After the ball's success, other committees and, later, international luxury brands, began approaching her to plan their events. And so she traded in bagels for Beluga caviar, of which she has been known to order 50kg in bulk for her opulent occasions.

In her years as a planner, she has had to learn to navigate disaster on the quick - from two guests turning up in the same outfit to having a musician she had flown in from Russia collapse with a heart attack before his performance.

Her most unforgettable event - also the one she refers to as her "bar mitzvah of fire" - was the 2010 Valentino Retrospective, in which she had 100 haute couture pieces by the legendary Italian designer brought to Singapore to be exhibited at Resorts World Sentosa.

Her team had to build a climate- controlled space in which the temperature and humidity of the room could be monitored round the clock from France, where the pieces were on loan from.

The dresses had to be displayed in special glass cabinets made in China, but the cabinet shipment was delayed just days before the exhibition was due to open. This made the final set-up a scramble, during which she and her team spent all day and night crawling around on all fours in gloves and kneepads.

On top of all this, she contracted pneumonia. "It was tremendous pressure," she says. "I don't know how I survived."

She hopes to convey some sense of that perseverance in the name of beautiful experiences through her book, which she has meant to write for many years and finally forced herself to finish this year.

"I like to please people," she says. "I see people as flowers in a garden. They have different shapes, different sizes, but they all turn towards the sun. And that is what I do. I create celebrations."

•Save The Date ($88) is available at the Louis Vuitton store at Marina Bay Sands, ArtScience Museum gift shop and Marina Bay Sands gift shop, as well as at stores Vanilla Home, Beauty Candy Lifestyle and Partners & Mucciaccia Gallery.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 18, 2016, with the headline Event planner talks about the hard work behind organising glamorous galas. Subscribe