Wendi Deng: Right-hand woman

She became an unlikely star of the hacking scandal when she leapt to the defence of Rupert Murdoch. So who is this 'tiger wife'? Susannah Frankel tries to find out

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What did Wendi Deng first see in the billionaire Rupert Murdoch? It's 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 on Tuesday was surprising, it paled in terms of theatrics at least, to that of his third wife. The impeccably groomed and until that point impassive Deng leapt to his defence, unceremoniously slapping the improbably named "pie man", Jonnie Marbles, thereby deflecting his assault long before anyone as effective as a security guard, say, had the sense to intervene.

Deng, in a reassuringly expensive rose-pink jacket, cornflower blue shirt and black skirt, sat behind her husband on the most difficult day of his long career. Her dignity and self-discipline were palpable – particularly as compared with the ruffled and defensive behaviour of the two other women in his life: daughter Elisabeth and former chief executive Rebekah Brooks.

Deng gently discouraged Mr Murdoch from banging the desk in front of him – image control doesn't come much more finely tuned than this – smiled at him and rubbed his back when the going got particularly tough. It looked like genuine affection – and it probably was.

Those far less likely to sympathise with Murdoch's predicament have since admitted to feeling compassion for him, after all – although admittedly of the kind more usually directed towards a marginally dotty, errant old uncle as opposed to an equal or spouse. Whatever, every detail of her behaviour and physical appearance was immaculately well-mannered – note the Chanel Particulière nail polish, a well-chosen and suitably understated touch when, as it soon turned out, she might be more suited to Vamp.

It was as one might expect from the wife of one of the world's most powerful men. Her reaction to a threat to his personal safety was clearly instinctive. "At last the News of the World inquiry has exposed News Corp's deepest darkest secret," wrote the journalist Joe Hildebrand on Twitter. "Wendi Deng is a Power Ranger."

So a new media heroine (or should that be superhero?) is 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 this country's press – not least for their predominantly passive behaviour and for being shrinking violets by comparison with Deng.

Although increasingly well known in the US, Deng's profile here has been relatively low until now – her husband Rupert appeared to prefer it that way, in the early days of their marriage especially. Interviews with her are still unheard of. When The Wall Street Journal (not then Murdoch-owned) ran a lead feature in the year 2000 on his new wife's quiet but significant influence, he was reportedly not amused and she subsequently refused to speak to the journalists who penned it. "As the wife of the chairman and a private citizen, Wendi is entitled to her privacy," the then News Corp spokesman, Gary Ginsberg, said.

In 1999, Murdoch told Vanity Fair magazine that his relationship with his wife ruled out her working for News Corp. 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.

More recently, his wife's reputation as a behind-the-scenes trouser-wearer par excellence, both personally and professionally, precedes her. In Michael Wolff's biography of Murdoch, he writes of Deng: "Let's recast this story as a triumphal, even uplifting tale of pluck and achievement. She's not [William Makepeace Thackeray's cynical social-climbing heroine] Becky Sharp, she's Pip in Great Expectations." Certainly, the lady has done spectacularly well for herself. In her home country she is, by all accounts, something of a role model to thousands of young Chinese women, many of whom see her rise to wealth and Western supremacy as nothing short of inspirational.

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 the Californian couple, Jake and Joyce Cherry, who had been posted to the region. Deng persuaded the Cherrys to sponsor her for a US student visa.

Mrs Cherry's help and affection was rewarded by her young protégé running off with her husband – 30 years her senior. They married but lived together for a few months. A little less than three years later, she and Mr Cherry divorced.

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.

It is unsurprising that Deng, 42, has attracted the requisite jibes reserved for much younger wives. She is now 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.

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 would have been considered foolhardy ever even to have dreamt of that.