Jennifer Arcuri is the American entrepreneur who launched her tech company in London and became close to Boris Johnson when he was mayor. When their friendship was exposed two months ago, it made headlines. Now she tells Alice Thomson her side of the story.
Why is it always the woman who is traduced?" says Jennifer Arcuri. "I'm not some pole-dancing floozy who just wanted his money. I'm a 34-year-old businesswoman and tech entrepreneur who has a husband and baby. Boris Johnson doesn't get asked 100 times whether he has had an affair with me. I've been chased by the press around the world and it is the only question I am asked."
Jennifer, or Jen as everyone seems to call her, is right. In the nearly three hours we spend together, it's soon clear that she isn't some deranged "IT support"; she is clever, articulate, funny, engaging and enraged. It's easy to see why the former mayor of London would have wanted to spend time with her but also why she must be so hurt he is now "ghosting" her. She is not a swipe-right, one-night stand – he evidently used to text and visit her all the time.
This is the 21st century, yet Arcuri has been portrayed as a shameless harlot for perhaps getting too close to a powerful married man. For his part, the prime minister has, she tells me, shrugged her off like "some gremlin" and evidently got an aide to answer her last call in a Chinese accent. Arcuri thought Johnson would perhaps have given her some advice on how to handle her predicament.
Two months ago, the friendship of the 55-year-old British Conservative politician and the tech entrepreneur was splashed across every news outlet. Arcuri was caught unawares and became "the blonde" in a media frenzy. Who was this young American?
It was just before the Tory party conference that her connection to the former mayor was exposed, along with questions about why her tech firm had received £120,000 ($241,000) in public money and why she was given privileged access to three foreign trade trips led by Johnson.
For his part, despite the conference being overshadowed by questions about visits to her flat for technology lessons, the PM has refused to comment about any relationship with her, stating on September 23 that in relation to their professional connection, ''Everything was done entirely in the proper way." A few days later, on September 30, he went further, saying that he had "no interest to declare" regarding his past association with her, before early last month, in a letter to a London Assembly inquiry into the matter, denying claims of any conflict of interest. At the end of October, the Government Internal Audit Agency concluded that a grant of £100,000 ($201,000) to her company, Hacker House, was "appropriate".
A decision on whether the independent police watchdog will pursue an investigation into possible criminal misconduct has reportedly been shelved until after the election. So Arcuri, on a visit to London earlier this month to discuss future projects for Hacker House with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, ended up defending her actions alone.
We sit on the balcony at her hotel overlooking London's skyline. "He made my life in London something magical," she says of Johnson, "but there is much more to me." She is wearing a little black dress, large diamond earrings, Ugg boots and Tiffany shades. It's freezing in the wind. She wraps a cashmere shawl around her tightly and lights a succession of Marlboro Golds.
There is something of Boris about her: she has that unruly, platinum blonde hair and that optimistic charm and enthusiasm. She is, however, surprisingly better read than the Old Etonian classicist. "I didn't go to Eton," she laughs.
I hardly get a word in as she proceeds to tell the story of her life. "Do you know The Winter's Tale, Act III, scene ii?" She starts declaiming it flawlessly. "Where Hermione is brought before the entire court and they are all accusing her of adultery and persecuting her … She can't see her child, she has been called all these names, and the first thing she says is basically, 'I have been nothing but loyal and faithful to you.' She has literally nothing going for her, but she is still dignified in front of her king. She is not going after him saying, 'F*** you.' I think how strong she was. Then she is persecuted, she is brought back at the end of the play, thank God, because she was at the end of the day a righteous and loving lady. Hermione has always been one of my favourite characters."
Arcuri channels this scene whenever she feels she is being denounced and the prime minister won't come to her defence. "My response on TV is, I have sat here and been loyal to you and I still consider you a great politician. But how can you just ignore me after all those years?"
Talking of Shakespeare leads to her musing about the half-decade they knew each other when he was mayor. "I used to say to Boris, 'Bring it on, any play.'" She rattles off their favourite speeches from Henry V to Richard III with an uncanny ability to mimic Johnson's voice. "It was the most amazing thing ever," she says. "Because I had never had a man be able to keep up with me on Shakespeare like he had."
Could he quote as much as her? "No, not at all. One of the things we did quote together, which was like a weird sense of foreplay, was Sonnet 29. It's all about ... just the thought of you brings me to a place of such happiness that I would 'scorn to change my state with kings'. I just loved that sonnet because we could do it together."
Raised all over America in various schools, with divorced parents, Arcuri is the eldest of six, and was a gifted child. At eight, she heard a travelling group perform Shakespeare and decided she wanted to speak in iambic pentameter for the rest of her life. She even enrolled on Shakespeare summer camps.
"I was just a little chubby girl growing up. I found because I wasn't resting on my looks I had to make people laugh and be intelligent and engage people in other ways," she explains. "But when I got older we moved to California and I lost my baby fat and I suddenly realised, 'Wait, this is a whole new weapon.' Then I realised that in LA everything was about tits and arse with older men on the casting couch."
Like many hard-up twentysomethings in LA, she says she started modelling and acting, hence the photos of her in bikinis on social media. "But I couldn't stand being asked to compromise myself just because I wanted to be an actress. Waiting for the phone to ring. I would rather pick up the phone. I would rather buy the network than sit and wait for anyone to tell me I'm too fat."
So, aged 27, the aspiring entrepreneur set off to Shakespeare's country, to join London's emerging tech scene in 2012.
Determined to make her name in business, she founded Innotech, to set up networking summits for tech entrepreneurs, and enrolled on a one-year MBA course. She is incensed that she is now being seen as having no other interests in life except snaring a man. "I think there is this automatic assumption that when you have an affair with an older man, you are the one sitting there waiting for him to leave his wife because you were a fool to get involved with another woman's man. I admire Marina [Wheeler]. I don't know how she put up with it for as long as she did. But from my understanding they were two separate people living in a house. It wasn't that he didn't love his wife, but whatever was between them had long gone and it wasn't because of me it was long dead."
Arcuri says she visited Johnson's old family home in Islington. "It wasn't that I was putting him in a position where it's either me or her because I recognised he had a family, a life. I was inside his house. I saw those pictures of him with his family. I guess I can understand what it would be like to live with someone for 20-odd years and maybe not have the same spark as you had at the beginning."
She insists she never used her position to gain any financial favours from the prime minister. The reason she says she was invited on three trade missions with the mayor, and was given financial grants for a succession of companies she started, was because she was a gateway for politicians and policymakers into the new tech world. Her latest venture, Hacker House, came about because she realised the need for more cybersecurity and saw a market for training young hackers with few job prospects to help governments and businesses. She is convinced she did nothing wrong.
Arcuri first met Johnson soon after she arrived in London at a British Venture Capital Association event. "It was a bunch of men in suits just complaining and sweaty and hot. I was like, 'Who cares about the mayor?' Then he walks in and ruffles his hair and has these wrinkled papers like something you pull out of my daughter's preschool backpack and he starts speaking, and the entire room turns into howling schoolgirls. Coming from LA, I thought, 'Wow that's an orator.' I had never seen someone give such an electrifying speech to a room of naysayers. At the end there was a bunch of people around him and I went up and said, 'Hi, Mr Johnson. I am Jennifer Arcuri. I'm running a venture capital event and I really think you should come.' He said, 'That sounds sensible.' Then I was brushed off."
At the time, he was running for a second term as mayor, so she decided to seek out his aides on the campaign trail bus. "All of sudden he was there. I said, 'Mr Johnson.' He said, 'Jennifer Arcuri, where have you been? Did you fall off the face of the earth?'" Again, she has his accent pitch-perfect. "So I said, 'You are speaking at my tech event.'"
On the bus, they chatted. "I said, 'Downing Street has announced it's bringing all these new technologies to London, but with all due respect, sir, aren't you London's mayor?' Now, looking back, it was brilliant – I didn't know the extent of the competitiveness between a boy named Boris and a boy named Dave."
She soon realised the mayor was ignorant about technology. "He had this little Nokia phone. But I noticed there was a book of short stories on his lap. It was Voltaire or Steinbeck. I said I was a fan of Shakespeare. He said, 'I would love to talk to you more. How can I get hold of you?' And I said, 'Why don't you just call me?' So I gave him my number." She says he later sent her a text saying, "'Boris calling Jennifer.' A friend said, 'You can't have Boris on your phone. Call him Alex the Great.' I didn't even know then his name was Alexander."
With only a week before her first tech event, she wrote him an SOS text and he turned up. "It was genius for him – he should thank me for that because he got so much coverage," she says. Her businesses took off alongside their friendship. At first, "It was like a flirtation but not anything real. I thought he would be like every other classic British man just out to say hi to a pretty girl."
Arcuri claims his fame made it tricky to meet up. "Around 3pm to 4pm was always his best time … He was like, 'This is hopeless. Where do we go?' I was like, 'Come to Camden. We will wear fancy dress.' Then he didn't respond, so I thought, I don't care if he is a mayor, he is flaky." It turned out he had fallen asleep but he promised to get on his bike. "I had gone into a hotel bar. I sat on a couch with my iPad looking busy. Then when I looked up, he was there … He was like, 'Thank you for waiting. I'm going to get a drink.' He comes back 20 seconds later and says, 'Jennifer, can I borrow £3.10?' I was like, 'Are you serious? Me the student with like £10."
Soon they were chatting. "He goes, 'Were you a model? You are absolutely beautiful. I can see you being a model and actress.' He had complimented me but it was not like sleazy in any way. I said, yeah, I was a wannabe model and did some B-movies and a Bollywood film."
According to Arcuri, they swiftly bonded. "He said, 'Why do you think we get on like we do?' and I said, 'Mr Mayor, you and I are much more alike than you know.' I felt I already knew his mind, or his soul. I am not saying he was my soulmate but there was a kinship; it was like an innate kinaesthetic response to someone. It was just the most natural thing even though he was this politician and I was a student … This man and I were going to be friends."
After an hour he left. "He said, 'This has been really lovely. I have to let you go. Would you be so kind to meet with me again?' He made it this humble thing. I was like, 'All right, but I don't wait … Don't tell me one thing and not show up. Are we clear?' 'Yes,' he said. 'And don't you ever ignore me,' and he said, 'Yes.' 'I set the tone from the beginning if I am going to entertain being this coy muse who meets you for a drink, or your friend, or whatever.'"
Was she surprised that he wanted to spend time with her? "I already knew where he was going with wanting to pursue me. I am not stupid. People had mentioned he wants to sleep with you and I said, 'No, he doesn't. He is just so enthralled with my mind.' But I wanted to make it very clear that if I was going to entertain this, you are going to have a modicum of respect."
So life was looking good. She finished Hult Business School with an impressive network. She was cited as one of the "25 coolest women in UK tech" by Business Insider and gave a TED talk. She was being lauded as an innovator in a very male tech world and the mayor was apparently texting her regularly. "Sometimes it was just 'X' or 'How are you?' or 'Hey' or 'Brill'."
But she is adamant that Johnson didn't help her career. "He gave me confidence … If I wanted to be in London I had to fight like hell to be here – never did I ask for a favour. I was worried about my visa; he was like, 'We need people like you. You just have to keep fighting. Don't you dare give up.' I had too much pride to ask him – I didn't want him to think I was struggling. I didn't want him to think I needed money or connections or power, because once I did that, then the unspoken pretext of him assumingly wanting to sleep with me created a different dichotomy."
She's been accused of using her relationship to get on those trade missions to New York, Malaysia and Tel Aviv. She disagrees. "These were very public events anyway … It was never like, 'Boris, can you get me on?' It was like, 'Hey, I'm coming and don't screw it up coz New Yorkers are intense.'"
She went to Tel Aviv, she says, because it's the hub of the security market. "I told Sara French [the mayor's export programme manager], 'I'm really interested in going to Tel Aviv.' She said, 'Do you know we have a trade mission next month?' I said, 'I've got to go,' and she said, 'You can't. It's an education trade mission.' I said, 'I will just go when you are going.' She knew it wouldn't be a problem if I went."
Arcuri admits she livened up the trips. "Oh my God, I was a ball. The life of the party. They needed a voice on the ground and I liked to go to fancy events at which I could network."
She says she also entertained Johnson in her Shoreditch base, which had the now famous pole. "There were many times when we went out to places like Fish! in Borough Market that people would just stare at us and then they would want selfies. I was like, 'What am I? Am I your assistant? What am I doing here?' I didn't like that feeling especially, as he wasn't like, 'This is Jennifer Arcuri. She is the founder of Innotech.'"
They once cooked dinner together. "He didn't really have time to eat or hang out when he came over. I had this huge wall covered in cuttings about business in the UK. He was like, 'This is fantastic. I am so proud of you.' He'd say those things … I was too clever – he would have got bored if I was some pole dancer … I wasn't snuggling up with him on the couch. I'd make him a cup of tea – he was usually tired. I know he trusted me. We became confidants."
She says she always cheered Johnson up. "Sometimes he would just be like a bat in a cage, like a slave to the demons in his head, that side of him that gets in a dark place, and I was someone who could make him laugh always."
Did he look after her as much as she claims she looked after him? "I was really upset one day and he was like, 'The world is full of bad men, Jennifer, and you have to be careful not to let yourself get dragged down with them.' He was like, 'Promise me you will be OK.' But I would never go into detail about whatever troubles were in my life because I didn't want to make myself a damsel or weak to him. I wanted to be strong."
They continued meeting each other from 2012 to 2016, she tells me. "I loved it because sometimes I would get so bored with everybody in my life." She also went to Conservative conferences. "I always paid [for myself]. They think I went to be like so many other girls who are looking for their next Tory husband. I couldn't care less about that." She attended for the business day, she says, though she admits she was probably treated differently because she was known to be friends with the mayor. "I knew there was the unspoken 'Boris's girl' kind of tension … It didn't mean I had to run around rubbing it into other people's faces."
His staff must have found her presence disconcerting? "Eddie Lister [the mayor's adviser at City Hall, now in Downing Street] saw me as a parasite that needed to be squashed. He never gave me the time of day. I didn't care – the only person I cared about did like me and he was nothing but supportive of my work."
She claims they were still seeing each other when Theresa May put Johnson in her 2016 cabinet after the Brexit referendum. "He was pissed [off] when he became foreign secretary; he could not come to see me because he was followed everywhere [by his security detail]. So I was like, 'Just tell them to wait outside. Stop making it seem like I'm some bit. Tell them I am a legitimate businesswoman. Validate me.' Enough time had gone by."
In hindsight, she now wishes he had declared his friendship with her but she claims Johnson was always cagey about her, publicly ignoring her when they bumped into each other in City Hall, then calling later.
Their friendship came to an end when Arcuri was 31 and she met her future husband, Matthew Hickey, a cybersecurity expert, and "wonderful man" and became pregnant. She didn't tell Johnson. She felt so ill during her pregnancy, she says, she just disappeared.
She tells me she needed to focus on her marriage "and the thought of being a mum was now the most precious thing to me". But she did text him three years later, when he was campaigning to become leader this summer and had separated from his wife. "I was very excited for him. I was like, 'This is it, honey, your dream.' Also, with the divorce, I sent him a message saying, 'Hey, hope you're OK?' I sent him those little things but I didn't want to engage more than that. I didn't want to start having to explain where I was, what I was doing ... I never made him explain his life to me."
She was surprised when he split up with his wife. "He never would have left her. She just left. His ambition was not to fall in love and live happily ever after; his ambition is and always was to be the prime minister. But that doesn't mean he doesn't want to be loved and feel like he has someone."
When he became prime minister she texted to say well done. "I said, 'Hey, do you think we can have a few minutes?' And he texted, 'You bet x.' But when the news of their friendship broke, Arcuri claims he cut off all contact.
She never guessed he would block her calls. She never thought "there was going to be a time in his life I wouldn't be able to access him or have him in my life in some capacity because of what a whirlwind our relationship started out on, and how it built and where it went. I felt like he genuinely did respect me and like me. Maybe that's naive of me."
Now she says she needs to stay strong for her daughter, Madelaine. "I am responsible for moulding a little girl … I want her to see that I stood up for myself. I called out the man because I know the man and I'm not going to be the weak female just because the press decided to label me. So why haven't you called me? All those years, prime minister or not, you see me taking all this flak. You know I'm not a pole-dancing blonde bimbo."
Her energy is infectious and she is quick-witted but she realises that can now be used against her. "Obviously, I am a larger-than-life personality. Many times the Brits confuse overeager friendliness as a slag. I am flirty and I used my sexuality."
But Arcuri isn't self-pitying. "I want my daughter to see that I was at least brave enough that I called bullshit on this. I can't speak to the other women he [Boris] has wronged. I can't put words in their mouths. Maybe they were too British; maybe I am too American. Whatever it is I am not going to sit back and allow my name and reputation [to be trashed]. Why are you sitting here condemning me to this life because of your pursuit of happiness? Why do you get your pursuit and I don't get mine?"
She was living by the beach in California and running Hacker House with her husband when the story of her ties to the former mayor broke. They were both horrified because she had never courted the press. "All the ex-boyfriends I hadn't spoken to in years were being asked about my sex life." A tabloid reporter visited her in California and asked whether Boris ejaculated prematurely. "I felt, how dare you? Victoria's Secret got in touch and wanted me to model. I thought, what kind of story is this? My friends said this is some reverse #MeToo story about how a mayor was taken advantage of by a young girl. I was like, 'That is not what happened.'"
Wouldn't it be easier just to say whether she slept with Johnson? "It's not relevant," she says. "But if it had been a question of, 'If you admit it, this whole thing will go away and we won't publish your modelling pictures or make up salacious gossip about your student loans,' which are paid off by the way … If it was a matter of just, 'Admit it, we are going to come out with you having an affair and that will be the end of it and it's just about you and the infidelities of Boris,' then I might have been like, 'Yeah, all right, here is what really happened.' But actually the way I was eaten alive, I felt so exposed and vulnerable and I don't like being vulnerable. I don't like being in a position where I don't have the cards. The fact that I have one card right now is the most precious card I will keep, because I do not want anybody to know."
She sounds almost as though she is on stage now. "They may slander my events, they may slander everything else, but they are not slandering what I know was real," she says. "If I was a one-night stand it would have been easy to answer. But it kept going and going, it got so intense and right at the most intense part I slipped away."
She doesn't regret moving on. "I never wanted to make myself appear weak or needy. I didn't want his money … I said, 'Lucky for you, if I want a handbag, I will buy one myself. And if I want money, I will make it.' I don't need a man to provide for me ever. Anyone who thinks that I am just a money-grubbing whore is sorely mistaken … It is always the woman who is blamed. We must change that for my daughter's generation. Boris is allowed to become prime minister, but I should be allowed to be a successful entrepreneur and not just one of his women."
Written by: Alice Thomson
© The Times of London