Charmer who went on the offensive

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 July, 2011, 12:00am


The British phone-hacking scandal may have left Rupert Murdoch's reputation in tatters, but his Chinese-born wife's stock has soared on the back of her rapid reflexes and killer slap-down.

Wendi Deng Murdoch became an internet sensation around the world after she lunged to defend her 80-year-old husband from a protester in London last week.

Comedian and activist Jonathan May-Bowles, known as Jonnie Marbles, disrupted a British parliamentary hearing into the scandal to throw a paper plate of shaving foam in Murdoch's face.

In true Charlie's Angels style, Deng leapt instantly to her feet and landed an overhead slap square on May-Bowles' nose - despite there being another woman between them. The group tumbled to the floor in a heap, but Deng - conspicuous in her shocking-pink jacket - was back on her feet in a flash and, without skipping a beat, reached back to the table to fling the remains of the faux custard pie at her husband's attacker.

Video of the altercation became an internet sensation, earning the mother of Murdoch's two youngest daughters the nicknames 'tiger mum' - nabbed from Amy Chua - and 'guardian angel', while Chinese internet users are hailing her as having redefined the image of the assertive Chinese woman and wife.

Commenting on the incident on US satirical news programme The Daily Show, comedian Jon Stewart drew attention to the fact that Deng is 38 years younger than her husband.

'I am not a big proponent of the four-decade marriage age gap,' he said, 'but if ever there was a situation where it would pay dividends, it would be an ambush like that.'

Glamorous, intelligent, hugely ambitious and about 180cm tall, Deng was already well known as the woman on the media baron's arm. They married 11 years ago.

'Study well. Only then will you be able to get a good husband,' she told the Yangcheng Evening News in a recent interview ahead of the release of her film company Big Feet Productions' latest movie, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.

She was speaking from experience. Her journey from ordinary girl in a Chinese backwater to the wife of one of the world's most powerful men is a tale of hard work, determination, and a dash of ruthlessness.

Deng was born in Jinan, Shandong province, in 1968, the third of four children in the family. Her factory manager and Communist Party member father named her 'Wenge' (Cultural Revolution) after the ultimately disastrous mass movement that had begun two years earlier. The family moved to Xuzhou, in Jiangsu, shortly afterwards, and stayed there until Deng had almost completed high school.

Deng was a keen volleyball player at school until advised by teachers to focus on her studies. Little could she have guessed the innovative use she would find for her well-practised spike technique decades later and half a world away.

The family moved again before Deng finished high school - this time to Hangzhou, Zhejiang province - but at 16 she was already out to make her own way in the world, heading south to Guangzhou Medical College.

While in her third year, in 1987, Deng befriended an American couple, Jake and Joyce Cherry, who were in China to set up a refrigerator factory. Joyce tutored Deng in English and they formed a bond.

The next year the Cherrys sponsored Deng for a student visa to the US, and she dropped medicine for economics at California State University, Northbridge, where she was said to be in the top of the class.

But Deng's bond with Joyce Cherry wasn't strong enough to stop her stealing her sponsor's husband, 30 years older than her. The older man had put a ring on Deng's finger by 1990, but it wasn't to last. Cherry later said they only lived together for four or five months, though the divorce didn't come through until more than 21/2 years after the wedding.

By that time, Deng had her green card and was treading her own path. After California State, she moved on to Yale School of Management, where she graduated with an MBA in 1996. Deng has said in interviews that she waited tables at nights in a local Chinese restaurant to put herself through school.

Fate - in the guise of another older man - smiled on Deng again when it came to her next move.

According to a well-reported version of events, she found herself on a plane sitting next to Bruce Churchill, an executive with Murdoch-controlled Fox TV. Whatever they discussed on the flight certainly impressed the experienced television executive as, before they landed, Churchill had offered Deng an internship with Star TV in Hong Kong.

In an article on Deng that appeared in Australia's The Monthly magazine in 2007, some of her fellow interns at Star TV described her strategy for success. While everyone else was trying to learn as much as they could as fast as they could, Deng strode into the offices of the station's most connected executives and brazenly introduced herself.

The charm offensive worked - at the end of her internship, she gained a full-time position and that in turn led to her biggest break ever.

It was at a company party in Hong Kong the next year that she met her boss and husband-to-be. According to folklore, Deng spilt a glass of red wine over Murdoch. An alternative version events, however, has it that Deng was assigned as Murdoch's interpreter for a trip to Shanghai. Another is that Deng used her old trick of bursting into his office unannounced with an irresistible business plan.

By early 1998, their affair was an open secret within the office.

Murdoch himself told Vanity Fair in October 1999 that the relationship began after he took Deng to dinner while she was visiting London the previous year. That was shortly after he had split with his second wife, Anna Maria Torv, whom he had married in 1967. Just 17 days after their divorce came through in June 1999, Murdoch married Deng on his luxury 48-metre yacht in New York.

Deng gave up her post at Star TV shortly after the wedding - Murdoch jested later in the year that her new job was 'as a home decorator' - but nobody was expecting Deng to retire to the kitchen baking cakes.

Rumours quickly surfaced about the boss' wife's growing influence behind the scenes at News Corporation. There was also talk of power wrangles with Murdoch's two sons and two daughters from his previous marriages. The youngest son, James, sat giving evidence beside his father at last week's parliamentary hearing but was noticeably slower to go to the aid his father than his stepmother, just four years his senior.

The family picture became even more muddled when Deng's own daughters came along, Grace in 2001 and Chloe in 2003. The girls are said to accrue stock dividends from the family's stake in News Corporation, but unlike their elder siblings have no voting rights as yet.

Not everything Wendi Deng touches has taken on the Midas effect. Three years ago, Murdoch appointed his wife chief China strategist for MySpace, the social networking site News Corp bought in 2005 for US$580 million, her first formal post in the company since leaving Star TV.

The company was already past its prime by the time Deng came on board, but she was paid a reported US$300,000 to oversee its continued decline, including an estimated US$35 million to US$45 million in investments in China that generated few returns. News Corp sold the site to Specific Media and Justin Timberlake - reportedly for just US$35 million, or slightly less than that ill-fated mainland investment.

Friends of the couple have said Murdoch, for all his reputation as the fearsome corporate tyrant, treats Deng as an equal in the marriage, rather than a trophy wife.

Reputedly a vegan, Deng keeps a tight rein on ageing Murdoch's diet and exercise regime. If her advice is as good as her Kill Bill fly-swatting technique, the mogul may be around some time yet - his own mother, Elisabeth Murdoch, is still running committees and chairing charity meetings at the ripe old age of 102.