Boasting the sort of perky cleavage that reduces grown men to idiots, Kirsty Bertarelli was, as ever, dressed in revealing designer garb and the life and soul of the party.
‘She wasn’t at all what I was expecting. Very down-to-earth and easy-going. She was dancing on the table. She’s very loud and she loves to enjoy herself.’ So says a fellow guest at one of the (many) parties in the South of France attended by Kirsty last summer.
Kirsty Bertarelli has a lot to enjoy. Born Kirsty Roper in semi-rural Staffordshire, the one-time totty of the Potteries has now — by dint of her marriage to Ernesto Bertarelli, a Swiss-Italian pharmaceutical heir — just been enthroned as Britain’s richest woman, by rather a long way.
In this year’s Rich List she makes the Queen, JK Rowling and Slavica Ecclestone look as if they’re bumping along the breadline, as her joint fortune with Ernesto was estimated at a hefty £6.87 billion.
Though, once you get to this level, it’s mostly guess-work — no one that rich knows exactly how rich they are.
With her bright blonde hair, full lips and natural exuberance, it’s easy to see why the quiet but canny Ernesto first fell for Kirsty. ‘Put it this way — she’s got the flash, he’s got the cash. She makes his life fun,’ says a Swiss acquaintance.
To the naturally serious, restrained and industrious Bertarelli family, who moved from Italy to Switzerland in the Seventies after kidnapping threats from the Red Brigade, Kirsty must have seemed an extraordinarily exotic creature when she first appeared on Ernesto’s arm.
She is almost the antithesis of the uptight Swiss heiresses he might have been expected to marry. For a start, she is a former Miss UK (she was third in Miss World, too). Then there’s the fact that she dresses like a rock chick because that, at heart, is what she is — carving out a second career writing pop songs.
Indeed, when Kirsty first met Ernesto in Sardinia, she wrote him a love song called Black Coffee, which went on to become a hit for the British girlband All Saints (they were a slightly edgier version of the Spice Girls).
If men might fantasise about being serenaded by a former beauty queen, for Ernesto it was reality: ‘Sail away/I miss you more/Until you see the shore/There I will be waiting/Anticipating’ wrote Kirsty breathlessly.
The ‘sail away’ line was particularly apt because apart from being extremely rich, Ernesto is best known for his all-consuming passion — the America’s Cup, yachting’s most fiercely contested trophy. The serenade clearly worked. The couple married in 2000 in Switzerland in a pictureseque Alpine ceremony and with a party for 250 in a marquee in Geneva.
These days, Kirsty’s deck life sounds very enviable indeed. Together she and Ernesto have party weekends on their yacht, Vava, off the South of France and Sardinia.
Then, unlike many more controlling male yachties, Ernesto will let her take the boat herself with her ‘lively’ female friends to recover.
‘They’ll all detox, watch their weight, eat a few lettuce leaves and almonds and push each other over the edge into the sea when they’re tempted to give up,’ says an acquaintance.
Efforts to maintain her naturally phenomenal figure have certainly paid off, and Kirsty makes the most of it. She is said to have a fondness for Dior, Chanel and Armani Prive couture, and the most expensive, raunchier, off-the-peg labels like Roberto Cavalli and Balmain.
It’s only when they are away from home that they morph into private-jet, superyacht, party people. Of course, they come complete with bodyguards and armoured limousines and both travel with a posse of taciturn, burly men plus an army of accountants and tax lawyers on speed dial. (Ernesto, ‘a massive Anglophile’, once said he would rather spend most of his life with his family and his yachts than in the office, as his father did before dying prematurely.)
Yet such a lifestyle is not without its own little difficulties. A couple of months ago, Ernesto threw ‘Kirsty’s Fabulous 40th Birthday Party’ at a cost of $3 million. The plan was to hire a 29,000 sq ft privately-owned waterfront estate on Five Star Island in Miami Beach for the purpose.
Alas, it was not until the day itself dawned that he was informed that renting the premises for a party in Miami Beach is illegal.
As limousines, helicopters and private jets were ferrying in some of their 200 guests and the rest were already splashing about in the pool of the Setai Hotel where they were staying, the police were setting up roadblocks and turning back sound systems and crates of booze.
An anxious Ernesto was forced to write an affidavit, which was read out in the local court. It read: ‘My wife’s 40th birthday will be ruined and forever remembered as a public disgrace to my family unless the party goes forward.’
Luckily, Circuit Judge Jose R. Rodriguez turned out not to be a killjoy and found in his favour.
As a result, the bash (dress code: ‘Glamorous Extravaganza’) went on until about 5am. The highlight of the night? It had to be the birthday girl singing Black Coffee (she sang it at their wedding, too; it really is Their Song).
All in all, not a bad outcome for a former beauty contestant from the Potteries.
Her parents live in a large detached house with moorland views and a tennis court. Her father’s family run and still own part of Churchill China, which makes ceramics in Stoke-on-Trent.
She went to Howell’s, a girl’s boarding school in Denbigh which she left after O-levels, and the family (she has a brother, Peter and a sister, Julie) are still very close.
It was a model agent in Manchester who encouraged her to enter Miss UK, at the age of 17, wise enough to foresee that her Barbie-perfection would romp home on the pageant circuit as well as for promotional work.
One job included being painted, naked, for 15 hours with chain mail and a shield for a Redoxon vitamin advert, slogan: ‘Body Protection.’ ‘It’s actually a tremendous feeling. You feel like a new person!’ said the good-natured Kirsty of taking said vitamins.
Her ‘Miss UK’ tag gave Kirsty a slightly edgy ‘trophy’ status among the gilt-edged Chelsea social scene of the Nineties, which was based round Pucci pizza, the Goat in Boots pub, and the nightclub Tramp.
At one stage she was described as a classic ‘Chessex girl’, along with Tamara Beckwith, Tamara Mellon and Elizabeth Hurley, a ‘slimmer, browner, sexier’ version of the Sloanes and It-girl types who preceded them.
Among the boyfriends she acquired along the way was gambling heir and gorilla fan Damian Aspinall, whose ex-wife Louise named Kirsty in the divorce case. (Kirsty has said Aspinall had told her they were already separated).
Aspinall inherited Howletts zoo from his father John and has charm in abundance. As another ex, Tara Palmer-Tomkinson, once said: ‘Girls love Damian . . . he will leave his credit card in a shop and authorise them to go in and spend what they want.’ He is said to have showered Kirsty with diamonds.
That ended after two years and another male admirer from that time says ‘everyone was chasing her. She was famous for her amazing body and being such fun’. But eventually it was Bertarelli who was the keeper.
In 2006, he and his sister Dona sold Serono, the pharmaceutical giant bequeathed to them by their father, to a German company, Merck, and split their $9 billion (about £5.25 billion) stake between them.
Since then, he has been on the board of the bank UBS, founded another flourishing biotech company, Ares Life Sciences, and two investment companies, Kedge Capital and Northill Capital.
For Ernesto, Kirsty’s appeal was beyond beauty — she brought much excitement into his life. ‘Kirsty is no fan of understatement, being a “grab the microphone and sing like Marilyn Monroe sort of girl,” ’ says one who knows them both.
‘She’s so glamorous and Ernesto is besotted with her.’
There, they have built an £8 million chalet complex, close to similar piles owned by Bernie Ecclestone and the late Gunter Sachs, the playboy former husband of Brigitte Bardot who shot himself dead last week. The complex includes a house for Ernesto and Kirsty and their three children (Chiara, ten, Falco, seven, and Alceo, five), outbuildings for staff, an underground garage and swimming pool, and vast grounds including a lake.
As well as horses, they keep six llamas, two alpacas, goats, donkeys and turtles.
There is even a ‘granny’ cottage for Ernesto’s elderly widowed mother, Maria-Iris (who had much to do with Serono’s success and is said to be ‘still very business minded’).
Their spiritual, but ‘second’ family home remains an elegant £10 million pound chateau called La Bergerie in Gland, on the shores of Lake Geneva, though the family also own numerous other properties including the Grand Hotel and Spa in Gstaad overseen by Ernesto’s sister Dona, and a house in Knightsbridge.
Any love of bling doesn’t undermine the fact that Kirsty understands the responsibilities that go with such wealth and is highly philanthropic, like the rest of the family, through their Foundation Bertarelli.
She still has the music bug, too. After her All Saints triumph, she produced an album of her own last year, called Elusive (described as ‘Euro techno pop’), saying ‘my dream has become a reality’. She has also sung live at the Montreux Jazz Festival and gamely supported Simply Red’s Mick Hucknall in Edinburgh and elsewhere.
As Britain’s richest woman, she certainly doesn’t have to traipse around in the shadow of an ageing crooner, so why bother?
‘Aside from the fact that she loves it, the wives of very rich or famous men have two options,’ says a male acquaintance.
‘They can be a handmaiden, or they can establish their own identity, like Philip Green’s wife Tina, who has always worked and is a successful interior designer, and wouldn’t want to be “only his wife”.
Kirsty (who sings under the name ‘Kirsty B’) is literally making sure she has her own voice.’
At any rate, the former Miss UK is already topping another chart, and probably will be for years to come.