Who is Kirsty Bertarelli – and what does her ‘£400m divorce’ look like?
As Kirsty Bertarelli – newly crowned Britain’s most eligible divorcee – surveys the £400 million settlement that marks the end of her 21-year-long marriage to Swiss businessman and pharmaceuticals heir Ernesto Bertarelli, one could be forgiven for wondering what – or who – comes next.
Bertarelli, 50, has everything one could want – looks, talent, children, money, a 97-metre superyacht with pop-up yoga deck, and a £20 million glass house in Gstaad. But can her future live up to her past? And who can live up to her ex?
In interviews, Bertarelli often describes her life as “amazing” and it would be tough to disagree. The former beauty queen was – until this week – one half of Britain’s wealthiest couple, richer than the Queen by several billion pounds. Her perfect life played out against endless glamorous backdrops from Hawaii to Belgravia. Her social life was the stuff of gossip columns, full of the rich and famous, swanky parties, private jets, priceless jewels and designer clothes.
However, as she has always pointed out, her story was not one of rags to riches. Nor has it always been charmed.
Kirsty Bertarelli was born Kirsty Roper and raised with her brother and sister in Stone, Staffordshire where her family established and still part-owns Churchill China. You may not have heard of it, but you’re bound to have eaten from one of its Blue Willow china plates with that distinctive Chinoiserie pattern; absolutely everyone has a piece of that somewhere.
So far, so perfect. But shortly after taking seven O-Levels as a boarder at the now-defunct Denbigh school Howell’s, Bertarelli contracted bacterial meningitis. Her parents were later told she was an hour away from death.
The shock and subsequent survival of her illness acted, Bertarelli has said, as a spur at the time. Sixth form was abandoned and – perhaps because of a regular holiday job in the ceramics factory – she decided that the family business was not for her. Instead, all she wanted to do was carpe diem and sing.
First, however came modelling. And in 1988, aged just 17, Bertarelli was crowned first Miss Manchester and then Miss UK, eventually coming runner-up in the Miss World contest.
Then it was back to music and the serious business of moving to Chelsea and hanging out with Nineties It-girls Tamara Beckwith, Jimmy Choo founder Tamara Mellon and Emily Oppenheimer, the De Beers heiress. As a privately educated, pretty young model living in a Chelsea flat financed by her trust fund, Bertarelli slotted in effortlessly. That she is still friends with the trio to this day hints at her solid Midlands upbringing.
Naturally, there were dates, but Ernesto Bertarelli was not her first millionaire; around that time she lived for two years with the casino heir Damien Aspinall in Belgravia.
Then, in 2000, Kirsty had two major hits; one with the All Saints hit song Black Coffee, which she co-wrote, and the other marrying one of the richest men in Switzerland.
Bertarelli had first met Ernesto at a dinner party at a villa in Sardinia in 1997 when she was 26. Ernesto, five years older, had just inherited Serono, the pharmaceutical company founded by his grandfather. Bertarelli says she was “swept off her feet”. I would argue this is quite a normal reaction to billionaires. As my father always used to say, “If I had a dollar for every time some woman told me what an attractive man Onassis is, I’d be as rich as him.”
However, I can confirm Bertarelli’s opinion is quite accurate. I met Ernesto myself in 2009 in Abu Dhabi when I interviewed him about his efforts to get the America’s Cup to the UAE for an article. I went along to the meeting with the best intentions but have to admit I was also slightly swept off my feet.
The man was not only tall, handsome, charming and amusing, but also incredibly kind and really rather down to earth. We talked about bringing up children as if we’d just met at the school gates.
By this time, Ernesto had proposed in Mexico and the pair had married in Geneva, the bride dressed by Valentino. As far as anyone knew they were a blissfully happy couple, committed to bringing up their three children without the help of nannies because, as Bertarelli once said, her upbringing was exemplary and they didn’t have help. When I say they didn’t have help, I mean they didn’t have a full-time nanny. I don’t mean Bertarelli did the washing-up. As she has admitted herself, while she cooked a couple of times a week, the rest was “taken care of”.
Bertarelli continued to pursue her musical career throughout their marriage but without much success. There were a couple of record deals and her third album, Sweet Summer Rain, was released in 2018.
Even earlier this summer, there were few clues as to what was really happening chez Bertorelli.
On July 1 Bertarelli posted a picture of the couple in an open-top sports car. “20 Years (sic) together today!!” she wrote. “Taking a little spin with you to mark the occasion of one hell of an amazing journey! With you always by my side and me always by yours. I love you so very much.”
I have always been extremely suspicious of people who tell their spouses, children, friends how much they love them on social media, but this does seem like a sincere post. Maybe billionaires have a different definition of always to the rest of us?
So what’s next for the merry divorcee? Bertarelli will certainly continue with her numerous philanthropic projects. She leads the family foundation in Stoke-on-Trent which supports community work in the region and runs a bursary scheme for disadvantaged students at Staffordshire University. She is also a trustee for the Bertarelli Foundation which focuses on marine conservation and science and has created a number of marine reserves.
Home will no doubt still be Switzerland: Bertarelli is said to have been given the couple’s £52 million mansion on Lake Geneva as part of the divorce settlement. One wonders who she might invite for her first solo dinner party? So far there has been no speculation why the marriage ended. The couple announced this week that they had “sadly” split.
Perhaps Bertarelli has decided to go it alone to devote more time to her music, her charitable work or possibly a new romance? If it’s the latter, then it will be interesting to see her next suitor. Will she perhaps break the habit of a lifetime and go for someone who is not a billion-heir? Perhaps she will follow in the footsteps of the super-rich Mackenzie Scott (formerly Mrs Jeff Bezos) who married a chemistry teacher at her children’s school. Or might she do a Carla Bruni and opt for a politician? Hopefully one that doesn’t end up under house arrest.
Whatever the future holds, with £400 million at her disposal, Bertarelli certainly doesn’t have to worry about finding someone to support her. She’s still richer than the Queen even without her husband. And, while we’re on the subject, what exactly are Ernesto’s plans now?
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor in chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. Helena is working on a thriller called Thin Ice that will be published in 2021 as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
Her latest non-fiction work Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles came out in hardback in 2016 and in paperback in April 2018.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019