What’s the secret of serial seducer Boris Johnson’s allure? Having followed his career for years – and been on the receiving end of his ‘stripping stare’ – journalist Tanya Gold knows exactly why the unlikely lothario, and would-be PM, makes women go weak.
Everyone says it’s the hair that makes some women swoon; but I think it’s the voice. It’s deep, rich and immensely posh. Boris Johnson isn’t actually that posh. He is really upper middle-class. His background, as I shall explain, is more interesting than posh, so the voice, which comes from Eton and Oxford, has an edge of satire already; as if he can’t really believe he is saying what he does. It says: this is a joke; I’m a joke, but you’re in on it, too.
It’s not a joke. I have followed Boris, 54, for years as a reporter and columnist and have written about him many times; there’s his lust for power, and his most interesting trait: the urge to self-destruct. If you read the man, not the policies, he is the most fascinating politician there is. Boris knows the power of laughter. It’s his most cherished weapon. He doesn’t do serious, or, rather, he is never serious for long. He gets bored and he acts the fool for a crowd. He does it with women, too. He is a married Conservative MP who plays the clown: Bojo on a bike, with his messy moptop, dangling from zip wires holding two Union flags. He has a generous frame and dresses like a man who doesn’t really know how to get dressed. Yet Boris has been a serial seducer for years, despite his fame and seemingly stable marriage.
Then last month, soon after he resigned from the Foreign Office, Boris and his QC wife Marina Wheeler, 54, announced they were getting a divorce. The trigger was said to be a rumoured affair with Carrie Symonds, 30, who used to be communications director for the Conservative Party, but apparently left due to her ‘closeness’ to Boris. She is just the latest woman to be linked with him, but it was the end for Marina. She asked him to leave.
He has had many mistresses. Some of them thrived after it all became public; others didn’t. But whatever their experience, the exposure of the affairs has not harmed him politically – not where it matters, with the party faithful. A certain type of voter cheers as Boris pulls another gorgeous bird and, seemingly, gets away with it. Do they ever wonder what impact a man who doesn’t really know what he wants will have if he is PM? He has already delivered Brexit, and some people question whether he even meant to. For a long time, it didn’t seem to harm him personally either as, after a period of reflective exile, he would be admitted back into the £4 million family home in Islington. Then he would do it again.
From a distance, it can be hard to divine his charm. ‘He’s fat!’ squeaked a friend when she heard I was following him on his second mayoral campaign in 2012. ‘Get him to sign my teddy!’ said another, who said she found him ‘sweet’ – and she is a Liberal Democrat! I am on both sides. I love him because I think he’s very smart, and vulnerable. I also think he’s a monster – and none of this is boring. He’s got what a Jilly Cooper character would call a ‘stripping stare’ – a very direct, intimate gaze. Most men don’t have the nerve to look at women like that, although they try to teach it in US dating workshops. I got it once, 15 years ago at a Spectator lunch (Boris was editor from 1999 to 2005), at what I presumed was eight per cent of its full force. That was enough. He has a gift for making some women fall over.
I saw it again on the 2012 campaign. It looked, to me, like a compulsion indicating a desire to be loved. ‘Don’t ever vote for anyone else,’ he told one elderly woman, who was almost palpitating with the intensity of the encounter. She was out for her morning shop, and here comes a scruffy Mr Rochester, begging for her vote and offering her the world with his eyes. It’s the direct gaze again. You feel stripped naked. You are the only woman in the world. Et cetera. The other side of it is there, too. He is, say those who know him, equally good at freezing people out when he has no further use for them.
His mistresses come from the professional and upper classes – for discretion, and nearness of reach. Boris hates talking to the press about his romances. He thinks it is none of our business; that it’s a prurient interest, sparked by jealousy, and has nothing to do with his fitness for office. He’s right about the first and wrong about the second. And it’s interesting that few of the women romantically involved (or rumoured to have been) with Boris will speak about their affair on the record. He keeps their loyalty.
His poor wife Marina cannot be surprised by his behaviour. Her marriage began in adultery. When they started dating, Boris was married to the artist Allegra Mostyn-Owen, now 54, and was living with her in Brussels, while reporting on the EU. They met at Oxford University, where she was already a semi-mythical being: a cover girl on Tatler magazine. His family were itinerant intellectuals with mixed ancestry – German, Turkish, English, French and Russian. His father Stanley worked for the World Bank and the EU and later became an environmentalist. Boris is the oldest of four – his siblings are journalist Rachel, Tory MP Jo and sustainability guru Leo – and his childhood was unsettled. His father was unfaithful and his mother Charlotte, an artist, suffered from depression. They divorced when Boris was 15 and at Eton. Allegra helped his election to president of the Oxford Union and they married at 23. He famously lost his wedding ring on his wedding day. The marriage lasted six years.
As the relationship collapsed, Boris began an affair with Marina, a former schoolfriend, and the daughter of the BBC journalist Charles Wheeler and his wife Dip Singh. Boris doesn’t trust easily, and he is drawn to people he has known for a long time. He has many acquaintances but few friends. The three were often together, says his biographer Andrew Gimson, the author of 2006’s Boris: the Adventures of Boris Johnson. Despite being married to Allegra he pursued Marina ‘mercilessly.
Allegra rarely speaks about the break-up of her marriage, but her mother, the Italian writer Gaia Servadio, told The Mail on Sunday in 2008: ‘[He] needed someone very obedient and silent, who would be willing to stay in the background and create a soothing home life, while giving him space to build a glittering career… My daughter wasn’t that person. In the end she did not like the competitive world he so enjoyed.’
By October 1992, Marina was pregnant and engaged to Boris, who was still married. But by March 1993 his divorce from Allegra was finalised, and just 12 days later he and Marina wed. Servadio has said: ‘The divorce was very painful, and Allegra suffered greatly. It took her a long time to regain her confidence, but she has since found happiness in her work as a ceramicist and painter.’ Boris has told friends he still feels ‘guilty’ about Allegra.
Boris’s other biographer Sonia Purnell, who wrote 2012’s Just Boris: a Tale of Blond Ambition, says that Boris was drawn to Marina’s ‘steady career, sense of purpose and quiet steeliness’. If he was chaotic, she was not. By taking responsibility for household affairs, she facilitated his incredible rise: to the editorship of The Spectator in 1999; to MP for Henley in 2001; to Mayor of London in 2008; to the architect of Brexit; to Foreign Secretary; to pretender seeking May’s crown. Marina allowed him to thrive while she juggled a career as a barrister with raising their four children. She invested in his success. (She is allegedly a fanatic Brexiteer.) They appeared happy and in love, but he had another life, too.
The first romantic scandal was in 2004 when Boris was shadow arts minister under Michael Howard. It was revealed that he’d had a four-year affair with Spectator columnist Petronella Wyatt, and she had terminated a pregnancy while they were together. Petronella, the daughter of the late Labour grandee Woodrow Wyatt, is stylish, clever and was his subordinate at work. That is normal for him. They apparently had screaming fights at the office and would ride around St John’s Wood in a taxi, listening to a tape of Petronella singing Puccini. He apparently hinted he would leave Marina for her.
Boris dismissed rumours of the affair as ‘an inverted pyramid of piffle’, but after Petronella’s mother confirmed the relationship, Michael Howard fired Boris from the front bench for lying. Like Allegra, Petronella, who is now 50, has never had children, and, unlike Allegra, who finally wed in 2008, she has never married.
For Boris, the whole affair was a disaster, but he didn’t stop. He is apparently prolific in his loves. When intent, his strategy is to throw everything at the romance: texts, phone calls, declarations of love. But not costly gifts or meals, unless they are freebies. That is not his way. He is thrifty. What is amazing, says one friend, is how few women say no to him, and how loyal they remain. He makes them laugh, she says, and he is never cruel. When women turn him down, I am told, they feel flattered, not angry. He makes friends with his lovers, and he is fun to be with. He likes nice women and he doesn’t care for being hated. It is a grand passion, and then he’s gone, which is fine if you’re not in love with him, and dreadful if you are.
The next alleged affair (it hasn’t been publicly acknowledged or denied) was with journalist Anna Fazackerley, who interviewed him for the Times Educational Supplement in 2005, when he was shadow education minister. She was then 29 to his 41. More serious was his 2009 relationship with Helen Macintyre, an art consultant, when he was mayor. They had known each other for 15 years. She was pregnant with his child, but it was Macintyre’s partner who paid for the baby’s birth at a private hospital – they soon split up. Macintyre told Tatler in 2010 that ‘neither her father nor I will speak publicly’ about their child.
Boris, meanwhile, told a friend he was ‘traumatised’ by what he had done to his long-suffering wife. He moved out, but Marina still saw that his laundry was done, and he was soon allowed home. Friends say Marina knew he was not like other men when she married him. According to Purnell, she coped because she knows he loved her, and she found the publicity harder than the affair.
There is one woman, though, who he has always been faithful to – Ann Sindall, his PA of many years. Boris calls her the ‘be all and Sindall’. She is a wit. She once asked Peter Mandelson to spell his name when taking a telephone message. ‘We can all hate his guts,’ she has said of Boris. ‘We want to kill him but then he can get us laughing again.’ She offered Gimson a great insight into his character: ‘If he hasn’t got a crisis, he’ll sit and say he’s bored. He edited The Spectator on a knife edge. He couldn’t do it otherwise.’
Some say that Boris chases women when under pressure, as stress relief. Others think that he would really like more than one wife, or at least have a wife willing to tolerate an established mistress. He wrote with envy of the financier James Goldsmith’s three families. Goldsmith said that when you marry your mistress you create a vacancy. He wrote in defence of Bill Clinton, too. Who wouldn’t stray, he asked, when Monica Lewinsky lurked by the door in a low-cut dress?
Why is he like this? His risk-taking in journalism (he was fired from his first job at the Times in 1988 for inventing quotes) and politics are connected to his risk-taking in romance. Kate Figes, the author of Our Cheating Hearts, calls adultery, ‘an addiction to the knife edge of risk – the adrenaline of danger, rather than the sex itself. It’s the thrill of that edge which makes people feel more alive. Male infidelity is so often excused by their supposed greater libidos, but the need for more or varied sex is in my view often just a smokescreen for other motives – the need for narcissistic attention, unhappiness or disappointment with an existing relationship and the need to escape from it.’
People sometimes talk about an ‘emotional wound’ inside him, for he needs always to win,
to charm, to be accepted – with all his faults. He told Sue Lawley on Desert Island Discs that he was very deaf as a child – because of glue ear – and he thinks that gave him a certain ‘evasiveness because often really I couldn’t follow what was going on at all’. He’s a paradox, then. Purnell calls him ‘a comic turn, yes, but also the result of a heartbreaking childhood. He is a hugely ambitious figure yet one who occasionally surrenders to a sort of professional death wish. A manic self-promoter, he also longs to be alone.
The final charge for the job he has coveted all his life – Prime Minister – is before him, and he will have to do it without his wife. Perhaps, if he wins, it will soothe him. Or perhaps not.
She met Boris at Oxford and they married in 1987 in a ceremony described as ‘like La Dolce Vita and Brideshead rolled into one’. Now a ceramic artist, her second husband, who is a Muslim, is 22 years her junior.
In 2004, it was revealed that Boris and Spectator columnist Petronella had a four-year affair. He dismissed the news that she had become pregnant by him as ‘absolute rubbish’. The relationship cost Boris his job as Conservative arts spokesman.
Boris’s long-term personal assistant Ann says his ability to make people laugh means it’s impossible to stay mad at him – and he gets bored without a crisis.
The daughter of BBC journalist Charles Wheeler and his wife Dip Singh, Marina was educated at the European School of Brussels, where she first met her future husband Boris.
The former Tory aide became close to Boris while he was foreign secretary. There was talk of dinners and smiles caught on camera as they emerged from a fundraising ball. He’s said to have promised to protect her from ‘the furore’.
The journalist allegedly became close to Boris while he was a shadow education minister. In 2006, the News of the World pictured him emerging from her flat. She is now happily married.
Dubbed a ‘bloody good bloke with bosoms and a brain’, arts consultant Helen first met Boris as a student at Edinburgh. Their romance, 15 years later, resulted in the birth of a daughter.