This would be the trip where airport security wants a closer look at the contents of my carry-on. As the bag inspector unpacks, I start to sweat. I’m not talking a womanly glow – more like the perspiration of someone hiding a Sellotaped bundle they’ve been handed by a dodgy dude called TJ with Celtic tattoos. There’s no suspect package, though; you could call it the perfect package: I’m smuggling Jamie Dornan onto the plane with me.
Not the actor, obviously. His wife might object. Instead, I’m carrying a life-sized cutout of the face that will launch a thousand restraining orders. For I’m travelling to Fifty Shades of Grey territory – Seattle – the home of the BDSM-loving billionaire Christian Grey whom Dornan plays in the forthcoming film.
The Edgewater, one of the city’s finest hotels, has launched a “No Grey Area” package in anticipation of the film’s Valentine’s Day release. For $14,169, you get a helicopter tour, use of an Audi R8 Spyder, champagne and the Kama Sutra but, disappointingly, not Jamie Dornan. Or you can do my budget version: take a fake Christian with you to the Seattle spots mentioned in the book.
The airport security man finds “Jamie”. A raised eyebrow. I suspect he thinks this is a mask I make my boyfriend wear during sex. I blush in the way Ana, the Fifty Shades heroine, spends 98 per cent of the books doing.
“It’s for work.” I bite my lip, aping the other infuriating Ana mannerism.
“Not my place to judge,” he says, judging me. “You should see what I’ve pulled out of other people’s bags.” I imagine he’s referring to the kind of devices Christian Grey employs in his red room of pain.
Twenty-four hours later, I’m standing outside the building that houses that red room – at least fictionally. The Escala is the flashiest apartment block in Seattle. In EL James’s imagination, it’s where Grey puts the condom into condominium. He, of course, has the penthouse, which back in the real world sold for $6 million in 2012.
When she wrote Fifty Shades, EL James hadn’t actually visited Seattle. This shows. It’s cold, windy and wet – the kind of place where you’d rather have a box-set sesh in a onesie than steamy sex with nipple clamps.
I should probably confess here that I am no Fifty Shades fan. Its success (100 million copies sold worldwide) suggests we are doomed as a species. I’m sure worse books have been written – the reams of self-published poetry, say. But these are novels in which an implausibly young, implausibly handsome and implausibly workshy billionaire tries to commandeer the orifices of a virginal 21-year-old using a first-edition Thomas Hardy and a car. He also makes her sign a contract that forbids snacking. It’s not exactly feminist catnip.
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The writing is famously diabolical. Ana should seek help for her split personality: she has a subconscious that keeps sneering at her (James doesn’t seem to grasp the “sub” part of subconscious) and an ultra-sporty “inner goddess” who “sways in a gentle victorious samba” and “jumps up and down with cheerleading pom-poms”. Ana’s favourite phrases are “wow”, “geez” and “holy cow”.
Still, no-one can deny its popularity. As I arrive at the Escala, a woman is taking scores of photos of the building. Is she, by any chance, a Fifty Shades fan? “I am, actually. A huge one,” she tells me. Is she going to see the film? “I’ll be at the midnight screening.” Her name’s Christine, she’s from California and has only come to Seattle because of the Fifty Shades link.
The Escala is a private building and you need a code to open the doors. I’m determined to get in, though. On the first attempt I catch the concierge’s eye and bottle it. This, of course, is the behaviour of the deranged Fifty Shades fan that I am not. I try again, begging the concierge to let in the crazy lady. Miraculously, he does.
The high-ceilinged lobby shrieks money: all marble floors, wooden panels and gold-rimmed mirrors. There’s a spiral staircase leading up to a bar, throne-like chairs and a vast fireplace.
“Does Christian Grey live here?” I ask. The concierge, Abdul, laughs throatily. “No, but you’re not the first woman to ask that.” I confess I’m actually a journalist. “We get women coming here from all over the world: England, France, Ireland, Asia,” says Abdul, who turns out to be a charmer. “They come every single day. It’s all ages – from teens to middle-aged.” Once, apparently, a grandma showed up with granddaughter in tow.
Any men? “No, just women. The book is for the ladies. You know that.”
A resident, Steve Phillips, walks in. “For the longest while, women were turning up and flagellating themselves outside,” he tells me. “A few try to follow us inside.” He and Abdul then pretend to be “Christian”, wearing the Jamie mask while sitting in the thrones.
Most fans pose shyly by the Escala sign outside. A few, the ones whose inner goddesses must be doing cartwheels for Christian, ask to come inside. The most common request – an excuse to explore the building – is to use the loos. Some über-fans beg to stay the night in the penthouse, even though the Escala is not a hotel.
Abdul’s colleague Sarah tells me they are perpetually fending off requests to hold private Fifty Shades-themed events there. Women also send letters addressed to Christian Grey – some are jokes, some serious.
While Fifty Shades was filmed in Vancouver (to the disappointment of Sarah: “I wanted them to film it all here so I could be in shot”), the crew took shots of Escala’s exterior.
The residents don’t seem to mind the fame much. EL James has held a private book signing for them. They may also benefit financially. Prices of apartments have shot up, which has, in part, been attributed to the book. According to property website Zillow, the average price of an Escala apartment has risen by 75 per cent since 2010, compared with 10 per cent for other Seattle condos.
Just before I leave, Abdul disappears. He’s gone to the “wine cave”, which he assures me is not a euphemism for Christian’s sex dungeon. When he comes back, he presents me with a box branded “Escala”. Inside there’s a butt plug and some kind of painful-looking sex toy. I mean, he says it’s a wine-stopper and a corkscrew, but I can’t imagine Christian Grey being satisfied with those…
• British Airways (www.britishairways.com) flies daily to Seattle from Heathrow. Return tickets from £559, including taxes and charges