Focus: The new adventures of Superwoman

She cracked heads in the City! She flew away! Now she's back, tackling robbers! Can Nicola Horlick be for real? Sonia Purnell finds out
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The Independent Online

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it a publicity stunt? No, it's Superwoman back again, and this time she is cracking heads for real. Just when we thought we'd heard the last of Nicola Horlick - given that heroic nickname eight years ago for holding down a high-flying City job while bringing up a tribe of children - she blasts her way off the pink pages to grab yet another bag of sensational headlines.

The previous time, she was tackling male bosses in the City, metaphorically - but the latest episode in the legend of Superwoman sees her taking on real physical assailants. Last week, the newly preened, slimmer, and distinctly younger-looking Ms Horlick, 44, drew gasps of amazement from fans and detractors alike for sheer nerve and sangfroid. She had apparently seen off armed muggers threatening to shoot her outside her home in South Kensington, displaying the sort of cunning under fire rarely seen outside the scenes of a Bond movie.

Despite being pistol-whipped by two men on a moped - which left her with a gaping wound on her head and a badly bruised neck - she sent her attackers away empty-handed. Ms Horlick outwitted them by tossing her £50,000 ring into a bush and pretending her husband was approaching. Then she escaped into the house where her children were waiting.

That was her story, told to the now customary cameras and reporters. Her detractors soon began raising doubts by hinting that the event might have been staged to revive her career as a fund manager. The police don't seem to think so. They have praised her frankness and believe it may help them track down the culprits. Friends said her injuries were clearly "bloody painful".

Eight years ago she was a gutsy, highly successful but relatively obscure fund manager at Deutsche Morgan Grenfell. Ms Horlick was suspended from her job after unproven claims that she had been trying to persuade staff to leave with her for a rival bank. Her reaction was to storm the London offices of her employers, accompanied by a phalanx of reporters and camera crews. When that failed, she boarded a plane to the firm's HQ in Frankfurt - with me in the next seat, as a journalist - to demand satisfaction and her job back. She still didn't get it, but she did become the City's first media babe.

When the papers found out that she had five children as well as a hugely lucrative, pressurised job, they dubbed her Superwoman and ran endless interviews probing her secrets. There were headlines for years afterwards, until it all went quiet. But last week, there she was again, after the attack, turning up for work as usual at Bramdean, her own recently founded fund management company located opposite Harrods, and looking every inch the woman who once famously "had it all". Except she doesn't have it all any more. Perhaps the main reason why we had heard relatively little of her for the previous 18 months or so was that she had been quietly trying to put her life back together. Ms Horlick seems to be a magnet for trouble: so numerous have been her crises, both personal and professional, that she frequently asks: "Why me?"

"She's always wondering why she is the centre of these dramas," confides a friend. "She feels like her life is an ongoing soap opera, but believes that there must be some reason why she's constantly being tested in this way. At first, she tends to cry her eyes out, but then she bounces back determined just to get on with it."

Before the mugging, her most recent - and least expected - trouble was a bitter divorce from Tim Horlick, her husband of 20 years. They had seemed inseparable throughout her tempestuous career and the death from leukaemia of their daughter Georgie at the age of 12 in 1998. As she herself says: "I never, ever, ever thought I would be divorced. It is just so awful." But Tim started an affair with a City receptionist almost 20 years his junior in late 2003, just as his wife and the children were preparing to emigrate to Australia where she had accepted a new job. The couple were telling friends that he planned to commute between London and Sydney. The Victoria & Albert Museum was booked for a lavish farewell party with 330 guests. It was just before the party that she found out about the adultery.

She knew her marriage was over as she greeted her friends with her normal cheery manner that night, and few, if any, guessed that she was distraught underneath. Again, her critics used her apparent nonchalance as proof of her cold-heartedness, but her admirers saw it simply as yet another example of her fortitude.

Although in the flesh she often comes across as friendly, funny, sometimes even endearingly girly, Ms Horlick constantly divides opinion. Friends say the marriage failed because the couple simply grew apart. Her enemies, however, subscribe to the view that she drove him away with her "attention-seeking and bossiness".

One of her husband's former City colleagues blamed it on the way she "used to phone Tim, a very senior figure in the City himself, and simply bark orders down the phone". A former nanny described her as a "control freak" and successfully sued her for unfair dismissal. And during his Radio 4 programme In the Psychiatrist's Chair, Professor Anthony Clare said she was a "pious goody-goody, lacking in humour".

I find those accounts difficult to reconcile with the woman I met on that trip to Frankfurt in 1997. Her trademark helmet bob, her ruby-red lips and milky complexion - combined with her astonishing success in the male bastion of the City while simultaneously producing a small tribe of children - became instantly iconic and the grown-up face of girl-power. But her thrilling stance against faceless male employers - one observer described her as a "one-woman whirlwind" - combined equal measures of admirable daring and chutzpah with naivety and even, perhaps, folly.

Going home that night, as the adrenalin began to wear thin, she said to me: "I really wonder what Tim is going to say about all this." I saw a woman blessed with the inner steel you often see in those who have attended a certain kind of blue-stocking girls' public school (she went to Cheltenham Ladies' College). But it was also laced with self-doubt, so that even on her barnstorming mission to Frankfurt, she wouldn't eat the sandwiches on the plane because they might be too fattening.

Well, she is certainly slim now, and with a new boyfriend - commercial property agent Mark Shipman, 43. Having proved her formidable courage in an entirely unexpected way, with a new business to run, not to mention looking better than ever, she has her enemies seething with envy again.