The Rise of Wendi Deng Murdoch

May 18, 2009
*Special to asia!
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Her birth name may embody the communist spirit but she has proven a capitalist  through and through. Meet Wendi Deng Murdoch, the woman behind the world's most powerful media mogul.

She is 6 feet tall, 41 years old and a mother of two. She is named after the Cultural Revolution, her father is a member of the Chinese Communist Party, and she is married to a rich lao wai (foreigner) decades older than herself. She is Wendi Deng Murdoch, and she may soon come to a newspaper, a TV channel or an Internet portal near you.

Wendi Murdoch, nee Deng, is an enigma. Her face graces gossip magazines. She is often pictured with Rupert Murdoch, chairman and CEO of News Corp, in attendance. Much has been written about her supposed role in the latest Murdoch family squabble, but very little else is known about her. Almost nothing is said of what she does with her life, apart from being the third and current wife of an aggressive and ageing billionaire.

The Chinese have a famous saying: It is easier to change a dynasty than the nature of a person. Wendi Deng has spent her first 41 years transporting herself from a family with a collective monthly income of 350 yuan ($43) in a little known city (Xuzhou in the picturesque Jiangsu province in eastern China) to a $44 million penthouse in Manhattan and a billion-dollar fortune.

The next 41 years could be equally dramatic. If Wendi Deng holds true to her trajectory, she could conceivably become the most powerful media mogul in the world, and the most powerful female in Asia.

The Wendi Deng story started in December 1968 (according to the record of Xuzhou First Secondary School, where she spent six years), where she was born the third daughter to a factory manager and an engineer. Her birth was unusual at a time when China was strictly enforcing its one-child policy. That the Deng family managed to buck the rule owed much to the fact that both her father and uncle were members of the CCP, thus giving it the leeway to pursue the Chinese obsession of producing a male heir to succeed the name. Perhaps to placate the party, Wendi was named “Wenge”, Cultural Revolution, the most devastating period in China’s recent history which lasted from 1966 to 1976. Eventually her parents produced a son. The family of six was housed in a three-room flat in an old apartment owned by the factory where her father worked.

Wendi is more than just a wife to Murdoch. She is a partner, perhaps even an equal partner.

Given her height, Wendi naturally gravitated to volleyball, where she was a member of the junior city team. Her academic results were unexceptional. Nothing in her school life and comments by her teachers (“she respects authorities, she is able to unite classmates, she is active in volleyball and average in results), betrayed the steely personality that lay beneath the placid surface.

It was only after she moved to the more prosperous Guangzhou, where her father relocated to run a bigger factory that Wendi began to find herself. She changed her name to Wen Di (which means cultural enlightenment, from which she chose her western name of the same sound). She enrolled in medical school but quit after three terms after she met an American engineer Jake Cherry, who, like her father, ran a factory in the city. She learnt English from Jake and his wife Joyce, and persuaded the two to sponsor her to the US for undergraduate studies.

At age 19, Wendi Deng, who could barely speak English, landed in Los Angeles. She enrolled in the economics faculty of California State University in Northridge, stayed in the Cherrys' home and shared a room with their daughter. Unlike her earlier years, she performed well above average.

Soon Wendi fell out with Joyce and moved out. She rented an apartment, sublet it to other (mostly Chinese) students, sold cosmetics and took on part time chauffeuring to supplement her income. Two years later, in 1990, she married the divorced Jack Cherry. In 1992 Wendi, by then at the top of her class and a green card holder, divorced Cherry and was accepted into Yale University’s MBA program. After graduating in 1996, she flew to Hong Kong to seek her destiny, but found it enroute on the plane instead.

Inflight, she met Bruce Churchill, who worked at Star TV, Murdoch’s beachhead in Greater China and persuaded him to give her an internship in Star. A year later she gatecrashed Star’s annual dinner where she, as legend goes, met Rupert Murdoch for a mere 30 seconds and captured his eyes, if not his heart.

In 1998 Wendi was a member of the Star team who met Murdoch in London for a business conference. This led to an invitation to dinner, and the couple started seeing each other. In 1999 Murdoch divorced Anna, his second wife of 32 years, and married Wendi. Today the new family has grown to four, with the addition of two daughters: Grace in 2001 and Helen in 2003.

Unlike other rich wives, Wendi shuns Manhattan’s social circuit. Awkward in her dressing and still speaking in heavily accented English, she is more comfortable in small gatherings than large events. “At close quarters you can’t help but be struck by her personality and her sense of purpose. She is no trophy wife,” an acquaintance was reported as saying, referring to the trend by rich American men to re-marry pretty but empty-headed wives.

Wendi is more than just a wife to Murdoch. She is a partner, perhaps even an equal partner. This is saying a lot, given than Murdoch is widely seen as the most aggressive media baron in the world. As one of his friends introduced him at a social event, Rupert is “this little boy who took a hometown newspaper and built it to the biggest media group in the world”.

The little boy may now be 78, hard of hearing and in remission from prostate cancer, but he is still as aggressive as ever.

Rupert will continue to run the show as long as he is capable. This could be for years, considering his mother, Dame Elisabeth, is still tending her rose garden at the ripe old age of 96.

lee han shihLee Han Shih is the founder, publisher and editor of asia! Magazine.


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