Ajay Raju Profile: The Big Raju

Every once in a while, a person comes along whose dreams are so bold, whose style is so outrageous, whose entire being is so un-Philadelphian, that he’s bound to change our city just by putting his mind to it. Is Ajay Raju one of those people?

HE’S VERY WILLING to talk about his first business, which he started as a teenager: AJ’s DJs. Spinning the likes of Duran Duran and Tone-Lōc not only helped pay for college (and a period when his hairstyle was so elaborate that it makes the current ’do seem mundane); it also supplied one of his most-used metaphors. “My life philosophy,” he says, “is to convince the bouncers to pick up the velvet ropes and let others in the club. And if they don’t want to do that, then I want to be a disrupter and figure out a way to open the back doors and let them in anyway.” I assume it was in this spirit that Raju invited me to his home in Society Hill for dinner with his family — and a sleepover.

I arrived on a Friday evening at the back door of the four-story, 10,000-square-foot, five-bedroom, seven-bath Italianate mansion that one real estate website describes as a “synthesis of Gilded Age luxury and modern sophistication,” and walked into the modern and sophisticated part: a large kitchen with industrial-strength stainless steel appliances arrayed around a marble prep-and-dining island large enough to land a small plane.

Raju bought the place for a reported $3.1 million in the summer of 2011. He negotiated the purchase for more than eight hours with developer Billy Vessal in the upstairs dining room of Alma de Cuba. Though Raju made no mention of cadavers or maggots, “Billy believes I beat him up,” he says. “I believe he got the better of me.” The original asking price topped $7 million, Raju says. The two men shook hands and signed an agreement, and a few days went by before Raju realized something — he hadn’t told his wife.

“That was a massive fight,” he says. “But today, she couldn’t live anywhere else.”

The former Pamela Farrell is a pert, pretty strawberry blonde with large blue eyes. She met Ajay Raju on New Year’s Eve 1988 when she attended a party he was producing with AJ’s DJs and got stranded without a ride. He drove her home, and they talked for hours. He became her first boyfriend, and on their fourth date she asked him to stop seeing other girls and commit to her for life.

“I thought about it for about five minutes,” Raju told me. “That’s a long time to be silent. She went into the kitchen and came back, and then I told her, ‘I can do that.’

“I was up-front with her from day one,” he remembers. “I said, ‘Hey, you’re going to be my wife, but you’ll be number two to my community.’ That was the speech I gave her — 19-year-old to 18-year-old: ‘If we’re going to spend our life together, you need to understand who I am. I want my brother to be a senator. We’re going to be public. I’m going to make this much money. That will be the life. You’ll be second to all that. You ready for that?’

“I was not a typical 19-year-old.”

The couple has been married for nearly 20 years and has three children. Pam Raju is friendly and down-to-earth and seems both inclined toward and accustomed to staying in the background while her husband gives his variants of the stump speech. It became clear as the evening wore on that his being home for dinner was a rare event.

After dinner — more salmon — Raju took me on a tour of the Gilded Age “public” part of the house, where high-ceilinged rooms with elaborate moldings are lavishly decorated in differing color schemes and filling fast with his burgeoning collection of modern Indian art, fine old silk carpets, jeweled marble tables and other objects. “I’m very proud of my new interest in art,” he told me, and he talked with both knowledge and passion about the pieces he’s acquired so far.

Soon after he arrived at home that evening, Raju shed his public peacock plumage and changed into a t-shirt, lounging pants and sandals. Though he’s carrying a few extra pounds these days, it’s easy to see he was an athlete in high school. (He graduated from George Washington in the Northeast.) Raju and his brother Vijay were raised in a comfortable home. Their father was a high-level bureaucrat in India’s government accounting office and became a successful real estate investor in the U.S. Their mother was a nurse. The whole idea was to do better.