IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Denmark's Prime Minister leads in style

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Dec 15, 2013

Not long after Ms Helle Thorning- Schmidt became Denmark's first female prime minister in 2011, the country's press jumped on a trip to Libya, where its troops were part of the coalition that intervened in the civil war.

The stories focused not on her diplomacy, but on her apparel: a camouflage jacket complemented by stilettos and a blazing red Gucci purse.

As one Danish newspaper headline put it: Helle Took Her Bag to War.

No doubt her fashion sense is not the only reason Ms Thorning- Schmidt, who celebrated her 47th birthday yesterday, usually makes headlines - for the wrong reasons - and has earned the nickname Gucci Helle.

With her blonde hair, good looks and svelte figure, she comes across as more of a cover girl than any of the other women who have led European countries, notably Britain and neighbouring Germany.

In fact, it was a photo that made newspaper covers the world over that catapulted her into the international limelight last week - again for the wrong reason.

Her now infamous "selfie" at Mr Nelson Mandela's memorial service sparked debate across the world.

Yet lost in all the sniggering is the fact that Denmark's Prime Minister has the brains for the job to match her beauty.

Born in Rødovre in 1966, she holds a degree in political science from the University of Copenhagen and a master's in policy and public administration from the College of Europe in Belgium. There she met and later married Mr Stephen Kinnock, son of British Labour politicians Neil and Glenys Kinnock. They have two daughters.

Ms Thorning-Schmidt speaks English and French fluently and worked as a Danish trade union consultant in Brussels. She joined the Social Democratic Party in 1993, and was elected to the European Parliament in 1999.

Party members in Denmark elected her to lead them after losing the 2005 election. Six years later, Queen Margrethe appointed Ms Thorning-Schmidt as Prime Minister on Oct 3, 2011, when opposition parties all backed her.

The Danish press has had a field day ever since. Its Ritzau News Agency was quick to point out she is probably the first head of state who, on Google, brings up the word "nogen" - Danish for "naked" - as a top search suggestion, well aware that it need not explain why.

The country's gossip magazines attribute their Prime Minister's good looks to botox, while her passion for handbags costing as much as £9,000 (S$18,400) from Britain's Mulberry fashion house and Denmark's exclusive Winchman Couture is another favourite topic.

Given the marital connection, Britain's press has also got in on her foreign affairs. Last Wednesday, the Daily Mail noted that Mr Kinnock, who is four years younger than his wife, had been living in Davos, Switzerland, while working for the World Economic Forum from 2009 until last year.

Thus, he spent only weekends, about 33 of them a year, in Denmark, the paper said.

That gave him non-resident status, and gave his wife a substantial £40,000 tax break on their £500,000 home in a posh Copenhagen district.

It also led to speculation that Denmark's first gentleman was gay.

Ms Thorning-Schmidt was quick to take offence.

"I can only say it's not true," the Daily Mail reported her as saying. "It's so grotesque."

The Prime Minister has only herself to blame for some of the press though.

Mr Peter Stanners, a senior journalist at The Copenhagen Post, called her a divisive leader who has cut taxes for Denmark's rich and reversed its strict anti-immigration measures.

Rather than adopt austerity measures to improve the country's economy, she came up with a scheme that some observers found unusual, to say the least. It requires employees to work for 12 minutes extra each day in order to increase productivity.

Perhaps the most revealing tale comes from Mr Freddy Blak, her former boss at the Danish trade confederation, who gave her the Gucci Helle label.

When she asked him why she could not connect with voters, Mr Blak told the American website GlobalPost that he was frank. "I said, 'Helle, you must put your finger in the earth and know the people you are talking to,'" he said. "You can't talk to uneducated people and wear clothes that cost more than they earn in a whole month.'"

She shot back.

"Well, we can't all look like s*** like you."

zach@sph.com.sg

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Dec 15, 2013

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