Wendi's no Tinker Bell to this Captain Hook

By Susannah Frankel

What did Wendi Deng first see in the billionaire Rupert Murdoch? It is the oldest joke in the book and one that has long been directed at this relationship - by everyone from supposedly hostile Murdoch family members, who have expressed their disdain since the media mogul tied the knot with her on his yacht, Morning Glory, in 1999, to the media and the world at large.

But if octogenarian Murdoch's fumbling - and even at times confused - performance at the House of Commons this week was surprising, it paled into insignificance, in terms of theatrics at least, to that of his third wife. The impeccably groomed Deng had been until that point inscrutable. But she leapt to his defence, unceremoniously slapping the improbably named "pie man", Jonnie Marbles, and thereby deflecting his assault long before anyone as effective as a security guard, say, had the good sense to intervene.

Her reaction to a threat to his personal safety was clearly instinctive. A new media heroine was born and one who is a more formidable prospect than either Kate Middleton or Victoria Beckham, to name perhaps the two most conspicuous examples beloved by the UK's press.

Although increasingly well known in the US, Deng's profile in England has been relatively low until now - her husband appeared to prefer it that way, in the early days of their marriage especially.

In 1999, Murdoch told Vanity Fair magazine that his relationship with his wife ruled out her working for News Corp at that point. Instead, she was "busy working on decorating the new apartment" in Manhattan. Later, it is thought that he pulled a profile of her written by a contributor to Fortune magazine and destined for an Australian newspaper chain he partly owned at the time.

She was born Deng Wen Ge - one of three children and the daughter of a factory manager - and grew up in eastern China, simplifying her name to Wendi in her mid-teens.

While studying medicine, aged 16, she met a Californian couple, Jake and Joyce Cherry, who had been posted to the region. They would turn out to be her ticket to the West. Proving herself a tough cookie from the start, Deng persuaded the Cherrys to sponsor her for a student visa to the US.

Mrs Cherry's help and affection was rewarded by her young protege promptly running off with her husband - 30 years her senior. They married but lived together for no more than a few months. It wasn't long before Deng was embroiled in an affair with David Wolf, a man of her own age, and, a little less than three years later, she and Jake Cherry divorced. Mr Cherry told The Wall Street Journal: "She told me I was a father concept to her, but it would never be anything else. I loved that girl."

With an MBA from Yale University and a degree in economics, Deng was then employed by Star TV, News Corp's Asian satellite-television operation in Hong Kong, as an intern in 1996. She met Murdoch in 1998 when she was assigned the job of his interpreter in Shanghai and Beijing - rumours of a blossoming relationship of a more intimate nature began circulating a few months later.

It is unsurprising that Deng, 42, has attracted the requisite jibes reserved for much younger wives. When Anna Nicole Smith died, Private Eye published a picture of her as a dominatrix captioned with the words: "Anna Nicole Deng: the scheming temptress who stole her way into the heart of a foolish old man - and stole all his money as well."

On the other hand - and equally the stuff of cliche - Murdoch has been accused of being attracted to her more for her abilities to ease his entry into China than anything as straightforward as youth or beauty.

She is co-founder and co-CEO of the film company Big Feet productions - Snow Flower and the Secret Fan happens to be its current project, and will have a giant publicity boost after this week. In short, she's anything but a trophy wife.

She is the mother of Grace and Chloe, two potential heiresses of Murdoch's. Although his children from former marriages - Prudence, Lachlan, Elisabeth and James - and his second wife, Anna, fought his attempts to give his youngest progeny a say in the running of his empire, the young children will benefit from his fortune nonetheless.

In 2007, Grace and Chloe received US$100 million in stock from their father.

So what next for Wendi Deng? If past form is anything to go by, she will continue to stand by her man while the rest of the world decries him and, for that, she may prove to be his finest asset.

Straight after the pie-throwing incident, social-media sites were lit up with praise for Deng - some ironic, but much of it genuine admiration. "Wendi heroic protector of fading old genius," tweeted Channel 4 News' Jon Snow not long after her by-now legendary intervention.

So during a scandal that continues to erupt around the name Murdoch, this relatively unknown character has, in a matter of seconds, lent a tender aspect to the story. Even the most adept of publicists (or damage-limitation experts) would have been considered foolhardy even to have dreamt of that.

-Independent

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