The former first lady with the prominent tattoo
FOR YEARS the rumour had floated around Berlin’s political dinner party circuit: first lady Bettina Wulff, the second wife of ex-president Christian Wulff, was a former prostitute.
The German head of state, so the unattributed gossip went, met Bettina in a brothel when he was state premier in Lower Saxony. In 2005 he divorced his first wife to marry her.
There were several embellishments and variations on the story. One version suggested Bettina’s working name was “Lady Victoria”. Another suggested a leading German tabloid was using compromising information to ensure exclusive access to the couple.
The rumours never went anywhere. A few journalists investigated but found nothing. Then Wulff resigned from the presidency in February after weeks of reports over corruption allegations.
The couple vanished from public view until the former first lady’s memoir, Beyond Protocol, put her back on the front pages – but not in the way she intended.
The ghost-written book gallops through her early life until the second Mrs Wulff arrives in Bellevue Palace, seat of the German presidency. Here she feels overwhelmed and isolated by the demands of diplomatic protocol and the tight corset of security.
Fresh in office, the first couple invite to breakfast Kai Diekmann, the editor of the Bild tabloid. Bettina Wulff writes that it was Diekmann who first asked her directly about the red-light rumours. “I was completely aghast, the bread roll practically stuck in my throat,” she writes. “We’re sitting at breakfast and this man asks such a question.”
She says she learned later the gossip had originated with political rivals of her husband in Hanover. The rumour eventually established itself so firmly that Google’s auto-complete search function suggests “Bettina Wulff prostitute” as the most likely search term being sought.
Though Berlin gossip for years, the red-light rumours came as a surprise to most ordinary Germans.
According to a survey, 80 per cent of the population had never heard the rumours until Bild splashed the memoir on its front page under the headline, “Bettina Wulff: I’m not a prostitute!”
It’s a notable change of tack for Germany’s best-selling tabloid, which once maintained a cosy relationship with the Wulffs. It was Bild that, in return for exclusive interviews, helped to smooth over the breakdown of Christian Wulff’s first marriage and presented the second Mrs Wulff in a favourable light to its eight million readers.
The relationship cooled after the notorious Bellevue breakfast and collapsed entirely when the president heard in January that the tabloid was going to run a story on a low-interest home loan from a wealthy friend with whom he had official dealings as state premier in Lower Saxony.
At first, Wulff denied taking any such loan. Then he admitted taking the loan but denied having done anything wrong. Finally, hearing of the Bild story, the president left a threatening voicemail on Diekmann’s phone. The contents of the message found their way into the media and Mr Wulff resigned.
Beyond Protocol has divided the German media. One camp sees Bettina Wulff as a nobody with little more than a prominent tattoo and foolish notions of her own importance. A frequently quoted line from her biography is: “I have no interest in becoming a media event once more.”
Other critics take a dim view of a former first lady writing indiscreetly about Germany’s highest office. In one passage, she complains of the strictures of state visits, with bodyguards in the next hotel room. “We have to be damn quiet in everything we do in case they hear us,” she writes. “Perhaps the walls aren’t that thick.”
Der Spiegel was thunderous in its condemnation: “This woman can sell herself without selling her body. She can sell her private life and that of her family, the respect of the highest state office, one’s own honour – all by writing such a book.”
But Wulff has her defenders too, who see her as the target of jealousy and misogyny and portray her as an attractive, independent woman, defending herself against a character assassination and lifting the lid on the machinations of German politics to boot. The Sunday edition of Frankfurter Allgemeine accused her critics of being snobs who, incensed that a “chav with a tattoo” ever became first lady, delighted in a second chance to denigrate her. “She has the cheek to be pretty and blonde and cut a better figure than most,” it wrote.
This week the 38-year-old cancelled all planned media appearances to promote her book.
The debate rages on in her absence over which did more harm: the nasty rumours about a past in prostitution, or her disastrous efforts to set the record straight.