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August 23, 2009

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Cherie liberates her true identity

CHERIE Blair, wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and a star attraction as author at this week's Shanghai Book Fair, talks to Sam Riley about politics, the press and being herself in a global spotlight.

There are few women in the past two decades who have lived under a spotlight as unrelenting and at times unforgiving as that which shone on the life of Cherie Blair.

The wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has had every aspect of her life dissected by the remorseless British press during a 10-year stint in the goldfish bowl that is Number 10 Downing Street.

But Blair hasn't gone quietly into the sunset during her post-political life and was in Shanghai this week to promote the Chinese language edition of her autobiography "Speaking For Myself" at the Shanghai Book Fair.

When the book was published in May last year Blair's attempt to put her own spin on her time at the heart of British politics met with a blizzard of criticism.

The Times, which ran extracts from the book, said that her autobiography exposed her as a "vain, self-regarding, shallow-thinking viper."

The book was pilloried in some sections of the press for what were deemed the crass revelations about the couple's personal life, which included a passage discussing them having sex while staying at Balmoral, the Queen's holiday residence.

This week Blair sat down to discuss a life in the whirlwind of British politics and why she chose to step once again into the glare of the spotlight.

Sitting opposite Blair in the quiet surrounds of luxury retail outlet Three on the Bund, one is instantly struck by how different her physical appearance is to the countless photographs taken of her.

Like Hilary Clinton, Blair seems to have been the subject of a procession of pictures that attempted to portray a slightly maniacal facial expression.

In person, she is much more the poised career woman, the accomplished Queen's Counsel rather than the Lady Macbeth-style schemer or odd-ball new age spiritualist that are some of the pantomime-like personas that have come to dominate her public image.

"Often when I went round to meet people they would say two things to me," she said.

"One, you are much prettier in the flesh than your photographs, which is a godsend really given the photographs, and two, you are not what we expected.

"I think they expected some sort of odd parody."

Blair said the desire to forge a public image in her own words was what motivated her to write the autobiography.

The gaffe-prone Blair was kept away from the microphone during much of her time at the apex of British politics, with the supremely slick Blair spin machine preferring to contain the articulate human rights lawyer within a strategy of silence.

It's a tactic that led Blair to form plans for her autobiography while her husband was still in office and she later secured a reputed 1 million pounds (US$1.65 million) for the book.

"The important thing was Tony and his views and what he wanted to tell the British people so it was thought that we shouldn't distract from that by my giving interviews or anything else," she said.

"So as a consequence, it was certainly a good strategy at the beginning. I am not sure it was actually a sustainable strategy and it kept going beyond when it really made sense."

Despite having an armchair view of the inner workings of New Labour for more than a decade, Blair said she did not want to write a political book.

Leaving that material for the much-anticipated memoirs of her husband, Blair said she wanted to tell the story of her 50-year journey from a working class girl growing up in Liverpool to her time at Number 10.

Blair, 54, grew up in a devout Catholic family which had to deal with the shame of her father, the actor Tony Booth, walking out on the family when she was eight years old.

Despite financial hardship, Blair went on to graduate in law at the London School of Economics. She met her husband while teaching law.

The mother of four was made a Queen's Counsel in 1995 and a part-time judge in the County and Crown Courts in 1999.

As a barrister, Blair has appeared in a number of leading cases and is an expert on employment, discrimination and public law. She says her legal career provided a respite from the demands of being Britain's first lady for 10 years.

"Number 10 can be an all embracing environment and there was part of my life where I was in control, where it was about me doing my job. I think this was actually very important to me.

"It not only gave me a focus but it also gave me a link to a world outside Number 10 - it wasn't only important to me but it helped me help my husband more."

The world outside Number 10, however, often intruded on the private life of Blair and when asked about her lowest point during the 10 years in Downing Street she said it was experiencing a miscarriage in 2002.

The Blairs revealed this to the public because the couple had been scheduled to go on a holiday and it was mistakenly thought their change in plans was due to the imminent launch of the invasion of Iraq.

"To be going through a miscarriage and to have to deal with the fact that Alastair Campbell (then chief press secretary) says you are going to have to release a statement was a stark demonstration of the overlap between the public and the private," she said.

Later in 2000 she would give birth to her fourth child, Leo, at the age of 45 and endured ongoing media speculation during the pregnancy about whether a woman her age could deliver a healthy baby.

Details of her private life would also damage her public profile.

There were the misconceived real estate deals linked to convicted Australian conman Peter Foster, which forced an apology from Blair.

She has also been ridiculed for her interest in some unconventional new age therapies, the most infamous being a so-called "rebirthing" ceremony in Mexico in 2001 that involved the prime minister and his wife smearing fruit and mud on each other while sitting in a steam bath.

But despite these private revelations damaging her image she did not shy away from revealing intimate details of the couple's private life when writing her autobiography.

In recounting their courtship and early love, she writes Mills and Boon-like about Tony Blair's "strong young body," and "his hair [curling] down over his collar in a way that made me want to twist it around my fingers."

She admits that her husband might have wished he vetted the book more closely in the wake of reviews questioning if a former prime minister would want his wife talking about his chest hair.

"Tony did read the book, but afterward when he was reading some of the reviews I think he must have skipped over some of the earlier lovey dovey bits," she explained.

Despite experiencing the full brunt of the British media, Blair is far from the prickly, suspicious and wary interviewee one might expect. While she says the public's perception of her has been influenced by a collection of parodies conjured to fill the demands of the 24-hour news cycle, Blair is also conscious of fitting into media-friendly roles.

She repeatedly talks about being the working class girl from Liverpool and there is the motherly image of her organizing the household when she discusses arranging the family's move from Number 10.

She talks breathlessly about going to the White House and being sung to by Stevie Wonder like she is catching up with one of the girls over coffee.

One can't help but feel that, like her husband, the real person lies tightly locked away from prying media, while the public persona stays relentlessly on message.

Yet she is not the polished product of years of being a vital cog in the Blair public relations machine that re-invented the art of political spin doctoring.

With Blair there are glimpses of a wry, self-deprecating humor and a single-mindedness to have her say on the events she witnessed, regardless of the flak it might cause.

In public, at least, she is magnanimous and has resisted the urge to get even with political enemies: "I don't think I have a knife to put into people," she explained.

She glosses over the intense rivalry between Tony Blair and his then Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown with a droll reflection on political ambition that could easily apply to her own journey from Liverpool to Downing Street.

"A big part of politics is ambition and I don't think it is an ignoble ambition to want to be prime minister, after all my husband wanted to be prime minister," she said, before adding with an air of ironic understatement, "it is good to strive."

(Additional Reporting Yao Minji)


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