Category Archives: Profiles -Women

Gina and Rose: A Battle of Wills

Gina Rinehart is on her way to becoming the richest person on the planet and gaining control of the highly influential Fairfax Media, publishers of the Sydney Morning Herald, Melbourne Age and Australian Financial Review. A new book has just been published on Rinehart and an ABC Four Corners profile aired this week. Rinehart’s looming presence is everywhere.
Fourteen years ago David Leser interviewed Rinehart at the height of her poisonous decade-long struggle with her former step-mother, Rose Porteous. She hated the story, and has since declined almost every interview request.
The story that follows is a Shakespearean drama of the highest order – a family feud to end them all, the lonely rich girl daughter versus the garrulous, Filipino widow, claims of deathbed bullying, stolen wills, adulterous plottings and an endless trail of litigation. At stake, then and now? The vast minerals empire of the late Lang Hancock, so-called “King of the Pilbara.”


NO-ONE DESERVES TO DIE LIKE Lang Hancock died. Put aside
the cystic kidneys and renal failure, his near-gangrenous legs, and the heart disease and pulmonary congestion that eventually caused him to drown in his own fluids on the morning of March 27, 1992. It was the psychological anguish more than the physical disintegration that so tormented the old man in his last days; the knowledge that whatever control he might have exercised over people and minerals during a ‘rogue bull’s’ lifetime was about to be extinguished in the most perverse of ways.

This was Lang Hancock’s worst nightmare: a fight for the spoils between the two women in his life; in this case, his only daughter, Gina Rinehart, and his third wife, Rose Hancock. They had been limbering up for battle almost from the day Gina hired Rose as the family housekeeper. Now, in his death throes, the fog was lifting and old Lang could see the grotesque outlines of war. He could also see the lawyers dancing on his grave. That’s why – according to Rose-he let out a scream that reverberated through the guesthouse of his Perth mansion in the seconds before his heart stopped. He realised he’d been betrayed by his daughter into depriving his estate of any assets, and that Rose, his love object, his china doll, his youth drug for nine-and-a-half years, had been disinherited, along with the other beneficiaries of his last will and testament.
On the other hand, if you listen to Gina, Lang Hancock might have experienced a different epiphany. If he screamed at all-which she seriously doubts-it would have been because he’d finally twigged to the fact that his wife never loved him. It had been a confidence trick from day one.
The animal cry from the bedroom was, therefore, the howl of a man who’d taken out a restraining order against his wife too late.

To download this chapter from David’s book ‘In the Whites of their Eyes‘, click here.

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Lady Mary Fairfax

Lady Mary FairfaxThere’s been blood on the floor of the Fairfax newsrooms this week with the announcement of nearly 2000 job losses amongst journalists and printers over the next three years, and the scaling down of the Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne Age from broadsheets to tabloids. Many blame Fairfax’s sliding fortunes on the internet revolution and the slowness by the Fairfax board to respond to changing technology. But as David Leser writes, the rot set in during the late 1980s when young Warwick Fairfax returned from America brandishing an MBA from Harvard University and strong Christian convictions to take over John Fairfax Ltd, the company his father, Sir Warwick had run in one position or another for the better part of 50 years. Young Warwick’s ambitions were aided and abetted by his mother (Lady) Mary Fairfax in what became both tragedy and farce for the House of Fairfax.

THE TEARS HAVE DRIED AND Lady (Mary) Fairfax is leaning forward
on the sofa clutching her letters and photographs. The butler is
hovering just beyond the reception room and her PR man is looking
anxiously at the floor. ‘Now, do I seem like a person who is interested in
revenge?’ she asks in a deep whisper. The question comes tumbling out
at the end of a two-hour talk-fest brimming with gushy memories and
savage recriminations. Later, serving a lunch of braised chicken and apricot
souffle, she pursues her defence: ‘What sort of character do you think I
am? You tell me.’

What can one say? After 32 years in the public eye; after a rumoured
love affair that scandalised society; after a harrowing divorce trial, a cele-
brated remarriage; after a welter of extraordinary parties with an endless
array of famous guests; and, now, with an Australian media empire in ruin
and a family filled with bad blood, it is no simple question to answer.

Is she one of the most monstrously misunderstood Women in Australian
history, or is she as deceptive as she is clever? Is she the instigator of a
company takeover gone disastrously wrong or the victim of markets, rnale
chauvinism, banks, bad advice, bad luck-and a son, Warwick, who was
always hopelessly out of his depth?

Is she a manipulative, scheming woman, hungry for power, wealth and
status? Or a tireless worker for the arts and charity, as well as a generous,
fun-loving hostess and friend? Is she a family maker or an empire breaker?
A proud matriarch who frequently owns up to only three children or a
tormented mother of four? Is she a Jewess or a Christian? Does she sit
atop staggering wealth or horrendous losses? Is she a figure of romance or
of vengeance?

And is it Mary or Marie?

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Audette Exel – High Flyer

She built a career on making millions for the

rich, but her true achievement has been using

her legal and financial nous to make money

for the world’s poorest. David Leser meets the

ISIS Foundation’s Audette Exel in Kathmandu.

Audette Exel: Story by David Leser

Audette Exel hugs a Nepalese child whose life she saved.

To enter the Alice in Wonderland-like existence of Audette Exel, you could do worse than go down the rabbit hole and poke your head up into the ancient former kingdom of Nepal. Weddings are erupting around the capital, Kathmandu, with flourishes of trumpets and beating drums. Cows amble across the street amid dust storms and endless traffic jams, vying for space with urchins, holy men and hawkers, all under the looming presence of the Himalayan mountains.
A monkey passes Exel’s hotel room as she works via email on a half-billion-dollar sale of a European banking group. The negotiations are crucial. If successful, they will represent one of the biggest European financial transactions of 2012. This is just before breakfast.

After breakfast, Exel visits some of the children she and her organisation, the ISIS Foundation, have rescued from child traffickers in the remotest part of the country, children taken from their homes under false pretences and imprisoned in appalling conditions.

The children are hugging her, squeezing her, holding her hand. An 11-year-old boy who almost died from a hole in the heart before being saved by Exel and her team won’t let her go.

Later that afternoon, Exel works on forging ties between her Nepalese staff and her manager in Uganda, the other country where her organisation has saved the lives of thousands of mothers and their children.

“If you want to know me,” the former corporate lawyer and banker says as she greets me at the door, a flourish of blonde hair, blue eyes and Nepalese silk, “you have to know me in this context. The truth of me is here, it’s not dressed up in high heels and a business suit in Sydney.”

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Ayaan Hirsi Ali – Enemy of Islam

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, 37, faced terrible adversity from a young age in her native Somalia and now aims to reveal the “truth” about Islam and its treatment of women.

*first published in the Australian Women’s Weekly, 28/6/07

Her strident views on Islam have earned the Somali-born author, film-maker, politician and human rights campaigner Ayaan Hirsi Ali fame. controversy, a Nobel Peace Prize nomination – and countless death threats, writes David Leser.


Ayaan Hirsi Ali doesn’t look or sound dangerous but if her enemies had their way she’d be dead. A public stoning perhaps, or a bomb detonated in the middle of the night, or even an attack in broad daylight, like the one that finished off her friend Theo van Gogh’s three years ago. That’s the degree of hatred she inspires.

Never was this made more apparent than on that chilling Amsterdam morning two and a half years ago when van Gogh, the maverick Dutch film-maker, was cycling to work during rush hour and a Muslim extremist by the name of Mohammed Bouyeri stepped out from the shadows to shoot him eight times.

Van Gogh staggered on for a few metres and then, according to witnesses, twice begged his assailant for mercy. “Can’t we can talk about this,” he pleaded in words that sound today like the dying gasps of the Enlightenment.

Bouyeri, a Dutch-born citizen of Moroccan descent, was not interested in talking. He drew two butcher’s knives from under his jellaba  (Middle Eastern outer garment) and with one of them slit the film-maker’s throat. With the other, he impaled a letter on his victim’s chest, addressed to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. It read, in part: “You will break yourself to pieces on Islam. You, oh America, will go down. You oh Netherlands will go down … You, oh Hirsi Ali, will go down.”

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ASHER KEDDIE – The Girl Who Played Ita.

From Ita’s lisp to Blanche’s vulnerability, Asher Keddie has made celebrity roles her own. Yet there’s more to this versatile actress than mere mimicry, as David Leser discovers.

Ita Buttrose and Asher Keddie are at dinner in a small chic restaurant in Sydney’s Surry Hills, a week before filming is due to begin on the ABC mini series, Paper Giants: The Birth of Cleo.

Asher is … how shall we put it? Perspiring. And not just because the night is steamy. Next to her is one of the most famous women in the country, the woman she’s about to try and embody on the screen as a 30 year-old magzine editor launching the ground-breaking magazine, Cleo, in 1972.

It’s only the second time the two have met and Asher – never one to be easily intimidated – is suddenly aware that her every movement and expression is being scrutinised.

“Will you stop that?” Ita commands.

“What?” the actor replies.

“You’re sitting like me.”

“No I’m not.”

“Yes, you are .”

And then they both burst out laughing, to the blessed relief of everyone else at the table. Here – for the student of characterisation and subplot – is a delicious example  of the observed (Ita) observing the observer (Asher) and both observer and observed approving of what they see.

“Her hands were imitating where mine were – on the side of my face or under my chin,” Ita happily recalls to the Weekly now (a magazine she, herself, edited in the mid 1970s) and I have never seen anyone doing that before.” (If truth be known, Asher Keddie’s been doing it since she was a child.)

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GINA RINEHART – The Richest Woman on Earth

Fate has given Gina Rinehart both blessings and curses – unimaginable wealth and poisoned personal relationships. On her way to becoming the richest woman on the planet, writes David Leser, the “Iron Maiden” has fought numerous court cases and now finds herself in a bitter battle with three of her four children.

It’s hard to know where to start with Gina Rinehart, Australia’s richest person. Perhaps with that history-making image of her father, Lang Hancock, flying over the remote Pilbara region of Western Australia 60 years ago and discovering the world’s biggest iron ore deposit.

Or maybe the spectacular falling out between this hard-boiled, visionary prospector and his daughter nearly 30 years later when Gina realised the Filipino housekeeper she’d hired to look after her father had – ahem – assumed duties well beyond her assigned brief.

Or possibly the manner of Lang Hancock’s death in 1992 when, drowning in his own fluids from cystic kidneys and renal failure, he was then thrown into the psychological anguish of seeing his only acknowledged daughter and third wife, Rose Lacson – the aforementioned Filipino housekeeper – warring over the spoils of his vast minerals wealth?

(Lang Hancock is said to have fathered an illegitimate half-Aboriginal daughter.)

All these points of entry would take us into one of the great unwritten mini-series of our times, but they would only touch the tip of a jaw-dropping narrative that has fascinated – and appalled – Australians for decades.

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