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No agent likes to waste time on a dud lead.

That’s why the office’s agents were skeptical — to say the least — when a fishy-looking email came into Las Vegas Sotheby’s International Realty’s general inbox in 2004.

The message came from a woman named Grace Rwaramba, who, she claimed, represented a potential client living in a castle in Ireland. The client, she said, was interested in one of the brokerage’s high-end rental listings, and she asked about its security features, including whether the home was guard gated versus privately gated and details about the home’s panic room.

“Everybody kind of treated it like one of those Nigerian prince emails,” Zar Zanganeh, now a broker and managing partner of The Agency Las Vegas, recalled to Inman. “It just looked like a scam and like it wasn’t serious. So nobody gave it much thought.”

But Zanganeh, who was in the midst of launching his career as a real estate agent at Sotheby’s, was a ripe 23 years old. In his own words, he was “the youngest, least successful person,” at the brokerage and had nothing to lose and everything to gain by taking a chance and seeing where the lead might go.

So, despite overhearing water cooler chatter and consensus opinion that “you’d have to be an idiot to respond to an email like this,” Zanganeh hit “reply.”

Little did the naive young agent know the lucrative connection and genuine friendship that would follow.

The IM chats begin

Photo by Pavlo Gonchar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Zanganeh’s email correspondence with the still unidentified client evolved into what he likened to a pen pal relationship via AOL Instant Messenger over the course of several months. The two discussed real estate, but also anything else the client wanted to talk about — and those topics truly included “anything,” Zanganeh told Inman.

“We’re talking everything from houses to, ‘What are you watching tonight on TV?’ at like 11:30 at night, and I don’t even know what time it is in Ireland,” Zanganeh, now 39, told Inman. “And he’s like, ‘Well, what did you have for dinner tonight?’ and I’m saying, ‘Oh, you know, I didn’t really eat dinner, I just had a Twix bar’ and he goes, ‘Oh I love Twix, have you ever had the Twix candy with the ice cream in it?’ And just nonsense. Like 45 minutes of IM’ing back and forth on AOL of all things.”

It was now 2005, and, at the time, the friendship was in the spirit of the moment, when people were just beginning to use the internet as a means of social connection.

“It created some of kind of friendship like you would in the late ’90s and early 2000s, through Instant Messenger and AOL and chat rooms and things like that,” Zanganeh said. “It felt very much like that, and it was very innocent.”

After months of nurturing the relationship, the client — whose identity Zanganeh still didn’t know — told the agent he was ready to move forward with plans to rent the property. It was an eight-bedroom, nine-bathroom gated property at 2785 S. Monte Cristo Way that featured an outdoor pool and spa, private tennis court and indoor orchestra loft overlooking the grand ballroom. 

Zanganeh helped arrange a wire transfer so that the client could place a deposit on the luxury rental, and someone from the client’s team reached out with his arrival details into Las Vegas’ Harry Reid International Airport via a private airplane.

They gave Zanganeh the plane’s tail number so that he could meet them there, and that was Zanganeh’s second hint (after the whole Irish castle thing) that this client might not just be the average Joe.

He was also thoroughly confused because he had never dealt with a private plane before and had no idea what a tail number was, or why the client’s team wouldn’t just give him the airline and flight number.

During the final prep call with the clients’ team before Zanganeh was to meet him, his assistant asked Zanganeh if he knew the client’s identity. Trying to play it cool, Zanganeh said, “Yeah, of course, we’ve been talking for months.” But the client’s rep knew better and said, “Just so you understand, it’s Michael Jackson.”

“I remember thinking like, ‘What the Hell? That’s who I’ve been communicating with?'” Zanganeh told Inman.

Zanganeh pulled his car up to the plane, and Michael Jackson got in the front passenger seat, followed by a security guard who situated himself in the rear. Two SUVs trailed them to the listing, with Michael’s luggage in tow.

Where’s the chef?

The first Las Vegas home Zanganeh brokered for Jackson | Photo by Aeon Jones

After Zanganeh did a thorough home tour, and was about to leave Jackson to spend the first night in his new home, Jackson asked, “Aren’t you going to stick around for dinner? Where’s the chef?”

Zanganeh’s heart skipped a beat. No, he hadn’t arranged for a chef, nor did he realize this was something that Jackson might consider a typical Realtor service. He had equipped the home with a TV, bed and linens, as Jackson’s team had requested, but hiring a chef hadn’t occurred to him, nor did stocking the house with food.

So Zanganeh ended up driving the superstar to get takeout from KFC that evening, as well as showing him and his staff where the closest Whole Foods was located.

A friendship blossoms

Michael Jackson in Las Vegas in 2003 before his arrest | Photo by Keir Whitaker / Wikimedia Commons

For some agents, that may have been the end of the story, aside from some brief check-ins here and there until the next transaction.

But Zanganeh’s relationship with Jackson had only just begun.

Because of his need for privacy as a celebrity and as someone who had been embroiled in child abuse lawsuits for years, Jackson had all of his mail delivered to Zanganeh. So, the agent ended up going to Jackson’s house every day or two to hand off his packages and mail. Sometimes he would linger and chat or end up staying for dinner, and ultimately, their relationship developed to the point where Zanganeh would join Jackson for birthday parties, holiday gatherings and other intimate occasions.

Zanganeh also became a trusted advisor to Jackson in more ways than one, warning him when his staff told him that grocery bills ran way higher than they actually did (so they could pocket the extra cash), and sharing his honest opinion when lavish clothing or jewelry sent from admirers in the Middle East were too over-the-top for everyday wear.

Throughout the friendship, Zanganeh concealed his client’s identity, aiming to respect Jackson’s wish for discretion. After about two years, however, Jackson brought the topic up with Zanganeh himself.

“He was like, ‘You’ve always kept working — you’ve never mentioned to anybody that we work together,'” Zanganeh recalled to Inman. “And he said, ‘You’ve never leveraged that. Don’t you think it would be helpful for your business?'”

Zanganeh acknowledged that it would be lucrative to promote his association with an artist who won 13 Grammy Awards over the course of his career, and to date, has sold over 400 million records worldwide. Jackson obliged, mentioning “a friend” who was “just a young girl looking for a place” in Vegas.

Thinking she was probably one of Jackson’s nannies, Zanganeh said he’d appreciate the referral. The “young girl” was Britney Spears, and Zanganeh ended up brokering a property for the pop star while she was contracted to perform with Caesars Entertainment.

After that, the flood gates opened, and the high-net-worth and celebrity referrals flowed over the remainder of Jackson’s life. Over the course of their relationship, Zanganeh would broker three deals for the musician.

From Steve Wynn to Mariah Carey and more, Zanganeh developed valuable client relationships both directly and indirectly because of his attachment to Jackson.

Once word got around that Zanganeh was working with a high-profile roster of celebrities, the reputation helped him to create a rapport with the city’s casino bosses, who then connected him to celebrities who performed at their casinos — including the late musician Prince, who died in 2016.

Although Zanganeh never spent time with Jackson and Prince together in the same room, his dueling relationships with them sheds light on the well-publicized competition between the two musical icons.

“Those two guys had a lot of respect and admiration for each other, but they also had a lot of friendly competition between each other,” Zanganeh told Inman. “It was like they always wanted to know what the other one was up to and what [houses] the other one had seen … It [gave me] a little bit of insight as to how such amazing, famous, talented people were so competitive, because I deal with that a lot in my own business.”

The two mega stars would quiz Zanganeh on who was getting the bigger house or who was getting the better deal — all in good fun.

“But it’s interesting to see people that are that successful and that famous still care so much about that in their own personal lives,” Zanganeh added. “Even when it came down to looking at houses.”

Zanganeh credits Jackson with launching his real estate career and making him the successful agent he is today. Over 20 percent of Zanganeh’s business today is off-market and referral business, and he holds the record for most homes sold over $10 million, according to Greater Las Vegas MLS.

“Michael single-handedly changed my entire career,” Zanganeh told Inman. “He changed my life and made me one of the most successful Realtors in the entire state.”

Jackson’s controversy and tragic end

Michael Jackson at the Santa Maria Courthouse during a break in his child molestation trial May 23, 2005 in Santa Maria, California | Photo by Aaron Lambert-Pool/Getty Images

It’s impossible to talk about Michael Jackson without addressing the child molestation allegations and lawsuits that marred his career starting in the early ’90s.

In 1993, a lawsuit was filed against Jackson by the family of a 13-year-old boy befriended by Jackson, alleging the pop star repeatedly committed “sexual battery” against the child during their slumber parties.

The family’s story was published in an exposé by Vanity Fair. By 1994, the suit expanded to three boys claiming abuse, but prosecutors subsequently announced they would not file charges against Jackson because the primary victim did not want to testify.

By 2003, days after Jackson’s Neverland Ranch was raided by police (a property that Zanganeh never brokered for Jackson), he was arrested on child molestation charges. On Feb. 28, 2005, the criminal case went to trial, at which the victim, Gavin Arvizo, claimed that Jackson masturbated him, and gave him and his brother alcohol and showed them pornography. A former member of Jackson’s staff also said she saw Jackson take a shower with child dancer Wade Robson.

Several months later, on June 13, 2005, Jackson was acquitted of all criminal charges.

By the time Zanganeh met Jackson in-person, it was well after the trial had ended, the agent said. Since Zanganeh didn’t reveal his connection to Jackson publicly until years afterward, he said Jackson’s scandal had little impact on Zanganeh’s own business or reputation.

Zanganeh was, however, sought out by the media because of his connection to Jackson following the pop star’s June 2009 death of cardiac arrest in response to anesthetics administered by his doctor, Conrad Murray. In 2011, Murray was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in connection with Jackson’s death.

Zanganeh’s immediate response to hearing about the singer’s death was that it was a brilliant hoax.

“I thought for sure it was a publicity stunt, and I thought it was brilliant,” Zanganeh said. “This is the best stuff I’ve ever heard of and he’s the king of these things.”

Zaganeh was acquainted with American filmmaker, touring manager and choreographer Kenny Ortega, who was directing what would have been Jackson’s upcoming UK tour, and had recently gained a lot of attention for directing the film “High School Musical.” Figuring Jackson’s death was a move Ortega helped cook up to ultimately create chatter around his upcoming tour, Zaganeh was not concerned.

But after witnessing days of non-stop news coverage about Jackson’s death, Zaganeh started to feel like something might be off.

“I’m going, ‘this sounds a little too serious to be just PR,'” Zaganeh told Inman. “So I start calling, and nobody’s answering their phones and there’s busy signals, and then I started getting a very sick feeling in my stomach that this could be a reality. And then I didn’t hear back from anyone for like four days.”

Zaganeh did start receiving a number of calls for a different reason, however.

“I didn’t really have much time to grieve,” he said. “I think I ended up with something like 100 phone calls, emails, FedEx’s, letters coming in, all these different requests, including big checks offering me to give them access to his home and do all these different things, which, I didn’t feel comfortable doing any of those things.”

There was one interview Zanganeh conceded to because he believed he’d be able to discuss Jackson’s legacy without navigating what he viewed as a smear campaign, having witnessed some media outlets solely focusing on the child molestation allegations without offering multiple perspectives. That interview was with CNN’s Anderson Cooper.

“CNN and Anderson Cooper said, ‘We don’t pay, we don’t do any of these things. But the story is getting out there, and there’s all this false information, according to you, out there now.'”

Cooper was willing to do an unedited interview from Zanganeh’s perspective that would share Jackson’s side of the story, and that was all he needed to hear.

“That was the one and only story that I did do, and I did it with permission and it came out well and respectful, and it was handled beautifully,” Zanganeh said.

Having known him at a personal level, Zanganeh said that he could never believe the allegations made against Jackson held any weight.

“I always just shut it down very quickly, because I’ve seen him with his own children,” Zanganeh told Inman. “I have no reason to believe any of that is true. I know how he was — by the thought of that — how visibly upset he would get when that would even come up. That was the reason why he had left the U.S. in the first place … because he felt so betrayed …”

2785 S Monte Cristo Way

The living room of 2785 S Monte Cristo Way | Photo by Aeon Jones

In 2010, Zanganeh sold the home he had rented to Jackson to Dong Xue and his wife, Jeanette Zhou, for $3.1 million.

Xue is a retired doctor and Zhou works in fiber-optic communications while succeeding as a movie producer. Both happened to be fans of Jackson. Knowing he had once rented the house sealed the deal for the couple, Zanganeh said.

In March 2022, Zanganeh helped the couple list the eight-bedroom home for $9.5 million, The Wall Street Journal reported. Spanning nearly 17,000 square feet and boasting a 10-foot wall around its perimeter, the home remains active on the market today, and includes some of the furniture once owned by Jackson.

When Jackson resided at the property, he rented it for $50,000 per month. Zanganeh also brokered two other properties for Jackson before the end of his life: 7000 Tomiyasu Lane and the “Thriller Villa” at 2710 Palomino Lane, both in Las Vegas.

Jackson’s death happened 13 years ago, but his memory remains fresh for Zanganeh because of how drastically he changed the course of his life.

“I truly felt blessed by having him as a friend,” Zanganeh said. “And there’s no doubt in my mind that he completely changed my life and my career.”

The luxury broker, who first became interested in real estate when he worked as an assistant in a brokerage for a few hours after class in high school, has come a long way in a relatively short time.

Born in France and having spent his childhood in Spain because of his mother’s linguistics career, Zanganeh and his family moved to California when he was 11. After graduating high school, he asked his mother permission to take a gap year before college to give real estate a shot full-time.

The deal was, that Zanganeh could opt out of college altogether if he could make $100,000 during his first year as a full-time agent. Within his first nine months, he had made a paltry $5,000 and things weren’t looking good. But by some stroke of luck, the leads he had planted during those first nine months finally started to bear fruit towards the end of the year, and he barely exceeded that $100,000 threshold.

If Zanganeh hadn’t crossed that threshold, who knows if he would have been in the right place at the right time to connect with MJ.

Whenever he does public speaking today, Zanganeh stresses to his audiences that you never know when extending even a minimal act of kindness — like responding to what seems like a crazy email — will pay off in the long run.

“Pay attention to things when people say, ‘Oh, you’re an idiot for responding to that,'” Zanganeh said. “It’s an extra 30 seconds in the day to send an email back or be polite to someone who people think might be crazy.”

Get Inman’s Luxury Lens Newsletter delivered right to your inbox. A weekly roundup of all the biggest news in the world of high-end real estate delivered every Friday. Click here to subscribe.

Email Lillian Dickerson

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