Of all the fragrant media stars Bill Gates is strongest

The days when businessmen were businessmen and stars were stars is long gone. Now heads of US corporations are the biggest stars of all. But none approaches Bill Gates in presence or power. He has moved from media-shy nerd to the man the media can't get enough of. And he is giving freely of himself, as only a multi-billionaire can.
If heads of corporations make unlikely celebrities, none would seem to fit the rule better than Bill Gates of Microsoft. With his unkempt air, chaotic wardrobe and compulsive back and forth rocking motion, Mr Gates is not exactly mediagenic. But that he is a superstar is indisputable.

He now has the status of Hollywood idol, sporting god and political icon rolled into one. In a recent survey of America's most important figures, Time magazine ventured that only one person in the land was more influential than the 41-year-old Gates and that was the other Bill, Bill Clinton.

These days the ranks of CEOs striving to command the front pages of America's mainstream newspapers and magazines - and increasingly succeeding - are growing fast. Who is likely to be more familiar to a savvy Manhattanite these days, the minority leader in the House of Representatives or the head of the Oracle Corporation? Probably the latter, fast-driving, trouble- making Larry Ellison. Of the 10 most powerful Americans ranked by Time, seven were company CEOs.

"This is an anti-political era," says Larry Sabato, a professor of government studies at the University of Virginia. "It is not the political leaders, with their itsy-bitsy micro-management politics, who are transforming the American landscape, but the corporate leaders. They are the ones fascinating us; they are the new FDRs and the new Churchills."

Lee Iacocca, the man who saved Chrysler, was the first of the modern corporate celebrities. Another early dazzler was Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple Computer, who was later ousted from his own firm. Now Jobs is back in charge of Apple. Recently on the cover of Time himself, Jobs is again giving the ailing company some fresh - and desperately needed - public allure.

Other American CEOs with framed front covers hanging in their top-floor suites include Jack Welch, the outstandingly successful chief executive of America's General Electric; Tony O'Reilly, the long-time leader at Heinz (and part-owner of this newspaper); Andy Grove, who runs the computer- chip behemoth Intel; and Michael Eisner of Walt Disney.

But there is nobody to touch Gates. He has the money. At the last count, he was America's richest man, worth about $40bn. He hangs out with the likes of Tom Brokaw, the TV anchor, and has played golf with the President at Martha's Vineyard. He has written a best-selling book and pens a weekly column that is syndicated in newspapers worldwide.

And, as of Wednesday when he, his wife Melinda and his one-year-old daughter moved in, Mr Gates has had a home to match. Built on the shores of Lake Washington near the Redmond, Washington headquarters of Microsoft, it is the main attraction of the local tour-boat trade. The draw of seeing just the outside of the new home of America's richest man is irresistible, apparently.

But the house alone is already sufficiently fabled. Consisting of seven pavilions that reportedly cost $50m to throw up, it is packed with every luxury, from a 30-car underground garage to a 60ft indoor pool, a library and a cinema. But most astonishing are its Star Trek gizmos.

Visitors to the house - and it has space to accommodate more than 120 at a time - will be fitted with electronic pins containing digitised information on their musical and artistic tastes. On entering, they will be greeted by their favourite tunes. Better still, artworks fitting their taste will magically appear on high-definition, flat-screen monitors hiding on the walls.

The omnipresence of Gates - what magazine has not had him on its cover in the past two years? - is all the more extraordinary because of how he used to be. Bill "didn't have a lot of confidence in social settings," his father, Bill Gates Sr, reminisced to a Time interviewer this year. "I remember him fretting for two weeks before asking a girl to the (school) prom."

The geeky days of Gates, after all, are not so far in the past. In his 1996 documentary, Triumph of the Nerds, journalist Bob Cringely evokes Gates and his school buddies spending every available hour in computer code-writing sessions amid "stale pizza and body odour and spilled Coke ground into the rug". The Gates aroma, apparently, was especially pungent.

Microsoft will tell you that nowadays Gates dedicates up to 15 per cent of his time to cultivating the press, with interviews, presentations and seminars. "Judging by the number of interview requests we have to turn down, he is still not doing nearly enough," says his spokesman, John Pinette.

Even so, some Microsoft insiders complain that the boss spends too much time on media matters. Paul Maritz, who heads the company's development division, recently told The Wall Street Journal with surprising candour: "We'd like Bill to do less public things and more internal reviews".

And yet, Gates still clings to some degree of privacy. This was the appeal made by Mr Pinette last week to those of us hoping to penetrate the lake house. "Because this is a private residence, Bill wants to thank the media in advance for their co-operation in respecting the family's privacy at home."

Oh well. There is always the tourist boat.