Australian Women’s Weekly NZ
Kate Fischer: James Packer’s ex reveals how she went from millionaire to penniless
As Kate Fischer, she was the “It” girl of the 1990s – a model, actress and fiancée of billionaire James Packer – but it all came crashing down and she ended up penniless, living in a homeless shelter. Known as Tziporah Malkah since her embrace of Judaism,
In a homeless shelter, Tziporah Malkah sits on a single mattress in a bleak room no bigger than a prison cell, remembering the day she moved in. With a fridge by the bed and cigarette burns on the sofas, it hardly felt like home, but it was better than sleeping on the street, and she had nowhere else to go.
“I didn’t come out of my room for three days,” she recalls. “I just sat there and cried.”
Tziporah remembers the terror and hopelessness, but most of all the shame. How had she fallen so far? In the 1990s, as Kate Fischer, she had been a darling of the Sydney social pages – the fun, feisty model and actress who had won the heart of billionaire James Packer – but she was used up and spat out by the celebrity machine when the pair broke up in 1998. By September 2011, she sat alone in that cold, institutional room in Melbourne, with nothing.
The story of how she came to be there is extraordinary – and one she hasn’t told until now. The way she sees it, her split with James destroyed her reputation and essentially cast her out of Australia. She fled to Los Angeles and tried to get an acting career off the ground, embracing her Jewish faith and changing her name along the way, but eventually fell in love with a man who embezzled all her money – a man who, she subsequently found out, was married with a child.
Tziporah was already on a spiritual quest, but her lover’s betrayal forced a brutal moment of reckoning and, ultimately, her reinvention. Now 43,
she says, “I had to grow up.”
For the past five years, Tziporah has led a quiet life in Melbourne as a carer for elderly psychiatric and dementia patients, but a magazine “outed” her two months ago, when James Packer split from his latest fiancée, singer Mariah Carey. Tziporah was photographed collecting her mail wrapped in a bed sheet, and dragged out of her self-imposed exile in spectacular fashion.
She was mortified at the time, but says she now feels “unmuzzled” and finally able to set the record straight. Keen to make the most of her resurrected public profile, Tziporah wants to speak out for homeless women and let readers know how easy it is to hit rock-bottom, no matter what your upbringing or your bank balance.
A model at 13, high-school dropout at 15 and millionaire at 17, she had had a wild ride even before she became engaged to James Packer at 22, but Tziporah says she missed out on a lot of life lessons, which meant she had to learn them 20 years later than most. “I had to go through it – having the crappy job and the car that doesn’t always start… that teenage stage of being angry with everybody,” she says. “But it’s hard to do it in your late 30s because people expect more from you.”
At the shelter – a 1980s property with peach carpet and fake flowers – Tziporah shows The Australian Women’s Weekly the neglected garden outside her room where she used to plant sunflowers. Now in the process of shutting down, it is officially called a “rooming house”, but for Tziporah, it was a refuge. Sent there by a city mission, she shared the place for 22 months with everyone from former prisoners and family violence victims to refugee doctors and ex-CEOs – all single women over 35 too broke to go anywhere else. With the lack of affordable housing, she says, no woman is immune: professionals can find themselves homeless after a business goes bust or a marriage fails, and many women, especially mothers in low-paid occupations, retire with perilously little superannuation. “We’re just faded flowers,” she says. “We’re not what society deems exciting any more. We’re washed up and no one cares.”
When Tziporah moved into the shelter, she spiralled into depression and was put on medication. Sharing a kitchen with 36 strangers, she says, you couldn’t leave a potato unattended without it being stolen – and then there was the pervasive smell of dirty dishes. Tziporah was studying for her aged-care qualification at TAFE when she moved in and got a job a few months later, but not all the residents were capable of working. “Some of the women have had all their confidence kicked out of them and have had so many horrific things happen to them, shunted from foster home to foster home since the age of two, that they’re unemployable,” she says. “They are the sorts of vulnerable people we need to protect.”
Tziporah had been living there for a couple of months when a woman she’d befriended told her she looked just like Kate Fischer. Knowing she could be stalked by paparazzi, she felt it only fair that her fellow residents knew who she was, so she came clean. “That says a lot about the integrity of those women because they could have rung the media and sold that for $10,000 and they didn’t,” she says. “They
knew I was suffering, too.”
Sipping a sauvignon blanc at a nearby pub, the sound of pokie machines dispensing coins in the background, Tziporah admits she is nervous talking to The Australian Women’s Weekly, yet she is breathtakingly candid. “I like to remain raw and vulnerable,” she explains, “because if my experiences can help someone, then that’s really what God wants from us – just to share ourselves a little bit.”
Given her privileged Adelaide upbringing, perhaps the most glaring question is why Tziporah didn’t ask her family for help. “I wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of lording it over me,” she replies. If they did wonder about her absence, “they probably just thought I was being a flake”.
The daughter of a health economist, Alastair Fischer, and a NSW government minister, Pru Goward, Tziporah says her family didn’t know that she was living in a women’s shelter and weren’t upset when they found out. “I think they kind of felt like, ‘Well, it’s about time – you were a princess in an ivory tower for so many years.’ I think they were quite happy.”
While she gets on well with her step-father, journalist David Barnett, and half-sister Alice, she says she only recently saw her mother for the first time in more than eight years. “Her constituents are very lucky to have her – she is a wonderful, wonderful politician,” says Tziporah. “She is so professional and she cares so much about what she does. That’s where all her love has gone.”
Mother and daughter have apparently always had a difficult relationship; Tziporah seems sad about it, but also resigned. “It’s been a long time,” she says. “I pretty much started modelling so I didn’t kill myself, really. Mum and I fought all the time.”
When 13-year-old Kate insisted on entering the Dolly covergirl competition, Tziporah jokes, her mum begrudgingly took a roll of photos and picked the ugliest of the bunch to send in, but the beautiful teen won anyway, launching an international modelling career that earned her up to $750,000 a year. Later, she tried acting, appearing with Elle Macpherson and Hugh Grant in Sirens as one of Norman Lindsay’s nude models in the 1994 film. “It was fun until I had to say my lines because I was so selfconscious,” she recalls. “I just didn’t feel like I was an actress – I wasn’t deserving to be there with Sam Neill.”
After the film came out, James Packer saw her at a Sydney hotel and asked her to dinner. They were on and off for three years, but in 1996, he proposed. Tziporah says she was intrigued by his family’s stratospheric wealth; on the one hand, she got to dine with Henry Kissinger in New York, but the Packers could also be “complete bogans”. For dinner, for example, she says a butler would bring them their meals on trays and they would sit in their movie theatre watching Nine news in silence. “You might as well just heat something up in the microwave and throw a few tinnies at the screen,” says Tziporah. “They were just being themselves, but it wasn’t what I was expecting.”
Nor did she understand the segregation of the sexes in the Packer world. “The woman does basically nothing,” she says, “and the man works all day long and you never really get to see him.” At 22, she became a kept woman, put on an annual $250,000 allowance and forbidden to work. Her own lucrative career was suddenly over.
Tziporah admits she was a “needy
We’re faded flowers... washed up and no one cares.
nightmare” at the time, but says James also neglected her, surrounding himself with hangers-on who entertained him like court jesters. “In the beginning, it was a bit more romantic,” she says, “but once we moved in together, it was like the deal was done.” When she insisted on a romantic holiday for two one Easter, doing the entourage out of their all-expenses-paid trip to Bali, the mates turned on her. “Then [his dad] Kerry, who was very old-fashioned, started teasing him about being pushed around by a woman,” she says. “I just think it was all too much for him.”
That’s when, she says, James made an impossible proposal: she could live in the lap of luxury as Mrs Packer, but he wanted complete freedom to do as he pleased. “He’d never have to tell me where he was; if he didn’t want to talk to me for a few days he wouldn’t have to,” she says. “He knew he was making me an offer that I had to refuse.”
The couple split and it was rumoured she’d scored a $10 million settlement – a myth Tziporah couldn’t refute because of the confidentiality clause. “I just had to grin and bear it for years while he swanned around like Prince Charming, everyone thinking what a generous bloke he was and what an awful young woman I must be, running off with my ill-gotten gains from the Packer family.” For the record, she says she was given the Bondi apartment the couple shared, which she sold for
“two and a bit” million (“I can’t really remember”), and a $250,000 cash payout.
She left the country and James was photographed just days later, cavorting on the beach with Jodhi Meares, whom he later married. Tziporah took acting classes in LA, but says she couldn’t work because James cast such a long shadow: not only was her reputation trashed by the $10 million rumour, he owned a chunk of movie distributor Village Roadshow. “In LA,” she says, “they’re not going to go with the woman who just pissed off the boss.”
It felt like punishment. “He was used to getting his own way,” says Tziporah, “and the fact he couldn’t with me – and I’m the one who got away – I think really stuck in his craw.” After 10 years, she asked James if she could speak about the settlement and he reluctantly agreed, she says, but the damage had been done. Mindful that image is everything, Tziporah asked if she and a male friend could be papped socialising with James and his then wife, Erica, but the answer was no.
Search for a soulmate
According to Tziporah, her fledgling career was shot down before it was allowed to take flight, and yet she also admits she was never much of an actress. She enjoyed chatting on TV panel shows, but wasn’t “emotionally courageous enough” to excel at acting.
By 2008, she had drifted away from show business and had tried teaching transcendental meditation. She had always been attracted to Judaism, so when she started dating a Jewish man, she met with a rabbi to learn more. Although her mother’s family had renounced Judaism many years earlier, he told her she was technically still Jewish. “That was the happiest day of my life,” she says. Tziporah reclaimed the Hebrew name of her maternal grandmother, which traditionally she would have been given, and moved to an Orthodox part of Beverly Hills, making her kitchen kosher, dressing modestly from neck to toe, and keeping the strict rules of the Jewish Sabbath.
In 2011, a businessman she had been dating for two years offered to invest her nest egg, but kept making excuses when she asked about it. Eventually, she discovered he had taken all her money and already had a wife and child.
“Judaism is a psychological religion and I’d started to realise I needed to grow up,” she says. “If I didn’t start processing my past, it would always come back to bite me. If I was going to start again, I had to start from the bottom... with clean money.”
The US was no place to be poor, so Tziporah gave away everything, including rugs, furs and chandeliers, to friends and flew to Melbourne. There was a bigger Orthodox community there, she figured, and too much “dirty water” under the bridge in Sydney. In a symbolic (or reckless) act of liberation, she hurled more than half a million dollars’ worth of jewellery over the cliffs of Bondi.
These days, Tziporah drives an unreliable 11-year-old Holden Calais and works night shifts with elderly psych and dementia patients for $23 an hour, keeping them clean and fed. It’s taxing, but she has an affinity with the patients and gets a kick out of calming them when other carers can’t. Ideally, she’d like to work as a nurse in Israel, or perhaps go into politics.
When asked if she’s happy, there’s a long silence. “Sometimes,” she says. “I feel I have more to offer than I used to and that makes me proud. I certainly have more confidence, more selfawareness. I still have a lot of anger.” Tziporah admits it’s not easy looking at pictures of her 20-something self with all that potential. “My self-esteem was so low,” she says, “and I was so gorgeous.” She’d love to be married with children, but hasn’t lived with a man since James Packer, and she hopes she hasn’t missed her chance at motherhood. Her soulmate would be “someone who has enough confidence to let me be who I am,” she says. “Just someone who loves me.”
For the past few years, though, Tziporah has kept to herself and concentrated on the humbling, often painful work of growing up. She’d like to manage her emotions better and stop seeking solace in food, but says, “I feel like it’s going to be an auspicious year”. In hindsight, Tziporah sees her dark, homeless period as the education she had to have. “Maybe,” she says, “it’s time for me to graduate.”
He was making me an offer I had to refuse.