The Socialite who fell to earth
Stupendously rich (after divorcing a casino billionaire), best friends with everyone, she led a gilded life. Then Fergie introduced her to the boss of the now shamed PR firm Bell Pottinger and it all started going horribly wrong . . .
THE occasion at Merchant Taylors’ Hall in the City of London was the 2015 gala dinner for Children In Crisis, the charity founded by the Duchess of York in 1993 to focus on education and child protection in countries affected by conflict.
It is an important annual event for ‘Crisis’, which depends on the generosity of supporters, and Fergie, the charity’s life president, was there to say a few words and also to glad-hand her guests.
The duchess had added two of her friends to the guest list that night: PR company boss James Henderson and Heather Kerzner, vivacious ex-wife of pint-sized South African hotels and casino magnate Sol Kerzner.
Ever since 2010, when her royal life reached its lowest ebb after a newspaper ‘sting’ in which she offered to sell access to Prince Andrew, her ex-husband, in return for £500,000, the Duchess had relied on Henderson, chief executive of world-famous PR firm Bell Pottinger, to rebuild her reputation.
‘James has stoically and steadfastly stood by me ever since,’ Fergie told me this week. ‘He has been loyal and kind.’
And that kindness has been repaid. Henderson’s son Felix spent a winter season working as an assistant at the Swiss ski lodge she jointly owns with Andrew.
The Duchess has known Heather even longer: since 2000, which was soon after the glamorous American-born socialite became the fourth Mrs Kerzner and she and her husband — a billionaire 34 years her senior — moved to London and became fixtures on the society and charity circuit.
That marriage broke down ten years later, and by the time of Fergie’s event, Heather, by now a twice-divorced mother-of-two, was ready for love again.
Henderson, meanwhile, was going through a difficult separation from his wife Alexandra, with whom he has four children.
Though he and Mrs Kerzner did not know one another when they were introduced at the gala dinner, pretty soon the two of them were inseparable.
By March this year, they were engaged. Heather was sporting a stunning Boodles ring on her finger. and save-the-date invitations to their wedding — a church service at fashionable St Paul’s, Knightsbridge, with a reception to follow at the hip Bluebird restaurant in Chelsea — were being dispatched to royalty, rock stars, tycoons, models and politicians.
NoT long afterwards, 48year-old Heather was making a significant gesture of commitment to their relationship, investing several millions of her personal fortune buying a 15 per cent stake in Henderson’s PR firm.
But amid allegations it tried to stoke up racial hatred in South Africa while working for a lucrative client, the company — set up by Maragret Thatcher’s favourite ad-man Lord (Tim) Bell — has spectacularly collapsed.
It has left Mrs Kerzner’s multimillion-pound stake virtually worthless and James Henderson, who quit as the firm’s chief executive, out of a job.
This week it was revealed their planned wedding had been called off, and Henderson had moved out of his fiancée’s Chelsea townhouse. It also emerged that Heather had hired a top lawyer to try to claw back money from the firm’s former directors. Quite possibly this could mean her suing the man she was due to marry on November 25.
The potential legal action is the latest chapter in a scandal that looks unlikely to die down any time soon, the furore having thrown up troubling questions about the business practices of one of the City’s favourite bluechip companies.
But while its collapse is devastating for Bell Pottinger’s partners and employees, it is nothing short of tragic for Henderson, who has lost everything, and for Heather, whose life of gilded luxury may now come to a shuddering halt.
Some in her circle had been surprised not just by the speed of her romance with Henderson but that the sassy and sexy woman had fallen for him in the first place.
With her enviable whippetthin figure and glossy good looks, finding a man after parting from Kerzner was hardly going to be difficult. She had been linked with several eligible bachelors.
I came to know her when reporting on society events. At her 44th birthday party she told me that while she had met several ‘nice’ men, ‘it’s about finding someone who can match your own life, rather than finding someone with whom you can create a life’.
Her own life has seen her become the queen bee of London’s social whirl, friends with Elton John and David Furnish, Naomi Campbell, Elizabeth Hurley, Trinny Woodall and Dasha Zhukova, who recently separated from her billionaire husband Roman Abramovich.
Since her arrival here, Heather has rarely been out of the gossip columns, attending this, hosting that and always displaying that mega-watt smile. No guest list was complete without Heather’s name on it.
But unlike many of the Euro trash that make up much of London’s party-going crowd, Heather never flaunted her wealth, even though her life with Kerzner had been one of opulent excess.
There was the yacht, the private jet, the £25 million mansion in Holland Park, West London, and homes in the Bahamas, the South of France and South Africa. Plus, thanks to Sol Kerzner’s passion for buying and developing hotels, access to some of the most soughtafter resorts on the planet. Prophetically, she was once asked whether she would cope if she lost everything. ‘I’d like to think I could,’ she answered. ‘obviously it’s fun to be able to buy a beautiful gown, but if I couldn’t afford it, I wouldn’t be less happy.’
Brought up in a blue-collar home in Albany, New York, her parents parted when she was just two. Money was tight. She recalls her mother sewing backpacks and ‘stressing about paying the rent and how she was going to put food on the table’.
Heather, though, was bright and won a place at Columbia University to read English, then worked in marketing in New York for the publishing company Time Warner.
In 1993, she married a handsome 6ft 6in former college rowing star turned Wall Street financier, Charlie Murphy, and they moved to London, where he worked for Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank and Morgan Stanley.
Heather, meanwhile, got a place at oxford to study theology at Mansfield College. But the culture shock of life amid oxford’s dreaming spires proved too much. After a term, she dropped out and the couple started a family. They had two children, Charlie and Savannah.
AS EMERgINg members of the international jet set, it was somehow inevitable that Heather’s path would cross with Sol Kerzner, the brash South African hotel and casino mogul, who was rapidly expanding his global business.
‘We were always in the same place by chance,’ she said. ‘I was often seated next to him at dinners but I never looked at him in a romantic way.’
All that changed when Heather and her husband split up and she moved back to New York with her children, then aged three and one. Kerzner, a father-of-five who had already been married three times, including to a former Miss World, began courting her.
With his appetite for expletives (he liked to begin business meetings with the delicate phrase ‘What the f***’s going on’), Sol Kerzner
seemed an unlikely figure for the intelligent Heather to fall for. Sol was behind some of the world’s most over-the-top developments: casinos with fake Mayan temples, artificial volcanoes and lagoons filled with sharks.
He created the notorious Sun City resort in South Africa — a fantasy jungle palace complete with its own wave-making machine on the beach. Despite global condemnation of the then apartheid regime, he lured stars such as Frank Sinatra there to perform.
His private life was as colourful as his business dealings. For his 50th birthday he chartered a jumbo jet and flew 150 friends to Mauritius. During the flight, he replaced the stewardesses with strippers. His first marriage ended in divorce in the early 1970s, his second wife committed suicide and he split from third wife, beauty queen Anneline Kriel, after five years.
This then was the man who on their first date took Heather not to a swanky restaurant but to a hot dog stand in New York’s Central Park.
Inconveniently, however, Kerzner was also engaged to longlegged beauty Christina Estrada, who just happened to be one of Heather’s friends and who last year won a £75 million divorce settlement from her Saudi oil tycoon husband.
Kerzner ruthlessly dumped her and married Heather in front of two witnesses in a suite at his Atlantis resort in the Bahamas.
Settling in London soon after their wedding, Heather began rubbing shoulders with an international crowd, ex U.S. president Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary, South Africa’s former president Nelson Mandela and Hollywood stars like Robert De Niro.
Life was good and very, very luxurious. Their neo-Georgian home, close to the Beckhams, Simon Cowell and Robbie Williams, was stuffed with expensive artworks: four enormous Warhols of the Queen dominated one room, a Chagall was hung over a fireplace and a Dufy on another wall.
Then there was the live-in housekeeper, the chauffeur to whisk her to her girly lunches and a gardener who came every six weeks to change all the flowering plants for fresh ones. For her 40th birthday party, Kerzner booked the Dorchester hotel and hired singers Donna Summer and Natalie Cole as the entertainment.
The following year, her 41st birthday celebration at Annabel’s nightclub, was notorious for the fracas between actor Hugh Grant and PR man Matthew Freud.
Around this time, Sol liked to joke that he had never gone out with a woman in her forties before. It turned out to be ominously prescient, and not long afterwards the couple separated. Heather filed for divorce citing unreasonable behaviour.
The break-up hit her hard, but after a generous settlement and the sale of the marital home, Heather soon bounced back. She threw herself into charity events. It was at a Masterpiece art fair party she organised that the Duchess of Cambridge’s brother James Middleton met his TV presenter girlfriend Donna Air.
With a close friend, Heather set up a strategic marketing business and began widening her circle. She was a guest at Tory Party balls, put her name to a letter to the newspapers condemning sexual violence in war zones and became a patron of the Amos Bursary, which funds educational chances for young British men of African descent.
She remained single, but it was that Fergie-organised invite to the Children In Crisis gala dinner that was to change her life.
By all accounts, the encounter with James Henderson was, on both sides, a coup de foudre. Soon after their engagement, she was rocked by the death in New York of Charlie Murphy, the father of her children. He’d jumped to his death from the 24th floor of the Sofitel hotel in Times Square.
Meanwhile, Heather was soon becoming a familiar figure at Bell Pottinger events. At its summer party in June at Lancaster House, next door to St James’s Palace, Heather glided easily among the guests, including politicians such as David Davies, Nigel Farage and Viscount Astor (Samantha Cameron’s stepfather), media figures like ITV’s Robert Peston and, of course, the Duchess of York.
But within weeks, the company’s sudden collapse after it was accused of fomenting racial hatred in South Africa was devastating for Heather, who has ‘huge affection’ for her ex-husband’s native country.
‘I would never invest in a company that would do anything to harm South Africa or its people,’ she declared. Indeed, I understand she only made her investment after the company had terminated the toxic contract in South Africa.
BUT the debacle threatened to overwhelm her relationship with Henderson, with some wondering if it can survive, especially after she called in dispute resolution lawyer Dan Morrison.
Today, close friends insist they remain ‘very much in love’, but that it would be ‘crazy’ to contemplate a wedding with so much turmoil in their lives.
Yesterday, Henderson told me that the wedding was not cancelled but postponed.
‘We are still engaged but we are giving each other a bit of space,’ he said. ‘Heather is going to the States for a few weeks to see family and I am based at my home in Sussex while I take stock.
‘She’s taking legal advice with a view to see what the options are, which is quite rightly what anyone who has lost a lot of money in a short time would do.’
For her part, Fergie, who has suffered so many personal setbacks, tells me she is ‘there’ for Henderson as he has been for her.
‘I know what it’s like to be where James is,’ she adds.
In 2004: With then husband Sol
Wedding postponed: Heather Kerzner and James Henderson Social whirl: Clockwise from top left, Heather with Fergie, who introduced her to her fiancé, Joan Collins, Kate Moss and Sharon Stone Pictures: RICHARD YOUNG, REX/SHUTTERSTOCK; GETTY