Monday 21 May 2018

21st Century Fox: Wendi Deng's new chapter

The Murdochs' tangled love lives took in world leaders and rock stars. Now, after detaching from one much-loathed billionaire, Wendi has been under pressure to find another

The marriage of Rupert and Wendi Murdoch came under pressure when he became aware of her rumoured attraction to Tony Blair
The marriage of Rupert and Wendi Murdoch came under pressure when he became aware of her rumoured attraction to Tony Blair
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

It could've been a photo montage from Wendi Deng Murdoch's own personal Eat Pray Love. There she was last week in Nevada, amid the 70,000 dust covered hippies of the Burning Man festival, communing with the wilderness and soaking up the beats (well, as much as was possible from the comfort of the Google tent - one imagines she was hardly relieving herself in a bucket like the rest of the revellers).

There she is hanging on the yacht of Roman Abramovich, a friend of Russian premiere Vladimir Putin, with whom Wendi has been frequently linked. In late summer, as the sky over Central Park crackled with lightening, Vogue pictured the world's most famous divorcee making dumplings for her friends in New York. More recently we glimpsed her hanging in Croatia with Ivanka Trump, another woman with a taste for diabolical super villains. It's been three years since Deng's marriage to Rupert Murdoch, the most powerful mogul in world media, ended, and the veil of mourning, if it ever existed, is long gone. Like any Instagram winner, she gives the careful impression of living her best life.

Over her shoulder there is still a certain amount of wreckage. Rupert may have remarried - to former Texan beauty queen and ex of Mick Jagger, Jerry Hall - but somehow the same media narrative of swiftly and glamorously moving on doesn't seem to have imbued his union. He and Jerry seemed to be sort of arthritically supporting each other in the various beach pap shots that emerged over the last few months. Sarah Caden, writing in the Sunday Independent, reversed the most commonly asked question of their marriage by wondering what he, with his great age and wealth, could possibly see in her. And in Britain, particularly, the mockery of their union has continued unabated. In a post-Leveson world, laughing at the old tycoon seems more than fair game - after all he considered broken marriages and reeling divorcees to be headline fodder for over 30 years. The comedian Frankie Boyle caused widespread sniggering (and censorship from the Guardian) when he imagined "Rupert's butler completing some five-star foreplay and moving aside so that his master can mount Jerry, his bones creaking like an Armada ..."

Murdoch's surrogates have recently added to the impression of lingering hurt. Chris Mitchell, the former editor-in-chief of The Australian newspaper brought out a book two weeks ago in which he claimed that Murdoch had been "devastated" by Wendi's wandering eye and the rumoured relationship said to have been between her and Tony Blair.

"He was clearly lonely and struggling to sleep at night for the first few months after the separation," Mitchell writes about Murdoch, with whom he worked closely.

"He rang much more often than he had previously. And he was frank about his sleep problems, sore back and the hurt he was feeling about what was being said about Wendi and Tony Blair.

"It was clear that my boss had been devastated by the closeness he found between his wife and his former friend."

There had been rumours about affairs, particularly one that allegedly took place with Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google. Murdoch turned a blind eye to those. But the idea of his wife being with Blair hit him hard. The Australian billionaire's UK titles had played no small part in bringing the then-leader of the Labour party to power in Britain in the 1990s (Murdoch, according to the Daily Mail, became the unofficial "24th member" of Blair's New Labour Cabinet) and Blair had become not only a valued friend but also the godfather of Grace, the older of Rupert and Wendi's two daughters. At a series of public events, Wendi became infatuated with Blair. In a note, published by Vanity Fair in 2014, she wrote in broken English: "Oh, s***, oh, s***. Whatever why I'm so so missing Tony. Because he is so so charming and his clothes are so good. He has such good body and he has really really good legs, butt ... And he is slim tall and good skin. Pierce (sic) blue eyes which I love. Love his eyes. Also I love his power on the stage ... and what else and what else and what else…"

She later invited the former prime minister to spend time at the Murdoch ranch in Carmel Valley, California. Murdoch got wind of this and flew home. He later told Fortune magazine: "Well, you know, everybody was talking about these things and never telling me anything ... But then I was told two pretty circumstantial things about the ranch (where Deng had been staying)," he said.

"I was in Australia. When I got back, I naturally asked the staff, and it opened up. That's the story."

Vanity Fair claimed domestic staff told Murdoch that Deng had gone to the master bedroom, but "by the time they could tell her, Blair was looking for her, they found Blair walking into the master bedroom and closing the door behind him."

A week after this discovery, Murdoch sent her divorce papers. The cat was out of the bag and slinking around the ankles of sundry journalists. Blair and Wendi have always denied that anything went on between them.

It might comfort Rupert somewhat that Blair no longer seems like such a catch.

His reputation as a statesman is now in tatters. After the publication of the Chilcot Inquiry earlier this year, the streets of London were crowded with people holding signs which damned Blair as "Bliar" and called him "a war criminal" for his role in Iraq.

Blair tearfully apologised for leading Britain into war but denied that he had been wilfully deceitful. A couple of weeks ago it was reported that he will close much of his oft-criticised business ventures - since leaving office in 2007 Blair is reported to have made millions advising a number of foreign governments and multinational firms.

Meanwhile, the Blairs' property empire - 38 properties in all - is worth around £32 million, with 36 of them in the name of Cherie or jointly with their children. Tony's announcement that he will devote himself to charitable works was received sceptically in England, where it is seen as a cynical move to rehabilitate his name.

Cherie also has her own property portfolio and her law firm Omnia Strategy, helps countries manage their political security risks - from Albania to Bahrain, Egypt and Nigeria. She has never commented on the situation with Wendi and Tony.

Wendi and Rupert are said to be on friendly terms still, the terms of the divorce have been quietly taken care of in line with the pre-nuptial agreement which was signed by both. Under the terms of the settlement neither she nor her two daughters with Murdoch received voting rights in Newscorp but the daughters received shares equal to the other Murdoch children and will attain voting rights when they turn 30.

From the wreckage of her marriage, Wendi also salvaged something her ex-husband will never enjoy: a certain, unlikely popularity and decades of life ahead. Perhaps most interestingly of all, she kept his name. A recent profile of her described her as "pushy", "heat-seeking" and like a moth to the flame of successful, talented men.

She grew up with nothing in Xuzhou, Jiangsu, a particularly densely populated corner of China.

"No electricity every day, no telephone, no TV, no refrigerator, no hot water. It was a boring life. I never had a toy. Not one doll, anything", she recalled in an interview earlier this year.

"You didn't know you were poor. It's just the way it was. So to get anyone's attention you had to be smart."

Wendi studied hard. She spent each summer reading the next year's textbooks. "My parents were tough, and I was never good enough."

As a child she pored over pictures of the West, and was particularly mesmerised by a photo of Times Square. After school she began medical training in China, but soon dropped off and went to the States on a student visa. By then she had met an American businessman and his wife, Jake and Joyce Cherry, who offered to help her move - Joyce also taught Wendi English.

The young Chinese student began an economics degree at the University of Southern California, working in a variety of menial jobs to pay her way. Somewhere along the way she also began an affair with Jake. Within a few months the Cherrys had divorced and Wendi and Jake had married. The marriage lasted four months but, crucially, Wendi got a Green Card. Little wonder perhaps that she would later be described as a 'legend to the burgeoning subset of upwardly mobile young Chinese women known as Shanghai Girls, who employ everything in their power to seduce Western businessmen and, ideally, to move out of the country."

Wendi worked hard in the US and eventually earned a scholarship and an MBA from Yale Business School. During this period she met Bruce Churchill, who oversaw corporate development at Fox's Los Angeles branch, through a mutual friend.

He gave her a job as a junior executive and she quickly segued into a more senior role at the company's Hong Kong office.

Within a year, she had become a vice president (Wendi was a director for the holding company that licensed the MySpace brand and technology to MySpace China). Again and again she proved herself to be a savvy and astute businesswoman. She led Murdoch's Chinese internet investments, totalling between $35 million and $45 million, and helped form business links with China for high-speed video and internet access.

It was during this time that she found herself accompanying Murdoch to meetings in Shanghai and acting as his interpreter. He was by all accounts instantly smitten, and they were married on Murdoch's yacht, parked in New York Harbour, a few weeks after his divorce from Anna Murdoch (to whom he was married for 32 years) was finalised.

Famously, Charlotte Church, who had been promised flattering press coverage (she later gave details of this at the Leveson Inquiry), sang at the ceremony.

For Rupert there was potentially more than a mere marriage on the line during this period. He was determined to crack China - it was almost an obsession - and was undergoing a sort of mid-life crisis.

Wendi represented both his ambitions in Asia - she helped him court the region's super elite - and his desire for everlasting youth.

For her the marriage meant an opportunity to live the dream of becoming an influential socialite - she was said to wield significant influence at Newscorp. The couple were constantly on the road and Wendi had to both make sure the yachts and houses looked fabulous and play the role of glamorous consort.

Their circle of friends soon included David Geffen, Larry Ellison, Bono, Sergey Brin and Larry Page.

She became pregnant by IVF (she and Murdoch now have two teenage daughters - Grace and Chloe - who went on to attend Brearley, the exclusive private girls' school in Manhattan). Newsweek dubbed her "wonder Wendi".

Her friends include Arianna Huffington and Diane von Furstenberg. She also became close to Deborra-Lee Furness (wife of the actor Hugh Jackman). She was always feisty and the moment, during the Leveson Inquiry, when she physically defended Rupert from a pie thrower, will live in the memory of all who saw it. There were also rumours that she had a temper.

A lawsuit filed by a former nanny in 2012 depicted Wendi as an expletive-screaming harridan who controlled Rupert (the couple responded with a statement saying: "A state court dismissed (the nanny's) claims, ruling that they were 'inadmissible' and 'unpersuasive'." )

Still, it seemed not entirely unsurprising that the media decided to play matchmaker between Wendi and Vladimir Putin this year.

If she can handle one of the world's most-powerful and most-hated men, then why not another, or so the thinking seemed to go (Putin divorced from his wife Lyudmila in 2014).

Earlier this year Wendi scotched the rumours by claiming that she had never even met Putin.

She did admit that she was single and looking.

Sunday Indo Living

Entertainment Newsletter

Going out? Staying in? From great gigs to film reviews and listings, entertainment has you covered.

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment